Most people don’t talk about their feelings much. In fact, most people don’t even think about their feelings much.
Usually, we just go through our days focused on our jobs, families, problems, and everything going on in our lives without paying much attention to how we feel.
But, here’s the thing. Sometimes, a situation arises that requires you to know what you are feeling. Or, even further, you may even need to express what you are feeling.
Depending on how you were raised, your family’s comfort level with emotions, and their ability to use emotion words, you may find the process of noticing, labeling, and sharing your feelings anywhere from mildly challenging to extremely difficult.
In my work as a psychologist, I encounter wonderful people every day who are stymied or terrified at the notion of having to identify, name, or share what they are feeling. Most of these people find it difficult for a very good reason. In short, when you grow up in a family that ignores, diminishes, dismisses, or discourages the expression of feelings — I call this an emotionally neglectful family — you simply do not learn how to do it.
As an adult, this can make certain things that other people take for granted very, very hard.
For example, many people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) have only one or two emotion words in their vocabularies. They may use that one word over and over again, painting the complex landscape of their own inner emotional lives with one single word.
Common emotion words that I hear used this way include:
There are several skills that go into using and managing your feelings the way they are meant to be used and managed. If you don’t think of your feelings as useful or if you do not know what these skills are, or whether you have them, it’s okay.
Emotional awareness and management are not automatically a part of everyone’s life. But they are things you can definitely learn. I know this because I have taught these emotion skills to many people.
Today, we will address your emotion vocabulary. Guess how many words there are for the feeling of sadness? There are many more than just “sad” or “depressed.”
Read through this list with a highlighter, and think about the subtle differences in what each word describes.
Sense of loss
Next time you perceive a possible hint of sadness or depression, don’t paint it over with the same old color. Instead, pull out this list and read through it, and find one or more words that capture what you are feeling in a more complex way.
The more you do this, the more your vocabulary will increase and it will also enrich you in other ways. As you struggle to name your feelings, it’s the same as exercising a muscle. Your brain will begin to process feelings in a new way and, believe it or not, this is a momentous change.
Have a word for sad/depressed that’s not on this list? Please share it in a comment!
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how it plays out in your adult life, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Julie loves her husband Dom very much, but lately, all they seem to do is fight. Julie wonders how Dom can possibly complain that she’s not home enough lately when he can see how many demands she is juggling.
Bill struggles to do everything right in life. He has a good job and a family that loves him. Yet he walks through his days feeling numb. As he provides for his family and responds to his boss’s every request, he sometimes wonders what it’s all for. Recently he’s been drinking more than he should.
House, job, family. Parenting, grocery shopping, errands, and social media; we are all people of the world. And in today’s world, our lives are overly full in so many ways. So it’s ironic that so many of us feel so very UN-full.
The feeling of emptiness is elusive. It’s experienced differently by different people. Hardly anyone knows how to put it into words. So you may at times say you’re stressed or down because it’s the best word you can come up with, even though it doesn’t seem to quite capture what you feel.
Even more likely, you say nothing. After all, you may have a life that is actually quite full. And you may assume that everyone feels this way.
Whatever your personal experience of emptiness, the roots of this feeling almost always can be found in your childhood.
We grow up in households that are busy or struggling, and somehow not quite emotionally nurturing enough. From this, we learn everything about how to stay busy and struggle, but little about how to nurture ourselves.
So we grow up looking in all the wrong places for support and fulfillment. We live our adult lives with a sense that something is missing, and no idea how to find it.
Julie can’t see what Dom sees: that she is hugely over-committed. In addition to her job and her two daughters, she volunteers on two committees at the school. She’s involved in a town fundraiser, and now she’s talking about starting up a small business on the side. Dom watches helplessly as Julie becomes increasingly depleted and worn.
Over-committed and joyless, Julie has lost her way. She seeks to fill herself up with activity, projects, and maybe some recognition, with perhaps a little money thrown in. On this path, Julie will never stop having those pangs of emptiness that come and go.
Bill walks through life feeling numb and knowing that something is not right. He knows he should be happier and more fulfilled. After all, he’s the man with everything. Bill has no idea that throughout his struggle to do everything right in life, he has missed the boat on what truly matters to him.
Bill knows how to walk the walk, but he doesn’t know how to feel. He’s caught up in the externals of life, and he cannot see himself. Bill is missing out on what could give his life meaning: his feelings.
No matter what type of emptiness you feel and how you’ve tried to fill it, it’s never too late or too tall a task to change your course.
Focusing inward instead of outward; noticing your own feelings and needs and trying to meet them; finding what makes you happy, and making memories with people you care about. This is the path to filling yourself.
Surprisingly, once you’re on your new path, you may find that it is actually far easier than your old one.
To learn more about how to become more self-aware and fill yourself up, see the book Running on Empty.
This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and published here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral.
One of the problems I have noticed with the term “Childhood Emotional Neglect” is that it does sound so negative. It so perfectly describes the problem that it may, perhaps, give the impression that it’s a burden you’d rather not know about.
But, in reality, CEN is quite the opposite. It’s actually a remarkably hopeful concept that every parent, every husband, every wife, everyone who was raised by someone; in fact, every human being should know about.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN: Happens when parents who have an emotional blind spot fail to notice, validate, and respond enough to their child’s emotions and emotional needs.
CEN is not a form of abuse or trauma. It’s not something your parents do to you, but rather, it is something they fail to do for you. It happens in loving households all over the world simply because so many parents are unaware that CEN exists. It passes down through generations, silently transferring. It’s difficult to see and hard to remember, which serves to hide its invisible power. It seems like nothing, but its effects stay with you throughout your entire adult life.
So, that is the negative part. But there’s also an amazing and positive aspect to CEN which offers hope and solace and possibility to everyone who sees it in themselves.
In the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, I outline the types of parents who have these blind spots and why they have them. But for the purposes of this article, the main point is this. Whether your parents are too focused on themselves and filling their own needs to notice yours, or are genuinely trying to do their best but simply do not have emotional awareness or understanding, you can be confident that it has affected you.
Many thousands of people feel a profound sense of relief when they first realize that Childhood Emotional Neglect is the explanation for the struggles they have lived with for a lifetime. I know this because I hear from more and more such folks each and every day.
But here’s the truth: Becoming aware of your Childhood Emotional Neglect is incredibly powerful. It’s a turning point and a game-changer.
But it’s not enough.
Now that you know what’s wrong, you must fix the problem. And the really great news is YOU CAN! Healing your CEN is a series of steps in which you give yourself now what you did not receive as a child: emotional attention, validation, and care.
I have worked for the last 8 years to define the exact steps it takes to reparent yourself and heal the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in adults. I’ve also helped countless numbers of CEN adults walk down the path of recovery.
My goal is to help you heal your CEN. I want to provide you with easy access to as many as possible of the resources I’ve created over the years. All right here, in one place.
**Many are free, but some are not. You’ll notice two asterisks next to the resources that are **free.
Bookmark this article and check back periodically. I’ll add new resources as I create them! If you have an idea for a resource that would be helpful, post it in a comment on this article and I’ll see if I can provide it.
Almost a decade ago, when I first started blogging about Childhood Emotional Neglect, I wrote a post that introduced my Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire.
It was a brief article, but one of the first blog posts ever written about Childhood Emotional Neglect. Despite the shortness of the article itself, it did make quite a stir. In fact, that early post received 71 comments. Recently, while taking a look back at where we started, I came across not just that early article, but those many comments.
First, a refresher.
It’s growing up in a household that under-notices and under-attends to the feelings and emotional needs of the children.
CEN happens in legions of homes, in virtually every culture, and every social stratum. It even happens in homes that are otherwise loving and in which the parents are trying their best.
All it really takes for CEN to happen is for the parents to be unaware of the world of emotions, what they are, what they mean, and why they matter. This renders them emotionally blind to the feelings of their children.
Because CEN is caused by a lack of response and is not caused by overt action on the part of the parents, many CEN sufferers have no memory of anything going wrong for them as a child. Instead, they may recall a nice childhood and wonder why, as adults, they feel so empty, unfulfilled, lost, or alone.
Since you can’t easily know or remember whether you grew up with Emotional Neglect, I created the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. Instead of asking you about events in your childhood, it asks 22 questions about how you are experiencing your adulthood.
The test was initially introduced by my first book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It has now been taken by many hundreds of thousands of people and has been translated into many different languages.
Below is a sampling of the comments shared by readers. In them, you will see the reactions of people who were finding themselves touched by CEN awareness for the first time.
Neglect doesn’t have to be intentionally practiced in order to cause harm. For instance, a child prodigy whose parents “neglected” to ever provide a piano will be, if not derailed, certainly behind all the other prodigies. There can be a whole range of reasons for the neglect of a child’s developing ego and worldview, but a developing child has no way of remotely grasping those reasons. That’s why one child can still thrive in the same situation another becomes stunted because not every person needs the same amount of information to make judgments of this life. Internal processing of experiences is actually quite sacred to the individual, as it should be for humans.
Being a grown-up isn’t something that humans are just awarded for turning a certain age, it’s the system of processing experiences in a manner that engenders healthy expressions of and responses to Life. If we have skipped a step of learning who we are somewhere along the line, making processing information rationally difficult, it helps the healing process a lot to know where that step is
I got all 22. This explains so much! I have subconsciously known for a long time now that I have suffered from CEN, but this clarifies it. I probably wouldn’t have been as vulnerable to being manipulated by others if I hadn’t experienced CEN.
I circled most. Studies are finally finding that children need emotional care and love more than was previously thought, yes we survive without it or with less, but my goodness it cripples us as adults. And Yes the parents are responsible for this. They are the adults, we were the children. Children are innocent and they take in everything. Adults now have access to infinite information like this book. It’s time to end this cycle and hand me down of pain and neglect. I’m stopping it on my branch of the family tree, no more. It’s the best thing we can do for ourselves, our children, and the whole world to heal this.
I circled 16 and three of them with double or triple circles. How is one supposed to deal with and heal the scars? I am married to a man who is negative and enjoys very little. I have been blessed with talents (so I’ve been told as an adult) but have barely been able to use them. I am 55 and sometimes feel trapped and stifled. At the same time, I am afraid to go it alone. The only thing that seems to make me feel better is being around those less fortunate and trying to be of help somehow. Life is too short for learning from mistakes. Parents need to encourage and empower their children or don’t have them in the first place.
Hmmm…interesting. I wonder if race adds yet another dimension? Do some ethnicities and cultures experience more societal neglect that may add yet another layer of neglect for a child growing up in it?
Well, knowing that I may be an emotionally neglected child makes me somewhat at peace knowing that there are others like me, that I’m not the only one feeling like this, cause I feel guilty sometimes when I feel sad and dissatisfied with my life when there are others who have it worse than me.
I am the product of severe CEN and abuse. I have been working on healing for years. To others who are struggling with this: Don’t give up, things can get better! It takes time. Just keep learning how to tune into your own feelings and honor them, and know that you have every right to do it. Your needs are as important as anyone else’s, and treating yourself as well as you treat the other people in your life is a very good thing! AND it FEELS good!
I learned to bury my feelings deep down from the time I was a toddler. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing; now I know it was necessary for my protection. As a result, it took me many years to be able to access my feelings about anything! I went into an abusive marriage—probably because it felt familiar—and after 20 years of that finally began to realize that something was really, really wrong. I left the marriage and have been on a healing journey ever since. It has taken a lot of work, but it is so worth it.
I have good friends and activities that I enjoy. The anxiety that was ever-present (without my even realizing it) is gone. I indulge myself occasionally without guilt and get real satisfaction and enjoyment out of recognizing what I need or prefer and saying so. I am kind to other people, and also kind to myself.
Over the years since that early blog, I have received hundreds of thousands of comments like the ones above. In fact, some regular readers send their reactions and responses to CEN posts on an ongoing basis so that I actually get to follow along with their progress.
From taking the Emotional Neglect Test, which is basically the entry point of CEN awareness — to beginning to take some steps onto the path of CEN recovery and then progressing through the stages of reclaiming their feelings and learning how to use them for energy, connection, and direction, it’s incredibly rewarding to follow the evolution of progress.
Now, here is an amazing thing. Once you realize that your own childhood did not fully prepare you to live fully and close to your own heart, you are free to shake off the chains of Childhood Emotional Neglect and open your arms to healing.
You can know you are not diseased or damaged and that you can give yourself what you didn’t get. You can, like all those many readers who have shared their CEN thoughts, experiences, challenges, and triumphs, walk down the healing path to a warmer, more rewarding life, where you are running on empty no more.
To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect affects adults and families, and how you can strengthen and deepen your relationships, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free!
I want to hear your comments too! Share your thoughts and experience with Childhood Emotional Neglect and I will be happy to publish them here.
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.
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. 650 therapists are listed so far in locations all over the world. Yet the demand is great and growing 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. If you take either my 2 CEU therapist training, Identifying & Treating Childhood Emotional Neglect, or my 12 CEU Fuel Up For Life therapist training you can apply to be listed on my Find A CEN Therapist Page. I will send you referrals.