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.
Why Does Emotional Neglect Make You Feel You Are Running On Empty?
It’s an excellent question.
Not long after my first book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, came out I was interviewed on NPR’s Topical Currents Show. The first thing the interviewer asked me was, “Why the name Running On Empty? Where did that come from?”
To be honest, I was somewhat unprepared for this question, and I stumbled a bit. The only answer I could think of at first was: “Because that’s what Emotional Neglect makes you feel.” It made such intuitive sense to me that I had never even thought about how to explain it.
Since that day I have been asked that question many, many more times. And I have put considerably more thought into how to describe the relationship between Emotional Neglect and emptiness in a way that makes not only intuitive sense but also offers helpful personal understanding to those who grew up emotionally neglected.
First, we’ll define what “Empty” actually feels like. Then we’ll talk about what it means to be running on empty.
Here are some of the ways I have heard it described by many different people.
A hollow feeling in my stomach
A lack of feelings, like I have no emotions
A weird feeling in my throat
A sense of being entirely depleted, and having nothing more to give
Going through life on autopilot
Unfulfilled and lost
As you can probably see from the different expressions above, “empty” can feel different to different people. Yet, for all, it comes down to one common factor: a deep, uncomfortable sense that something important is missing inside of you.
Just as all of our feelings are messages from our bodies, so also is emptiness. Emptiness is a real sense of a real thing that really exists.
When you have Emotional Neglect, you are indeed missing something. Something valuable and dear. Something that’s required for a happy, connected, and fully engaged life.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to notice, validate, and respond to your emotions enough as they raise you.
When you grow up with your parents failing to notice what you are feeling, you are growing up with the most powerful expression of your deepest self (your emotions) ignored. What is a child to do?
Fortunately and unfortunately, children’s brains automatically step in to protect them in these situations. When, as a child, you perceive, on some level, that your emotions are not welcome in your family, your brain automatically walls them off for you. This way, those troublesome feelings won’t burden you and your parents. In many ways, this coping technique is brilliantly adaptive.
But it’s also what makes you feel empty as an adult.
Growing up and moving forward in your life, you are not aware of what your brain has done for you. You are not aware that your feelings are blocked from you. You are not aware that you are living your life without full access to a key life ingredient that everyone else has: your emotions.
You may not be aware of any of this, but your body is. Your body knows that something is missing, and it sends you signals to tell you. It sends you feelings of emptiness in your belly or chest or throat as a way of saying, “Pay attention! Something is wrong here!”
In previous writings, I have compared the experience of running on empty to eating a cake baked without enough sugar, playing the role of “extra” in the movie of your life, and living under cloudy skies.
When you are engaged with your feelings, and you are actively managing them and using them, you gain many important advantages. Your feelings will tell you what to pursue and what to avoid, what and who to care about, and what you want and what you need. And they’ll provide you the motivation and energy for all of those things.
When you are deprived of this natural, rich and connecting resource, you tend to drift, not quite knowing who you are or what to do. You end up giving without receiving enough back and depleting your own resources to your own detriment.
You may even set up a good life for yourself but still wonder why you’re not happier.
Why am I running on empty?
Surprisingly, there is an answer to running on empty. You do not have to live this way for the rest of your life.
The way you become full is to do the opposite of what you learned in childhood. You grew up with your feelings ignored, so now is the time to change that.
It is never too late in your life to alter the way you treat your emotions. Even if you feel numb now, your emotions are there. They are waiting for you on the other side of that wall you built in childhood.
To reach them, you must first begin to see their value. When you invite them into your life, they will come. You can chip down that wall that blocks them off, and learn the skills to manage them.
Then lastly, you can learn how to use them to enrich and deepen and strengthen your relationships.
So why does Emotional Neglect Make you feel you are Running On Empty? As a child, it was because your parents, perhaps unintentionally, discouraged your feelings. But now, it’s because you are continuing to ignore your own feelings.
But you are grown now. You are in charge of your own decisions and your own life. You can make the decision to stop running on empty.
To find out if you are living with the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn how to break down the wall that blocks your feelings and begin to use them, see Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn how to use your emotions to strengthen and enrich your relationships, see Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Consider this. Would you rather live a life filled with ups and downs, joy and sadness, frustrations and pride and surprise? Or a life that goes along, one day after another, with few disruptions or changes or shake-ups?
Choice 1 might seem scary; a little like a roller-coaster ride. On the other hand, Choice 2 might seem a little disappointing.
Don’t get me wrong, they are both mixed bags. The roller-coaster can deliver some shocks to the system, and it can be hard to sometimes feel that you are not in control of everything in your life. If you are living without the emotional disruptions and shake-ups, you may feel “safer” and more in control of things, but you may also find yourself feeling bored and unstimulated.
As a psychologist, I have come to realize that people living in the Choice 1 scenario are typically overall happier. That’s because if you are on the roller coaster, you are living life in a more powerful way. You are more connected with your emotions, and so you are probably far more fulfilled.
Choice 2 is a sign that you are disconnected from your feelings. Probably you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family. Probably you learned at an early age that your emotions were irrelevant or burdensome. Probably you have walled off your feelings as a coping mechanism.
No doubt, though, the way you are living seems normal to you. After all, it’s the way you have always lived. It’s probably the way you were raised to be. So how do you know if you’re emotionally numb?
If you see yourself in any of these 10 signs, do not despair! There are answers. Your feelings are not gone. They are still there, inside you, waiting for you to reclaim them.
You can break down the wall that blocks them, and welcome them back into your life. Bit by bit, slowly but surely, in a way that feels safe and healthy, you can reverse your numbness, and fill your life with color and energy.
Growing up with CEN you were taught to ignore and marginalize your own feelings. But now that you’re an adult, you don’t have to continue that. You can welcome your feelings back into your life and learn the skills to manage and use them.
You CAN overcome your Childhood Emotional Neglect. For help, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. When you sign up for the free test you will also receive my free newsletter which is chockfull of helpful information. I’ll let you know when my free CEN Recovery Videos start.
For even more help into and through the CEN recovery process see my two 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.
Do you feel bored in your life?
Do you enjoy happy occasions less than you should?
Do you sometimes feel emotionally numb?
Do other people seem to experience more intense joy, love or closeness than you do?
Do you sometimes question the purpose and value of your life?
Do you put others’ needs before your own?
If you answered “yes” to two or more of the questions above, it may be a sign that you’re on autopilot. What does this mean? It means that you do not have enough access to your true emotions.
In my work as a psychologist, I have heard many people express these concerns. Almost all have been fine, good-hearted people who are successful in many areas of their lives. But for them, something is missing. Some mysterious ingredient that makes life feel full, rich and stimulating is simply not there for them.Continue reading
Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs.
All children require a certain amount of emotional response and emotional validation from their parents in order to grow up feeling happy, healthy and strong.
When your parents notice what you’re feeling, name it, and help you manage it, they are not only teaching you invaluable life skills, they are also giving you some powerful messages.
We care about the deepest, most personal, biological part of who you are: your emotions.
You are important. You matter.
So if your parents failed to do this for you enough, by definition they emotionally neglected you.
And emotional validation is the most important thing you never got.
That’s what makes Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) so invisible. It’s very hard to see things that fail to happen, and it’s almost impossible to remember them.
We have long been aware of the fact that what happens to us in childhood has a tremendous effect upon who we become as adults.
But the opposite is also true. What doesn’t happen for us in childhood has an equal, or even greater effect.
Emotional Neglect comes in an infinite variety of forms. It can be incredibly subtle, such that a hundred people could be watching it not happen, and be completely unaware.
An Example of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN):
Young Will’s friends gang up on him on the soccer field one day. So Will comes home from school feeling sad. Will’s parents don’t notice his sadness. Neither says, “Will, 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 usually does no harm.
So how could an incident like this damage a child, leaving 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 Will, 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 Will feels is not noticed, responded to or validated by his parents, Will is likely to 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, and perhaps even questioning his own purpose and value.
This becomes even more difficult when the emotionally neglected adult looks back to her childhood for an explanation for why she 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 they didn’t get in their childhoods. So as adults, they blame themselves for whatever is not right 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 is that it is 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 spots. 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 the 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 enough 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, and another, and another.
I want to give answers to those many people who are living their lives feeling empty, confused, and blaming themselves, unaware of the key life ingredient that they never got.
Unaware that they can now give it to themselves.
Since CEN is so subtle and invisible, it can be hard to know if you have it. Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
Your emotions are the most deeply personal, biological part of who you are. They are also your greatest resource for coping and strength.
Legions of people walk through decades of their lives completely unaware that they are missing something. They may look around, and they may see others living more fully, or with more color or vitality. They may have a vague sense that something is not quite right.
But they are intelligent and competent and likable, and so they do okay. They put one foot in front of the other, and they take life step by step. Doing what is expected, and providing what is needed, they have no idea that they’re more vulnerable to life’s challenges than other people are.
Until unexpectedly their job changes, or their child has a significant problem, or someone they love moves away or passes away. Maybe it’s a problem in their marriage, or a rejection or a hurtful action directed at them, but something happens to throw them off their game.
Then they struggle mightily, and they sense that their struggle may be going too far, and they find that they are depressed. “Why is this so hard for me?” they wonder. “How did I end up here? Shouldn’t I be more resilient?”
For many of these fine people, the answer is, “Perhaps.”
Perhaps if you had received enough emotional attention in childhood you would now have access to your emotions in a more vibrant and helpful way.
Perhaps if your parents had noticed what you were feeling as a child, you would be noticing that now, yourself. Perhaps if you had been filled with self-knowledge and self-care and self-love as a child, you would have them to rely on now, in your time of need.
Growing up in a household where feelings are not addressed enough (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN) takes a remarkable toll on a developing child. Not the least of which is this: It sets the child up to be more prone to depression throughout her lifetime, and to forever blame it on herself.
If you grew up without enough emotional validation and response from your parents (CEN), you probably did what most good children do: you automatically pushed your emotions away and walled them off. This may have worked fairly well through your childhood, but now, in your adulthood, you need full and healthy access to your emotions.
5 Ways CEN Causes Depression in Adulthood
1. Your emotions are walled off: Since you pushed them away as a child (to cope in your childhood home), you are now living without access to this rich, motivating, stimulating feed back system.
2. You missed the emotion training course that other people got: You grew up in an Emotion-Free Zone. No one taught you how to identify, express, manage or use your emotions.
3. CEN makes you feel alone in the world: When no one notices what you’re feeling enough as a child, and when the response to your emotional needs is tepid or absent, you learn that you cannot (or should not) rely on others emotionally.
4. You are prone to directing your anger inward: Anger can be an empowering, useful emotion when you know how to use it. If your anger was not accepted when you were a child, and if you were not taught how to use it, you are at risk for turning it against yourself.
5. You are inclined to the feel shame: Growing up with CEN, the powerful message that your emotions either don’t matter or are bad can easily make you feel ashamed for having them. Yet your emotions are wired into you. You can’t not have emotions. The result: shame.
And now, after all that bad news, I have some very good news for you. Now that you see and understand the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect, you can heal it yourself. When you do this, you will not only reduce your susceptibility to depression, you will also improve many other areas of your life as well.
3 Ways to Become Less Vulnerable to Depression
• Start working on your CEN. The best thing about CEN is that it can be healed. You can break through that wall that you built to block off your feelings in childhood. You can begin to feel more varied emotions. You can learn how to use your anger in a healthy, protective way. You can learn the emotion skills that you missed.
• Accept that your feelings are your friend. Your emotions are a source of vitality and richness. Without them, you are living in a gray world, devoid of the color that others experience. Reclaiming your feelings and learning to use them will connect you, relieve you and enrich you.
• Reach out. CEN taught you to circle your wagons, but those wagons are now holding you separate. Learning to let your wagons loosen will open the world to you. With more people on your side of the wall, you will no longer feel so alone.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is invisible. Yet it makes you struggle with emotions throughout your adult life, and makes you more prone to depression. To find out if you are affected by CEN, take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test.
This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral
The Definition of Empty: “Not Filled”
Everyone knows what the word “empty” means. It’s a simple word, easily understood. But what does “empty” mean in terms of human feelings and emotions? Here, it is not so simply defined.
My definition of emptiness as a human emotion: the feeling that’s caused by the absence of feeling; a general sense that something is missing inside of oneself; a feeling of disconnection from oneself and others; numbness; sometimes experienced physically as an empty space in the belly, chest, throat or other part of the body.
Emptiness is not a clinical term among mental health professionals. It’s not a common term among the general public. It’s not something that people generally talk about. Yet in my 25 years of practicing psychology, I have encountered many people who have tried to express it to me in some way. Few of them have had the words to describe it. Mostly I had to intuit what was going on for them and give them the words. Each time, it brought the person great relief. It is incredibly healing and connecting to put a label on a plaguing, undefined feeling that has dogged one for years. A label offers understanding and hope, and a path somewhere.
I have a theory about why emptiness has gone so unnoticed, unknown and ill-defined. It’s because emptiness is not actually a feeling; it’s an absence of feeling. We human beings are not wired to notice, define or discuss the absence of things. We have a hard enough time talking about feelings. But the absence of feelings seems almost too vague, unimaginable, invisible; too difficult to grab hold of.
This is why so many people live with this feeling on and off throughout a lifetime. Many people don’t even know they have it, much less what it is. They just know that they feel “off”; like something just isn’t right with them. They feel different from other people in some inexplicable way. One person said to me, “I feel like a bit player in the movie of my own life.” Another said, “I feel like I’m on the outside, looking in at other people who are truly living.”
I also have a theory about–
What causes emptiness:
Children who grow up in a household where feelings are not acknowledged, validated or responded to enough, receive a powerful message. They learn that their emotions are not valid, do not matter, or are unacceptable to others. They learn that they must ignore, neutralize, devalue or push away their emotions. For some children, this message permeates every aspect of their emotional lives; for others, it may only affect certain parts. Either way, the child disconnects from his own feelings. He pushes them down and away (because after all, they are useless, negative or unacceptable to others). It’s adaptive for the child to do this, as it will help her to be more comfortable in her family environment. But she is unknowingly sacrificing the most deeply personal, biological part of who she is: her emotions. Years later, as an adult, she will feel the absence of this vital part of herself. She will feel the empty space which her feelings are meant to fill. She will feel disconnected, unfulfilled, empty.
I have noticed, over years of working with people who have emptiness, that they are usually thoroughly stand-up folks. They are folks who care for others better than they care for themselves; who put a smile on their faces and soldier on, never giving away that something’s just not right for them. They literally run on empty.
I‘ve given a name to this process of developing emptiness. I call it Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). I’m trying to educate people about CEN. I’m trying to reach the scores of people who are living their lives under its influence, with little awareness or ability to describe it. I’m trying to offer them the words to talk about it, and the opportunity to heal.
To learn more about emptiness and Childhood Emotional Neglect, read more throughout this website, www.EmotionalNeglect.com, or pick up a copy of my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s available on this website under THE BOOK tab, via Amazon (Kindle or paperback), or through your local bookstore.