Category Archives for "Relationship & Marriage Advice"

When the Narcissist Becomes Dangerous

Recently at a dinner party, talk turned to the current news story about Bill Cosby. As the only psychologist at the table, everyone looked at me as one person asked with intense curiosity, “How could anyone victimize women all those years, and still live with himself? How could you sleep at night?”

Since I don’t know Bill Cosby, I can’t speak for him; nor do I know if he is guilty of the accusations against him or not. But generally, in an actual situation like this, there is an answer to the question. The answer is one word: narcissism.

In many ways, it seems like it would be fun to be narcissistic. Wouldn’t it be great to go through life feeling superior to other people, and with unwavering self-confidence? Yes!

But as we all know, there is a dark side to narcissism. That unwavering self-confidence is as brittle as an eggshell. Narcissists don’t move back and forth on a continuum of self-esteem as the rest of us do. Instead, they run on full-tilt until something taps that protective shell of self-importance hard enough. Then, they fall into a million pieces. Under that fragile, brittle cover lies a hidden pool of insecurity and pain. Deep down, the narcissist’s deepest and most powerful fear is that he is a nothing.Continue reading

Man vs. Woman: The Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect

Do boys and girls respond differently to the same childhood experiences? How do those differences play out as the boy becomes a man, and the girl grows into a woman?

In my work as a psychologist, I have seen remarkable gender differences in the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). First, a quick review.

CEN in a nutshell:

When children’s emotions are not validated enough by their parents, they minimize and push down their feelings in order to get along in their family. As adults, they lack enough access to their own emotions. Since emotions are a primary source of connection and richness in life, these folks end up going through their lives feeling vaguely empty or numb,  disconnected, and confused about what is wrong with them. You can see other results of CEN in the table below. (To learn more about CEN, visit EmotionalNeglect.com).

When boys and girls grow up this way, are they affected differently? Does a CEN man feel differently than a CEN woman? The answer is yes.

First, two caveats: The masculine effects often appear in women and vice-versa, so please do not take these differences as absolute. Second, these observations are based upon my own clinical experience and have not been specifically researched.Continue reading

4 Things Psychologists Know That You Should Know Too

It’s fun being a psychologist. Just as an engineer is fascinated by the true mechanics of electrical circuitry, we mental health professionals are intensely curious about the human brain.

What people feel and what those feelings mean; why people do what they do; it’s all of interest to us. In the process of doing our job day after day, we can often pick up on patterns and connections that give us flashes of a bigger picture. We see causes and effects and develop insights, understandings and intuitions that tell us basic human truths.

Sometimes new research studies come out that make us say, “Aha! I knew it!” Below are four such psychological principles. All four are the common knowledge of most mental health professionals. All are currently being studied and proven, and all are immensely useful information that everyone should have.Continue reading

Do You Have Emotional Integrity?

Here is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition of Integrity: The quality of being honest and fair; the state of being complete or whole; incorruptibility; soundness.

What, then, is Emotional Integrity? It’s knowing what you feel and why, and being able and willing to share it with others, even when it’s painful for you.

So general integrity involves being honest with others. Emotional Integrity involves being honest with yourself: facing uncomfortable or painful truths inside yourself so that they don’t harm the people you love. It’s more about your internal choices than your external ones. It’s the opposite of what we think of as denial. It’s the opposite of avoidance.

It is entirely possible to be a person of good integrity while also lacking Emotional Integrity. We human beings have a natural tendency to avoid difficult things, like painful feelings, conflict, problems, or our own weaknesses. It’s somewhat built into us to take the easier route. It’s not always clear to us that the easier route carries its own threat; a threat to our Emotional Integrity.Continue reading

9 Steps to Reach Your Emotionally Neglected Spouse

My husband says he loves me, but I don’t feel love from him.

My wife gets confused, overwhelmed or frustrated every time I try to talk to her about a problem.

My marriage feels flat. Some vital ingredient is missing.

These are complaints which I have heard many times. Almost always from folks who are in a relationship with someone who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

CEN happens when your parents communicate this subtle but powerful message:

Your feelings don’t matter. 

Children who live in such households naturally adapt by walling off their emotions so that they won’t bother their parents or themselves.  Since these children’s emotions are squelched, they miss out on the opportunity to learn some vital life skills: how to identify, understand, tolerate, and express emotions.

If your spouse grew up with CEN, he may have difficulty tolerating conflict, expressing his needs, and emotionally connecting with you. No matter how much you love each other, you may feel a great chasm lies between you. No matter how long you’ve been together, you may feel inexplicably alone.Continue reading

How to Tell Emotional Neglect From Emotional Abuse in a Relationship

Let’s face it, relationships are complicated. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me, “Is this normal?” about their relationship.

One of the most confusing gray areas is the difference between emotional abuse and Emotional Neglect. Since neither is physical, both are difficult to perceive at all. Even more difficult is telling them apart. Even mental health professionals sometimes struggle to define the difference. And sometimes Emotional Neglect can be so severe that it crosses over the line, and becomes abuse.

How good are you at differentiating between them? Read about this interaction between Marcy and Jeremy below. Identify each option as emotional abuse, Emotional Neglect, or neither. Then read on to see if you got them right.

Marcy sits in the car outside Jeremy’s office, waiting for him. She is fighting off panicky feelings about attending her high school reunion. Marcy was bullied in high school and is anxious about facing the people from her past. She explained all of this to Jeremy last night and he had seemed sympathetic and understanding.  “Why couldn’t he be on time just this once? He knows how upset I am about this reunion,” she says aloud to herself.  Finally, after 45 minutes of anxious agony, Jeremy appears:

Option 1:

“Hi, Hon,” he says perkily, kissing her on the cheek. He hops behind the wheel and starts to drive as he talks about his day.

Option 2:

“Where were you?!” Marcy demands. “You know how nervous I am about this.” Jeremy explains that his boss kept a meeting going late. “We’ll drive fast,” he offers.

Option 3:

Jeremy sees the angry look on Marcy’s face before she says a word. “What’s your problem?” he says defensively.

First, let’s talk about Option 3. Whether Jeremy intends it or not, his behavior here is emotionally abusive.  He is not only drastically out of touch with Marcy’s feelings and her need to be emotionally supported, he fails to take responsibility for the fact that he kept her waiting, and how it affected her. In addition, he turns it back upon her by starting out defensive and stating that the “problem” is hers. That is abuse.

Option 1: Here, Jeremy is not abusive, but he is emotionally neglectful. By acting perky and failing to notice Marcy’s feelings, considering the situation, he is showing a profound lack of emotional attunement and care for Marcy. A lack of consideration this profound can approach (even cross) the border, and become emotional abuse.

Option 2: This one is probably the most difficult to identify. In this scenario, Jeremy is not abusive. And he explains why he was late, which shows that he recognizes that he left Marcy in an uncomfortable situation. However, he is still emotionally neglectful. The Emotional Neglect is subtle, but it is there. It’s because Jeremy fails to acknowledge the reality of the situation. Marcy isn’t panicky about being late, she’s panicky about her high school bullying and facing the people. So when Jeremy fails to notice her panic and misattributes it, his  “I’ll drive fast” is neither soothing nor helpful.

If you got all three correct, good for you!

If you missed one or more, it does not mean that there is something wrong with you. But it could be a sign that you grew up with some elements of emotional abuse or Emotional Neglect.

Now here is Option 4: Emotionally Attuned

Jeremy gets in the car, looks into Marcy’s eyes, and takes her hand firmly, immediately steadying her. “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting. It must have been hell for you. Are you okay?” he says. He listens to her response and lets her vent. Then he says, “Don’t worry, we’re going to have a good time tonight. And if anyone’s mean to you, I’ll give them an atomic wedgie they will never forget.” They both laugh, and Marcy feels reassured, and ready to face her past.

Here Jeremy practiced all Five Components of Emotional Attunement:

  1. Make eye contact
  2. Be accountable
  3. Acknowledge /validate
  4. Ask
  5. Listen

Sometimes the lines between emotional attunement, emotional abuse, and Emotional Neglect can be blurry. Many relationships contain all three, showing themselves at different times. But that doesn’t mean that it is okay.

Watch for signs of emotional abuse or neglect. When you see one, tell your partner. Take responsibility, and talk about what went wrong. Strive to follow the Five Components.

Make a decision together that the emotional abuse or neglect stops here. And you can rest assured that you will not deliver either to the person you love.

To learn more about emotions, emotional needs, and Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.

This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral

Seven Steps to Speak Your Uncomfortable Truth

Abigail needs to tell her adult son Mark that she thinks he has a drinking problem.

Simon needs to tell his wife Lisa that he’s afraid he doesn’t love her anymore.

From time to time, we all find ourselves in a tough spot. Something looks wrong or feels wrong, and we need to say something difficult. Something painful that may hurt someone we care about, but which nevertheless must be said.

Abigail and Simon have some tough decisions to make. Do they speak up and risk hurting their loved ones? How do they say it? Would it be better to just keep it to themselves? At least then they wouldn’t cause anyone pain.

Many people in these situations choose the last option. Sometimes it feels easier and kinder. Unfortunately, that is typically the worst choice. Uncomfortable truths seldom disappear on their own. And they have far more power to hurt when they remain unspoken.

The Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect

If you grew up in a family that discouraged frank discussion, emotional expression, or honest discourse (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN), having a conversation like this may feel simply wrong to you. And even if you do decide to speak your truth, you may not have been able to learn the emotion skills you need to do it right.

Abigail and Simon could easily do this wrong. Abigail could blurt out her message when Mark has been drinking. Simon could pick a fight with Lisa, and leave the house angrily, never explaining why and leaving Lisa baffled and unresolved.

Or each could go about speaking his truth in a caring and compassionate way.

7 Guidelines for Speaking Your Uncomfortable Truth

  1. Choose your moment: timing is everything. Choose a quiet, open moment to maximize being heard.
  2. Imagine being the other person: put yourself in her shoes. If you were to receive this message, how would you want to hear it?
  3. Keep your own emotions in check: practice helps with this. Practice relaying the message, either in your own head, in the mirror, or to a friend, until you’re able to say it in a compassionate and caring tone. If you are angry or accusing when you relay your message, the other person will feel immediately defensive. And defensive people lose their hearing. They do not take things in.
  4. Avoid extreme words.  The words “always” and “never” raise defenses. Avoid accusations. Use “I feel,” not “you always,” for example.
  5. Listen: after you speak your truth, be quiet and listen to the other person. Avoid arguing, because that will bury your message in anger.
  6. Recognize that most difficult things require more than one conversation: your goal in this first talk is to plant the seed. Don’t expect a plant to spring immediately from the earth. Give it some time to take root, and then have another talk.
  7. Accept that the other person may be hurt: it is okay. Often, the most loving thing we can do is hurt someone. Because honesty shows respect and care, even when it hurts.

The Takeaway

Don’t shy away from speaking your truth. That is not loving, and it will not help.

Make yourself uncomfortable. Do the background work. Take the time, put in the effort, and sit together through the pain. Wait for the seed to sprout, and then revisit the topic with care.

That is what true love and care look like.

To learn more about emotions, emotional needs, and Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.

To learn how to use your emotions to communicate and connect in your most important relationships see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

What Everyone Should Know About Emotional Affairs

As a couple’s therapist, I’ve worked with many people whose marriages are threatened by an affair. When it comes to affairs, there are two types: sexual and emotional. In my experience, these two types of affairs are different, and happen in different kinds of relationships.

While sexual affairs are often born of anger, emotional affairs are frequently a result of loneliness.

Before we go on to talk about emotional affairs, one large caveat: none of the reasons I’ll talk about in this article are meant to excuse or justify affairs in any way.

Always, without exception, the healthiest way to deal with marriage problems of any kind is directly with one’s spouse, not going outside the relationship. If the problems are not fixable, it is vital to work it through and to end the marriage before getting involved with another person, either physically or emotionally.

That said, here are the Five Reasons People Have Emotional Affairs:

Continue reading

Are You Living Life On The Outside?

Real belonging requires us to be authentically ourselves.

Brene Brown

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.

People who grew up with CEN end up feeling on the outside. It’s a sense of being alone, unable to join, separate, different. This feeling is compounded by the fact that the cause of it all, Childhood Emotional Neglect, doesn’t get talked about.

But in the last month I’ve noticed several news stories and articles that touch upon CEN, addressing it indirectly. They are all important and teach us something new. Here they are:

  1. The Story: In the Boston Globe, a headline says, “For Neglected Children, Path to Recovery is Difficult.” The article is about a house in Massachusetts in which two children, one 3 years old and the other 5 months, had been hidden away from the world by their mother. No one, not even the children’s father, knew that they even existed. They had been traumatically physically neglected.

In the article, Dr. Charles Nelson, a Harvard professor, is quoted as saying, “Depriving the brain very early in life has very insidious effects.” Dr. Ann Easterbrooks, a Tufts University professor, is also quoted: “In cases of chronic, severe neglect, you see smaller brains and difficulties in emotion regulation. You might see serious depression, anxiety disorders, and negativity,” including blunted positive emotions and emotional flatness.

The Takeaway: We know, and science has established, that extreme physical neglect in childhood affects the brain’s wiring, and has severe and damaging effects that endure into adulthood. But this article, and the research it cites, focuses upon physical neglect, not Emotional Neglect.

The Question: Let’s study the brains of Emotionally Neglected children. Let’s look at the separate effects of Emotional Neglect from the physical type of neglect.

  1. The Story: The Monitor on Psychology (Jan., 2014) referred to a study by psychologist John Cacioppo,PhD  from Social Science and Medicine, 2012. The study found a connection between feelings of loneliness and increased likelihood of death. They also found that feelings of loneliness were unrelated to marital status or the number of relatives and friends nearby. In other words, being alone is not a health risk. Feeling lonely is. And it is possible to feel very alone, even when surrounded by family and friends.

The Takeaway: Loneliness is a feeling, not a state.  It is possible to experience powerful feelings of loneliness while surrounded by people who love you. And beyond that, those feelings of loneliness can have a profound effect upon your physical health. This study validates the importance of the empty, “on the outside” feelings that so often go along with CEN.

The Question: The deeper question is: Why would a person feel lonely while surrounded by people who love him? I believe that often, the answer is CEN. So is it a jump to hope that taking on your CEN and breaking down your walls could improve your physical health? I don’t think so.

  1. The Story: A study by O’Reilly, Robinson and Berdahl, 2014, looked at the effects of workplace ostracism (being excluded or ignored) vs. bullying. They found several very interesting and relevant findings:  First, they found that office workers view ostracizing a co-worker as more socially acceptable than bullying him/her. But surprisingly, they found that ostracized workers suffer more than bullied ones, and are more likely to leave their job than their bullied colleagues.

The Takeaway: If grown-ups are more affected by being ignored (the adult form of Emotional Neglect) than they are by bullying (the adult form of abuse), imagine what it’s like for a child who is being ignored by his family.

The Question: Could this have implications for the impact of abuse vs. Emotional Neglect upon children? Abuse is a terrible thing for a child to endure. It has lasting effects throughout adulthood which must be addressed. But if you grew up emotionally neglected, you may suffer even more than the abused. You, like the ostracized adult in his work environment, did not feel like an important part of your family. Your suffering is real.

So children’s brain development is effected by physical neglect. It is possible to feel intensely lonely while surrounded by loving people. And being ignored is worse for adults than being bullied.

Yet widespread, subtle Emotional Neglect continues to erode the lives of thousands of children and adults. Unfortunately, since it is not visible, tangible, memorable, or dramatic, it receives no headlines and no research grants of its own.

What is it like to fall between the cracks? What is it like to feel that you don’t belong? Let’s pay attention to the children who know. Let’s ask the adults who can tell us. Let’s put our time and money into research, and give validation and a voice to those who feel on the outside.

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To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, its causes and effects, and how to heal, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. 

This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral

5 Steps To Break Down Your Wall

The fuel of life is feeling. If we are not filled up in childhood, we must fill ourselves as adults. Otherwise we will find ourselves running on empty.

 

From the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

What does Empty feel like? What causes some people to feel it? In last week’s article, Not Sad Not Hurt Not Angry: Empty, we talked about how the Empty feeling is a result of having a wall inside of you which essentially blocks your emotions away.

Having a wall like this is functional in some ways. It can get you through your childhood by allowing you to cope with a family who is emotionally unavailable, ignoring, rejecting, devoid of love, or even abusive. But when you grow up and are living as an adult, you need to have access to your emotions.

When your emotions are walled off, you pay a heavy price.  You pay the price of deep, meaningful, supportive relationships, a feeling of purpose and direction in your life, and a strong sense of self-worth and confidence.

Are you thinking, “Yes, I want all that!”? If so, there is a way to get it. It involves slowly, purposefully chipping away at your wall until it no longer stands between you and your emotions. It takes commitment, effort and perseverance. And if you have those, your rewards will be great.

Here are Five Steps to Breaking Down Your Wall:

  1. Open up: Override the unspoken childhood rule DON’T TALK. Identify the trustworthy people in your life, and talk to them about difficult things in your life and difficult things in their lives. Talk about things you never would have before. Be vulnerable. Talk, talk, and talk some more.
  2. Make friends with your emotions: Several times each day, close your eyes, focus inward, and ask yourself, “What am I feeling?”  Pay attention to how you feel about things, and listen to those feelings. Know that your feelings matter. If the feelings that come up are difficult to handle, please find a trained therapist to support and help you learn to tolerate and manage them.
  3. Take your own needs seriously: Override the unspoken childhood rule DON’T ASK. Tell the people in your life when you need help or support. And then let them help you.
  4. Let people in: Fill your life with quality people. Meaningful relationships are a primary source of richness, connection and meaning in life.
  5. Get to know who you are: Pay attention to everything about yourself. What do you love, dislike, excel at, struggle with? What is important to you? What are your values? What do you care about? Once you see the full picture of who you are, you will see your value and worth, and you will feel stronger.

Do these steps sound easy? Probably not. But keep in mind that you are not looking to blast through your wall. You want to chip it down slowly, gradually, bit by bit. Since that wall stands not only between you and your emotions, but also between you and the world, your life will get better and better and better, chip by chip by chip

Each time you open your heart to a chosen person in your life; each time you notice something new about yourself; each time you listen to a feeling that you are having, you are chipping away. You are breaking the childhood bonds that have held you back all these years. You are making the decision to live life your way. You are taking a chance, counting yourself worthy, and filling yourself with the most powerful fuel there is.

Finally, you will no longer live your life running on empty.

To find out if you are living with CEN, and if so, what to do about it, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire.

This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral