Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is, by definition, nothing. How can nothing be something? How can nothing be a source of enduring pain and struggle? It seems unfathomable… until you see it day after day, in your office, as I have.
Anything much. I don’t remember being talked to at all.
You have a right to your feelings, & the right to be heard & have them considered.
We believe in you.
How do you feel? What do you want? I will help you figure life out.
I love you. You are enough. I am proud of you.
There is nothing wrong with who you are.
Are you okay?
Do you want to talk about it? You look upset.
My love for you is unconditional.
There’s nothing in this world you cannot do. So stand up, shoulders back and go out there.
I wish they meant what they said.
That I was beautiful.
You can make mistakes and I will not think any less of you. You don’t have to be perfect.
Don’t be scared. It will be alright. Things will go wrong but it doesn’t matter. We’re all the same.
It’s OK to get angry/sad/mad.
Anything that wasn’t emotional abuse ……anything that didn’t leave me feeling worthless or that I had to please them for their attention.
Recently I posted this blog’s title question on my Facebook Page. I got many thoughtful and heartfelt responses. The quotes above are a direct sampling of them.
Why did I ask this particular question? Because in my experience as a psychologist, I have found that people are naturally far more able to think about and describe what they wish their parents had not done or said to them than what they wish their parents had done or said to them.
This distinction is also a fair description of the difference between abuse and neglect. Abuse is an action, whereas neglect is a lack of action. Our brains record and remember things that happened (like abuse), whereas our brains do not notice things that don’t happen (neglect).
Which seems worse: a parent who screams and yells at a child and calls him names? Or a parent who simply does not talk to or engage the child at all?
I have seen that failure to engage, notice and affirm a child does just as much damage to him or her as abuse, but the effects are different. An abused child will feel “hit,” verbally, physically or emotionally; whereas a neglected child will feel simply “at sea,” invalid and alone.
I see Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) as one of the greatest potential threats to future generations. It is difficult to stop something that is invisible, intangible, unnoticeable and unmemorable.
The subtlety of CEN gives it extra power. Many adults who grew up with an absence of emotionally attentive observations and questions like those listed above do not recognize the damage that this absence has done them. And even when they recognize it, they can’t quite believe or grasp it.
People with CEN vastly underestimate its effects on them. CEN is, by definition, nothing. How can nothing be something? How can nothing be a source of enduring pain and struggle? It seems unfathomable… until you see it day after day, in your office, as I have.
A few reviewers of my book, Running on Empty, have said that the recovery chapters are unrealistic because they are about helping readers give themselves the attention, validation, and structure that they did not get in childhood. But I know that people with CEN can make tremendous progress toward this. It requires effort and motivation, but it is very much possible. I know this because I have watched it happen many times.
All of the emotionally neglected people who offered those many requests in response to my question hold a secret key. A key to fulfilling their own needs; a key that offers healing, solace, and fuel.
And so on and so on, the answer lies within you. The beginning is self-awareness.
Because once you realize what you didn’t get, this tells you what you need. And once you know what you need, I hope you will also realize that you can get it. I hope that you will fight for what you didn’t get. Ask for help and accept support because you deserve it. And then you will have it to give to your own children.
To learn more about how to give yourself and your children what you never got yourself, see the books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article was first published on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of Psychcentral.
And how it affects your day-to-day life now.
Emotional Neglect: A parent’s failure to respond sufficiently to your emotional needs. In other words, Emotional Neglect is something that failed to happen in your childhood.
To demonstrate why emotional neglect as a child is so invisible, let’s do an experiment.
First, I’d like you to think of an event that happened yesterday. It can be anything, big or small, just something that happened.
Second, I’d like you to think of something that didn’t happen yesterday.
My guess is that the second request was quite a bit more difficult than the first. That’s because our brains record events as memories. Things that fail to happen go unnoticed, unseen, and unremembered.
We have long been aware of the fact that what happens to us in childhood has a tremendous effect on who we become as adults. But the opposite is also true. What doesn’t happen for us in childhood has an equal or greater effect.
Remember that Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. Because it’s a parent’s failure to act, rather than a parent’s act; just like we saw in our little experiment, it goes unseen, unnoticed, and unremembered.
Emotional Neglect comes in an infinite variety of forms. It can be incredibly subtle, such that 50 people could be watching it not happen, and be completely unaware.
An Example of Emotional Neglect in Action:
Joey’s friends gang up on him on the soccer field one day. So Joey comes home from school feeling sad. Joey’s parents don’t notice his sadness. Neither says, “Joey are you OK?” or “Did anything happen at school today?” No one seems to notice that anything is wrong.
This probably seems like nothing. Indeed, it happens in every home, and it generally is nothing.
So how could an incident like this damage a child and leave scars that remain into his adulthood? The answer lies in the natural, developmental needs of children.
In order for a child to grow up with a complete and solid sense of himself, who he is, and what he’s capable of, he (or she) must receive enough awareness, understanding, and acceptance of his emotions from his parents. If there is a shortage from the parents in any one of these areas, the child will grow up feeling incomplete and lacking some of the skills and self-knowledge and self-care that are necessary to fully thrive in this world.
And now back to our boy Joey, who came home from school feeling sad. If this happens on occasion, it’s no problem. If it happens with enough frequency and depth — that what Joey feels is not noticed, responded to or validated by his parents — Joey will grow up with a hole in his emotional development. He may deeply believe that his feelings are irrelevant, unimportant, or even shameful or unacceptable.
As a psychologist, I have seen time and time again that these subtle parental failures in childhood leave the adult with a feeling of being incomplete, empty, unfulfilled, or even questioning his own purpose and value.
This becomes even more difficult when the emotionally neglected adult looks back to his childhood for an explanation for why he feels this way. I have heard many emotionally neglected people say, “I had a great childhood. I wasn’t mistreated or abused. My parents loved me and provided me with a nice home, clothing, and food. If I’m not happy, it’s my own fault. I have no excuse.”
These people can’t remember what didn’t happen in their childhoods. So as adults, they blame themselves for whatever is wrong in their lives. They have no memory of what went wrong for them, so they have no way of seeing it or overcoming it, to make their lives happier.
In addition to self-blame, another unfortunate aspect of emotional neglect as a child is that it’s self-propagating. Emotionally neglected children grow up with a blind spot when it comes to emotions, their own as well as those of others.
When emotionally neglected children become parents themselves, they’re unaware of the emotions of their own children, and they raise their children to have the same blind spot. And so on and so on and so on, through generation after generation.
My goal is to make people aware of this subtle but powerful factor. To give everyone the ability to look back and see the invisible; have the words to talk about it, and an opportunity to correct it and stop blaming themselves.
I want to make the term Emotional Neglect a household term so that parents will know how important it is to respond sufficiently to their children’s emotional needs and understand how to do it.
I want to stop this insidious force from sapping peoples’ happiness and connection to others throughout their lives and to stop the transfer of Emotional Neglect from one generation to another to another. I want to give answers to those many people who are living their lives feeling disconnected and unfulfilled, and wondering what is wrong with them.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and how to recover from it, see the books, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. Since CEN is so subtle and invisible, it can be hard to know if you have it. Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test.
A version of this article first appeared on YourTango.com. It has been reprinted here with the permission of YourTango.
It was Thanksgiving, twenty-some years ago, and I was in graduate school. I decided not to go home to visit my family that year. Unexpectedly, my close friend and roommate told me that she was going to spend the holiday at her fiancé’s house in another city.
“Come with me,” she said. “It will be fun!” I knew that it would be, but somehow, I just didn’t feel like it. “No, I’ll be okay. I feel like being alone,” I assured her.
The morning of Thanksgiving, I got up in an empty house, and instantly knew I had made a mistake. The house felt empty, and so did I. I walked into the empty kitchen, and filled an empty cup with coffee. I sat down with an empty thud, and stared down at the empty table.
Thus began one of the loneliest days of my life.
Almost everyone feels lonely sometimes. It’s an unavoidable part of the human condition. Few are so surrounded by people at all times that they never feel left on their own.
But it does seem that loneliness is becoming a serious problem that threatens us all. New research from the American Psychological Association has established that far more people are living alone than was true in the past. New studies also show that loneliness can significantly harm your health, and decrease the length of your life.
This new research suggests that we should begin to pay more attention to the spread of “alone.” We need to take a closer look at “alone,” and “lonely.” What do they mean? How do they feel? Can we prevent ourselves from experiencing them?
First I would like to assert this one vital point: You needn’t be alone to be lonely. And you can easily be alone, and not be lonely. In other words, “lonely” is not a state, it’s a state of mind. Actually, it’s a feeling; a feeling that visits some folks more than others.
1. The kind you feel when you are actually alone. This “alone” is situational. It happens when you acutely recognize that there are no people with you. You may feel this when, for example, you weren’t invited to a party, or you just moved and haven’t made any friends yet, or are sitting at home alone on a Saturday night. This alone is painful, and difficult to tolerate. But it goes away when people arrive.
2. The kind that’s more lonesome than being alone. You can feel this kind of loneliness anywhere, even when surrounded by people. This “lonely” can happen when you are actually alone. But it can also happen when you are in the company of people who genuinely love and care about you. This type of loneliness can follow you wherever you go, and it often does. This loneliness can come at any time, under any circumstances. In fact, it may be so woven into the fabric of your life that you feel it all the time. It’s a feeling that can become a part of your everyday experience of yourself and your life.
This kind of loneliness comes from your childhood. It comes from growing up in a household where the deepest, most personal expression of who you are, your feelings, are ignored or squelched by your parents (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN).
Having your feelings ignored or discouraged while your brain is developing sends you a deeply-felt, never-understood message:
You are alone in this world.
This is one of the powerful messages of Childhood Emotional Neglect. And it does not leave you simply because you grow up. It stays there, visiting at will, and often when you least expect it.
The amazing thing about CEN is that its solution is the exact opposite of its cause.
As a child, your emotions were squelched or regarded as “nothing.” So now, you must encourage your own feelings, and make a choice to treat them as “something.”
Your walled off emotions are keeping you walled off from the people who could be occupying your heart and mind right now. Your walled off feelings represent your true self, and they have waited for you long enough.
When you begin to pay attention to them, you are paying attention to your true self. When you listen to them and take them seriously, you are listening to yourself, and taking yourself seriously.
Once you become aware of your CEN, and how it’s affecting you, you can begin to use your emotions in a way that connects you to people. It can literally change the way you feel inside, and the way you live your life.
You can begin by putting words to all of the emotions that go into “lonely” for you. Here is what I felt that day, some 20-odd years ago:
On my own
On the outside
I now understand that I wasn’t rejected by others that day. No. I was rejecting myself. I now know that taking down the wall that your child self built is one of the most important things you can do in your life. And beginning to use your emotions to connect with others in a new way is the icing on the cake.
It does take work and perseverance, but it will change you for the better in significant ways. You can defeat your Type 2 Lonely. You can take this on, and win, I assure you.
On your mark. Get set. Go.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To learn more, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn more about how to use your emotions in a new way to connect with the central people in your life, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
A version of this article was initially posted on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.
Growing up in an emotionally neglectful household takes its toll on you.
When, as a child, no one notices enough what you are feeling or when you need emotional support, you receive covert messages that are never stated outright, but which will nevertheless guide your life going forward.
Silent, unintended, usually invisible, these messages take root early and well. As you go through adolescence, they undermine the self-confidence and self-knowledge you should be gathering.
As you grow into adulthood, they prevent you from making the choices that are right for you. As you form relationships and fall in love, they prevent you from valuing yourself. As you have children and raise them, they weigh you down and leave you feeling mystified about what you are missing and why.
The only way to reduce their power over you is to realize the signs you were emotionally neglected as a child and understand they are there and how you got them. And to make a conscious choice to stop letting them hold you back and push you down.
1. It’s not good to be too happy or too sad.
As a child, you naturally had intense feelings, as this is how all children are wired. Exuberant one moment, intensely frustrated the next, you needed someone to teach you how to understand and manage your emotions.
But what you got instead was a covert message that your emotions were excessive. What you learned was to dampen your feelings, not the skills you needed to manage them.
2. You are overly sensitive.
As a child, you naturally felt upset when things upset you. You naturally felt angry when you were hurt. What you needed was to have your upset feelings soothed by a loving parent so that you could learn how to soothe yourself.
But what you got was a message that your feelings were a weakness. What you learned was to judge yourself for having them.
3. Your needs and preferences are irrelevant.
When no one asked you enough, you learned instead that you don’t.
4. Talking about a problem will unnecessarily burden other people.
Growing up, you had problems with school, with siblings and with friends. What you needed was to know that you could talk to a parent.
Instead, you knew that they, for whatever reason, could not handle it. What you learned was that others couldn’t handle your problems, and so you’d best keep it to yourself.
5. Crying is a weakness.
All humans cry, and for a reason. Crying is a way to release and process your emotions. As a child, you cried sometimes (maybe often). What you needed was for this to be okay.
Instead, your family didn’t know that crying has a purpose, so they ignored your tears or shamed you for having them. Perhaps they never showed tears themselves. You learned that crying is negative and should be avoided, one of the biggest signs you were neglected as a child.
6. Others will judge you for showing your feelings.
Were you judged for showing feelings in your childhood home? This powerful message has been carried forth with you. “Hide your emotions from others” is the message, “or others will think less of you.” Or, worse, they will use your feelings against you.
7. Anger is a negative emotion and should be avoided.
As a child, of course you often felt angry, as this feeling is a natural part of life. As a child, what you needed was help to name, understand and manage your anger.
Perhaps instead your anger was squelched or overwhelmed by another’s. Maybe you were punished for showing it. What you learned was that anger is bad and that you should suppress it.
8. Relying on another is setting yourself up for disappointment.
Children need help, period. So do adolescents and adults. As a child, you needed support, direction, suggestions, and assistance. But you could see that your parents were not up to that.
What you learned was that it is best not to ask for help in general because you are setting yourself up for a letdown.
9. Others are not interested in what you have to say.
What you learned is that your questions and words are not valuable and that you should keep them to yourself.
10. You are alone in the world.
As a child, you needed to feel that an adult had your back; that no matter what happened, there was support and help for you. Instead, when you needed something you discovered that your adult(s) were busy, overwhelmed or not aware. What you learned was that you were all alone.
These lessons all seem so real and so true when you grew up receiving them in such a subliminal, global way. But do not forget that they are merely lessons of your family, not truths. The fact that you learned them does not make them right.
The truth is…
Strong feelings connect us to ourselves and to each other, and being able to have them is a sign of health and strength.
Knowing your own needs and preferences and expressing them is a key to living a happy, fulfilled life.
Talking about your problems helps you solve them.
Crying is a healthy way of coping.
Letting others see your feelings helps them know you better.
Anger is an important message from your body that empowers you.
Mutual dependence is a form of teamwork that makes you stronger.
What you have to say is important, and you should say it.
You are human. You are connected, you are important.
You are not, in fact, by any stretch, alone.
Since CEN is so subliminal and unmemorable, it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out if CEN may be getting in the way of your happiness, health, and well-being, Sign Up to Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
A version of this article originally appeared on YourTango. It has been reproduced here with the permission of YourTango.
Jared has done everything he can think of to make himself feel better since his father unexpectedly passed away two years ago. But he still feels blah and numb much of the time.
Sandra keeps choosing the same kind of guy over and over; alcoholic, angry, and afraid of commitment.
Claudia is irritable and bitter after her painful divorce. She can’t seem to get back to her old self.
All three of these people are stuck in some way. Each is suffering, each is confused. “Why can’t I get out of this?” they all wonder.
Fortunately for Jared, Sandra and Claudia, there is an answer, and it is the same for each of them. It’s a simple answer, yet it requires them to do something they dread.
Grief gets a bad rap, and in some ways, it should. After all, when does it enter our lives? When we’ve lost someone, or something, important. Grief only appears at times of pain and loss. But grief itself is not pain or loss. Instead, it’s a phase of processing pain and loss.
It’s a very natural human tendency to want to avoid pain. And it takes time to process a loss. This is what makes grieving so universally difficult. The three people described above are all stuck because they are avoiding their grief.
Jared is working hard, but to some extent on the wrong things. He’s trying to make himself feel better. But unfortunately, no amount of sporting events, dates, or successful work projects will help him process his loss and pain. He can only really move past his grief phase by going through it, not around it. This means he must accept his loss and sadness. Jared must allow himself to grieve.
Sandra wants to have the kind of healthy relationship that she sees others enjoy. So she keeps trying, over and over and over. Why does she keep repeating the same pattern? Because she has never grieved the father who left when she was 8 years old. “I don’t care about that jerk,” she’s said all of her life. Sandra is protecting herself with anger, because she doesn’t want to face, or feel, the pain of being abandoned by the man who was supposed to love her the most. Because Sandra isn’t allowing herself to feel, process, and work through her loss, she keeps recreating it. She keeps choosing men who will not really be there for her, and who will eventually abandon her.
Claudia was deeply hurt by her divorce from the man she was married to for 12 years, the father of her children. She was shocked and bereft when he signed those divorce papers. To cope, she has placed her focus on her children and making sure they have a life as close to normal as possible. Surely no one could fault her for this. But what keeps Claudia stuck in her bitterness and anger is not her focus on her children; it’s her failure to focus on herself. She needs to accept, feel, and work through her shock and pain and loss. She needs to grieve.
With all this talk of grief, here’s the good news. If you, like Jared, Sandra or Claudia, feel stuck, you may not actually be. You’re not facing a brick wall after all. You may, instead, be facing a phase. A phase that you can work through, and come out the other side. Yes, you know the solution. You need to grieve.
I feel sad
I feel hurt
I feel bereft
I feel disappointed
I feel empty
I feel lost
I feel alone
I feel let down
I feel angry
I am mourning
5. Choose a trusted person and share your feelings. Talking with someone about what you’re going through is incredibly helpful.
6. Remind yourself that grief is a process, and it’s not permanent. It’s simply a phase of adjustment that is healthy and necessary.
7. Don’t put a time limit on your grief. Everyone’s grief is different, and you can’t rush recovery. It will take as long as it takes. Period.
If you’re an emotional avoider or have a tendency to avoid your feelings in general, you’re at a higher risk of avoiding your grief and getting stuck. A tendency toward emotional avoidance is a sign that you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family. Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire.
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens to the child and how to stop avoiding your feelings see the book, Running on Empty.
A version of this article was originally posted on Psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.
Consider this brief exchange from Abby’s therapy session:
Abby grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, but neither she nor her therapist is aware of this. Abby has begun therapy with Dr. Simmons because her PCP became concerned that she might be depressed and referred her.
Abby: I don’t know what my problem is, Dr. Simmons. I should be happy to see my parents, but every time I go there all I want to do is leave.
Dr. Simmons: What exactly happened while you were there on Sunday? Something must be happening that makes you want to get out of there.
Abby: We were sitting around the table having roast beef for Sunday dinner. Everyone was talking, and I just suddenly wanted to get the hell out of there for no reason at all.
Dr. Simmons: What were you all talking about? Something about the topic must have upset you.
Abby: We were discussing regular topics, nothing upsetting. The weather, the increased traffic in our area, my parents’ trip to China. Same stuff we usually talk about.
Dr. Simmons: Did anyone say something hurtful to anyone else?
Abby: Not unless “It took me an hour to drive 5 miles yesterday,” could be considered hurtful.
Abby and Dr. Simmons have a good laugh together. Then they go on to talk about Abby’s new boyfriend.
Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you.
Abby grew up in a family that did not notice, validate, or talk about emotions. Sensing that her feelings were useless and troublesome to her parents she, as a child, walled off her feelings so that she would not have to feel them.
Now, as an adult, Abby lives with a deep emptiness that she does not understand. She senses something missing where her emotions should be. She is living without full access to the font of energy, motivation, direction, and connection that her feelings should be offering her if only she would listen.
And, although Abby does not know it, she has lived through countless family dinners and myriad moments and days of vacuous, surface family interactions where nothing of substance was discussed, and anything that involved feelings was avoided like the plague.
In reality, unbeknownst to both therapist and client in this scenario, Abby is not actually depressed. She only seems depressed because she is not able to feel her feelings. And Abby didn’t “feel like leaving” the family dinner because someone said something hurtful. She actually felt overlooked, invisible, bored, and saddened by what’s missing in her family: emotional awareness, emotional validation, and meaningful conversation.
But she has no words to express this to Dr. Simmons. And Dr. Simmons, unaware of the syndrome of Childhood Emotional Neglect, does not know to ask about it.
Every day, I get messages from CEN people who are disappointed that their therapy is not addressing their Childhood Emotional Neglect. Even if they are pleased with their therapist, and also with many aspects of their therapy, they still feel that, in some important way, they are missing the mark.
Having talked with, or heard from, tens of thousands of CEN people, I would like to share with you exactly what CEN people need from their therapists.
Growing up in a family that does not respond to your feelings leaves you feeling, on some level, invisible. Since your emotions are the most deeply personal expression of who you are, if your own parents can’t see your sadness, hurt, fear, anger, or grief, you grow up sensing that you are not worth seeing.
Tips For Therapists: Make a special effort to notice what your client is feeling. “You seem sad to me,” for example. Talk about emotions freely, and ask feeling-based questions. Dr. Simmons’ question about the topic of conversation yielded nothing. A fruitful question might have been, “What were you feeling as you sat at the table?” When you notice, name, and inquire about your client’s feelings, you are communicating to your client that her feelings are real and visible, which tells your client that she is real and visible.
Growing up with your feelings under the radar, you learned to distrust and doubt that your feelings are real. As an adult, it’s hard to believe in your feelings or trust them.
Tips For Therapists: As you notice your client’s feelings, it’s also essential to make sure you understand why he feels what he feels. And then to validate how his feelings make sense to you and why. This will make them feel real to him in a way that they never have before.
How can you know who you are when you are cut off from your own feelings? CEN adults are often unaware of what they like and dislike, what they need, and their own strengths and weaknesses.
Tips For Therapists: Your CEN client needs lots and lots of feedback. When you notice something about your client, feed it back to him, both positive and negative — with plenty of compassion and in the context of your relationship with them, of course. This might be, “I notice that you are a very loyal person,” “You are honest, almost to a fault,” or “I see that you are very quick to give up on things.” Your CEN client is hungry for this self-knowledge and you are in a unique position to provide it.
Your emotionally neglectful family avoided emotions, perhaps to the point of pretending they didn’t even exist. Therefore, you have had no chance to learn how to become comfortable with your own feelings. When you do feel something, you might find it quite intolerable and immediately try to escape it. Just as your parents, probably inadvertently, taught you.
Tips For Therapists: Be conscious of your CEN client’s natural impulse to avoid feelings (Abby did so by cracking a joke, which worked quite well with Dr. Simmons). Continually call your client on emotional avoidance, and bring her back to feeling. Sit with that feeling with her as much and as often as you can.
Growing up in your emotionally vacant family, what chance did you have to learn how to know when you’re having a feeling, how to name that feeling, what that feeling means, or how to share it with another person? The answer is simple: Little to none.
Tips For Therapists: As you name your CEN client’s feelings and continually invite her to sit with them together, it’s also very important to teach the other emotion skills she’s missed. Ask her to read your favorite book on how to be assertive, and use role-playing to teach her how to share her feelings with the people in her life. Freely use the Emotions Monitoring Sheet and the Emotions List in the book Running On Empty to increase her emotion vocabulary.
As more and more people become aware of their Childhood Emotional Neglect, more are seeking therapists who understand the CEN they have lived through and are now living with. On my Find A CEN Therapist Page, I am referring clients all over the world to CEN therapists near them. 500 therapists are listed so far in locations all over the world. The demand is great and more CEN trained therapists are needed!
As a therapist, once you learn about this way of conceptualizing and treating your clients, your practice will be forever changed.
Therapists, I invite you to join my CEN Newsletter For Therapists and visit my Programs Page (scroll down to see the trainings for therapists) to see how you can learn more about identifying and treating Childhood Emotional Neglect, and also apply to be listed on my Find A CEN Therapist Page.
Growing up with your emotions ignored is a far bigger thing than most people would ever imagine.
As a child, to cope with the unspoken demands of your childhood home, “Keep your feelings to yourself,” you push your emotions off to the other side of a wall, and this is, without a doubt, a brilliant and adaptive move. After all, now those burdensome emotions are no longer a problem for your parents or yourself.
But when you grow up, it does become a problem. Something is missing inside you; a valuable resource that you need. If only you had full access to your feelings, they would guide you, inform you, motivate and connect you. Sadly, you are operating with a dearth of this rich asset that everyone else enjoys.
The strange thing about this missing asset is that even though you don’t realize what you are missing, you feel it. When it comes to blocked-off feelings, the body knows. Somehow, in some way, you will, in your body, feel it.
Some people actually say, “I feel empty,” and they can point to a place in their belly, chest or throat where they feel it. Others say they feel numb, lost, apart, at sea, or different. And others say, “I don’t feel things as intensely as other people do.”
Emptiness is unique to its holder, but yet it is always the same. It is your body saying, “You are missing something important. Wake up. Pay attention. This matters.”
Fortunately, there are ways to make your emptiness go away. There are things you can do that will powerfully change your life for the better. No, healing your emptiness is not simple, but it is definitely possible.
|Thoughts/Behavior||Relationships||Your Inner Life|
|Recognize what you didn’t get in childhood||Increase emotional connections||Grieve what you didn’t get|
|Emotional awareness & management||Boundaries (distance?) with parents as needed||Develop compassion for yourself|
|Self-care||Work on trusting others||Decrease self-directed anger|
|Decrease self-blame||Therapy relationship||Self-acceptance & self-love|
|Increase self-knowledge||Share your pain with another||Value your emotions|
|If you have depression or anxiety, let medication help||Let down your walls||Reclaim the parts of yourself that your parents rejected or ignored|
If you find this Table overwhelming, please don’t be alarmed. All of these items can be done, and improvement in one of these areas often will feed into other areas. I know this because I have been through them with many people in therapy, and have witnessed amazing progress.
However, please take note of two things: It takes commitment, conscious effort and time. You may benefit from the help of a therapist. It is, though, entirely possible to fill your emptiness on your own, with the right structure and support.
An amazing result of working through the four steps is this: you will gradually learn to love yourself. Picture yourself as the child you were, growing up as you did. What parts of you did your parents ignore or reject? Know that they did so because of who they were, not because of who you were.
Have compassion for that little child, and for yourself as an adult. Your struggle is real, and you deserve more and better. You must reclaim, and learn to love, all of the different parts of who you are: your emotions, your needs, your inner you.
Your emptiness is an important part of you. It represents the old and the past, but also the future and the new.
It is not an absence but space, filled not with pain, but with possibility. It is room for your new story, the one you will write yourself. It is room for your life, your feelings, and the people who you choose.
Fill it with self-knowledge, self-care, self-compassion, self-love, and your people.
Then you will find yourself running on empty no more.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn much more about how to reclaim your feelings and use them, see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article was first published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with permission of the author.
Why are Emotional Neglect and depression often experienced together?
Let’s start with a brief refresher on Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), how it happens, and how it plays out through the neglected child’s adult life.
Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you.
This usually unmemorable childhood experience is deceptively powerful. It gains its impact from the fact that it happens daily, subliminally, and under the radar. The child receives the message:
Your emotions are not important, not relevant, or not welcome here in your childhood home.
Children who receive this message often as their brains are developing naturally adapt to their situation. They automatically wall off their feelings so that they will not be a burden to their parents in their childhood home.
This naturally adaptive step is truly an amazing solution. But, sadly, it backfires in many ways as the child grows into adulthood. One of those ways is by making you more vulnerable to depression.
When you were a child, you learned to push all of your feelings away. This became your primary way of dealing with difficult emotions. When your feelings were hurt, instead of using this as an important message from your body, you tended to push it away. Throughout the decades of your life, this is how you have managed most of your sadness, loss, anger and other pain. But, unfortunately, blocked off feelings never really go away. They collect, all swirled together, on the other side of your wall. Since you’re unaware of them you can’t process them. They may arise at times when you least expect them, and they also weigh you down, sapping your energy and making your world feel heavy or gray. They make you more vulnerable to depression.
Blocking off feelings is usually not possible to do in a discriminating way. Unfortunately, you cannot choose to wall off some emotions and not others. So when you block of negative emotions you also lose your positive ones. You may find it difficult to experience happiness, enjoyment, and reward as intensely as other people can. This makes you more vulnerable to becoming depressed.
Why don’t you know these things well enough? Because the way to know what you want is by feelings like desire, craving or longing; the way to know what you need is by feeling deprived or needy; and the way to know what you enjoy is by feeling rewarded, pleased, happy or pleased. When you are cut off from your own feelings, you are not able to know these things as well as you should. This makes it difficult to seek what you should be seeking, or make yourself happy. This makes you more likely to become depressed.
Since few folks are 100% removed from all of their feelings, there are probably times when you do know what you want, need or will enjoy. But when you grew up with Emotional Neglect, you learned to keep your wants and needs to yourself. So even if you do know what you would like, something deep inside stops you from requesting it. Other people’s wants and needs always seem more important or more legitimate, and you allow your own to fall between the cracks. Unlikely to prioritize your own wishes, you are unwittingly making yourself more likely to become depressed.
A funny thing happens when you are not connected with your feelings: you don’t get to make major life decisions based on your feelings. And, after all, our feelings are our most effective guides to our true selves. This is why so many people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect end up in jobs, marriages, and locations that are not quite right for them. Going through the motions, living the life that chose you instead of the life you chose to live, you may find yourself feeling off-kilter, unfulfilled, and somewhat at-sea in your adult life. This lowers your defenses to depression.
Not all people who grew up with Emotional Neglect end up with depression, but many do. The reality is that the feelings that we allow ourselves to feel, even if they hurt, inform us. They tell us what to do to fix things, and how to make ourselves happy. But feelings that are walled off are able to do none of those things for us. Instead, they hang over our lives like a dark cloud.
But that dark cloud need not be a part of your life forever. You can access those old feelings and process them now, and they will lose their power over you.
You can learn a new way to allow yourself to feel and use your current feelings too. And both of these new skills will not only make you less depressed, but they will also make you less likely to become depressed in the future.
Start paying attention to your feelings as your friends and helpers.
Start expressing your wants, needs, and wishes.
Stop neglecting yourself.
You can learn much more about how to heal your Childhood Emotional Neglect throughout this site. To go even deeper into the healing process, see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn how Childhood Emotional Neglect affects your relationships, and how to heal those effects, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children.
Way back in 2008, an amazing thing happened that changed everything. It changed the way I saw myself and parented my children. Ultimately, it changed the way I practice psychology. Here’s what happened.
I was busy seeing clients in my psychology practice. I was working with couples, individuals, and families. I was treating problems like depression, marriage and family conflict, anxiety, communication problems, anger and more. Some of my clients had traumatic or abusive childhoods, and some did not. My clients were a varied mix: plumbers, doctors, salespeople, secretaries, scientists, stay-at-home parents, and more.
Many of my clients had very little in common with each other, yet I began to see a pattern among them that appeared over and over again.
A remarkable number of very different people tried to express a particular burden to me — a burden they had carried through their lives and felt deeply, but never had the words to express. They all said it differently:
I am not like other people.
I’m missing something.
I feel empty.
I’m not alone, but I feel alone.
I am numb.
These folks were not damaged, traumatized, or mentally ill. There was no diagnosis to capture their struggle. They weren’t actually different, or empty, or alone, but they felt this way for a reason. It took me two years of delving into the question and researching to find the answer, and when I did I was very surprised.
The answer was deceptively simple, and not at all what I had expected. The cause of this burdensome feeling was the one life experience all these varied people shared. They had all grown up with their feelings ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN).
As children, they all had learned that their emotions were not accepted in their childhood homes. As children, they all had, out of necessity, walled their emotions off. Now, as adults, they were emotionally numb.
Becoming aware that you are emotionally numb is painful, for sure. But understanding the reason why can be surprisingly hard to do. Yet it is the first step to stopping the pain of numb.
Since I wrote Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More, I now work almost exclusively with folks who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). As a therapist, it is the most rewarding work that I have ever done. Walking my clients through the steps of understanding is like walking them inward, toward their true selves.
Understanding that you are numb because your emotions are blocked off frees you up in a truly amazing way. Suddenly you realize that you are not damaged after all, and also that you did not ask for this. Suddenly you realize that your lifelong struggle is there for a reason and that it’s not your fault. You see that what you thought was missing, your emotions, are still there after all.
This is the vital first step to feeling again.
Once you cross the line from being baffled and numb to understanding, you will have a big decision to make. You will need to answer this question:
Do you want your feelings back, or do you want to stay numb?
If you wish to stay numb, you can go on with your life. Just like always, you will sometimes feel glimmers of emotions, but probably not when you need them the most, and not with the depth and richness they should have. Sometimes you’ll be aware of the numbness, and sometimes you will not.
In contrast, if you want your feelings back you have some work ahead of you. But I assure you that, albeit scary at times, it will be the most rewarding work you will ever do.
Are you making the choice to feel? If not, I understand that you may not be ready yet. It’s okay because it’s never too late to come back when you are ready.
If you are making the decision to feel, I am proud of you. You have chosen to challenge yourself in a way that can change your life. And you can take comfort in the fact that there are answers for you.
Your path is well-defined, and you are in the comforting company of the many thousands of CEN people who have walked this path before you.
Bit by bit, you can follow the steps to CEN recovery. You can take down the wall that protected you as a child but is now in your way, holding you back, blocking you off, and keeping you emotionally numb.
Piece by piece, you can tear down that wall, and fill your empty space. Step by step you can learn the emotion skills you missed.
Inch by inch, you can move forward, reaping the rewards of finally accepting, and learning to love, your deepest, truest self.
To learn all about the steps of CEN recovery and how to take them, see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn how CEN is interfering with your key relationships, and how to fix it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
When you feel emotionally numb, what can you do? Is there anything that can make you feel better?
There are many feelings that can make us human beings uncomfortable. Anger, sadness, hurt, anxiety, fear, loss or grief, for example. Most of us would not choose to feel any of these. In fact, we will often go to great lengths to escape and avoid feeling them.
But there is one feeling that can be more intolerable than any of those. It’s in its own category because it is not like the others.
I have seen this feeling drive people to do extreme things to escape it, like take risks, harm themselves, put themselves in dangerous situations, or even consider suicide. Many people feel this feeling, but few have words to describe it.
I call this feeling the “unfeeling feeling.” The best way to describe it is a deep sense of emptiness or emotional numbness.
Here are some important facts to know about emotional numbness.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to notice, respond to, and validate your emotions enough as they raise you.
When you grow up with your feelings ignored or unwelcome, your young brain builds a wall to block them off. It’s an effective coping mechanism that helps you avoid being a “problem” in your childhood home.
But this effective coping mechanism backfires when you grow up. As you move into adulthood, you need your emotions. If you were a boat, your emotions would be your engine, anchor, and rudder. They should be not only grounding and rooting you but also motivating, directing and guiding you.
When your emotions are blocked off, your body feels it. Something vital is missing. You sense this deeply, and it does not feel good. Just as your body knows when you are hungry or thirsty, it also knows when your feelings are blocked. You are emotionally numb.
And now for the good news. If you feel emotionally numb, there is plenty of hope for you. I am going to give you answers.
There are two ways to address your emotional numbness. One is short-term coping, and the other is long-term solving. To truly address the problem it makes sense to do both. But in this article, we are going to talk about short-term coping. How do you manage the unfeeling feeling when you get it?
Trying to avoid or escape the unfeeling feeling will not work. It’s natural, when you feel numb, to try to escape it by using external or physical stimulation. That’s why so many people might go shopping, sky-dive, drink, use drugs, gamble or even harm themselves. When you’re feeling this, it seems like something extreme will solve it by making you feel something…anything seems better than nothing at that moment.
But when you take any action like this to escape numbness, you are only setting yourself up for more numbness in the future. Plus the numbness can drive you too far, so you are at risk for overspending, over-drinking, or excessive risk that might harm you.
There are, however, a few far healthier and more effective things you can do. First, it’s very important to take note that you are feeling emotionally numb or empty. Second, you must do the opposite of escape or avoidance. The key to dealing with numbness in the moment is to go straight at it.
In other words, the best way to cope with numbness is to try to reach your blocked-off emotions. To do this, you must focus inward, not outward. You must reach out to your emotions.
When you feel emotionally numb, choose an option above and do it to feel more alive.
But overall, the best way to not only manage but extinguish, emotional numbness from your life is to heal the Childhood Emotional Neglect you’ve been living with all these years.
To find out how to remove Emotional Neglect from your relationships, and banish numbness from your life by replacing it with connections to others, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.