How Covid-19 Social Distancing Recreates Your Childhood Emotional Neglect
Just Letting You Know: On Saturday, 4/4 at 3 p.m. EST I’ll be on Instagram Live answering your questions about coping with the social distancing and anxiety of this pandemic. Join me at @drjonicewebb! I would love to connect with you during this difficult time.
As the psychologist who literally wrote the book on Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I have heard thousands of people describe what it was like for them to grow up in a family that avoided talking about meaningful or emotional topics, and who treated feelings as irrelevant or burdensome.
In case your reaction to the paragraph above was, “What’s the big deal about that,” I will take a moment to explain.
Childhood Emotional Neglect
Your emotions are biologically wired into you for a reason. They go far beyond just the fight-or-flight mechanism. They are also an expression of your deepest self. Your feelings tell you what you like, love, enjoy, dislike, abhor, want and need, what harms you, and much, much more. Your emotions are like your rudder; they ground you and direct you. They also connect you.
When, as a child, your family is generally uncomfortable with the vital resource of emotions embodied in each of its members, when your family treats your feelings as if they do not exist or are a burden, you learn to do the opposite of what is healthy.
You learn to push your feelings away and wall them off. You learn to view them as a problem instead of the solution they are meant to be. You grow up separated from the deepest expression of who you are.
Then, as an adult, instead of listening to your gut, you ignore it. Instead of knowing what you want, you ignore it. Instead of seeking what you need, you ignore it. On and on and on, you miss the cues that should be your roots, your rudder, and your meaning.
You are literally living your life without taking your own feelings into account. But that does not mean that they are gone.
3 Feelings That Take Root in the CEN Child and Persist in the CEN Adult
- Alone. The lack of meaningful communication and emotional support and validation communicates to you, the child, that you are alone in the world. The CEN child feels, on some deep level, that they are on their own. Then, as an adult, you find it hard to ask for help or to accept it; deep down you feel something lacking in your friendships and relationships.
- Insecure. Being taught to literally ignore yourself takes away your ability to learn who you are and what you’re made of. This leaves you feeling unmoored and unprepared as a child. What’s going to happen next? Will I be ready for it? Can I handle it? Will I have help? The CEN child feels unprepared and unsure far too often, and this feeling revisits you often as an adult.
- Lost. Separated from your true rudder, feeling alone in the world, having little to rely on and feeling deeply insecure, you go through your childhood feeling somewhat adrift and at sea. As an adult, you find it easier to go where the tide takes you rather than making confident and clear decisions for yourself.
The Power of Core Feelings
Core Feelings: The feelings you had most often as a child. They can be positive feelings or negative ones. They are the feelings you had so often as a kid that they have become a part of who you are. They reside in your body, with or without your awareness of them.
Every adult alive has brought feelings forward from their childhood, whether they realize it or not. The vast majority of emotionally neglected children are easily revisited by the alone, insecure, and lost feelings they felt so often as kids. These 3 emotions simmer under the surface of their adult lives, easily touched off by current events that recreate them in some vague way.
Enter the Covid-19 Epidemic. Enter quarantines, sheltering-in-place, and social distancing.
Hello, Core Feelings.
How Covid-19 Social Distancing Recreates Your Childhood Emotional Neglect
I hope that as you read this you are already thinking about how the feelings of your own childhood may be touched off by our current situation. And now I’m going to give you some help with that.
First, I want you to know that most everyone is feeling these 3 feelings during this extraordinary time, even those who did not grow up with CEN.
Alone: Social distancing is keeping the population physically isolated from each other, and so most people are naturally feeling alone right now. But when “alone” is your core feeling, this situation returns you back there in an achy sort of way. The aloneness you naturally feel now as an adult gets combined with the aloneness you felt as a child and you feel it with extra power and pain.
Insecure: Everyone is wondering what’s going to happen tomorrow and in the future, and so everyone’s feeling of security is threatened right now. But if you were instilled with a deep sense of insecurity as a child, you are more at risk of doubting yourself and your ability to handle whatever is to come. You may be feeling some anxiety and wondering how — and if — you will be able to cope.
Lost: Just as it happened for you as a child, your feelings of aloneness and insecurity threaten to undermine the roots you have planted for yourself. Since this feeling has been with you for so very long you are vulnerable to helplessness and hopelessness about finding your way through this worldwide crisis.
What To Do
- Know that every situation that taps your core feelings is an opportunity for growth. This one is no exception.
- Becoming aware of your core feelings is one giant step toward your emotional health and strength, and also toward healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Now is your chance to do just that.
- As you go through this epidemic pay attention. Tune in to your body and make an effort to notice when you are feeling alone, insecure or lost. When you do, focus on that feeling and ask yourself, “How much of this feeling is about now, and how much is about the past?” Trying to sort this out is a key part of processing an old feeling and that takes away some of its power over you.
- Us your brain to process the feeling. Why did you feel this as a child? Why do you feel it now? Is the intensity of the feeling in keeping with the intensity of the situation now? How often have you felt this feeling during your life? How has it affected your choices, your actions, your confidence in yourself?
Even though you may feel alone, insecure, or lost right now, please know that you are not. Your feelings are expressions of your emotional truth but they are not necessarily a reflection of external reality.
When you let your feelings run rampant on their own, you are at their mercy.
When you own them, consider them, and process them, you can put the past where it belongs, choose the emotions that are helpful, and put the rest in their place.
You can use this pandemic to become more authentic. You can claim your power to shape your choices, your future, and your life by taking this chance to face your feelings and heal your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn how to take the steps to recover your feelings, process them, and use them see the book Running On Empty. To join an online community of CEN people going through the healing steps together see the Fuel Up For Life Program.
To find out if you grew up with CEN Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
On Saturday, 4/4 at 3 p.m. EST I’ll be on Instagram Live answering your questions about coping with the social distancing and anxiety of this pandemic. Join me at @drjonicewebb! I would love to connect with you during this difficult time.
Thank you for emailing this it certainly resonates. I’m currently having therapy and she recommended your book. The problem I have is the my feelings get confused, I feel like I’m missing something and I can’t quite connect those deep feelings. I do focus on how old I feel when I have sad emotions to try and connect it and that sometimes helps but I don’t feel emotional about it. I don’t even know if I’m making sense. Anyway, thank you for sharing your knowledge. Lisa