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How Childhood Emotional Neglect Undermines the Highly Sensitive Person’s 3 Greatest Strengths

Lucy — The Highly Sensitive Person

Lucy sits on the edge of her bed, relieved to be behind the closed doors of her bedroom. Slowly, she climbs under the covers, pulling them over her head. In complete darkness, she finally is able to relax.

Lucy — The Highly Sensitive Person With Childhood Emotional Neglect

With her covers over her head, finally, in complete darkness, Lucy wonders why she still does not feel better. Being alone feels better in one way but worse in another. The dark, safe quiet soothes her, but it also unsettles her. Somehow, it seems to intensify that uncomfortable feeling she always has somewhere in her belly: the feeling of being deeply and thoroughly alone in the world. “What is wrong with me?” she wonders.

The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

In the late 1990s, it was discovered that some people are born with much greater sensitivity to sound, sight, texture, and other forms of external stimulation than others. Aron & Aron (1997) named people who are “wired” in this special way the Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP.

If you are an HSP, you tend to be a deep thinker who develops meaningful relationships. You may be more easily rattled or stressed than most people, but it’s only because you feel things deeply. You may seem shy, but you have a rich and complex inner life, and you are probably creative.

HSP children like Lucy are far more affected by events in their family than their parents and siblings might be. Yelling seems louder, anger seems scarier, and transitions loom larger. And because the HSP tends to feel others’ feelings, everyone else’s sadness, pain or anxiety becomes her own.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when you grow up in a family that does not address the feelings of its members. The emotionally neglected child may feel sad, distressed, hurt, angry or anxious. And when no one notices, names, inquires about, or helps him manage those feelings, he receives a message that, though unspoken, rings loudly in his ears: your emotions do not matter.

As an adult, the CEN person, following the belief that her feelings are irrelevant, continually tries not to deal with them. She pushes them down, hides and minimizes them, and may view them as a weakness.

This is why the emotionally neglected child grows up to feel that something vital is missing. He may appear perfectly fine on the outside, but inside, without full access to his emotions, which should be stimulating, motivating, energizing and connecting him, he goes through his life with a sense of being different, flawed, empty and disconnected for which he has no words to explain.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Undermines the Highly Sensitive Person’s 3 Greatest Strengths

  • Strength #1: You feel things deeply and powerfully. If you have ever doubted that this is a strength, I want to assure you that it is. Our feelings are built into us for a reason. When we allow ourselves to feel them, they guide us. They tell us what we need and what we want. They motivate us, and they connect us to others. But when you grow up emotionally neglected, you learn that your emotions are useless and should be ignored and hidden. This takes your powerful force from within, disempowers it, and perhaps even shames you for having it.
  • Strength #2: You are a deep thinker who needs to have meaning and purpose in your life. You are not one to skim across the surface of life. You need to feel that what you are doing matters. This important strength helps you invest more deeply in your own decisions, and helps you to live your life in a more real way. But when you grow up with the CEN message that your feelings don’t matter, you internalize an even more painful message. Since your emotions are the most deeply personal expression of who you are, it’s natural for you as a child to internalize the message as, “I don’t matter,” and to take it forward with you as a deeply held, unconscious “truth.” Going through your adult life, you tend to feel less important than other people, and this undermines your ability to experience yourself, and your life, as meaningful and important.
  • Strength #3: Your intense feelings and your need to have meaning and purpose in your life both make your relationships heartfelt and genuine. But when you grow up with your feelings ignored (CEN), you miss out on the opportunity to learn how to understand and manage your emotions and the emotions of others. This can leave you somewhat at-sea when it comes to handling your most important relationships: for example, your marriage, your children, and your closest friends. You are held back from your tremendous capacity to enjoy wonderful, whole-hearted relationships by your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Many HSPs question their 3 greatest strengths or do not even recognize them until they read about them. Even then, it can be difficult to believe or own them.

Since Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up to question your essential validity as a person, you are uprooted from your inalienable strengths, dragged away from what should be grounding you and driving you and connecting you.

Minus enough emotion skills, you are not sure what to do with the powerful force from within, your feelings. Sadly, instead of harnessing it and using it, Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up for a lifelong battle with your greatest resource.

How To Reclaim Your Greatest Strengths

  1. Once you see that Childhood Emotional Neglect is at work in your life, you are immediately on a new path. Seize the moment by learning everything you can about CEN. How it happens, why it’s so invisible and unmemorable, how it affects your relationships, and the steps to healing.
  2. Start treating your emotions differently. Instead of trying to escape, avoid or minimize your feelings, begin to pay attention to them. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, and think about each emotion and what it’s telling you.
  3. Walk through the steps of CEN healing. They are clearly outlined, and thousands of people have walked the walk before you. Take one step after another, and you will begin to heal and change.

You will see how beginning to treat your most valuable resource with the regard and significance it deserves, you will be moving forward to a much more empowered future.

The future you were born to have.

To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens and how to heal it in yourself and your relationships, see the books Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More.

Emotional Neglect can be subtle so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

How To Know If Your Marriage is Affected By Childhood Emotional Neglect

Please enjoy this free excerpt from the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

How do you know if your marriage is affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?

As you know, Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible, and the huge majority of people who have it are completely unaware. That means that legions of relationships are weighed down by this unseen force. So how do you know if this applies to yours?

If you or your partner has already done some Childhood Emotional Neglect work, then you already know that your relationship is affected. When one partner is out of touch with his or her emotions, meaning he or she lacks emotional awareness and emotion skills, there is no way for the relationship to continue unaffected.

Even if you know that Childhood Emotional Neglect has affected your relationship, it’s important to know the specific effects. On the other hand, if you’re reading this book because you suspect your partner has CEN, then it might help to know some signs to look for.

Here are the markers I use to spot Childhood Emotional Neglect when I meet a couple for the first time for therapy. These are the main ways that it often plays out over time or can be observed in a given moment. As you read through the markers, think about whether each item is true of you, your partner, or both.

The Main Markers of CEN in a Relationship

Conflict Avoidance

Conflict avoidance is essentially an unwillingness to clash or fight and is one of the most classic signs of CEN in a couple. It’s also one of the most damaging.

Believe it or not, fighting is healthy in a relationship. There is no way for two people to closely intertwine their lives for decades without facing some important differences of opinion hundreds, or more likely thousands, of times.

Conflict avoidance has the power to severely undermine a relationship. Not only are you and your partner unable to solve problems by avoiding them; in addition, the anger, frustration and hurt from unsolved issues goes underground and festers and grows, eating away at the warmth and love that you should be enjoying with each other.

Look For:

  • You try not to bring up hurtful topics or issues that you’re angry about.
  • You are so uncomfortable with clashes or arguments that you sweep problems under the rug instead of talking about them.
  • Bringing up something negative feels like unnecessarily opening Pandora’s Box.
  • You or your spouse uses the silent treatment when unhappy or angry.

Feeling Lonely or Empty in the Relationship

Being in a long-term committed relationship is supposed to prevent loneliness. Indeed, when a relationship is going well, there is a comfort that comes from knowing that someone always has your back. You are not facing the world alone. You are not one, you are two.

But it’s entirely possible to feel deeply lonely, even when you are surrounded by people. And when emotional intimacy is not fully developed in your relationship, it can lead to an emptiness and loneliness that is far more painful than you would feel if you were actually alone.

Look For:

  • Even when you’re with your spouse, you sometimes feel a deep sense that you are all alone.
  • You lack the feeling that you and your spouse are, or that you work together as a team.

Conversation Is Mostly about Surface Topics

Every couple must talk about something. Emotionally connected couples discuss their feelings and emotional needs with relative ease. Not so with the emotionally neglected. When you have CEN, you stick with “safe” topics. Current events, logistics or the children, for example. You can plan together. You can talk about the kids. You can talk about what’s happening, but not about what you’re feeling. You seldom discuss anything that has depth or emotion involved. And when you do, it may feel awkward or difficult, and the words may be few.

A willingness to open up, to explore problems and to have an exchange about feelings, motivations, needs, and problems is essential to the health of a relationship.

Look For:

  • Talking about a topic that involves emotion is a huge struggle for one or both of you. Emotional intimacy requires vulnerability on both sides. When you have no choice but to talk about something emotional, it’s a challenge of epic proportions. Trying to put feelings into words seems impossible. You typically, as a couple, end up blowing up and/or abandoning the topic altogether.
  • It’s difficult to find things to talk about. You go out to dinner for your anniversary, and you expect it to feel warm and romantic. But instead, the table between you feels like a barrier that divides you. In general, the conversation can feel stilted or awkward, especially when it “should” be the opposite.
  • One or both of you have a limited vocabulary of emotion words.

Emotional Intimacy Is Lacking

Few couples know the term “emotional intimacy,” what it means and how to cultivate it. Yet emotional intimacy is the glue that holds a relationship together and the spice that keeps it interesting. It’s essential, but it’s also hard to tell whether you have it or not. It’s also the biggest relationship challenge of all for those who grew up with Emotional Neglect. How do you know if your relationship lacks this very important ingredient?

Look For:

  • You are uncomfortable showing emotion in each other’s presence. When you’re feeling sad, angry, anxious or upset, or hurt, lost, vulnerable or overwhelmed, you try to hide it from your partner. Maybe you don’t want to burden her, or perhaps you don’t want to appear weak. Maybe you prefer to keep things positive.
  • You are often surprised by how poorly your partner seems to understand or know you. You’ve been together long enough that you should be able to predict each other’s actions and decisions. Yet your partner frequently misinterprets what you mean, or incorrectly predicts what you will do.
  • One or both of you frequently misreads or misrepresents what he is feeling; for example, he insists, “I’m not angry,” when he is clearly, visibly angry.
  • One partner claims to be perfectly happy, even when the other expresses deep dissatisfaction in the relationship. (When a couple is emotionally connected, one cannot be happy with the relationship unless the other is also happy.)
  • It feels like something important is missing, even though you like and love your partner. Holding back your feelings in any of the ways described above leads to an absence of the very stuff that makes a relationship rich and meaningful. It’s hard to put it into words, but something key is missing, and some part of you knows it.
  • You are living very separate lives, even though you like and love each other. You are two planets revolving around each other, and only sometimes do your orbits meet. Lack of teamwork and lack of connection leaves you each pursuing paths that work for you, regardless of whether those paths bring you together or not.

Lack of Passion

If you’ve been together a long time, I know what you’re thinking: “Come on now, Dr. Webb. What long-married couple has passion?”

My answer is PLENTY. Passion changes over the years, for sure. But in an emotionally connected relationship, it does not go away. It simply mellows and becomes more complex over time. Passion goes from the desperate drive to be constantly together and having sex early in the relationship, to a feeling of comfort knowing that your partner is nearby. You look forward to seeing her after an absence. You have a desire to be physically close, a deep understanding of each other’s sexual needs, and a motivation to please each other sexually.

Passion is also most deeply felt during and after a conflict. Conflicts stir intense feelings, a form of passion. And working through them together fosters a feeling of trust and connection that also is passion.

Many couples don’t know that they can and should have passion, or what to look for to answer whether they have it or not. Here are some signs that can tell you that it’s lacking in your relationship.

Look For:

  • Very little fighting takes place in the relationship
  • Lack of physical affection on a casual or daily basis
  • Inadequate sex and/or desire for sex
  • Lack of need or desire to see each other

I hope you found this chapter from Running On Empty No More helpful. If you see some of these markers in your own marriage, please do not despair. The silver lining of Emotional Neglect in your marriage is that the cause of the problems is also a powerful path to change. See the book for much more in-depth information about what it means to have Emotional Neglect in your marriage, how to talk about it with your spouse, and exactly what to do.

Eight Step Method to Manage Intense Emotion

Recently I received this request from a reader:

What I have found lacking is books or articles on the process of revealing my feelings, the associated pain and some kind of plan to work through the feelings that would help DURING the healing process. Knowing the common steps of healing would be very encouraging and provide both patience and hope.

When you push your feelings down as a child in order to cope with an environment which cannot tolerate them (Childhood Emotional Neglect), you grow up lacking access to your emotions. A large part of the process of healing involves breaking down the wall between yourself and your feelings, and welcoming them.

But what if many of those old feelings are painful? What if the process is so painful that it’s too hard to let the wall down? What if you lack the skills needed to cope with the pain because no one ever taught you?

Managing painful feelings happens on Two Levels:

  1. In the Moment: Coping
  2. The Long-Term: Resolving

Next week’s article will be about Level 2: Long-Term Resolving. So check back!

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

As a mental health professional, how often have you heard the term Childhood Emotional Neglect used on its own; that is, not followed by the words “and abuse.”  I scoured the databases of the APA, and used google and other search methods. I talked with colleagues, and looked through every self-help book that looked promising. Virtually every time the term “emotional neglect” is used, it is either mixed with, or used as a misnomer for, some type of physical neglect or some type of emotional abuse. This was the final factor which drove me to write a book about it. This is the driving force which has had me speaking and writing about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) for the past three years.

During twenty years of practicing psychology, I gradually became aware that CEN, a tremendously powerful childhood factor, is being overlooked. Why? Because CEN hides. It dwells in the sins of parental omission, rather than commission. It’s the white space in the clinical picture, rather than the picture itself. It’s what was not said or observed or remembered from our patients’ childhoods, rather than what was.

**SPECIAL NOTE TO LICENSED THERAPISTS: If you have read Running on Empty or have taken my Fuel Up for Life online CEN program and would like to receive referrals from me to treat folks who are looking for a CEN specialist, please fill out the quick google form linked here:

 

SIGN UP TO JOIN MY CEN THERAPIST REFERRAL LIST

 

We therapists know that emotion is important, and that if it is not handled well by our clients’ parents in childhood, there will be clear and direct results years later, when our clients are adults. When we screen and evaluate our patients, we ask them about everything that they can see, hear, touch and remember about their childhoods: major events, including emotional, physical, verbal abuse, or any type of trauma, for example. We look for all of these types of memories, as we know that any of these experiences, in even subtle forms in childhood, can play out over a lifetime. We also know about emotional neglect and parental failures. But these are so invisible and unmemorable that it’s difficult to grab onto and difficult to talk about. How do we help our clients become aware of the full impact of what didn’t happen for them?

It took me years of encountering patients who were difficult to understand based upon all of the usual factors to realize that, in some cases, I was asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong places. Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible, intangible, and unmemorable. It’s not something that a parent does to a child. Instead, it’s something that a parent fails to do for a child. Since it’s not an act, but a parent’s failure to act, it’s not noted or remembered by parent, child or onlooker. Yet it has a profound effect upon how that child will feel and function as an adult.

Some people can be profoundly affected by one incident of extreme Emotional Neglect, and some may experience a childhood filled with mild incidents. Others experience a childhood that is so riddled with CEN that they grow up defined by it. In my own clinical experience, I have found that few, if any, of these people remember or report any of it. In fact, many of them report (and had) loving, caring parents who had no idea that they were failing their child. This is what makes CEN so pernicious, so difficult to see, and so easy to overlook by clients and their therapists.

I have identified a particular pattern of characteristics in adults who experienced CEN as a child. They include, among others, struggles with emotional awareness; self-blame;  feelings of emptiness; problems with self-discipline;  and a deep-seated feeling that “something is wrong with me,” which I call the Fatal Flaw.

I have found that keeping Emotional Neglect in the forefront of my mind, and talking about it specifically with patients has made me a far more effective therapist.  I feel that for years, I was like the proverbial blind man, treating parts of the elephant – unaware that there was a whole elephant to which I should be attending.

  • I now have a way of understanding why patients who recall having had a fine childhood are struggling with self-discipline, emptiness, or even suicidal thoughts.
  • I now know how to understand and work with a patient who is counter-dependent, or has low emotional intelligence, self-directed anger or self-blame.
  • I can address suicidal thoughts and feelings on a whole new level.
  • I have the words to talk directly to people about what’s really wrong.

Visit my Readers’ Comments Page to see what readers are saying about CEN.

In writing my self-help book, Running on Empty: Overcome your Childhood Emotional Neglect, I have two goals which I am passionate about:

1.  I want to make Childhood Emotional Neglect a household term. I want to make as many people as possible aware of the power of this largely overlooked, invisible factor. I want people to know how it affects us when our emotions are not validated; first by our parents in childhood, and later by ourselves in adulthood. I want to take a childhood non-event, which typically goes unseen and unnoticed, and give it equal recognition and respect to the events that we talk about with our patients every day. I want to offer a specific, shared language for us all to talk about this parental failure to act with our patients, and a framework to treat it.

2. I want to ask you, my fellow mental health professionals, to help bring this concept to more people.  I’m interested in opening up a sharing of thoughts and experiences among mental health professionals. I want to know if it resonates with you in your clinical work. I want to find out if you will have the same feeling of understanding and success in being able to reach more patients, offer them answers, and move them forward.

I hope you will find Running on Empty: Overcome your Childhood Emotional Neglect a helpful resource. With a special chapter for parents and another for mental health professionals, I hope it will help you open new doors with stuck patients.

Fill out the form below to join my Therapist Newsletter, and if you are licensed and have read Running on Empty or taken one of my trainings, I will add you to my Find A Therapist List to receive referrals from .

SIGN UP TO JOIN MY CEN THERAPIST REFERRAL LIST

And if you would like to help your patient further, click here to learn more about my Fuel Up for Life program.

Truth with Compassion

Couples' counseling: Truth with Compassion, with Dr. Jonice Webb

I just can’t say that to her.  I don’t want to hurt her!

How many times have those words been uttered in my office?  Countless.  A lot of  husbands and wives feel that it’s much better to keep their relationship concerns to themselves than to risk hurting their partners by voicing them.

Good news!  There is a way to tell your partner negative things. 

Say that you’re worried that your husband is drinking too much…or that you feel your wife is too wrapped up in your son’s life…or even that you are feeling unhappy in your relationship in general (yes, that’s a really tough one!).  Here are the steps to follow:

1.  Ask yourself:  How would I feel if my partner said this to me?

2.  Ask yourself:  If my partner felt this way, how would I want him or her to tell me this?  What would make it easier for me to hear?

3.  Formulate your ultimate goal in bringing up the issue ahead of time.  Don’t expect to perform miracles with one conversation.  Maybe you will just plant a seed that can be nurtured over time.  Many conversations may be required to fully address some issues.

4.  Communicate your issue in a careful, thoughtful, compassionate way.  Be prepared for your partner to be upset, and if you start to feel defensive, keep it in check.

Keep in mind that you must speak your truth, even if it is painful for you and for your partner.  Buried, unadressed issues fester and can destroy relationships.  Issues that are communicated about directly and with compassion may hurt at first, but they lose their power to be destructive.