How do you raise a child to have no emotional needs? Turns out, it’s remarkably, shockingly easy. It’s so easy that many parents do it by accident, despite wanting everything good for their child, and despite trying to do everything right as a parent.
In fact, raising a child to have no emotional needs is so easy that it’s scary.
You just have to do a few special things. Or, rather, you just have to not do a few special things. We will talk about those special things in a minute, but first, I have a question for you.
Might you think this sounds like a desirable outcome, or a sign of strength, to have no emotional needs? If so, you are joined by lots of other people who think that adults should be “strong,” meaning need little from other people, especially not emotionally.
Yet we humans are emotional beings. Our emotions are built into the deepest parts of our central nervous system. They are the deepest, most biological expression of our past and present experiences, wants, responses, reactions, and needs. Our emotions are the expression of our deepest selves.
What connects two people together in a love relationship? Emotions. What has motivated some of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time? Emotions. What enables every single human being to make decisions that are authentic to themselves? Emotions.
What makes life mean something? Yes, you are right. It’s emotions.
Let’s take a moment to consider what it means to have emotional needs. It means that you are human, and it also means two more things. That you are open to messages from your inner self and that you are open to connections with others that are based on vulnerability and emotional honesty. These are the ingredients that make relationships feel true, resilient, and rich, all of which are paramount to being able to emotionally thrive.
Do you have emotional needs? Yes, you do, because you are human. But the real question is whether you allow yourself to know, express, and try to meet them.
So, back to our initial question: How do you raise a child to have no emotional needs? Essentially, you raise your child to ignore, hide, or be ashamed of their emotional needs. This enables your child, once grown, to believe that they have none.
Many well-meaning, caring parents do this without intending it or knowing. Sadly, when you ignore, hide, or belittle (even if only subtly) your child’s feelings, you inadvertently teach your child how to suppress their own emotions and emotional needs. This is a lesson that will endure throughout children’s entire lifetime.
I call it Childhood Emotional Neglect. If Childhood Emotional Neglect (or CEN) sounds like the intentional act of an unloving parent, I assure you it’s usually not the case at all. Many CEN parents are simply missing the emotional awareness, understanding, and knowledge their child needs because they didn’t receive it from their own parents.
The bottom line, we can only give our children what we have to give.
One crucial point, having emotional needs, and sharing them is not the same as being needy. Nor does it make you appear needy.
Quite the contrary, having emotional needs and expressing them makes you appear, and be, stronger.
At age 24, Kasey has never had a boyfriend. Deep down, she’s always wanted a relationship, but on the surface, she has worked hard to hide that wish. She has told many friends and family members that she has more important things to do than to date. When the subject came up with her friends, she turned beet red and changed the subject.
Jackson visits his parents with his partner and children dutifully every major holiday. Each time they visit, Jackson experiences the absence of emotional connection in his relationship with his parents. Jackson’s family is great about discussing sports, news, and weather, but no one talks about anything genuinely important or real. Jackson is vaguely aware that he is hurt by his parents’ lack of interest in his personal life, struggles, or feelings, but he also learned from the way he was raised that to admit that his parents’ emotional void is hurtful, even to himself, would make him weak and needy. So he works hard to never let himself feel it, and he never expresses a word about it to his spouse or anyone else.
It’s okay to want things like understanding, comfort, and support. It’s okay to need things like love, attention, warmth, and connection.
It’s powerful to allow your true feelings to be seen, heard, and felt by others. It’s what makes others able to know you, and what makes you able to feel empathy for others.
Most importantly, acknowledging your emotional needs, and expressing them, is the single best, if not only, way to actually get them met.
To learn much more about how to recognize, accept, and express your emotional needs to others see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
This week, I am sharing a segment of my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. It’s a vignette from the book that, I wrote for couples and families who are living with Childhood Emotional Neglect. This particular passage from the book explains what it’s like when a couple is living with, and harmed by, the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Olive and Oscar are a likable, caring couple who love each other and they clearly want to make their marriage work. But they have been experiencing a severe challenge. They both grew up in emotionally neglectful homes. Unbeknownst to them, they have been living under separate “CEN clouds” when they met, and they have lived under that cloud together for decades.
When Oscar and Olive married, they each lacked the emotion skills needed to make their marriage work. This led to a loving but emotionally devoid relationship that was functional, yet empty; loving, yet distant.
You can read the entire story of Oscar and Olive in the book, Running On Empty No More.
By the time Olive and Oscar came to my office for couples therapy, their marriage was in serious trouble. Years had gone by with little communication, while misinterpretations and false assumptions grew like weeds in an unkempt garden. Each partner sat fairly expressionless on my couch, struggling to explain why they had come to see me.
“I’m pretty much done with this marriage,” Olive finally said flatly. “We’ve been married all these years, and Oscar still doesn’t know me at all.”
“I do know her extremely well, in fact,” Oscar said. “And that’s the real reason she’s ‘done’ with our marriage.” (Yes, Oscar put sarcastic finger quotes around the word “done.”) “She never admits the real reason she does things.”
As I listened and observed this exchange in our first session, I was amazed.
Interestingly, I was able to tell after only a brief interaction with Olive that she was not the manipulator that Oscar described. I also saw the level of anger that Oscar carried, and how Olive seemed to be quite oblivious to it.
Olive’s abrupt announcement in the session that she was done with the marriage is typical of a person with CEN. Lacking the skills to communicate about subtle and varied emotions, and unable to understand or put the myriad of problems into words, she said the only thing she could formulate to communicate the intensity of her feelings in that moment. I have found that many CEN folks are prone to such extreme statements once they finally decide to voice their pain.
Olive and Oscar, in their double CEN marriage, had two emotional walls to contend with. Sadly, in this marriage, no one was knocking on anyone’s wall. Their chasm had been widening for many years and was now double-wide. They were both intelligent, good-hearted, and likable people, and they seemed like they should make a good couple. Despite the misinterpretations and despite the anger, I could sense the love between them.
Olive and Oscar had no opportunity as children to learn that emotional intimacy exists. Neither of them experienced it in their families or saw it between their parents. Both were intelligent, good, and caring people, but neither had access to their emotions, and neither had the emotion skills necessary to create and maintain true emotional intimacy with a partner.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) teaches you as a child to ignore and hide your feelings from others, and even from yourself. You learn very early in your life that emotions are useless, troublesome inconveniences and you take this philosophy forward into your adult life. You essentially wall off your feelings so that they will not bother you, and this may seem like a relief.
But, in actuality, you need your emotions to guide and connect you in your life, but the place you need them the most is your marriage.
Feelings are the spice in a relationship, the fireworks, and the glue. It is by working through feelings together that you connect as a couple and become close. An intimate marriage requires emotional exchange, emotional awareness, and emotional vulnerability.
There’s a particular feeling that I get when I work with a CEN couple. It’s similar to the experience of trying to push two magnets together that are facing the wrong directions. It’s like there’s a powerful force field between them, pushing them apart.
The only way to break the force field is to begin to help each partner to better access their own emotions in some small way. By talking about their feelings and their relationship in more nuanced, emotionally enriched ways, they each make a slight turn, followed by another slight turn, followed by another. Bit by bit, they gradually end up turning their faces enough that a slight pull can begin to form.
And when that happens, the real repair work has begun.
How To Learn More
Watch for a future post about Olive & Oscar Part 4 where you will learn how their couple’s therapy went and how they broke down the walls that divided them.
To read the rest of Olive and Oscar’s story and learn how they faced the Emotional Neglect with their children and with their own parents, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
What does it mean when someone describes themselves as “brutally honest?” It’s not as simple as many people think.
The idea of brutal honesty has been placed in a positive light in today’s world. Perhaps because of the word “honesty.” Because honesty is a good thing, right? Of course, it is.
We all agree that it’s important to be honest and truthful. But, in reality, the truth often hurts.
Many times in our lives we are faced with situations in which we need to share a message that may hurt the recipient. And there are many possible ways to manage those situations.
Declaring yourself brutally honest is perhaps the easiest way around the “truth/hurt” quandary. It’s essentially a free pass to say what you think or what you feel in the moment you think it or feel it.
Chances are high that you know someone like this, who goes through life unfiltered:
You’re the most thoughtless person I know, Marcy says to her husband Edward.
What made you buy that coat? Jenny says to her friend Lori.
Only an unintelligent person would make that argument, Bill says to his colleague.
Looks like you’ve been eating a few too many cheeseburgers, Grandma Bea says to her grandson.
The upside of brutal honesty is that you seldom have to guess what the brutally honest person is thinking. The downside is that you don’t always want to know what the brutally honest person is thinking.
Brutal honesty hurts people. Long after the “honest one” has had his say, the recipient will be suffering the damages.
There is another way to deal with the conundrums of life. It involves no potshots, far less damage to the recipient, and far less hurt all around. Yet it still communicates the necessary message. It’s called Truth With Compassion.
Truth with compassion is a way to express your truth while reducing its hurtfulness as much as possible. Hurting others immediately and automatically sparks their defenses. And once the defenses come up, you’ve lost their open ear. They will no longer hear you.
1. Clarify your message within yourself before saying anything to the other person
Example: Marcy’s You’re the most thoughtless person I know becomes: You should have checked with me before taking on that giant project at work.
2. Think about the personality and nature of your recipient. How emotionally fragile is he? How will he best hear this message?
Example: Marcy knows that Edward is normally a thoughtful person, but that he is also somewhat of a workaholic. When he’s absorbed in his work, he tends to think of nothing but the job.
3. Identify the best time, place, and words to communicate your message
Example: Marcy tells Edward she has something important to talk with him about. They agree to talk when they both get home from work. Marcy says I’m hurt that you took on this big project when I hardly get to see you as it is. Did you think about me at all when you made this commitment?
By wording her truth this way, Marcy is avoiding a common barrier to communicating difficult truths: she is not sparking Edward’s defenses. Starting with “I’m hurt,” is a good way to let the recipient know that you are talking about yourself, not him. Asking a question is a good way to open a discussion without making an accusing assumption.
While Jenny and Grandma Bea should keep their “honesty” to themselves, Bill should use a question with his colleague instead of such a blunt and shaming declaration.
Why do you think that?
What makes you say that?
Have you thought about…..?
All of these are possible ways to express doubts about a colleague’s argument. They will not spark the recipient’s defenses, and they will not hurt his feelings. Nor will they likely damage the relationship.
So speak your truth. It’s important. Express yourself and be honest. But pause first to think about the other person. Filter, filter, filter. When you respect the other person’s feelings, your message will be far more likely to be heard.
To learn much more about the importance of speaking your truth and how to show compassion for the other person, plus how to share emotions in relationships, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
Two things are going on right now that are causing more pain in adults’ relationships with their emotionally neglectful parents. Care to guess what they are? It’s the holidays plus the COVID-19 Pandemic. Mixed together, they create a cocktail of uncertainty, worry, emotional distance, and feelings of emptiness.
COVID-19 is affecting many people in many different ways. But one effect that is shared by most, perhaps virtually all, of us these days is that it, especially combined with the holidays during this unusual year, is making us feel more vulnerable.
Exactly what do I mean by vulnerable? I mean many different flavors of vulnerable feelings.
In this unprecedented time, you may be feeling more physically, socially, and emotionally vulnerable than usual and perhaps more so than ever before in your life.
You may feel physically vulnerable due to the risk of getting sick.
You may feel socially vulnerable due to being cut off or distanced from your family and friends.
And you may be feeling emotionally vulnerable, a product of all three of the factors above. On top of all that, most of us are spending more time alone with fewer distractions. The pandemic, with its social distancing, requires you to sit with yourself more, so it’s difficult to escape your feelings, anxieties, doubts, and fears. And they may be many.
As COVID-19 drags on, the holidays approaching, and the world awaiting a vaccine, many relationships have been affected. Some have been enlivened or deepened or enriched. Marriages, friendships, and families have become closer, more mutually dependent, and more supportive.
Other relationships have been strained by the present situation we are in. They have been challenged, weakened, frustrated, broken, or pained.
As someone who hears from hundreds of people every week who are doing their best to cope with the pandemic, as well as the holidays, one of the relationship types that I have noticed taking a lot of boosts, as well as hits, are the relationships between CEN adults and their parents.
Whatever your situation with your parents, the pandemic may be complicating it. Your parents may live nearby or far away. You may have had issues with your parents before COVID-19. Your parents may be healthy emotionally and physically or they may be elderly and frail. They may be living in a facility.
Whatever the circumstances, I believe that millions of people are feeling extra vulnerable right now and are finding themselves struggling with their parents in some new way. And it is all due to circumstances that are completely out of their control.
If you grew up in an emotionally unavailable (CEN) family, you may be experiencing several of the effects above. You may feel a longing to receive the ingredients that were missing from your childhood, while also feeling distant and helpless and disappointed in your parents.
When you do not receive enough emotional attention, empathy, meaningful conversation, or validation from your parents as a child, (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN) you are naturally, as an adult, continually driven back to try to capture it. But your CEN parents may simply not have it to give, and this compounds your pain.
Most likely, this pandemic is affecting many of your relationships for better or for worse. And now, with the holidays upon us too, the one thing you can do right now that will make you stronger in every area of your life: nurture yourself, care for yourself, and pay attention to what you are feeling.
When you feel vulnerable, treat yourself as if you are your own number one. Because you are.
Wonder if you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family? Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. See the book Running On Empty to learn what CEN is and how it affects you now; and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships to learn how you can heal CEN with your partner, parents, and children.
What is survivor’s guilt? Google dictionary describes it this way:
A condition of persistent mental and emotional stress experienced by someone who has survived an incident in which others died. For example, “He escaped with his life but suffered from survivor’s guilt.”
This is the definition most people think of as “survivor’s guilt.” But mental health professionals and therapists know that this concept applies far more widely than this description would suggest. Because we see survivor’s guilt in our offices every single day, but it’s a slightly different type.
The guilt people often experience as they make healthy choices and take steps to heal themselves emotionally, as each step takes them farther away from the dysfunctional people in their lives.
For many hard-working, well-meaning folks, there is no way around it: in order to heal yourself, you must leave someone behind.
Healing from abuse, trauma, or childhood emotional neglect (CEN) is accomplished by taking a series of small steps. As you make healthy changes in yourself and your life, each of these small steps takes you somewhere. You are literally moving forward.
Subtle shifts in your perspective on what happened to you, the sharing of your experience with another person, or the validation of your feelings; as you take these steps, bit by bit, you change.
As you change yourself, you are, in an important way, saving yourself. You may be pulling yourself out of a deep hole that you have shared with some important family or long-time friends. You may be taking steps out of an addiction or a depression or a dysfunctional social system.
Whichever it is, you will probably not be able to save everyone (more on that later in this blog). At some point, you may face a fateful choice. Do I save myself? Is it wrong to do so? What about the people I have shared dysfunction with all these years?
This is the petri dish in which your survivor’s guilt is born.
There are no words for feelings in my family and I have always been astonished when I read what you say about the role of parents in educating children as to emotions–that they’re valid, they have names, they’re normal and they can be appropriately managed without making kids feel bad about themselves.
To this day, bringing up anything emotional–and after all the self-work I’ve done, I’ve gotten bolder and more forthcoming about my feelings–is like shouting at a wall. “There’s no there there.”
My parents have zero words for emotions. No response capability. This stuff does not exist. And at last, I am seeing how it has made me feel: nowadays, pretty darn frustrated! (In childhood, just plain awful.) Learning about CEN and working on it is like finally emerging from the edge of the dark woods and seeing the sun at last, and realizing my entire family is deep in the woods, still. Do I step out, without them? that’s the choice I feel, and it’s painful either way.”
This reader describes what many people feel. And it illustrates, in some very important ways, what an unfair situation survivor’s guilt is. When you have the courage to face your pain and the fortitude to take steps to save yourself, you truly have nothing to feel guilty about.
Is it hard to leave people suffering as you gain perspective, make better choices, and feel stronger? Yes. Should you try to pull your people forward with you? You can try. Will it work? In some cases, it may. But here’s the key question.
Is it your responsibility to pull your people forward with you? Unless they are your dependent children, the answer is NO. It is not.
This will be a very short section because the answer is very simple. It is a straightforward truth that can nevertheless take a lifetime to learn. It is this:
You cannot save another person. You can give them a boost, but ultimately, they must save themselves.
In reality, the best way to bring another person along is to give them the information they may need to have in order to take the steps themselves. Then, save yourself. In doing so, you provide them a role model, and an example of what courage, strength, and healing look like. You show them what they can do if they so choose. You make yourself available for support if they decide to follow.
There. Your job is done. Keep taking steps. Keep making yourself happier, healthier, and stronger. Fight back that survivor’s guilt.
I am having to (and had to) let several relationships go including family (not so easy) and friends (not so easy when you still have other friends (who are worth keeping) in common. Like Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true.” I would rather not have family or friends if they are toxic and not good for me. What is wonderful is being able to tell the difference and developing the feeling of indifference over past relationships (or even ongoing) that are not worthy of me. At any rate, all worth it.
As I became more determined to heal from childhood emotional neglect, I learned that telling the truth was essential. To my surprise and grief, telling the truth has cost me virtually all my friendships. It finally struck me that all of my friendships had grown out of my dysfunction. As I gained a clearer picture of myself, CEN, and dysfunctional coping strategies, I realized all of my “friends” were severely disturbed individuals (“misery loves company”). I was the only one facing the challenge of finding healthy ways of relating. Sick people run from healthy behaviors. When we turn and face the truth, and begin to choose different behaviors, our relationships begin to look very different too. I see this as evolution but it’s hard to let go of old ways and old relationships that keep you from functioning. I now have several solid friendships that feel very, very different from the old ones. I’m trying to get used to it!
To find many more resources about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the author’s Bio below this article.
This article was originally published in psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the
permission of the author and psychcentral.
Father’s Day is easy for all of the people who feel loved by, loving, and close with their dads. If your relationship with your father is strong and uncomplicated, I hope you will give him the wonderful Father’s Day that he so deserves.
But the world is full of people who have more complex relationships with their dads. If you feel either confused or disappointed about your father, there’s a fairly good chance that it’s because of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Having worked with hundreds of people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I have had a unique window into how CEN plays out in people’s adult lives and relationships.
The sad reality is that growing up in an emotionally neglectful family, with your feelings ignored or discounted, has profound effects on how you feel in your adult life, the choices you make, and your perceptions of yourself.
The Emotional Neglect you experienced as a child stays with you throughout the decades of your entire life. It hangs over your relationships, holding them back from developing the depth and resilience that you deserve to have.
But there is one relationship that is uniquely influenced by CEN. It’s affected relentlessly, even if silently, from Day One of your life. It’s your relationship with your parents.
Below is a section about emotionally neglectful parents from my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. In it, I explain how and why it’s so uncomfortable and painful to have your emotional needs thwarted by your parents.
Built into our human brains from birth is an intense need for emotional attention, connection, approval, and understanding from our parents. Every baby born needs to feel emotionally connected to its parents. We do not choose to have this need, and we cannot choose to get rid of it. It is powerful and real, and it drives us throughout our lives.
I have noticed that many people with Childhood Emotional Neglect try to downplay this essential requirement by viewing it as a weakness, or by declaring themselves somehow free of it.
“I’ve given up on my parents. They mean nothing to me now.”
“My parents are incapable of giving me anything. I’m done.”
“I simply don’t care anymore.”
I fully understand why you may say these things, either out loud or just inside your own head, and believe them. After all, it’s very painful to have your deeply personal, human needs for emotional connection and emotional validation thwarted throughout your childhood. It’s a natural coping strategy to try to minimize your frustrated needs or eradicate them altogether.
But the reality is, no one, and I mean NO ONE escapes this need. You can push it down, you can deny it, and you can deceive yourself. Sometimes it may seem to be gone, but it does not go away. It will inevitably return.
That’s why growing up without being seen, known, understood, and approved by your parents leaves its mark upon you. But with all that said, growing up thwarted in this way is not a sentence to being damaged.
In fact, it is very possible if, instead of disavowing it, you accept that your need is natural and real, you can purposely manage it. In this way, you can heal the pain of growing up unseen or misunderstood.
Often, contradictory feelings plague CEN children in their relationships with their parents. Love alternates with anger, appreciation with deprivation, and tenderness with guilt. And none of it makes sense to you.
If you identify with some of these struggles and feelings with your own parents, it’s okay. You are in the company of legions of other emotionally neglected folks who are struggling in the exact same way.
And there are answers. There are some key things you can do to make this easier for you.
By accepting your own needs and feelings, you have made a good start. Your first responsibility is to yourself. You must protect yourself, even if it’s from your own parents.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and how to recover from it, see my books Running Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships and Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, and Take The Emotional Neglect Test for free.
This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
In the United States of America, it is a time of reckoning. As a nation, as a people, who do we want to be?
Divided? Filled with hate and judgment of each other? We must decide.
In 2016, a reader commented on my blog, and it made me think deeply about anger, hate, and the harsh way that humanity judges and treats those who are different from ourselves. That reader’s comment inspired me to write this blog post on Psychcentral. Today, in 2020, it is still highly relevant. I have updated it and republished it here.
I’m a white working-class man. I was abused physically, sexually, and emotionally by people I trusted as a child.
The unquenchable anger from the white working class is not caused by a government or system or any other institution. It is caused by neglectful and abusive parenting. You simply can’t stay that angry, resentful, and cruel all your life if you grew up with loving people, no matter what government you have.
When people call others, like millennials, “pampered” what they are really saying is that they wish they had received that kind of care when they were young. When they brag how their toys and playgrounds were unsafe and they turned out OK, what they are really saying is that they wish someone had cared enough to put rubber matting under their own swings when they were growing up.
These people’s parents, guardians, and leaders deflected their own anger from the true target, their own parents, to “others” who did not look like them.
As a child, your parents really scare you when they spit out whatever nasty words they may have used to describe people who are of different races or creeds. You get afraid of these people, and because they don’t look nor talk like you they are very easy to spot. The working-class white people’s current anger is the flip side of genuine fear. A fear you were taught before you could form words.
A man stood on my street corner the day after the election and shouted to all of us, “Those ****” are going to get what’s coming to them now.” He looked like a 60-year-old teenage boy who can’t stop being afraid.
Neglect and abuse are passed down like a family heirloom and often go side by side. Parents will often go from one to the other as the day goes on.
As a trained therapist I believe you could provide much value by teaching people with this much hate how to break the chain of hate by raising their children with attention and love.
Truth be told, I felt somewhat stunned as I read this comment. It expressed in perfect prose some things that I know, with every fiber of my being, are fundamental truths.
Yes, anger is the flip-side of fear.
Yes. The way we treat our children shapes our world.
Yes. Of course. Childhood neglect and abuse are the root causes of anger, racism, and hate.
Anger is a fascinating emotion in many ways. It flows like water, touching and affecting all who are near it. One important way that anger differs from other emotions is that it always seeks a target.
Anger is not satisfied floating freely, like sadness or other forms of pain. Anger is built into us as a self-protective measure, so it naturally needs to be directed at someone or something.
So what if that “someone” who’s the true target is our parent? Our parent who is angry or scary, or inattentive. Our parent who has hurt or neglected us, but upon whom we are completely dependent for food, clothing, shelter, and all forms of care.
A child’s own anger seeks another, safer target; one removed as far as possible from our childhood home. The farther removed the target, the safer it feels for us. It’s a natural human process that is virtually wired in.
Here’s what I believe. Racism will never go away until we all face the true source of our own fear and anger. I hope that we can stop misdirecting our feelings, and have the courage to parent our own children differently than we were parented ourselves.
Let’s face our own pain, and work through it in a healthy way. It’s for the children. It’s for our country. It’s for our world.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. To learn more about how CEN affects relationships see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Warm thanks to Tyler, who authored the candid, thoughtful comment that inspired this article.
This article was originally posted on Psychcentral. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and Psych Central.
Ten-year-old Jack walks slowly home from school, dreading the moment when he has to walk through the door of his house. He has no idea what kind of mood his mom will be in. She may greet him warmly or she may lay into him, calling him a “lazy bastard, just like your father.” Filled with a dread of what’s to come, the closer Jack gets to home, the more slowly he walks.
Ten-year-old Sadie has lived in a large, mostly empty house with her mother since her parents split up. She misses her father and brother desperately. The household used to be active and busy; now it feels quiet, empty, and lonely. Sadie worries about her mother sequestered in her own room; so near and yet so far away. “I wish Mom would talk to me sometimes like she used to,” Sadie thinks. She sits on the edge of her bed and sobs quietly so that her mother won’t hear her.
While emotionally abusing a child is like emotionally punching him, Emotional Neglect is more akin to failing to water a plant. While the emotionally abused child learns how to brace for a punch, the emotionally neglected child learns how to survive without water.
It has never stopped amazing me how often the terms emotional abuse and emotional neglect are misused. In articles, in books, and even in the professional literature and scientific studies, they’re incorrectly interchanged quite frequently. Typically emotional neglect is called emotional abuse, and far too often emotional abuse is referred to as emotional neglect.
But the reality is that they could hardly be more different. They happen differently, they feel different to the child, and they leave different imprints on the child once he or she grows up.
Emotional abuse is an act. When your parent calls you a name, insults or derides, over-controls, or places unreasonable limits on you, she is emotionally abusing you.
Emotional Neglect, on the other hand, is the opposite. It’s not an act, but a failure to act. When your parent fails to notice your struggles, issues, or pain; fails to ask or be interested; fails to provide comfort, care, or solace; fails to see who you really are; These are examples of pure Emotional Neglect.
To see the different effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect, let’s check in on Jack and Sadie 32 years later.
At 42 Jack is an accountant and is married with two children. Jack’s employers love his work and like him as a person. Nevertheless, he has switched jobs every two years, on average, throughout his career. In every job, Jack somehow ends up locking horns with co-workers. This is because he tends to take any form of mild request or negative feedback as criticism. Then he either hides, keeping his head down, or strikes back.
At home, Jack loves his wife and children. But his wife gets upset with him because he can be very hard on his children. Jack expects perfection and can be very demanding and critical, bordering on verbally abusive but never quite crossing the line to belittling or name-calling.
Generally, Jack goes through life braced for the next “hit.” He puts one foot in front of the other, wondering what negative event will befall him next.
At 42 Sadie is a Physician’s Assistant in a large, busy medical practice. She, like Jack, is married with two children. At work, Sadie is known as “the problem-solver.” She is able to resolve, smooth over, and answer every single problem or question that arises, so everyone goes to Sadie for help. Sadie is gratified by her reputation as super-competent, so she never says “no” to any request.
People look at Sadie and see a wonderful wife and mother. She loves her husband and children, and they love her back. But Sadie, her husband, and everyone else is puzzled about why her children are so angry and rebellious. They seem unhappy and act up in school. Sadie is exhausted by the heavy demands in her life. She’s so busy helping and giving to others she has no idea that she needs “watering” too. Sadie feels burdened, empty, and alone much of the time.
Jack and Sadie are good examples of the differing effects of emotional abuse and emotional neglect. Jack struggles to manage and control his own feelings and reads malice into other people’s feelings. In contrast, Sadie’s emotions are suppressed. She lacks access to her own feelings so much that she lives for other people’s feelings. She struggles to set limits at work, and at home with her own children.
What Jack and Sadie have in common shows the overlap between emotional abuse and emotional neglect. They both feel depleted and empty. They both feel confused, lost, and somewhat joyless. Neither is able to experience, manage, or express their feelings in a healthy or useful way.
And now for the great news. Both Sadie and Jack can heal.
And even more importantly, it is vital that you recognize, own, accept, and learn about yourself, and realize why YOU matter.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, sign up to Take the CEN Questionnaire. It’s free! To learn more about recovery from Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the book, Running on Empty.
**IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are a licensed therapist located anywhere in the world who would like to help people work through their Childhood Emotional Neglect and receive referrals from me, fill out this form to receive my newsletter for therapists and learn how. If you have read both of the Running On Empty books and taken one of my CEN Therapist Trainings, you can be listed on my Find A CEN Therapist Page.
A version of this post was originally posted on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.
What happens when two people, each of whom grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, meet and marry? They create the doubly emotionally neglected couple.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is a subtle, often invisible childhood experience that many adults experienced in their families. As children, they didn’t know it was happening. And as adults, they typically have no memory of it.
Yet its effects continue to hang over them like a gray cloud, coloring their entire adult lives. The cloud inserts itself into their marriages, causing emotional distance, miscommunication, and lack of intimacy.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs.
When you grow up with parents who do not validate or respond to your feelings, your child brain knows just what to do. It builds a wall to block off the most deeply personal, biological part of who you are: your emotions. Safely tucked behind the wall, your parents (and you) can pretend that your feelings aren’t even there, or don’t matter.
Decades later, when you are in a serious relationship, a series of very predictable problems ensue. That wall that helped you as a child interferes. It blocks off the invaluable internal resource you need to bind and connect you to your partner: your emotions.
Interestingly, those who grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect tend to be attracted to one another. When your own emotions are blocked off, you are bound to feel most comfortable with a partner whose emotions are also tucked safely away.
So what happens when two people who grew up emotionally neglected marry? How does the couple deal with two walls between them, over the years of being together?
Meet Jason and Betsy, the double-CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect) couple. They’ve been married for 10 years, and neither is aware of their CEN. It’s Saturday morning, and they are having a mundane conversation.
Betsy: I’ll drop off Curt at basketball practice at 9:30. Can you pick up Emma from gymnastics at 9:45?
As she makes this request, Betsy is secretly worried that Jason will be irritated that she’s asking him to do something. So as she asks, she watches his reaction carefully.
Jason sees Betsy giving him a look he can’t interpret, and assumes she’s trying to manipulate him somehow. He decides to call her bluff by martyring himself to make her feel bad.
Jason: What’s the big deal? Why does this require us both? I’ll do both drop-off and pick-up.
Betsy notices the edge in Jason’s tone and assumes it’s because she asked him to do a task for her. “Would it kill him to chip in on the weekend?” she thinks to herself with aggravation.
Betsy: Just forget it. I’ll do both.
As Betsy does the drop-off and pick-up that morning, she seethes inside at how unwilling Jason is to help out with the kids.
Meanwhile, Jason sits at home feeling three competing things: frustrated at his “manipulative” wife, perplexed about what really happened between them that morning, and vaguely guilty that he is sitting at home while Betsy does all the work.
Eventually, the guilt wins out. Feeling bad, he starts making a big pot of chili, which he knows Betsy likes.
No matter how connected you are by love, companionship, children, or history, you are not able to connect enough in the most important way: emotionally. It’s not that you don’t feel emotion (both Betsy and Jason have plenty of emotions in the description above), it’s just that neither of you is well enough in touch with what you are feeling so that you can share them and use them as you are meant to as a couple.
While your parents were busy ignoring your feelings, you were missing an important childhood experience. You were not learning how emotions work. You didn’t have the chance to learn how to know when you’re having a feeling, identify that feeling, put it into words, or share it with another. These are the skills required to build emotional intimacy with your partner, and you may not even realize that you don’t have them.
You probably noticed how very out of touch Betsy and Jason are with each other. Betsy views Jason as unwilling to help, which isn’t true, and Jason views Betsy as trying to pull something over on him, which she isn’t. Both end up feeling upset with each other for false reasons. And neither has the communication skills to discover that his/her assumptions and readings of the other are wrong.
In addition to the normal conflicts that all couples encounter, incorrect readings also contribute to the wedges that drive you farther and farther apart every day. The longer you are together, the more distant you feel.
I see many double CEN couples in my office, and one thing I often notice is that they usually have a genuine bond of love for each other. But despite the love, one or both members of the couple senses that something very important is missing. One or both of the members feel, despite the love, uncomfortably lonely in the marriage.
If you recognize yourself and your partner as you read this, do not despair. There are answers!
You can use this newfound understanding to reach out to your partner. Now that you know what divides you, you can break down your walls, and power forward to a brighter, more connected future.
Because the great thing about Childhood Emotional Neglect is that it can be healed.
To learn how to take the steps to reach out to your partner and break through the walls that block you, see the book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
CEN can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take the CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.
A version of this post was originally posted on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.