I have often talked about the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN on a marriage. It’s somewhat like an invisible barrier that blocks spouse from spouse, holding the two emotionally apart, creating and feeding distance and a deep sense of being alone.
But since Childhood Emotional Neglect can be so difficult to pinpoint in your own, or your partner’s, history, it’s not easy to know if it’s playing a part in your marriage.
Why is the lack of fighting a potential sign of Emotional Neglect? Strangely enough, often it’s the couples who fight the least who are in the most trouble. This is because fighting requires a willingness to challenge each other, an ability to tolerate anger (your own and your partner’s), and some element of emotional connection.
Emotional connection, the opposite of Emotional Neglect, is not made up solely of positive feelings like warmth, affection, and love. It also requires an ability to tolerate conflict with each other, and a mutual trust that you, as a couple, can get angry and upset, share difficult words, and come through to the other side with your relationship intact.
A willingness to fight is a willingness to share painful emotions. And that’s a sign of emotional connection.
There is no feeling of loneliness worse than that experienced inside of a relationship. It feels terrible to feel alone when you’re with someone. And loneliness is one of the greatest warning signs of an emotionally neglectful couple.
You can have a relationship that seems great, with a partner who has a good sense of humor, common interests, a good job, and kind nature, but still feel alone.
This happens when your relationship with your partner is good on the surface but lacks emotional substance. Emotional connection is the foundation of a relationship. When it’s weak, the relationship has an emptiness to it. It can take two people years to see past their good surface connection and realize what is missing underneath.
Do you find yourself using friends or family to “fill in” for your spouse when you need support? If so, is it because your spouse isn’t there? Because she often says the wrong thing? Because you’re not sure he’ll care?
In a close, connected, non-neglectful marriage, your spouse will be the first person you want to tell when things go wrong or when something great happens.
One key question to ask yourself is: Does she want to be the first person? If you don’t think so, this is a sign of other problems in your marriage. I encourage you to find a skilled couple’s therapist and convince your partner to go with you.
If you think your mate does want to be your go-to person, then the problem may be simply that he doesn’t know how to be that person for you. This is a matter of skills, and the good news is that these skills can be learned.
“I’m happy in our relationship in some very important ways, but yet it feels like something is missing.”
“I read an article about relationships that struck a chord with me. Will you read it for me, and let me know if you have a reaction to it too?”
“Did you know that not fighting in a relationship is not necessarily a good thing?”
“I love you so much, and I want us to be even closer. Will you work on this with me?”
To learn how to build your emotion skills see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. To learn how to share them in your marriage to build emotional intimacy see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psych central.
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.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN has a way of making family holidays like Thanksgiving, which should feel welcoming, loving and warm, fall short.
It’s the invisible force that just slightly subdues the welcome, cools the warmth, and quashes the love. It’s the background of your family picture which no one sees. It’s the gray fog that lingers round the family, making it impossible to truly see each other.
The members of an emotionally neglectful family walk through each and every holiday with a vague feeling of disappointment and discontent.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when you grow up in a family that does not “see” the emotions of its members. In the CEN family, feelings are treated as if they are irrelevant or even burdensome. Children in these families learn to ignore and hide their own feelings.
If this is your family, how do you take care of yourself so that you can enjoy Thanksgiving?
Emotional Neglect passes through the generations unseen and unnoticed. Most likely your parents have raised you very much the same as they were raised themselves.
For your healing, it’s important to acknowledge everything you didn’t get from your family. On this day, work on accepting what you didn’t get, what you did get, and why. And realize that your parents cannot give you what they do not have themselves.
Remind yourself that everything you got, and everything you didn’t get: It all adds up to who you are now.
And you’re all right.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is 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.
A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.
Unspoken Family Rules. What are they?
Every family has them, but no one ever talks about them. They remain, by definition, unsaid.
Sometimes they’re positive and healthy. Other times, they are toxic.
Either way, these powerful messages from your childhood home plant themselves into the base of your brain and become an unconscious part of how you live in the adult world; perhaps even embedded in your very sense of who you are: your identity.
Read through the list below, and see if any of these unspoken family rules speak to you. Did your family adhere to one, two or even more?
As you read through the list, write down any messages that feel familiar. These are the messages that run through your head, affecting your choices, emotions, and life to this very day.
Becoming aware of these powerful unconscious rules can free you up to override them. You can take control of them and counter them instead of letting them run your life.
The family comes first.
Wanting something is selfish.
Needing something is selfish.
Emotions are a sign of weakness.
Needs are a sign of weakness.
Don’t ask questions.
Don’t have needs.
Negative emotion is harmful to those around you.
Don’t bring any pain to this house.
Always act like everything is OK, even when it’s not.
Don’t talk about anything meaningful.
Don’t refer to anything negative.
Don’t rock the boat.
No fighting (conflict) is allowed.
Don’t make noise.
Don’t rock the boat.
Keep your problems to yourself.
Handle it yourself.
Don’t talk about uncomfortable things.
Silence is bad. Always fill it.
Don’t do better than your parents.
Don’t outshine others in the family.
Whoever yells the loudest wins.
Don’t upset your father (or mother).
Don’t trust anyone outside the family.
Certain things must be kept a secret from everyone outside of the family.
Act like you don’t see ______.
Your friends will betray you. You can only rely on your family.
It doesn’t hurt to twist the truth now and then.
White lies are okay.
All lies are okay.
If we don’t acknowledge it, it’s not real.
Each of these powerful messages does a particular type of damage. Each sets you up to do the wrong thing in your adult life.
The messages above the line are the distinct messages of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. They all set you up to sacrifice yourself for what feels like the greater good…the good of the family. Keep your needs and feelings to yourself, don’t cause problems, don’t share, show or (perhaps) even feel emotions, especially when they’re negative.
These messages, in adulthood, make you feel deeply and personally invalid; like you don’t stand on equal ground with everyone else. As an adult, you will struggle with the 10 Characteristics of the CEN Adult outlined in the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, like a lack of emotional awareness, self-awareness, self-knowledge, and a deep feeling of being different and flawed and on your own.
The messages below the line all set you up to pretend, deny, or twist reality, tiptoeing around people instead of challenging them. Keep the family secrets at all costs, or don’t trust anyone who is not family.
These messages will drive you to make decisions you’re not proud of, put your family before yourself even when it’s harmful, and have problems with excessive emotional expression.
All of the messages have the power to make you feel confused, unhappy, and bad about yourself. All of them will cause you to have problems with social and emotional skills.
All of them can be overridden by you.
1. Become aware of the rules that are in your head. Keep your list easily accessible, and review it often.
2. Pay attention: Notice when one of these rules speaks to you. Awareness is half the battle.
3. Make up an opposing, healthy rule to counteract each unhealthy one. For example,
Don’t talk about _________
Talk about __________.
Negative emotion is harmful to those around you
Negative emotion is not harmful to those around you, if you express it in a healthy way.
4. Make an effort to learn the skills you missed in childhood: the purpose, value, and validity of your emotions. Your feelings will guide you if you only start to listen to them, use them and manage them. It’s never too late to learn those skills.
For help in learning emotional skills, and overriding powerful messages from childhood, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn much more about how CEN affects your family relationships now, your marriage and your own parenting and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children.
Did you grow up with an unspoken family rule that’s not listed here? If so, please share it with us by posting it in a comment below.
A version of this article first appeared on psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.
For philosophers and clergy alike, the message is resoundingly clear: Forgive those who have hurt you, because holding on to anger is destructive. Case in point, see the small sampling of widespread broadcasting of such messages below.
Forgiveness is the final form of love
To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and to realize that the prisoner was you
-Lewis B. Smedes
To err is human; to forgive, divine
Forgiveness is often offered as a powerful solution; as an agent to not only help you heal from painful events but also allow you to move forward.
The general idea is that holding onto anger can make you bitter and hold you back from healing from harm that someone has done you. But the problem is that there are several serious problems with trying to use forgiveness as a solution.
Let’s first look at why it doesn’t work. Then, we will discuss a much better solution.
Quotes and articles about forgiveness present it as a solution to painful situations.
But forgiveness is not a solution. It’s a process.
The Process of True Forgiveness
In the process of true forgiveness, the relationship is changed forever, sometimes in a good way. Many who go through these steps together end up feeling more connected and closer than they were before the offense took place.
When There is No Accountability
Of course, it is true that in many of life’s situations the offender does not notice that she’s hurt you or does not appear to care. There is no accountability, no acknowledgment, no apology. So, sadly, there can be no meeting of the minds. These are some of life’s most difficult and painful experiences.
Here the solution becomes not about forgiveness, but about balance and self-care. If you allow your hurt and anger to rule you, you will be in danger of becoming bitter or vengeful.
Instead, please use your anger and hurt to build and enforce boundaries that will protect you from the other person. Soothe and balance your painful feelings with attention to your own health and recovery. Talk to those who care about you, eat well, and rest. Pay attention to your feelings and manage them.
And always keep in your mind the most healthy and powerful guiding principle for one who has been unjustly harmed and left with no accountability:
The best revenge is living well.
Nothing could be more true.
To learn more about emotions, how they are useful, and how to manage them in relationships, see the books National Bestseller Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article originally appeared on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.
“Accept the children the way we accept trees—with gratitude because they are a blessing—but do not have expectations or desires. You don’t expect trees to change, you love them as they are.”
― Isabel Allende
Wives wistfully long for it from their husbands. Fathers demand it from their children. Friends call upon it to restore broken friendships. Who doesn’t want unconditional love?
Unconditional love is the kind that endures despite any problem, injury, conflict or issue that may arise. Love that asks for nothing in return, and never ceases, no matter what.
Is unconditional love real? Is it attainable? Is it the foundation of a successful marriage? Is it a natural human need?
Or is it simply an epic myth?
It almost seems to be a need that is biologically built into the human condition. We long for it, but we can’t seem to find it. Is it a matter of finding the right person or doing the right thing? Can only people who are emotionally mature provide it? Is it required for a strong relationship or marriage?
Believe it or not, all of these questions have answers, and they are fairly simple and straightforward.
But first, a fascinating research study.
In 2009, a neuroscientist named Beauregard used MRI’s to look at the areas of the brain that are activated in unconditional love compared to romantic love. He found that unconditional love involves seven separate areas of the brain and that it is different from the brain activity seen in romantic or sexual love. Beauregard concluded that unconditional love is actually a separate emotion, unique and different from romantic love.
Beauregard’s study provides neurological evidence for something that is known by couples’ therapists everywhere: unconditional love has no place in a marriage.
Why can’t we expect it from our husband or wife? Two reasons. First, because it’s impossible for most people. And second, because even if a person could achieve it for his or her spouse, it would be unhealthy for both parties and for the relationship itself.
Imagine a husband who continues to love his wife even though she is a serial cheater, and hurts him over and over and over and over. What incentive does she have to stop hurting him? Actually, none. This dysfunctional, painful relationship can go on forever, unchecked. Because the husband has no bottom line to what he will accept: no limit to what he will tolerate, and his wife knows it.
When it comes to romantic relationships and marriage, we all must earn the love we receive. Unearned love (except the parental kind) is not real, it is not strong, and it is not resilient. Conditional love is meaningful because it’s earned, treasured and protected by both parties.
If you have no bottom line in your relationship, chances are you will sadly find yourself living at the bottom line. You will receive whatever you are willing to accept.
So where, then, does unconditional love belong?
In fact, it belongs in only one specific kind of relationship and going in only one direction.
And that is parent TO child; not in reverse. It is a parent’s job to unconditionally love his child. But parents must earn and deserve love from their child. This is what makes parenthood require a kind of selflessness that is uniquely different from every other kind of relationship that exists in this world.
So essentially we are all wired to need unconditional love, but we can only get it in one place: from our parents. Unfortunately, if we don’t feel unconditionally loved by our parents in childhood, we will grow up to feel in some way, on some level, alone. And we will feel in another way, on yet another level, deprived.
People who grow up without unconditional love from their parents are growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect. In addition to feeling alone and deprived, if a parent’s love is highly conditional, the child may grow up to have depression, anxiety, or a personality disorder.
Many who grow up without unconditional love will be driven, through no fault of their own, to seek the missing love in all the wrong places: from boyfriends, girlfriends or spouses. I have seen many people go through many years looking for this special something that they didn’t get in childhood. Sadly, they seek it from the wrong people, in the wrong ways, unaware that they can, and should be, providing it for themselves.
As a blogger, I pay attention to what readers want to know about. I’ve noticed that articles about three particular types of personality disorders (PDs), narcissistic, borderline and sociopathic, are often the most read.
Since my specialty (and the topics of my books and blogs) is Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I can tell you that adults who grow up with emotional neglect often seem to attract people with personality disorders. That’s because CEN teaches you to take up little space, and those with personality disorders tend to take up a lot. It’s a classic case of opposites attracting.
People who find themselves involved with a personality disordered person may often find themselves getting hurt. I have noticed that the folks who comment on posts about PD’s very often express a mixture of strong emotions like confusion, hurt, anger and helplessness. Clearly, a great many people are hungry for information and guidance on how to handle relationships with these complex people in your lives.
Here are some example questions I’ve received from readers asking for guidance on dealing with a narcissistic or sociopathic person in their lives.
“Such a pity that escape (divorce) seems to be the only viable outcome. I’ve had to divorce my wife, but she still controls the minds of my now young adult daughters, so now I live with the pain of this alienation.”
“Does it serve a purpose to see a narcissistic parent’s condition coming from childhood emotional neglect? Yes. Once I realized that possibility, I looked at myself and realized how I often did to others exactly what my father did to me: because he left me with the same fragile sense of self. Fortunately I did not pass it on to another generation, having decided to end the bucket chain of abuse.”
The world is full of people who struggle with personality disorders. In truth, the numbers are staggering. 6% of the U.S. population has a narcissistic personality disorder. 5.6% has a borderline personality, and 1% has antisocial personality (according to the National Institute of Health).
With these numbers, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ve met, befriended, been related to, or fallen in love with at least one of these personality types.
These three personality disorders are all different. Narcissists are known for being self-centered. Those with borderline personality are known for being unpredictable and highly emotional. And antisocial personalities (or sociopaths) are famous for their brutality. Generally, these three PD’s can best be understood by their ability or inability to feel two very important emotions: guilt and empathy.
Narcissistic Yes No
Borderline Yes Yes
Sociopathic No No
Here are the Four Main Questions About PD that I see you, our readers, struggling with:
1. What causes personality disorders?
We don’t know for sure, but current science tells us that it’s a combination of genetics and childhood experiences, such as emotional abuse and unpredictable parenting characterized by the repeated, sudden withdrawal of love and approval by the parent or love based on false, self-serving, or superficial factors. Neither nature nor nurture alone is probably enough to produce a personality disorder; most research indicates that it takes a combination of both.
2. Why didn’t I realize sooner that my husband/sister/father/friend, etc. has a personality disorder?
First, I’d like to suggest that you stop asking this question because it sounds like you are blaming yourself. The huge majority of people have no idea what a personality disorder is, or how to recognize it. Folks with narcissistic or borderline personality are not simply all good or all bad. They have very lovable qualities, and very maddening qualities, just like everyone else. This is why even mental health professionals require a good amount of time to make a diagnosis of personality disorder.
Sociopaths, however, fall into a special category of their own. Unlike people with borderline and narcissistic personalities, sociopaths have no capacity for guilt. But that is a very difficult thing to see in someone, especially when that someone is both highly charismatic and skilled at faking guilt and other emotions. Unfortunately, sociopaths, the most emotionally ruthless people among us, are also the most difficult to recognize.
3. Do people with personality disorders know what they are doing? Is he/she hurting me on purpose?
For sociopaths, the answer is simple: yes. Many sociopaths actually take pleasure in manipulating and hurting others. They view (and treat) the people in their lives like chess pieces.
For narcissists and borderlines, the answer is not so clear, because both of these groups are scrambling to protect their fragile inner core. The narcissist’s greatest fear is that you will see what he/she feels about herself deep down: worthlessness. Whereas the borderline person’s greatest fear is that you will abandon him.
Narcissists appear to not care if they hurt you, but it’s because they are extremely focused on protecting themselves. Borderline folks are at the mercy of their own pain and have little energy left over to offer care for others. They are capable of both guilt and empathy, but often cannot access either.
Most narcissistic and borderline people are not purposely inflicting pain or misery on others. They are more like a bull in a china shop.
4. I now hate someone I used to love. Is it OK to kick this person out of my life?
It all depends on what he/she has done, and what is your relationship with them. Of course, you must protect yourself and your children above all. And the type of PD you’re dealing with matters. Unfortunately, many people share traits from all three, making it difficult to know.
If this person is a family member, spouse or co-parent, and is not a clear sociopath, I recommend a delicate balance of self-protection and as much empathy as you can muster for the true pain that this person is living with and hiding.
Here are some Suggestions for Managing Your Relationship:
To learn how to manage your relationship with a narcissistic or borderline parent, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. To learn how Childhood Emotional Neglect is different from emotional abuse and how to heal from it, see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.
You can give your kids what you never had.
Few things can make a difference in your parenting as much as healing your emotional neglect.
It’s true! To explain why we must first take a look at your own parents.
Emotional neglect (CEN) happens when your parents, even if they loved and cared about you, failed to validate your emotions enough while they were raising you.
This seemingly small failure seems so simple, and yet its effects on you, the child, were profound. In fact, they still run deep within you to this day.
When your parents did not notice, respond to, or validate your feelings enough, they sent you a powerful, subliminal message:
Your feelings do not matter.
When you received this message over and over again, your adaptive child brain knew just what to do. It walled off your emotions so that they would not burden your parents, or yourself.
This may have worked to cope in your childhood home, but as you grew into an adult, you needed access to your feelings. Now, the emotions that should be energizing, connecting, directing, and informing you are less accessible than you need them to be.
This fundamental disconnection within you affects your life in many important ways. But none of the effects are as great as the ones in your parenting.
Your CEN, invisible, unmemorable, and not your fault, quietly transfers itself from you to your children. Mostly because it’s so very hard to give your child something that you never got yourself.
There are clear ways for you to heal your emotional neglect, and as you do, you will naturally become a better parent.
Believe it or not, there is a remarkable thing about childhood emotional neglect (CEN). You can begin to treat yourself in the exact opposite ways that you were treated as a child.
As you give yourself what you never got, you will then have it to give to your children.
1. The more you begin to value and attend to your own emotions, the more attuned you will be to your child’s feelings.
When you say, “Are you angry right now?” or “You look sad,” to your child, you are automatically teaching her about her feelings. She will grow up attuned to herself.
2. As you work to learn emotion skills, you will automatically teach them to your child.
Learning to name your feelings, sit with them, manage and express them when needed are all skills your child will see and experience in her relationship with you.
3. As you treat yourself with more compassion, you can help your child have more compassion for himself.
As you learn to accept that you are human and that you, like all humans, make mistakes, you will stop being so hard on yourself.
You’ll be able to show and teach your children how to learn from their missteps, forgive themselves, and move forward, instead of harshly judging themselves.
4. Beginning to pay attention to what you feel, need, like, and dislike will set a great example for your child.
You will be showing him that you are worth paying attention to, and this will make you better able to see him clearly too. You will be teaching him to pay attention to himself, and he will see himself reflected in your eyes.
He will grow up knowing himself and feeling deep down that he matters.
5. Working to accept yourself and love who you are can set your child up to feel this way about herself.
Armed with healthy self-love, and a sense that you are good enough, your child will learn self-love too and will grow up feeling strong, and knowing, deep down, that she is lovable. You did not choose to grow up with emotional neglect. In fact, as a child, you very likely didn’t even realize it was happening to you.
But now, as an adult, you can choose to heal your emotional neglect. And when you do, you are setting yourself on a clear path to being happier and healthier and being a more connected, effective parent to your children.
Making the decision to heal your emotional neglect is like saying to many generations going back in your family line: “The buck stops here. I will not deliver this burden to my children.”
And what could be more important, or more worthwhile, than that?
To learn more about how CEN affects your parenting and other relationships, Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire and see Jonice Webb’s book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
A version of this article first appeared on YourTango.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author.
What can protect you from toxic people, keep painful memories in their place, keep you safe and strong, and help you manage your feelings?
Truly, boundaries are amazing. And good ones are a cornerstone of mental health.
When you grow up in a household that has healthy boundaries, you naturally have them yourself as an adult. But unfortunately, many of us don’t start out with that advantage.
If you grew up in a household with Childhood Emotional Neglect (your feelings and emotional needs weren’t met enough), or if you had a parent with a personality disorder, you may be especially challenged in this area.
Without strong but flexible boundaries, you may be overly vulnerable to criticism or insults from others, you may struggle to manage your feelings internally or prone to emotional outbursts, you may find yourself worrying too much, dwelling on the past, or not keeping yourself safe enough.
People with Childhood Emotional Neglect often have an overly rigid Internal Boundary, which blocks off their emotions too completely. So they can come across to others as excessively unflappable, or even emotionally bland.
If one of your parents had a personality disorder, your Internal and External Boundaries may be overly porous, or too flexible, resulting in emotional outbursts and difficulty managing your feelings.
The hallmark of a healthy boundary is strong but flexible.
As adults, one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to understand boundaries and work on building them for ourselves.
I know what you’re thinking: “OK, that’s great. Mine are not so good. How do I make them better?”
Here’s an exercise to help you create and strengthen your boundaries. First, choose one of the above four types that you’re going to build. Then follow these steps:
Now there’s one more important key to using your new boundary.
Eventually, your boundary will operate naturally. But in the beginning, you will have to consciously use it. It helps, especially in the beginning, to try to anticipate situations in which you will need, and can practice using your boundary.
Let’s say you’re going to visit your parents and you know that, at some point during the visit, your father will make an offhand comment implying that you have disappointed him (because he always does).
For this challenge, you’ll need primarily your External Boundary, to filter out your father’s comment and disempower it. You may also need your Internal Boundary if you want to manage your own response to his comment. So right before you go, sit down and follow the above steps to get your External and/or Internal Boundary firmly in place.
At your parents’ house, wait for your dad’s comment to come. If it does, immediately picture your boundary around you, filtering for you. The filter asks,
What part of this is valuable feedback that I should take in, and what part of it says more about the speaker?
Your boundary tells you this:
None of this is valuable. Your father’s comment is all about him, not you.
And there you are. You hold all the power. You are safe.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and invisible, so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free! And to learn much more about CEN see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was originally posted on psychcentral.com. It is republished here with the permission of the author.
Parents, I have an important message for you. Of all the gifts you can give your children, emotional intelligence is probably the most valuable.
For decades, it was believed that IQ (Intelligence Quotient) was the primary factor in the ability of a child or adult to be successful in life. Now, thanks to lots of research, we know differently. Emotional Intelligence (also known as EQ) is more important to life satisfaction and success than IQ.
So what exactly is emotional intelligence? EQ expert Daniel Goleman, Ph.D. defines it as the ability to manage your own emotions, and also the emotions of others. If you have a high EQ, you are able to recognize your feelings when you have them and understand what they mean. You are also able to read what others are feeling and respond to them appropriately. This makes you well-equipped to manage complex interpersonal experiences.
The importance of EQ to life success has been established in study after study over the last 15 years. Research has shown that students who receive training in emotional intelligence at school try harder in classes, have better self-awareness and self-confidence and manage their stress better in school.
Not only that, high EQ adults are more effective and more successful in leadership positions in both business settings and in the military.
Despite the incredible value of these skills, they are not in the minds of most parents as they raise their children. Parents want to teach their children how to behave, but they are probably not thinking about teaching them how to handle their emotions.
But this must change. Because fortunately, although a parent may have some difficulties helping his child understand complex math or chemistry concepts, all parents have the capacity to help their children develop emotional intelligence.
As Marcy stood chatting with another mom at their daughters’ soccer game, she noticed out of the corner of her eye that her 10-year-old daughter Halley was playing very aggressively. She was kicking the ball in a too-hard, undirected, and out-of-control fashion. As she watched, she saw Halley kick so hard that she missed the ball altogether, and then sit down on the field appearing to be in tears.
Marcy walked over to meet Halley on the sideline, where the coach sent her to cool down. “What’s going on Halley?” she asked her daughter. (This question tells Halley that her feelings are visible and important.)
“I hate soccer and I don’t want to play ever again,” Halley exclaimed with disgust in her voice.
“What’s making you so angry right now, Hon?” (Marcy has named the feeling for her daughter).
“Sophia and Katy were ganging up on me before practice, and they’re still doing it on the field. I hate those two,” Marcy explains, breaking into tears now.
“Aw, Halley, it always hurts so much to get ganged up on. No one likes that!” (Here Marcy has validated Halley’s feelings as understandable while also establishing that her painful experience happens to other people too.)
“You can handle this Halley. I know you’re hurt, but you can put that aside for now and finish the game. Then we’ll talk about what to do about Sophia and Katy on the way home, OK?” Putting her hand in the air for their trademark “pinky high-five,” Marcy says. “You’re strong and you got this.” Halley does the high-five with her mom and nods her head reluctantly. (Here Marcy has shown Halley that her feelings can be managed, and also how to do it.)
Years from now, at age 26, Halley will benefit from this exact experience. She will find herself feeling excluded at work, right before a meeting in which she has to present an important project. She will notice that she’s angry, and she will realize that her feelings matter. She will take a moment to identify the reason (she feels excluded).
Armed with this self-awareness of what she’s feeling and why she will now use the emotion management skills her mother taught her. She will say to herself, “I will think this through later. Right now I need to focus on this presentation.” With that, Halley will put a smile on her face and walk into the meeting looking composed and confident.
Marcy could have handled the soccer situation very differently. She might have walked over to Halley and said any of these things that any parent might say:
Pull it together, Kiddo and get back out there.
This kind of behavior will get you kicked off the team!
What the heck is the problem?
You’re really annoying the coach!
If you’re not going to play the game right, we might as well go home.
None of these responses from a parent would be horrific or unreasonable, but all would ignore the importance of the child’s feelings (the definition of Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN). And all would miss an important opportunity to teach the child emotional intelligence.
If you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect yourself; if your parents didn’t teach you the EQ skills, then you may need to begin to learn them yourself.
But as a parent, you don’t have to be perfect at this. You only have to be willing to try. Please know that every single time you notice, respond to, and validate your child’s emotions, you are giving him the skills for a lifetime. Skills for confidence, connection, success, and motivation.
Possibly the greatest, most loving gift ever.
To learn how to emotionally connect with, and emotionally validate, a child of any age (small, teen or adult), 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.