Do you have a stereotypical picture of a person who feels lonely on Valentine’s Day? You might imagine someone who wishes to be in a relationship and is sitting alone feeling sad.
In truth, most of us know how this stereotypical picture feels since we have been there ourselves at some point. Navigating the complicated world of relationships is not easy, so it’s likely that you have spent one or more Valentine’s Days alone, or perhaps for you, this year is this one.
Surprisingly, however, this image of loneliness is often highly inaccurate. A 2010 study by John Cacioppo published in the journal Social Science and Medicine found that feelings of loneliness were unrelated to marital status or the number of relatives and friends nearby.
It’s not only possible but common, to feel lonely when you’re not alone. And to be alone, but to not feel lonely. It’s because loneliness is not a state, it’s a state of mind. Loneliness is not a situation, it’s a feeling.
Yes, indeed, scores of people feel lonely on Valentine’s Day, and many are in relationships or surrounded by people. Many have no idea why they feel alone.
Whether you are actually alone this holiday or not, it is possible for you to change how you feel this Valentine’s Day. Start by understanding where your alone feelings originate.
Did you notice the one common element that unites these three factors that lead to loneliness? It’s fear. Fear of being known, fear of having needs, and fear of being vulnerable.
These fears are powerful and can do great damage to your quality of life. If you want to stop feeling lonely, you must battle your fear. The good news is, you can!
Once you realize why you feel lonely, an opportunity automatically presents itself. You realize that fixing your loneliness has nothing to do with anyone else, and everything to do with you.
Whether you find yourself on your own, a part of a couple, or surrounded by friends this Valentine’s Day, you can face your fears and see that there is no need to feel lonely.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is invisible and is often the root cause of these kinds of fears. To learn more about it, see the book, Running on Empty. To learn how CEN prevents deep emotional connections in adulthood see Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Since CEN is so subtle and invisible, it can be hard to know if you have it. Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
As you read the list of beliefs above, did any jump out at you? Was there one, or two, or more, that you thought, “Hey, that one’s not false!”?
If so, you are not alone. Many, many people go through their lives following some or all of these guidelines. And many, many people are held back by them. These beliefs have the power to keep you at an emotional distance from others, damage your friendships and marriage, and leave you feeling alone in the world.
The beliefs are typically rooted in your childhood. They are often messages passed down from one generation to another. They take root in your mind and live there, sometimes outside of your awareness.
These ideas tend to thrive in any family that struggles with emotions, either by over or under-expressing it. They’re so common among folks who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) that they’re included in my book, Running on Empty. All of the beliefs are based on false notions of how emotions work.
If you grew up in a family that didn’t understand how to manage, express or talk about emotion, you probably didn’t learn how and when to share or be vulnerable. You may have learned that it’s actually wrong to communicate about these things.
And chances are some of the 7 beliefs were communicated to you, either directly or indirectly.
Take a chance, and see what happens. The False Beliefs will start to melt away as you begin to experience the value of trust, openness, and closeness. Your relationships will thrive, and a whole new world will open up to you.
To learn more about emotions, relationships, and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
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.
A quote from the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect
There are legions of fine people walking around feeling numb or empty, and for good reason. They all grew up in homes that did not notice their feelings or respond to them enough.
There is, indeed, a real connection between this type of childhood and that feeling. And the short quote above, in some ways, says it all.
But to summarize in a nutshell how this happens: Your parents act as if your emotions are invisible or irrelevant, so you do too. You block your emotions off to “protect” yourself from being bothered or burdened by them. You lose access to this deepest, most personal expression of who you are.
Then, as an adult, you feel it. Perhaps you know you should be feeling something but you’re not. Perhaps you look around and see other people living in a bright, colorful world but yours seems gray. Perhaps you have a deep sense of something missing inside you. Perhaps you feel an empty feeling in your belly or chest or throat.
Perhaps your body is trying to tell you that something is very wrong.
Healing your emptiness is not necessarily simple, but it is definitely possible. It has been done successfully by many people before you, and it will be done by many after.
The healing process takes place in three different areas, outlined in the table below. Once you’ve looked through the 3 areas of healing your emptiness, continue on to see the steps you can take to work on this.
|Thoughts/Behavior||Relationships||Your Inner Life|
|Recognize what you didn’t get in childhood||Increase emotional connections||Grieve what you didn’t get|
|Emotional awareness & management||Boundaries (distance?) with parents as needed||Develop compassion for yourself|
|Self-care||Work on trusting others||Decrease self-directed anger|
|Decrease self-blame||Therapy relationship||Self-acceptance & self-love|
|Increase self-knowledge||Share your pain with another||Value your emotions|
|If you have depression or anxiety, consider therapy and medication||Let down your walls||Reclaim the parts of yourself that your parents rejected or ignored|
If you find this Table overwhelming, please don’t be alarmed. As I said above, all of these can be done. I know this because I have been through them with many people in therapy, and have witnessed amazing progress.
However, please take note of two things: It takes commitment, a conscious effort, and time; and it often helps tremendously to work with a skilled therapist who you feel very comfortable with.
Step 1: Recognition and Grieving: The first and most vital step for everyone who feels Empty is to recognize that your empty space represents something that you didn’t get in childhood. Identify what is missing (emotional validation, connection and perhaps rejected parts of yourself), and grieve it all. This may involve feeling sad and/or angry. It’s okay. You have to feel it to move forward.
Step 2: Start to Fill the Holes: Befriend your emotions; start noticing when you have them; learn to name them and to manage them. Listen to what they are telling you.
Step 3: Work on Self-Care: Put yourself first, learn to say no. Pay attention to your own needs and recognize that your needs matter. Stop blaming yourself.
Steps 1, 2 and 3 can all be worked on by making a conscious effort, paying attention, and self-monitoring on the tracking sheets from the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. You may want to enlist the help of a CEN therapist. Visit the Find A CEN Therapist List to find a CEN-trained therapist to help.
Step 4: Let Down Your Walls: Share with a trusted person that you are working on getting closer to people, and to accept and feel more connection and love. Try to express your feelings more and to be more assertive.
You may make more progress here by getting some emotional or physical distance from your neglectful parents. The distance can be temporary, while you work on this.
Step 5: Learn to Love Yourself: Yes, it is easier said than done. This process involves seeing yourself as the child you were, growing up as you did. What parts of you did your parents ignore or reject? Know that they did so because of who they were, not because of who you were.
Have compassion for that little child, and for yourself as an adult. Your struggle is real, and you deserve more and better. You must reclaim, and learn to love, all of the different parts of who you are: your emotions, your needs, your inner you.
Above all, as you do this work, please carry these words with you:
Your emptiness is an important part of you. It represents the old and the past, but also the future and the new.
It is not an absence but free space filled not with pain, but with possibility. It is room for your new story, the one you will write yourself. It is room for your life, your feelings, and the people who you choose.
Fill it with self-knowledge, self-care, self-compassion, self-love, and your people.
Then you will find yourself running on empty no more.
To read more about healing the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect on your relationships see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
“CEN people, both men and women, are exceptionally likable folk. This is part of the tragedy of CEN. These are some of the most lovable people in the world, and yet they feel the most alone.”
I often get asked whether Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) affects men and women differently. My answer is, “yes, it does.” Although the essential effects are the same, some of those effects tend to play out differently in men than in women.
In Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect I tried to represent both genders in my descriptions, examples, and vignettes. Before I talk about this more, I need to mention one large caveat. The differences that I’ve seen between CEN men and women are general descriptions that do not apply across the board. I often see the masculine effects in women and vice-versa. Since there is a significant crossover, please don’t take these differences too firmly or stringently. And definitely, do not think there is something wrong with you if you fit more neatly into the opposite gender. It does not indicate a problem of any kind.
As you look over the table below, you may notice that the differences are not very surprising. In recent years, neuroscientists have found that men have more connections in their brains from front to back and within each hemisphere than women, making them more suited to perception and coordinated actions. Women, on the other hand, have more connections between the hemispheres. This gives women an advantage in the areas of intuition and interpersonal processing.
TABLE OF CEN GENDER DIFFERENCES
|Adult CEN Characteristic||Women||Men|
|Emptiness or numbness||Attempt to fill selves with other people and their needs||Seek adventure to feel something or isolate themselves|
|Counter-Dependence||Seek to fill others’ needs in place of their own||Fervently embrace and pride themselves on independence & competence|
|Little Compassion For Self||Harsh judgments drive down self-esteem||Harsh judgments become pressure to be “the best,” often at work. May become driven.|
|Fatal Flaw||Feel unlikeable or unlovable||Feel invisible and overlooked|
|Struggles With Self-Discipline||Self-care suffers: eating, exercise, sleep and rest||May become overly or compulsively self-disciplined at times|
|Alexithymia||May learn the language of emotion but it’s hard to apply it to themselves||Emotions go underground and come out as irritability|
|Self-Directed Anger and Blame||Anger is directed at themselves and may turn into depression||Anger is more likely to also be turned outward at others|
Generally, men and women suffer equally when it comes to CEN. But women tend to be harder on themselves and to become excessive caretakers and givers, ignoring their own needs and feelings. They can end up feeling drained and exhausted because they are not taking care of themselves and have difficulty saying “no” to others.
Men, on the other hand, are more inclined to embrace and value the feelings of isolation and disconnection that go along with CEN. Men with CEN may misperceive their isolation as a sign of masculine strength. Yet these men are also pained by the feeling that they are not connected when they are with other people. They struggle with feeling ignored and overlooked by others but lack the words to express it.
One thing that I have seen over and over in CEN men is an acute discomfort (often anxiety) in large groups of people, especially when they are expected to socialize. In these situations, their intensive individuality combines with the feeling of being ignored to create a special type of misery.
The other primary difference I see between women and men’s CEN is what they do with their feelings. Women feel ashamed for having emotions. They turn their anger against themselves. Men are more likely to be totally unaware that they have feelings at all.
Anger is more accepted in men than in women in today’s world. So men don’t suppress their anger as much as women. Instead, they may alternate between suppressing it and then feeling it unexpectedly, sometimes directing it towards others and sometimes toward themselves.
What happens when two people with CEN form a relationship or marriage? I can tell you that it makes for some very interesting challenges. Check back to see a future blog on this topic.
Some of the most remarkable characteristics of people with CEN deserve mention here. CEN people, both men, and women are exceptionally likable folk. This is part of the tragedy of CEN. These are some of the most lovable people in the world, and yet they feel the most alone. They are typically excessively competent, stand-up folks; yet they feel invisible. They suffer because some vital ingredient is missing from their lives. Yet that missing ingredient is their own emotions, which are not missing; just suppressed.
If I could gather all of the CEN men and women in the world together in one huge room, here is what I would say to them:
“You are not invisible, and you are not to blame. You have no reason to be ashamed. Ask yourself what you feel and why, and you will find your true self there. Your emotions will become your compass, your comfort, and your connection to life. And then you will realize how very much you matter.”
To learn much more about how to heal your marriage if you and/or your spouse grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
To find out whether you grew up with CEN, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
My husband says he loves me, but I don’t feel love from him.
My wife gets confused and overwhelmed every time I try to talk to her about a problem.
My marriage feels flat. Something vital ingredient is missing from it.
As a psychologist who specializes in couple’s therapy, I have worked with hundreds of couples over the years. One of the greatest challenges that I see couples struggling with is when one of the members of the pair grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Often the spouse of the CEN person ends up making statements like those above in their first session of therapy together.
CEN happens when your parents communicate the subtle but powerful message, “Your feelings don’t matter.” Children who live in such households often adapt to their environments by pushing their emotions away so that they won’t bother their parents or themselves.
When you grow up in a household where your emotions are squelched, you miss out on a vital opportunity: to learn how to identify, understand, tolerate, and express your emotions. This causes big problems years later, in adulthood.
The CEN adult ends up struggling with emotional awareness, expression, and connection. So they have difficulty tolerating arguments, expressing opinions, and emotionally connecting with their spouses. “Why can’t you just be happy?” is a common statement that CEN people make to their husbands and wives. It comes from a lack of understanding of how emotions and relationships work. The spouse is often left feeling helpless, disconnected, and alone.
In Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, I used the example of Tim and Trish. Trish dragged Tim to couple’s therapy because she felt very unhappy in their marriage. She said that Tim often seemed irritable and unhappy with Trish and their children, despite his claims that he was happy. Tim was loath to come to see me with Trish, saying, “I don’t see why she won’t just let things go. Why can’t she just be happy?” Trish was experiencing the full impact of marriage to a person with CEN. She said that she knew that Tim loved her, but that she often didn’t feel love from him. Trish was also in the miserable, no-win Catch 22 served up by the CEN spouse, “Why can’t you just be happy?”
It can be very challenging to be married to someone with CEN. Here are some:
The CEN Spouse:
Now for the good news. CEN folks can change, and marriages with CEN can heal and become rich and rewarding. If you are married to a CEN man or woman, there are some things that you can do. I suggest that you follow these:
Throughout this whole process, remember that your CEN spouse didn’t ask for this and is probably just as baffled about what’s wrong as you have been.
Offer loads of compassion, plenty of assurance, and don’t feel bad about asking your partner to do this for you. After all, you deserve a happy, fulfilling, emotionally connected marriage. And so does your partner.
Give Your Valentine the Best Gift Ever: Emotional Attunement
Candy and flowers are lovely Valentine 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:
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:
Here are some examples of good Emotional Attunement:
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 Pledge in your Valentine 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 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 required.
Dr. Jonice Webb – Bio
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 PhD 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.
People who grew up in households with low tolerance for emotion tend to carry particular beliefs about emotions in relationships into their adulthoods. Below is a good, but not exhaustive, sampling of beliefs that I’ve heard many emotionally neglected people say. Please read through these seven beliefs, and put a mental check-mark next to the ones that you feel are true.
1. Sharing your feelings or troubles with others will make them feel burdened.
2. Sharing your feelings or troubles with others will chase them away.
3. If you let other people see how you feel, they will use it against you.
4. Sharing your feelings with others will make you look weak.
5. Letting others see your weaknesses puts you at a disadvantage.
6. It’s best not to fight if you want to have a good relationship.
7. Talking about a problem isn’t helpful. Only action solves a problem.
When you grow up receiving consistent direct or indirect messages, no matter how subtle, that you should keep your feelings to yourself (Childhood Emotional Neglect), it is natural to assume that your feelings are burdensome and undesirable to others. But the reality is that feelings and emotions are the glue that binds people together. Sharing feelings or troubles with a friend draws them closer and makes you seem stronger. Fighting out a conflict with someone you care about, when done right, is the best way to get through to the other side of that conflict. And talking about a problem has been proven to help people feel better.
Fortunately, not one of the above Seven Beliefs is true. In fact, they are each and every one dead wrong. Subscribing to any one of these false beliefs can set you at a disadvantage in friendships and relationships of all kinds. They will each and every one hold you back from making healthy, solid and meaningful connections with people; whether it be girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, sibling, family or friend.
If you put a mental checkmark next to any one of the Seven Beliefs, it may mean that you were emotionally neglected, in some way, in childhood. If that is the case, it will be vital for you to figure out how you were emotionally neglected so that you can overcome it. Read more about Emotional Neglect: what it is, how it works, how it affects people and how to overcome it throughout this website. Much more information on Emotional Neglect can be found in my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, at Amazon, or your local bookstore. The Kindle version is also available Here.
If you feel you need more help in dealing with this, I hope you will contact a qualified psychologist or psychotherapist to help you attack your false beliefs. If you don’t they may hold you back in every area of your life, but especially in your relationships with the people you care about the most.