One of the most painful symptoms of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is also, amazingly, the most directly fixable.
Who hasn’t, at some moments of their life, wondered what it’s all for?
What’s the point?
Why am I here on this earth?
What am I supposed to be doing?
Does anything really matter?
I have noticed that some people struggle more than others with these questions.
And I’ve also realized that there seems to be something about growing up emotionally neglected that predisposes you even more to this struggle.
“But what could that possibly be??!” you may be wondering, just as I have wondered for years.
Today, I’d like to share my best answers to all of these questions. Of course, I don’t claim to know the meaning of life. But I can surely talk about what makes life feel meaningful.
2 Things That Make Life Feel Meaningful
Most psychologists, I think, would agree that two key factors make life feel meaningful, and both are supported by research:
Your Emotions: Your emotions drive, motivate, direct, and inspire you. The most memorable moments in your life are the ones in which you feel something. Awed, sad, overwhelmed, shocked, delighted, or disappointed, these moments lodge themselves in your memory. When you feel an emotion, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, you feel real. Feeling a feeling is a way of feeling alive. Emotions tell you that what is happening matters. They carry with them the message “this matters.”
Your Relationships: Study after study has shown that it’s your connections to others that both anchor and stimulate you. Who is there for you when things get rough? Who’s present to celebrate with you and console you? To care for you and be cared for by you? These kinds of connections create the substance that makes life worth living.
These two important life factors offer keys to the struggle for purpose and meaning that many emotionally neglected people experience. When your feelings are under-validated as a child (CEN), you grow up pushing away, questioning, or numbing out your own emotions. This leads to 3 special challenges when it comes to feeling, as an adult, that your life is meaningful.
You are out of touch with your feelings. This undermines your search for meaning in 3 important ways:
a) It leaves you feeling, on some level, that you’re not fully alive.
b) The feelings that should be informing you about what matters to you are not available enough.
c) Feelings are a source of passion and direction. A shortage of these messages from within may leave you feeling lost and alone.
Your relationships are overly one-sided: CEN leaves you more focused on caring for others. You give more in your relationships than you’re able to take. Your giving nature warms you and moves you, but its one-way nature may limit the depth of your relationships. And it may simply not be quite enough.
You feel that you don’t matter: The unspoken message you received in childhood was, “Your feelings don’t matter.” But since your emotions are the most deeply personal part of who you are, what your child self heard was, “You don’t matter.” As an adult, this message undermines your feelings of life purpose and meaning. After all, if you don’t matter, how can your life matter?
Now back to the first sentence: “the mostpainful but most directly fixable.” Yes, it is true.
What’s the best fix for all of this? Welcome your emotions back into your life.
I have seen over and over again that these three deceptively simple steps can make a huge difference in how important your life feels to you.
Try to feel: This may sound strange but it actually works. Making an effort to have an emotion will start to yield results. You will start to feel more.
Tune in to your feelings: Chances are, you’re having feelings all the time, but you are simply not aware of them. All this takes is focusing your attention more on what you’re feeling. Several times a day pause, focus your attention inward, and ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?”
Increase your feeling word vocabulary: An important part of getting in touch with your feelings is being able to put words to them. You can find an exhaustive Feeling Word List HERE (Click on the third purple CLICK HERE on the page).
I know it may be hard to believe, but to me, it’s abundantly clear:
The fuel of life is feeling. If we’re not filled up in childhood, we must fill ourselves as adults. Otherwise, we will find ourselves running on empty.
The Fatal Flaw:A deep-seated feeling that something is wrong with you. You are missing something that other people have. You are living life on the outside, looking in. You don’t quite fit in anywhere.
If you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), chances are, The Fatal Flaw is at work in your life.
If you pushed your feelings away as a child, you now lack access to them as an adult. You sense deep down that something is missing (it’s your emotions). And your life lacks the richness, connection and meaning that your feelings should be bringing to your life. This is the basic cause of the Fatal Flaw. Most people who have it are not aware of it, and this gives it incredible power.
The 7 Key Effects of Your Fatal Flaw
You are not in touch with your gut feelings, so you don’t trust your gut (even though for the majority of CEN folks, their gut is most often right).
It undermines your confidence to take risks.
It makes you uncomfortable in social situations.
It keeps many of your relationships at a surface level.
It makes you question the meaning and purpose of your life.
It makes you fear that if people get to know you well, they won’t like what they see.
Therefore you are quite fearful of rejection.
6 Ways to Take Control of Your Fatal Flaw
Become aware of your Fatal Flaw: This will take away its power.
Understand that your Fatal Flaw is not a real flaw. It’s only a feeling.
A feeling can be managed, so start to manage it. Pay attention to when you feel it, and how it affects you.
Put it into words and tell someone about it.
Override it every time that you possibly can. Do the opposite of everything your Fatal Flaw tells you to do.
Start breaking down the wall between you and your feelings. Welcome them as the vital source of information, guidance, and richness that they are (even the painful ones).
Everyone knows what the word “empty” means. It’s a simple word, easily understood. But what does “empty” mean in terms of human feelings and emotions? Here, it is not so simply defined.
My definition of emptiness as a human emotion: the feeling that’s caused by the absence of feeling; a general sense that something is missing inside of oneself; a feeling of disconnection from oneself and others; numbness; sometimes experienced physically as an empty space in the belly, chest, throat or other part of the body.
Emptiness is not a clinical term among mental health professionals. It’s not a common term among the general public. It’s not something that people generally talk about. Yet in my 25 years of practicing psychology, I have encountered many people who have tried to express it to me in some way. Few of them have had the words to describe it. Mostly I had to intuit what was going on for them and give them the words. Each time, it brought the person great relief. It is incredibly healing and connecting to put a label on a plaguing, undefined feeling that has dogged one for years. A label offers understanding and hope, and a path somewhere.
I have a theory about why emptiness has gone so unnoticed, unknown and ill-defined. It’s because emptiness is not actually a feeling; it’s an absence of feeling. We human beings are not wired to notice, define or discuss the absence of things. We have a hard enough time talking about feelings. But the absence of feelings seems almost too vague, unimaginable, invisible; too difficult to grab hold of.
This is why so many people live with this feeling on and off throughout a lifetime. Many people don’t even know they have it, much less what it is. They just know that they feel “off”; like something just isn’t right with them. They feel different from other people in some inexplicable way. One person said to me, “I feel like a bit player in the movie of my own life.” Another said, “I feel like I’m on the outside, looking in at other people who are truly living.”
I also have a theory about–
What causes emptiness:
Children who grow up in a household where feelings are not acknowledged, validated or responded to enough, receive a powerful message. They learn that their emotions are not valid, do not matter, or are unacceptable to others. They learn that they must ignore, neutralize, devalue or push away their emotions. For some children, this message permeates every aspect of their emotional lives; for others, it may only affect certain parts. Either way, the child disconnects from his own feelings. He pushes them down and away (because after all, they are useless, negative or unacceptable to others). It’s adaptive for the child to do this, as it will help her to be more comfortable in her family environment. But she is unknowingly sacrificing the most deeply personal, biological part of who she is: her emotions. Years later, as an adult, she will feel the absence of this vital part of herself. She will feel the empty space which her feelings are meant to fill. She will feel disconnected, unfulfilled, empty.
I have noticed, over years of working with people who have emptiness, that they are usually thoroughly stand-up folks. They are folks who care for others better than they care for themselves; who put a smile on their faces and soldier on, never giving away that something’s just not right for them. They literally run on empty.
I‘ve given a name to this process of developing emptiness. I call it Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). I’m trying to educate people about CEN. I’m trying to reach the scores of people who are living their lives under its influence, with little awareness or ability to describe it. I’m trying to offer them the words to talk about it, and the opportunity to heal.
This is the month that makes us all go a little mad. You know what I mean. This morning is a perfect example. I woke up to sunny skies offering a brightness that hints of Spring to come. Now, two hours later, it’s cloudy. The winds have picked up, and I really don’t want to go outside. Weary of winter, brown, dingy remnants of the most recent snowstorm, not a lot going on in general. That’s March.
I have found that March is particularly challenging for one particular group of people. To determine whether you are a member of this group, please answer these questions about yourself in general before reading on:
Do you generally like to stay busy all the time?
Do you typically prefer not to be home alone?
Do you feel restless when you’re not doing something?
Is it hard for you to sit down and watch TV or read a book?
Do you feel that you need to be productive at all times?
Do you require constant entertainment: the TV on, music playing, or someone to talk with?
You may be wondering what all these questions have in common, so let me explain. There is a subset of the population who feel pressure to stay busy all the time. Be productive, move around, don’t sit still. I have come to realize that there is a surprising explanation for this particular mindset. It’s not society, technology, inner resourcefulness or drive. It’s actually Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Here’s how it works. When you grow up in a household that’s blind to emotion, you don’t learn the skills necessary to accept, identify tune in to, or express your own emotions. Emotions which aren’t dealt with and managed go underground, pooling together inside of you like a pot of soup. This “soup” simmers away outside of your awareness. Out of sight, out of mind. As long as you stay busy, driven, focused on things, distracted, you don’t have to feel those feelings. But it’s those alone moments when there is nothing to distract you that the feelings start to bubble up. I have seen this lead to great discomfort in many people; a feeling of restlessness and discontent that is difficult to sit with.
This is what makes March a particularly difficult month for the emotionally neglected. When we’re trapped inside, suspended between winter and spring, we are forced to sit with ourselves. It is a challenge which we can either run from or face. I say, let’s take it on.
My book Running on Empty has 3 chapters dedicated solely to helping emotionally neglected people learn to tolerate, accept, name, manage, and express emotion. Here I’m going to share with you an exercise that I often assign to my emotionally neglected patients. It’s designed specially to help you learn to tolerate your pot of soup, a skill that will help make your life more peaceful, calm and emotionally connected.
Identifying & Naming Exercise
Do this exercise once per day. You can start with three minutes, or one minute, or ten minutes, depending on how difficult it is for you. You decide what’s most workable for you to start with:
Step 1: Close your eyes. Picture a blank screen that takes over your mind, banishing all thoughts. Focus all of your attention on the screen, turning your attention inward.
Step 2: Ask yourself the question:
“What am I feeling right now?”
Step 3: Focus on your internal experience. Be aware of any thoughts that might pop into your head, and erase them quickly. Keep your focus on:
“What am I feeling right now?”
Step 4: Try to identify feeling words to express it. You may need more than one word.
Step 5: If you’re having difficulty identifying any feelings, you can google “Feeling Word List,” or use the Feeling Word List in the Resources section of Running on Empty to help you identify what you are feeling.
If you find this exercise impossible, don’t be upset! Many E.N. people have great difficulty with this exercise. Simply try this instead:
Set a timer for 1, 2, 3, 5 or 10 minutes, whatever you think will work best for you.
Repeat Step 1: Close your eyes. Picture a blank screen that takes over your mind, banishing all thoughts. Focus all of your attention on the screen, turning your attention inward.
Here, you are using Step 1 as an exercise to learn how to sit with yourself and your feelings and tolerate them. Do this as many times per day as you can. The more you do it, the better you will get at it. At some point, you will be ready to go back and try Steps 2 through 5 again, and it will be easier this time.
Bottom Line: Emotions are a useful, vital, biological part of who we are. They cannot be erased, and they will not be denied. We can make them our friends or our enemies, but we cannot run from them. If you’ve been running from your feelings, turn around and face them. Learn to sit with them, express them, manage them, and use them to make decisions. Allow them to enrich and enliven your life, and you will feel more connected, more fulfilled, stronger and overall happier in the end.
Give Your Valentine the Best Gift Ever: Emotional Attunement
Candy and flowers are lovely Valentine’s gifts for your special someone, but what happens after the chocolates are gone and the petals fall off the roses? Every day can’t be Valentine’s Day for couples … or can it?
In my experience as a couple’s therapist, I have noticed that the biggest predictor of marital happiness is something that I call “Emotional Attunement.” Long-term happiness can be difficult for many couples to achieve … especially when this factor, Emotional Attunement, is missing from the relationship. Lack of Emotional Attunement can lead to frustration and feelings of loneliness. In fact, it can feel more lonely to be disconnected within a marriage than simply being single.
What is Emotional Attunement? It is:
an awareness and valuing of the other person’s emotions.
the feeling that you know your partner extremely well on an emotional level
an ability to understand your partner’s reactions and sensitive spots
a mutual commitment to communicating difficult things with kindness and care.
Why do some couples have Emotional Attunement, and others don’t?
Most people learn how to be emotionally attuned during their childhood. When a parent treats a child with understanding, looks beneath the child’s behavior to respond to what he is feeling, and takes the time and effort to truly know her child, she is teaching that child Emotional Attunement skills that he will automatically apply in his relationships as an adult. If a parent unwittingly fails his child enough in any of these areas, he is letting his child grow up with a lack of these necessary skills (Childhood Emotional Neglect).
Even couples who possess these skills can easily slip into taking each other for granted and taking the easy road.
Here are some examples of poor Emotional Attunement:
A husband fails to notice that his wife is overwhelmed, exhausted, and feeling hopeless about it getting better after starting a new job
A wife misinterprets her husband’s hurt feelings as anger and responds with more anger
A woman knows her boyfriend is sensitive about his hair loss but points it out to friends for a laugh
A man needs to tell his wife that she overdrank and embarrassed him at his company party, so he blurts out the following sentence, “You were an obnoxious lush last night.”
Here are some examples of good Emotional Attunement:
A husband notices that his wife is overwhelmed and hopeless after taking a new job. He lets her know that he sees it, and asks how he can help
A wife sees that her husband’s sharp tone is covering his hurt, and instead of responding angrily herself, asks him some questions about what she suspects has hurt him
Knowing her boyfriend is sensitive about his hair loss, the girlfriend says nothing negative about it to him, ever.
To tell his wife that she overdrank the night before, embarrassing him at his company party, he waits until the right moment. Then he says, “Can I talk to you about something important? I feel a little embarrassed about last night. Do you remember…? Can you be more careful with your drinking in the future, especially at my company party?”
If you or your partner grew up without enough Emotional Attunement from your parents; if you feel your relationship is lacking, GOOD NEWS! There is a way to get back on track today … and to stay there all year long.
If you or your partner struggle greatly with these skills, I recommend that you start addressing your Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) right away. You can learn the skills now that you missed out on while you were growing up. To learn more about CEN, take a look at the ABOUT EMOTIONAL NEGLECT and THE BOOK pages of this website.
In the meantime, write this Valentine’s Pledge on your Valentine’s card:
“In the coming year, I pledge to work harder to understand you; to notice what you are feeling and to feel it myself, and to tell you what I am feeling and why so that you can understand me better too.”
The Valentine’s Pledge is the best gift you can give your significant other. It carries more weight than gold or diamonds, will outlast chocolates or flowers and will add an ongoing richness to your lives that no romantic dinner can offer.
If you follow this Pledge, you can make every day Valentine’s Day. No candy or flowers are required.
Dr. Jonice Webb is the author of Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect (Morgan James Publishing, October 2012). Dr. Webb has been interviewed on dozens of radio shows across the United States and Canada about Childhood Emotional Neglect and has appeared on The Literati Scene in Boston. She has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and has been licensed to practice since 1991. She currently has a private psychotherapy practice in Lexington, MA, where she specializes in the treatment of couples and families. Dr. Webb resides in the Boston area with her husband and two children.
In the stores, on the sidewalks downtown, on the television, and even among our own family, we experience a push toward holiday spirit. It’s a gradual build toward Thanks; then Merriment; and finally on December 31, Reveling. It’s all fun (well, mostly fun for most people).
But all good things must come to an end. Many people have told me that starting as early as January 2, they start to feel a sense of grey doldrums. It may be that your Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hanukkah family gathering didn’t go well. It may be that the Holidays never really met their full potential this year. Or it may be that your holidays were all terrific, and you are now faced with back to regular life: work, school, winter, and nothing special going on.
Most post-holiday doldrums will go away on their own, with time. But there are some things you can do to drive them off faster. I highly recommend fighting back so that your year gets off to a good, solid start. There’s nothing like taking action to make you feel in control of your life and your happiness. Here are Four Tips to put you in charge of your post-holiday doldrums:
Make A Plan: to do something fun. Put it on the calendar, and then you’ll have it to look forward to.
Connect: with a friend or positive person in your life. Meet someone for coffee, or go to a movie. Spending time with people you like and enjoy causes the release of Oxytocin in your brain, which combats sadness.
Fight: against the sense of malaise. Make yourself get up, get out and do healthy things, like exercise, window shop, look at art in a museum or cook good food for example.
Set a goal: for the New Year, Choose something that will make you smile when you look back on it on. Check out my blog called “New Year’s Resolution Revolution” for ideas about how to maximize your success.
Don’t let that gray feeling take you over. It’s the best way to get a good start to the year.
When we think of New Year’s resolutions, we usually think about things we want to change about ourselves. Most people try to think of the things they don’t like about themselves and resolve to change them. Here are some examples of typical resolutions:
Stop biting fingernails
This year, I invite you to think of resolutions differently. Instead of changing something you don’t like about yourself, think positively. Think about what you want to accomplish in 2013. Here’s the question to start with:
A year from now, when you look back on 2013, what accomplishment do you want to see?
Here are some examples of possible “Revolution Resolutions” that you might feel happy to see when you look back from 1/1/2014:
You got a promotion at work
You learned to cook (or improved your cooking skills)
You bought a bike and started riding
You became a blogger
You got a new job
You learned to knit
You joined a club (Toastmasters, book club, walking club, singles club for some examples)
You started a new career or business
You took an exciting trip
You wrote that book that’s been in the back of your mind for a long time
You made some new, good friends
You got married
Obviously some of these are bigger than others. It all depends upon what’s going on in your life, and what stage of life you are in. If you’re busy raising small children, it may not make sense to choose something as major as starting a new business, for example. Perhaps making new friends or starting a blog might be more in order. The important thing is to choose a resolution that’s attainable FOR YOU and that will improve your life in some significant way.
Here are 4 Tips to help ensure Resolution success in 2013:
Avoid the age-old tradition of setting three resolutions. It’s too distracting and a set-up for partial success. Instead, choose ONE Revolution Resolution, and stay focused on it.
To keep your focus and your motivation strong, keep picturing yourself on 1/1/2014, looking back and feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment. Vividly imagine what that will feel like, often throughout the year.
Tell your spouse, children and friends about your Resolution, and ask for their support and encouragement. It can be very helpful to feel supported, and also accountable to others.
Break your Resolution down into steps, to help make it feel less daunting. For example “Join a Club” could be broken down into the following steps: a) research possible clubs in my area; b) choose a club; c) contact the leader; d) attend one meeting; and so on.
“Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.”
-Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Neuroscientist, and author of My Stroke of Insight
Stupid, sappy, mushy, melodramatic, insipid, tiresome, wimpy, lame. These are all words that I have heard people use to describe their own emotions.
As a psychologist, I see in our society a poor tolerance for something that is a deeply personal, biological part of who we are as humans: our emotions. Indeed, if you grew up in one of the many, many households where emotion was discouraged or poorly tolerated (Childhood Emotional Neglect), you may now, as an adult, have a negative connotation to feelings of all kinds. You may see emotion as a sign of weakness.
You may hide your feelings from yourself and others; even the people you care about the most. You may regard the expression or sharing of feelings as maudlin, illogical, or just plain useless. You may have no idea what you feel or why because you have buried your emotions so deeply, even from yourself.
Why did emotion evolve in the first place? Sometimes, especially to emotionally neglected people, emotions feel like a burden. Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to feel sad when we had a conflict with a friend, angry when someone cuts us off in traffic, or anxious before a job interview? On the surface, maybe it would seem easier if we didn’t have to feel those things. But my belief is that if we didn’t have emotions, life would not be better. In fact, it would not be sustainable.
Emotion is necessary for survival. Emotions tell us when we are in danger. They tell us when to run, when to fight, and what is worth fighting for. Emotions are our body’s way of communicating with us and driving us to do things. Here are some examples of the purposes of just a few emotions.
9 Emotions and Their Specific Functions
tells us to escape/self-preservation
pushes us to fight back/self-protection
drives us to care for spouses, children, others
drives us to procreate, create and invent
pushes us to correct a situation
tells us we are losing something important
pushes us to help others
tells us to avoid something
drives us to explore and learn
You get the idea. For every emotion, there is a purpose. Emotions are incredibly useful tools to help us adapt, survive and thrive. People who were emotionally neglected were trained to try to erase, deny, push underground, and in some cases, be ashamed of, this invaluable built-in feedback system. Because they are not listening to their emotions, they are operating at a disadvantage from the rest of us. Pushing away this vital source of information makes you vulnerable and potentially less productive. It also makes it harder to experience life to its fullest.
Emotions do more, though, than drive us to do things. They also feed the human connections that give life the depth and richness that makes it worthwhile. It is this depth and richness which I believe provides the best answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Emotional connections to others help us stave off feelings of emptiness as well as existential angst.
You and Your Feelings
If you have spent a lifetime trying to deny your natural, biological emotional responses, you may at times feel disconnected, empty, or unfulfilled in life. The people who love you may find you distant, self-contained, or even arrogant. You may find yourself irritable or angry more often than you would like.
If any of this rings a bell to you, please read more about Emotional Neglect throughout this website. There is much more information about it in my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. In the book, I talk about the many forms that Emotional Neglect can take, the 12 types of parents who unwittingly emotionally neglect their child, and the 10 issues that emotionally neglected children struggle with as adults. I also offer six clear strategies for overcoming Emotional Neglect.