Childhood Emotional Neglect: 4 Ways to Fill Your Emptiness

Growing up with your emotions ignored is a far bigger thing than most people would ever imagine.

As a child, to cope with the unspoken demands of your childhood home, “Keep your feelings to yourself,” you push your emotions off to the other side of a wall, and this is, without a doubt, a brilliant and adaptive move. After all, now those burdensome emotions are no longer a problem for your parents or yourself.

But when you grow up, it does become a problem. Something is missing inside you; a valuable resource that you need. If only you had full access to your feelings, they would guide you, inform you, motivate and connect you. Sadly, you are operating with a dearth of this rich asset that everyone else enjoys.

The strange thing about this missing asset is that even though you don’t realize what you are missing, you feel it. When it comes to blocked-off feelings, the body knows. Somehow, in some way, you will, in your body, feel it.

Some people actually say, “I feel empty,” and they can point to a place in their belly, chest or throat where they feel it. Others say they feel numb, lost, apart, at sea, or different. And others say, “I don’t feel things as intensely as other people do.”

Emptiness is unique to its holder, but yet it is always the same. It is your body saying, “You are missing something important. Wake up. Pay attention. This matters.”

Fortunately, there are ways to make your emptiness go away. There are things you can do that will powerfully change your life for the better. No, healing your emptiness is not simple, but it is definitely possible.

The 3 Areas of Healing Your Emptiness

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, let medication help 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. All of these items can be done, and improvement in one of these areas often will feed into other areas. 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, conscious effort and time. You may benefit from the help of a therapist. It is, though, entirely possible to fill your emptiness on your own, with the right structure and support.

4 Ways to Heal Your Emptiness

  • Accept and Grieve 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 in order to move forward.
  • Break Down Your Wall Try to access your feelings. This process may seem impossible to many, but it is not. Focusing inward rather than outward, paying attention, and using various mindfulness and other emotion techniques can help you feel them more. Then it becomes vital to accept them and learn to name them, which brings us on to Step 3.
  • Learn the Emotion Skills You Missed Start tuning in to what you’re feeling and why. Working on learning how to put your emotions into words, how and when to express your feelings, and when and how to manage them. All of these skills can be learned. Depending on the depth of your empty feelings, you may be able to learn them yourself with enough guidance. If you have the deepest, most painful kind of emptiness, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is most helpful. It is designed to help you manage your feelings and impulses.
  • Deepen Your Relationships When you begin to break through your wall, you’ll be feeling more, and you will be feeling different. People in your life will start to tell you that you seem different. You’ll become more emotionally connected and emotionally available, more interesting, and more real. Now is the time to start taking risks. Share with a trusted person that you are working on getting closer to people, and on feeling more connected. Work on becoming more open, sharing more, and being more vulnerable.

An amazing result of working through the four steps is this: you will gradually learn to love yourself. Picture 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.

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 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.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn much more about how to reclaim your feelings and use them, see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

A version of this article was first published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with permission of the author.

Jonice

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Lauren - May 21, 2019 Reply

What is the most painful emptiness that requires DBT? I am trying CBT and finding it challenging. Also, where can I ask questions about the course you offer?

    Jonice - May 21, 2019 Reply

    Hi Lauren, please read the article on this site called The 3 Kinds of Emptiness (or something close to that). You are referring to the emptiness that is painful, and causes a person to go back and forth between extremes. There is a description of that in the article. You can ask me questions about the program here or you can email me at jwebbphd@gmail.com. All my best to you!

Heidi Garrein - May 13, 2019 Reply

hi. I have bought and read your first book. It woke me up. I knew all along that my upbringing had made me the way i am: empty, lonely and without self-esteem or hardly self-love. but this book showed it all much clearer. All these years I thought I was ‘just’ HSP. Only since I read your book, I started to realise that being HSP and being emotionally neglected is quite something. i just ordered the next book. i hope to find even more practicle tips as i still have a long and hard road ahead. thank you for being ‘my’ voice. Heidi, Belgium

    Jonice - May 14, 2019 Reply

    Dear Heidi, I’m so glad to have given you helpful answers. I think you will find more in Running On Empty No More.Take care!

Carolyn - March 20, 2019 Reply

Hi Jonice, I always enjoy reading your articles from your newsletter. I really appreciate the positive attitude you express through your writing. This sentence I found particularly touching, “It is not an absence but space, filled not with pain, but with possibility. ” Sometimes I think it’s hard to accept ourselves and not get down but re framing the challenge of overcoming CEN as a positive helps me feel better about it.

I have recently purchased your second book and I am curious how it will apply to me. I read your first book and found the feeling words list invaluable when I started journaling. It was and is so helpful to have a list of vocabulary to help me figure out what I am feeling. I copied the list into a word document so I could print it and keep it with my journal.

Thank you for all the work you are doing to help people with CEN.

    Jonice - March 21, 2019 Reply

    Dear Carolyn, I am so glad you find my writings helpful. I hope you enjoy Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships!

AZ Desertgirl - March 19, 2019 Reply

Thank you for this article professing hope over things unseen. For most of my life, I simply thought I was unlovable, unattractive, and damaged and went without my parents love and attention for my entire life. I’m so thankful to hear your statement that it’s more about them than about me.

    Jonice - March 21, 2019 Reply

    Dear AZ, I have never met a person who was to blame for not being loved properly by his or her parents. I hope you will nurture and attend to yourself and your feelings, and keep healing.

Tammy - March 18, 2019 Reply

I have read both of your books as well as attachment theory. Recently, I have begun to suspect I may have ADHD, especially as it is connected to RSD. I am wondering if you have seen a correlation between CEN, RSD and ADHD? Rejection sensitivity dysphoria seems to me to be a result of CEN.. perhaps as it is associated with ADHD, there is a correlation there as well. What are your thoughts, Jonice?

    Jonice - March 18, 2019 Reply

    Dear Tammy, I have no research to cite on this. I do think ADHD makes it harder to focus on yourself and work through your issues. I would suggest addressing your CEN because that will help you with the RSD.

No Hope - March 18, 2019 Reply

Here is the catch. When you start to get in touch with suppressed feelings and express them, if those feelings are rejected and invalidated by those in your life the pain is severe. I spent the last year working on getting in touch with my feelings (I’ve always been known as “Mr. Spock”) through your book an others on attachment disorder (I was emotionally and sexually abused as well as emotionally neglected). My wife probably is as well (she had a raging alcoholic father who beat her frequently and her mother killed herself when she was very young). My motivation in starting this work was because I have never been able to feel love, affection, gratitude, or joy in my life (as well as many other issues such as touch aversion, impotence etc.). My wife was angry that even though I would take “loving actions” towards her, she could tell they weren’t sincere, never mind spontaneous. Well the only feelings I’ve been able to reveal in the past year so far are deep levels of bitterness, rage, and fear. My wife soundly rejects me when I try and share any of them. She believes I should “just get over them” and/or “pray them away”. My pastor too says that I am just being selfish and self-centred, and my negative feelings about my past show a failure to accept God’s providence in my life. So I am trapped in a place where the only feelings I have are negative ones (or ones not acceptable to express), and can’t get to any good/acceptable ones (love, affection, gratitude etc.). I now regret starting the work because the emotional pain is almost unbearable now, and no one in my life accepts me having them, let alone validates them. Counseling is not possible due to the cost, and we live over an hour to the nearest city anyway. So don’t start down this path if the people around you are as messed up as you are and/or won’t accept “negative feelings” under any circumstances for whatever their reasons. My only option now would be to walk away from a decades long marriage and be excommunicated (and shunned) from the only acquaintances I’ve established over a lifetime. More misery either way.

    Jonice - March 18, 2019 Reply

    Dear No Hope, I am so sorry you are caught in this terrible trap. You are receiving the wrong responses, in my opinion, from others, and this is keeping you stuck. I wish you could see a therapist but if you cannot, I encourage you to keep letting yourself feel your pain and working through it. It’s a gateway to everything that lies beyond. Look for someone in your life who might be able to support you. Maybe there’s someone there who you haven’t thought of yet. Sending you all my warmest wishes.

    Tim S - March 18, 2019 Reply

    That’s really rough, and I’m sorry to hear it. I’m not sure which church you’re referring to, but having been raised in the church myself, I’ve discovered that much of the Christian world doesn’t have a good answer for the reality of suffering when it’s happening to people inside the church. As long as it’s outside, they can spout philosophical explanations as to why people are suffering, but as soon as it affects somebody inside, and they have to choose between getting down in the muck and the misery to walk alongside someone or blaming the victim, many people choose to blame the victim to avoid how uncomfortable they are with suffering.

    It’s really frustrating to watch sometimes, but my power to change other people is extremely limited at best. Like you, I have mostly encountered the negative/difficult emotions, and the positive/enjoyable ones still only appear rarely. Had I not been able to get a lot of support, it would have been much more difficult to persevere.

    The inability of others to deal with my suffering always says far more about them than it does about me, but that doesn’t make it easy to be misunderstood by the people who ought to understand, and being rejected because I don’t fit the mold they want me to fit is a challenge. You’re not completely alone in having experienced these things, however alone you might feel or even be on a daily basis.

      Jonice - March 18, 2019 Reply

      Thank you, Tim, for the empathy and support you offer to No Hope. It can mean everything when a person feels isolated and alone with their pain.

      dk - April 22, 2019 Reply

      I am in a similar condition, with feelings very hard to endure each day, and the advice from the church I belong to is uniformly to ask God to for help, but I believe that God works through us, so it’s our opportunity to grow and develop to listen to and accept the feelings of those around us. I wish they had a few sermons to that effect where I go to church.

    Deb - March 31, 2019 Reply

    Dear No Hope,
    The responses you’re receiving are unfortunately typical, and there are many people who can relate and provide online support, especially since you’re so far from a city.
    I get newsletters from “The Mighty” https://themighty.com/topic/cen/

    Jonice, do you have any suggestions for online support groups?

      Jonice - March 31, 2019 Reply

      Dear Deb and No Hope, I’m sorry to say that I’m not very aware of online support groups. I’ll keep an eye out for some that I can recommend.

      Philip - May 13, 2019 Reply

      Deb,
      I can recommend a very supportive Facebook group. The name is Childhood Emotional Neglect Support Group for Survivors. I’ve been in the group now for about six months and find the people there very caring and supportive.

        Jonice - May 14, 2019 Reply

        Dear Philip and Deb, thanks for suggesting that group. I am not involved in the group and cannot vouch for its quality.

    Dave K - April 22, 2019 Reply

    The people in my church try to help by giving “referrals” to God. Just pray for help they say. I think God looks down at this and says, yes I could just make it all better, but you guys need the practice helping, that’s one reason you are there, to get the growth and development by having a little tolerance and compassion. When you mix those together, you get charity.

Cindy Jo - March 18, 2019 Reply

Invaluable insights. Thank you!

Rose Cook - March 18, 2019 Reply

Please ADD me to your email list to receive mailings:
rosedoncook@gmail.com
These are OUTSTANDING!!!!!! I have both of your books!
Rose Cook, MSW

    Jonice - March 18, 2019 Reply

    Done! You will now receive my newsletters. I’m so happy to be helpful to you!

LINDA AVALON - March 17, 2019 Reply

This articles and books are so valuable for people like me who have just learned to have emotions. It was a long journey the last several years but well worth the effort to change. Going on 70 yrs old and can only hope you reach as many people as you can to stop the madness so we can all enjoy the life God plans for us.

    Jonice - March 18, 2019 Reply

    Thank you Linda! I wish you continued healing and happiness.

Anne - March 17, 2019 Reply

Thank you Jonice for these articles. I’ve been in ACA almost 3 years now and your work is a perfect companion and offers real solutions.
In gratitide,
Anne

    Jonice - March 17, 2019 Reply

    I’m so glad Anne!

Russ - March 15, 2019 Reply

I love this: 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.

    Jonice - March 17, 2019 Reply

    Dear Russ, it could not be more true!

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