Recently, I wrote an article called Raised To Have No Emotional Needs. In the article, I gave an example of Kasey, who hid her desire to have a boyfriend because it made her feel ashamed of letting other people see that she had needs.
This topic, plus the example of Kasey, lit up somewhat of a firestorm of candid and expressive shares from readers who had extensive personal experience with feeling ashamed of their own feelings and needs — a natural result of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), unfortunately.
Let’s now use these real CEN adults’ actual shared comments to illustrate how being raised with your feelings ignored can lead to some difficulties years later, when it’s time to date, find your partner, and commit to a lifelong relationship.
Below I am sharing with you several reader’s comments in italics, each followed by my commentary about it. We will cover some of the biggest roadblocks CEN sets up when it comes to dating and relationships.
This article explains so clearly why I have always ‘muted’ my feelings to those close to me. Why would anyone be interested anyway in how I feel, my parents weren’t when I was a child, and nor was my ex-husband. It has come so naturally for me to deal with everything I feel myself yet I feel crippled with depression. Having started a new relationship with a loving, caring man, I am struggling to accept his love, I just don’t feel worthy of it.
When your parents show low interest in your feelings and emotional needs, it creates a kind of emotional desert inside of you. I call it a desert because it’s an emotionally dry spot that is virtually unable to absorb the “water” or emotionally validating love, that you may later encounter in your adult life. Even when you find the ingredient you need the most, it may make you feel uncomfortable. You do not know what to do with it.
For many people regardless of CEN plucking up the courage to ask someone out for a date, even if it is just a cup of coffee is a big deal. Many people with CEN feel very rejected by their parents and also feel unlovable because they did not get that emotional warmth and validation at a vital time. Therefore when they feel “tempted” to ask someone out part of them – in a bid to protect them slams the brakes on to stop themselves from being rejected and left alone again. It is like an overprotective parent in the mind and it can be there in other relationships too. My therapist asked me once why I always decided when our session was over and it was time to leave rather than her. I think she knew the answer! It was because if she had told me the time was up and I had to leave I would have interpreted that as rejection. I think the way around this for me, at any rate, is to admit that if someone you like doesn’t want a certain relationship with you that can be tough and maybe a bit painful. However, it does not have to be an absolutely appalling catastrophe as it is for a three-year-old when their mother is not with them and they are left with unfeeling adults. One can survive it – indeed grow stronger from it – and although some people are very lovely by human standards, nobody is completely right in every way for a person anyway.
When, as a child, you go to your parents for the natural emotional support that all children need, and you do not receive it, you automatically feel rejected. In this way, children of Emotional Neglect may end up feeling fear of rejection at their very core. As an adult with CEN, you can organize your choices and actions around that fear, making it difficult to initiate a date, or even believe that someone would want to be with you.
Miserable situation. It is like being dead but alive. You’re so shut off from anything that gives connection and value to your “connections” in life.
Living with CEN is probably like being raised to be a sociopath, feel nothing, experience nothing, don’t connect with others.
Children growing up in families that don’t deal with feelings learn one feeling skill and one only. It’s this: Don’t have feelings. The CEN child automatically walls their feelings off in order to cope in their childhood home. As an adult, you need your emotions to connect. This makes forming a meaningful, emotional connection with a partner very difficult.
There is a thing like sexual neglect where parents hesitate or avoid any talk about romance and sex. Children then bury love and sex-related emotions deep in themselves and maybe abstain from sexual relationships. You might want to write an article about CEN and dating issues in adult life.
Parents who do not discuss or demonstrate positive emotions, such as love, warmth, or affection, and parents who avoid mention of sex or do not educate their children about it set their children up to feel ashamed of their own positive, loving feelings and sexual needs. Many CEN children grow up to be blocked by a wall of shame from pursuing a partner and sharing romantic and sexual feelings with another person.
CEN is like having your legs kicked out from under you. You’re told, either openly or subtly, you don’t matter. You, your feelings, wants, and needs are unimportant. It is very hard to un-convince yourself of this mindset, but not impossible. Try to see yourself as a friend you want the best for in life. Value this person against all the negative, dismissive, hurtful lies you were “raised” with. “Raised with.” When it comes to CEN, we weren’t raised, we were thwarted. Step by step, year by year, we grew up in homes when we were not allowed to BE. Very possibly, our “caregivers” were abused as well. If you can SEE it, you can NAME it and give it back, not bring it forward. You have to find hope where hope was not allowed. Day by day, moment by moment, whatever it takes. You have to be the accepting, kind loving parent you never had. What have you got to lose? More of Your Life.
Yes, Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up with some challenges in your adult life. If you find yourself experiencing any of the above roadblocks in your dating and relationships, I want to assure you that there is hope.
Just as you were separated from your feelings as a child, you can reunite with your feelings now. Just as you were blocked from accepting your normal emotional needs, you can begin accepting them now. Just as you learned to be ashamed, you can learn to welcome and believe in your emotional needs now.
By valuing your own feelings and being invested in learning how to understand and use them, you are actually becoming invested in yourself; in how to understand and value yourself.
When you care about your own true feelings, you can care about another’s true feelings. And that is the source of emotional connection. In the words of the wise reader above: “Day by day, moment by moment, whatever it takes. You have to be the accepting, kind loving parent you never had. What have you got to lose? More of Your Life.”
What have you got to gain? Love, support, partnership. Everything.
To learn much more about how to heal the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect on your relationships 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.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty
What does the term “emotionally unavailable” mean to you? It’s a term that’s thrown around a lot, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to everyone.
Have you ever been in a relationship or marriage with someone who you felt was emotionally unavailable? Has any friend or romantic partner ever described you this way?
The term, in my opinion, carries some irony. Because if you are truly emotionally unavailable, it will be very difficult to understand the meaning of the term. In other words, it really helps to be emotionally available if you want to understand what it means to be unavailable.
Much of this has to do with how a person deals with his or her own emotions. This typically goes back to how your emotions were treated as a child. Did your parents notice what you were feeling enough of the time? Did they ask? Did they care what you felt and what you needed, and do their best to meet your true needs? Did they succeed?
Surprisingly, it matters less whether your parents tried. What really matters is whether or not they succeeded. If your parents weren’t able, for any reason, to notice and respond to your feelings and meet your emotional needs, then you are at risk of being an emotionally unavailable adult.
Here’s why. When a child’s feelings and emotional needs are treated as if they matter, that child receives a loud and clear message: “Your feelings are real, and they matter.” This encourages the child to pay attention to his emotions, and teaches him how to manage, express, and use them throughout his adult life. The converse is also true. When a child’s emotional needs are treated as if they don’t matter, the message to the child is, “Your feelings don’t matter.”
A child who receives this message will not be consciously aware of it and will not remember it. This is because typically it was never stated outright; it was a subliminal message delivered by the absence of response and validation from the parents. But that child will accommodate, as children do. She will suppress her emotions by pushing them far and away so that they will not bother her parents or herself.
Years later, in relationships, that child will continue to lack access to his emotions. To his friends or romantic partner, he may seem to be difficult to connect with. Others can see his depth and quality but have trouble reaching it.
Here are some of the complaints that I have heard from various patients about their emotionally unavailable boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife:
“He just shuts down and refuses to talk to me when there’s a problem.”
“She’s a great person, but she doesn’t tell me what she needs or feels.”
“I know that he loves me, but I can’t feel the love from him.”
If you identify with this description of “emotionally unavailable,” do not despair. There are solutions to this problem. And the solution lies with you. The solution is to get in touch with your feelings, accept them, and use them. It sounds simple, but it is not. It’s a process that requires purpose and effort and work. But it can be done.
If, on the other hand, you are in a relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable, you are in an even more difficult spot because it is easier to change yourself than it is to convince someone else to change. However, there are somethings that you can do.
To learn much more about how to recognize CEN in your marriage and talk with your spouse about it, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.
This article was initially posted on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN does not go away just because you grow up.
Being raised in a family that does not address your feelings (or, in other words, an emotionally neglectful family), launches you into your adult life without two things that you absolutely need for a healthy, happy, resilient marriage. The two missing things are full access to your feelings, plus the emotional skills to manage and express them.
It’s difficult enough when one member of a couple has CEN and the other does not. But when two CEN people marry, special challenges abound. Neither spouse has full access to their emotions and neither has the necessary emotion skills.
Meet Olive and Oscar. I told their story in my second bestselling book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children. Today, I am sharing a free vignette from the book that describes exactly how it feels to be in a double-CEN marriage.
Olive and Oscar sit across the table from each other, quietly having their Sunday morning breakfast.
“Is there any more coffee?” Olive asks absentmindedly while reading the day’s news on her laptop. Irritated, Oscar stands up abruptly and walks over to the coffee-maker to check.
“Why does she always ask me? She’s so manipulative. She just doesn’t want to have to walk over to the coffee-maker herself,” he cranks inwardly. Returning to the table with the pot, Oscar fills Olive’s cup. Placing the empty carafe on the table with a slight bit of excessive force, Oscar sits back in his chair with a sigh and an angry glance at Olive’s still-bowed head.
Olive, sensing something amiss from the placement of the carafe and the sigh, quickly looks up. Seeing Oscar already absorbed in his newspaper, she looks back down at her laptop but has difficulty focusing on her reading.
“I wonder what’s going on with Oscar,” she muses. “He seems so irritable lately. I wonder if his work stress is coming back. It must be his job pressure getting to him again.”
After thinking it through, Olive makes a plan to avoid Oscar for the day in hopes that giving him some alone time will help his mood improve (with the added bonus that she won’t have to be around him). Olive makes a plan to ask him about work at dinnertime to see if he is indeed under stress.
Later that evening Olive returns from her errands and finds that Oscar has made dinner for both of them. Sitting down to eat, Oscar seems to be in a better mood.
After a brief exchange about Olive’s errands, she asks, “So how are things at work?”
Looking at Olive quizzically, Oscar answers, “Fine, why do you ask?”
“No reason,” Olive replied, relieved to hear him say it was fine. Do you want to watch the next episode of Game of Thrones while we eat?”
The TV goes on and they eat dinner in silence, each absorbed in the show.
The double CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect) couple seems much like every other couple in many ways. And yet they are very, very different. This type of relationship is riddled with incorrect assumptions and false readings. And unfortunately, neither partner has the communication skills to check with the other to actually find out what he is thinking or feeling, or why she does what she does.
Since neither partner knows how to talk about the frustrations and conflicts that naturally arise (as they do in every relationship), very little gets addressed and worked out. This is a set-up for passive-aggressive retaliation that, over time, eats away at the warmth and caring in the marriage, outside of both partners’ awareness.
Small, indirect actions like carafe-slamming, avoidance, ignoring, and forgetting can become the primary means of coping and communicating in the relationship. None of them are effective.
In the scenario above Oscar misinterprets Olive’s thoughtless absorption in her reading as “manipulative,” and Olive misinterprets Oscar’s irritation with her as the possible result of job stress. Instead of dealing with these issues directly at the moment, Olive chooses avoidance for the day. Her question to Oscar that evening at dinner is too simple and off-target to yield any useful information. She is left with a false sense of reassurance that Oscar’s mood magically improved and that nothing was really wrong in the first place.
So forward they go, into the coming weeks, months, and years, with Oscar viewing Olive as lazy and manipulative, and Olive on constant guard against a return of Oscar’s job stress. Drastically out of tune with one another, they live in separate worlds, growing ever distant from each other.
Olive and Oscar sometimes feel more alone when they are together than they do when they are apart. They are divided by a chasm as wide as the ocean. They each sense that something important is wrong, but sadly, neither can consciously describe nor name it.
Fortunately for Olive and Oscar, they actually have loads of potential. They each have plenty of feelings; they are simply not aware of those feelings or able to use them in a healthy, relationship-enriching way. At the heart of their marriage are companionship, history, concern, and love. All that is really missing from their marriage is emotional awareness and skills, both of which can be learned.
There is a good chance that one day, one of them will “wake up” emotionally, and knock on the other’s wall.
Watch for Olive & Oscar Part 2 in a future article, and you will see that is exactly what happened.
Emotionally neglected kids grow up to emotionally neglect themselves. Then, when they get married, it is natural (not the same thing as healthy) that they will emotionally neglect their spouses.
In so many vitally important ways, the Emotional Neglect that happens in a marriage is no one’s choice and no one’s fault. It is literally programmed into the emotionally neglected child.
Every day, in my office, I help couples understand what’s missing and why. Together, we relieve them from the blame and shame and set them on the path forward.
In a future post, Part 2, I will share the continuation of Olive and Oscar’s story from the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. You will see where the path of CEN recovery took them, which was right to my office for couple’s therapy. You will learn about my work with them, and how their efforts to heal their marriage sent ripple effects through their children and their parents.
To learn more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens, what makes it so unmemorable, and how to heal yourself, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced 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. To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.
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.
Is Valentine’s Day just one big commercial created by the card companies? Actually, no, it is not. It’s a holiday that is rooted in ancient history. Valentine’s Day is thought to originate from the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia that was held each year in the middle of February. It was a happy occasion which, in addition to celebrating spring, also included fertility rites and a lottery that paired men and women together based on the drawing of names.
Sounds fun, right?
Society has changed since ancient times, and Valentine’s Day has transitioned through the centuries into something quite different. It’s supposed to be a happy celebration of love and, for many, it is. But it also poses unique challenges to people married and single, dating or not dating, wishing for a relationship, or happy alone.
Let’s start by taking a look at the various challenges of Valentine’s Day. You may identify one, several, or even all as applying to you. Either way, no worries. There are answers!
All of these challenges can affect anyone, of course. But they are especially problematic for you if you did not receive enough emotional validation and emotional connection from your parents during your childhood or, in other words, if you have Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
If you struggle with any or all of these challenges this Valentine’s Day, I want to first tell you sincerely that you are not alone!
And it is surely not a bad thing to be challenged. Every challenge you encounter in your life is actually an opportunity for growth. And this holiday is no exception. I’m going to prepare you for Valentine’s Day by helping you use it as a way to flourish and progress forward in your life.
Whether you are happily single or actively seeking your person, use this day as an appreciation day for yourself. Consider the gifts you were born with and the qualities you are able to offer others. Think about what you like, what makes you happy, and what you want and need. Consider who the important people in your life are, and allow yourself to feel grateful for them. This day is your day to love and appreciate yourself.
Overall, keep this holiday in perspective. Try not to expect your partner to make you feel a certain way and, conversely, try not to expect to make your partner feel any particular way. Instead, keep your focus on simply having an enjoyable time. And keep in mind that it’s no one else’s role to make you happy. We are each responsible for our own happiness.
Relationships have extraordinary power to bring us happiness and fulfillment, yes. But they cannot be the primary source of our feelings about ourselves or our lives. Ultimately, we are each responsible for our own feelings and for making sure our own needs are met. Also, it’s hard for others to love us when we don’t yet love ourselves.
So, paradoxically, this holiday about couples is best spent focused on the very most important person in your life: yourself.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible and hard to remember so it can be difficult to know if you have it. If you struggle to understand and express feelings in your relationships, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn much more about getting comfortable having and sharing feelings in your relationships see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Here is a fact that may surprise you. When you grow up in a family that ignores, devalues, or eclipses your feelings, it damages your ability to feel loved as an adult.
Hard to believe, I know, but it is true. I have seen it over and over and over again in my therapy office as I work with folks who grew up in emotionally neglectful families.
I see good, loving people with a lot to offer and much about them to love, who are incapable of fully accepting and experiencing the love that naturally comes their way.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is, in fact, the silent killer of love. It undermines the feeling of love in a family in myriad invisible but powerful ways. It raises children who are emotionally restrained and disconnected from themselves and held back from becoming who they are meant to be.
Growing up with your feelings ignored requires you as a young child to develop some special skills. You must learn how to hide your emotions, the deepest, most personal, biological expression of who you are, from your family.
Pretending you don’t have feelings is like pretending you have no right arm. To make them invisible, you must make sure you do not have them. And this comes at a great cost to you.
So perfectly lovable people walk the earth feeling unloved and people drag their CEN spouses to couples therapy because they feel shut out. And none of it is okay.
All children have a basic need to feel seen, known, and loved for who they really are. In an emotionally neglectful family, living under the “hold your feelings back” mandate, you are forced to hide this key part of yourself. How can you feel a depth of meaningful love from your family when the deepest, most meaningful part of you is never seen? So you may grow up knowing that your parents love you, but not feeling truly loved. Since the love we receive as children sets up our expectations for love as adults, you are now set up with a lowered ability to absorb and feel love. Having experienced a watered-down version of love from the people who were supposed to love you the most, it is all you know.
As a child, you had to harden yourself against your own natural need to feel loved. Above, I said: “All children have a basic need to feel seen, known, and loved for who they really are.” All children also need emotional validation and nurturance from their parents. As a child, you naturally looked to your parents, over and over again, for those things. And, as a child, over and over again, you were disappointed. Eventually, you learned that there was no water in the well and stopped seeking it. You walled yourself off from your need for validation and love. Where is your wall now? You still have it. And it is blocking you off from the genuine love coming your way.
When your parents discouraged your emotions, they inadvertently taught you some false lessons about emotions. They taught you that emotions, in general, are useless burdens that are best avoided. Now, as an adult, it’s difficult for you to feel that feelings, including love, have value. Some part of you automatically rejects the love that comes your way.
Your solution as a child was to wall off your feelings as best you could. This is the reason so many adults who grew up with CEN experience a sense of emptiness or numbness: their feelings are still blocked off. When it comes to our feelings, we cannot pick and choose. Unfortunately, out the door goes your anger, happiness, joy, and pain, and along with it goes your love. All of these feelings are sitting on the other side of your wall waiting for you to accept and acknowledge them.
To love is to be vulnerable, there is no way around it. When you don’t quite trust feelings in general and you are not accustomed to being seen, validated, and known, love can feel more like a challenge than a gift. It’s scary. You may hold back parts of yourself, fearing that if people see the real you, they will leave. Perhaps you see rejection lurking around every corner. Perhaps you are afraid to initiate friendships or activities because you fear that doing so may be burdening the other person or chasing them away. Fear of vulnerability may be holding you back from the satisfying connections you deserve.
One thing I have learned from working with hundreds, perhaps thousands of CEN people is that it is never too late to change and heal. All of the ways that CEN happened to you as a child can be reversed by you, an adult. Begin to follow these steps now.
You can do it. It’s never too late. And, most importantly, you deserve it.
Judy knows that her husband, Tom, drinks too much. But she also knows that he grew up in an abusive home. Judy sees how Tom’s self-esteem plummets every time he visits his parents. She sees how hard he works to prove to himself, his parents, and herself, that he’s good enough. Judy feels Tom’s emotions every time she looks at him. She gets angry and hurt when he drinks so much, but she also feels his pain.
Todd, 20-years-old, understands that his father is well-known for his business success. His father has made many millions by buying and selling businesses and has his own company with 10,000 employees worldwide. Todd knows that his father has huge responsibilities on his shoulders, and can sometimes see the strain that his father lives under. This is what he reminds his younger teenage siblings (and himself) of when they are angry or hurt by their father’s verbal abuse.
Tina is a 42-year-old mother of three. She works full-time in the Intensive Care Unit of a local hospital. Tina is an empathetic and caring person, and others know this. She is typically the first one asked by her co-workers to cover an extra shift. She is the first one asked by the PTO president of her children’s school to organize and run a new committee. Tina can be counted on to say yes because she readily feels others’ stress and need, and always wants to be helpful whenever she can.
Of all of the emotions that we humans experience, one is generally believed, by psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists and neuroscientists alike, to rise above the rest.
Empathy. It consists of feeling another person’s feelings.
We can get angry, we can feel guilty. We can be frustrated or anxious. We can grieve or feel sadness, regret or resentment. But none makes a statement about who we are as a person, or about the nature of the human race like empathy does.
It’s the glue that binds a family, the bond that helps two people resolve conflict. It’s a salve for pain and an essential ingredient in resilient romantic love. If you’re a parent, you must have it for your children in order to raise them to be healthy and strong adults.
Study after study has shown empathy’s surprising power. Empathy can motivate a wife to protect her husband, spur a man to care for his elderly mother, and even reduce the pain of an electric shock. Therapists know that when they can feel a patient’s feelings, it is a healing force for positive change.
Most people would never think of it, but empathy does sometimes go haywire. This best part of the human spirit can turn against us and, unchecked, it can damage both the empathizer and the recipient. Being aware of the risks of empathy-gone-bad is both incredibly important and vastly helpful.
1. By being excessive: This happens when you feel someone else’s emotions so deeply that you are blinded by them. Too much empathy can allow unhealthy or damaging behaviors to continue when they really shouldn’t.
Example Judy: Judy’s empathy is getting in her way because it’s preventing her from setting limits with Tom. Tom needs to hear Judy say, “I can’t take your drinking any more. It’s hurting the kids and me, and it’s hurting you. I need you to deal with your drinking problem. Now.” And he needs her to mean it. But Judy feels so much of Tom’s pain that she can’t make herself hold him accountable. This is where empathy becomes enabling, and how it can harm everyone involved.
2. By being misdirected: This happens when you feel the emotions of someone who doesn’t deserve it. Misdirected empathy makes the empathizer vulnerable to exploitation by the recipient.
Example Todd: Now an adult, Todd is being unable to hold his father accountable for the damage he is doing to himself and his siblings. He’s essentially giving his father a “pass” for his bad behavior because of his empathy for him. In this way Todd’s empathy is misplaced. By failing to protect himself from his father’s bad behavior, Todd is risking his own happiness and health (and that of his younger siblings). For this he will, all of his life, pay a heavy price.
3. By being too indiscriminate: This happens when you take a “shotgun approach” to empathy. You offer it too freely to too many people. When your empathy is free for the asking, you end up giving too much to too many people.
Example Tina: Tina has multiple responsibilities in her life: her children, her husband, her ICU patients, and herself. Yet none of these people gets as much of her time and energy as they deserve. That’s because Tina’s inability to let others manage their own stress and problems leads her to spread herself too thin. Depleted by the demands, Tina often feels exhausted and irritable around her children and husband. She wonders why she keeps gaining weight, and why there are dark circles under her eyes.
So Judy is enabling her husband, Todd is failing to protect himself, and Tina is harming herself (and by extension her family) by over-extending herself to others. These are three examples of how empathy can work against you.
Those who grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) learn early on that their feelings and needs don’t matter. This sets them up to be overly empathetic with others’ needs, and underly attentive to their own.
To learn more about CEN, emotions and how they affect relationships, Take the Emotional Neglect Test and see the books, Running on Empty and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
A version of this article was originally published on PsychCentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.
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.
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.