How Covid-19 Social Distancing Recreates Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

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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

  1. Know that every situation that taps your core feelings is an opportunity for growth. This one is no exception.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.



Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Lisa - August 10, 2021 Reply

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

Marta - August 9, 2021 Reply

Also ashamed, worse than others, unworthy, ugly, unloved or hated, and like I can’t rely on myself, cause everything’s gonna drown in chaos/I’m going to die.

    Jonice - August 9, 2021 Reply

    Dear Marta, this could be anxiety or depression talking to you. I encourage you to reach out to a therapist if you don’t already have one. You deserve to feel better than this!

Lori - August 8, 2021 Reply

Dear Dr Jonice,
This covers what I am feeling lately quite well… Lost, insecure and alone! And when I feel this way, depending on the trigger (oral surgery on Friday did it this time) sometimes I feel very young as I was during the abuse. With the pandemic, cases are starting to go up again here…not outrageous yet but definitely enough to cause concern and talk of further restrictions. I feel alone, and trapped, like I want to run away but who do I run to?
lori (velveteen rabbit from the old site you were on)
PS. I hope you are doing well Jonice.

    Jonice - August 9, 2021 Reply

    Hello Lori, yes I am well, thank you! It makes total sense that the ons and offs of the pandemic touch on your childhood trauma. Knowing this is what’s happening, you may be able to talk with your inner child and reassure her. Remind her that the abuse is over; and that grown-up Lori will pay attention to the pandemic and take all the steps needed to protect her.

YL - April 25, 2020 Reply

You article really resonates with me. I think that I inadvertently emotionally neglected my daughter who I love with all my heart. I started noticing that she’s happier a few months ago.
She seems to be fine at first when she came home but after about 3 weeks, I think Covid-19 Social Distancing is recreating her childhood emotional neglect.

I very recently started to research CEN and just ordered both of your books which I should receive next week. As this would be a new topic for our family, what is the best way to manage my relationship with my daughter at this point? Is this a good time to talk to her about CEN. I am a little concerned about the timing of bringing up this topic during COVID-19

    Jonice - April 25, 2020 Reply

    Dear YL, it’s such a good thing that you’re aware of this now and want to address this with your daughter. Lots of considerations go into your question such that I can’t address it in this comment. In Running On Empty No More you’ll find lots of guidance to help you decide whether and how to talk with your daughter. There are lots of suggestions for how you can change your interactions with her to heal the CEN even without talking with her directly about it. I hope you find it helpful! All my best wishes.

      KL - April 25, 2020 Reply

      Thank you for your response Jonice. Do I need to read the books in sequence. I am busy and a slow reader but I want to start making changes ASAP.

        Jonice - April 26, 2020 Reply

        I think it’s best to read them in sequence if possible.

Elke - April 1, 2020 Reply

Oh holy cow, you got it!! YOU GOT IT!! How much of my feeling is about now?? How much is about the past?? Nobody ever asked me this before! This is a GAME CHANGER! Your question on Sunday attached to my brain like a virus, injected its DNA (obvious logic) into my thoughts and started replicating. Every time I had a negative feeling, I automatically started asking, “How much is about now, and how much is about the past?” By the end of Sunday, my back, which has been in chronic pain since 1974, was experiencing unprecedented relief, like gravity had stopped compressing it and pulling it down. Now it’s Tuesday night, and I’m still feeling relief from what was supposed to be degenerative scoliosis for 45 years! Tell them, Jonice! This stuff works!!! I found myself doing something quite creative this evening and happily enjoying it! I’ve spent my whole life since age 3 supporting an emotionally crippling family, first a bipolar/narcissistic mother, then an abusive/schizophrenic husband. First one went to another continent, second one died from 3 different kinds of dementia, now I’m free to create the life I want, if only I could figure out what I want, I was never allowed to think of that before! I must be in a new place!

    Jonice - April 1, 2020 Reply

    Dear Elke, reading your comment brought tears to my eyes. I could not be happier that you have been set free of the burdens of your past. Go forward now and be who you were always meant to be!

      Elke - April 2, 2020 Reply

      You have blessed me, Jonice! That’s what I want to do — bless people. The best thing I can give someone is to understand them; it’s what puts color into a grayscale heart.

Sally - March 31, 2020 Reply

Hi Jonice Thanku for this article, it really resonated with me. I’ve been self- healing for awhile now but this pandemic has brought back the old fears of anxiety and helplessness. I suppose it’s like a lack of control over what’s happening to us. Many thanx for your help.

    Jonice - March 31, 2020 Reply

    Dear Sally, many, many people are having anxious nd helpless feelings these days. It’s important to name your feelings as you have them, test them against reality, and manage them.

KM - March 30, 2020 Reply

I have been having major attachment issues. I am fine when someone is with me, but I can’t seem to move forward when I am alone- the feelings are especially pronounced now with social distancing. I am feeling like I need constant reassurance all the time!
I can’t quite figure out how to get passed these negative feelings.

    Jonice - March 31, 2020 Reply

    Dear KM, the only way to get past feelings is to go through them. Perhaps you can process what you’re feeling to take those feelings’ power away. There’s lots of info about how to process feelings on this website and it’s described in my book Running On Empty if you have a copy of that. Look up the Identifying & Naming and the IAAA. and all the chapters on feelings.

Angela - March 30, 2020 Reply

Thank you for all you have written. It helps with the acceptance of myself and healing.
I started a new business last year, my biggest struggle being decision making, but I was still able to move forward. Then this pandemic hit and I’ve had to decide so many things re staying open, employee etc. Its put me into paralysis. Yet I still have so many things I can be working on. I find this super frustrating! #enterinselfsabatoge

    Jonice - March 30, 2020 Reply

    Dear Angela, when you feel paralyzed like this, it’s likely due to not acknowledging or addressing your feelings. I encourage you to put your focus on your feelings and what they are and what they mean and why you’re having them. Sorting them through will free you up to make good decisions.

JMC - March 30, 2020 Reply

The feelings of isolation I’m experiencing are largely coming from listening to the media…everyone seems to have family to be at home with. I know that creates its own problems, but it makes me feel so very alone, as I live alone, and have no family. I realise though, that these accentuated feelings stem from my childhood, as an only child with an NPD mother. I’m using this time to exercise, garden, cook, and am pretty resourceful generally…..survivors like us have learned to be tough! Thanks for all you do, Jonice.

    Jonice - March 30, 2020 Reply

    Dear JMC, there are many, many people home alone right now. I’m glad you have the survival skills from childhood as now is a good time too use them! Take care and stay well.

Annie Dill - March 30, 2020 Reply

Helen, I can understand so well the confusion and pushing down of your emotions that you just have experienced when your mother was not sympathetic after the funeral but was actually angry. I am sorry you experienced that! It was a major time you needed support from a caring adult. May you be growing and healing!

Diane - March 30, 2020 Reply

Strangely, I am feeling good in this pandemic. I’m not worried at all (probably partly because I am a Christian so don’t fear death and believe God is in control of all this). Also, i normally feel jealous and different from most people as I see them enjoying life and out socialising etc. But now I am the same as them except I’m calm and content. Dare I say it – I’m kinda excited about the whole virus thing! Maybe that’s because it takes a lot to evoke an emotion in me and I rarely get the feeling of excitement. I’m also loving all the extra time I have doing all the stuff I’ve procrastinate with. The only negative I have felt in this situation is (can’t name it properly) ‘bad’ because I don’t feel what others feel. I don’t feel compassion for folk who are stressed, dying, overworked, at risk including the thought of my own adult children getting the virus! In my head I care and don’t want these people to suffer but I’m not feeling anything in my heart. I should feel guilty about that but I mostly feel like a freak cos that’s not normal.

    Jonice - March 30, 2020 Reply

    Hi Diane, maybe you have some feelings blocked off. Start with the genuine care that’s in your head and try to trace it back to your heart. This may be a good time to turn inward and try to locate the feelings that are blocked.

Alex - March 29, 2020 Reply

I’m intimately familiar with all the negative emotions you have described in this article. However, most recently I’ve been struggling with anger and a frustrating inability to focus. Because of outside circumstances I have been living with my emotionally neglectful patents for the last year. It has been challenging to say the least and I have been looking forward to returning to my own house in June, but I fear the pandemic will delay this. Before the quarantine I could create healthy distance between myself and my folks and now I can’t. What advice do you have in dealing with the anger, lack of focus, and this situation?
Thank you for all of your hard work and putting into words what I have struggled to do for so many years.
– Alex

    Jonice - March 30, 2020 Reply

    Dear Alex, that’s a tough situation. But the most powerful boundaries come from inside yourself. Start building yours to protect you from the CEN in your home. For much more help with this than I can offer here see my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Louise - March 29, 2020 Reply

Dear Jonice, I had felt for a few days that I’d been going ‘backwards’ in my thoughts then I read the articles you posted on 29th March. They were the first things I had read all week which have helped me. (In UK so we’ve already been in lockdown for a week). Thank you ever so much.

    Jonice - March 30, 2020 Reply

    I’m so glad to be helpful to you, Louise. I notice you use the word “thoughts” and I encourage you to pay attention to your feelings too.

Jean - March 29, 2020 Reply

Jonice, the have felt insecure and alone when the pandemic hit, like CEN. I’m divorced a few years back and this brings flashbacks up. Ive not learned how to process trauma through to getting to a place of security. Thank you for mentioning this trigger is common.

    Jonice - March 30, 2020 Reply

    Dear Jean, most therapists are seeing people online right now. I encourage you to get started on learning how to process trauma. You are not alone and there is support available. All my best wishes!

Susanna - March 29, 2020 Reply

Hi Jonice, thank you for your consistent support for us CEN people. I had a big breakthrough when I read your book Running on Empty.
I‘m experiencing wild swings of emotions these days. But one good thing coming out of this is that I‘m not ashamed of being a homebody anymore. Everyone has to be a homebody now.
On the other hand The constant guilt I felt as a child has come back to haunt me because just as nurses are needed more than ever I decided to leave work as a nurse to take care of my husband who has Parkinson. I know the guilt is irrational but it‘s always there now.
I just realized today that these are old feelings coming back and because of you I will be able to deal with it.
Thank you so so much and stay well.

    Jonice - March 29, 2020 Reply

    Dear Susanna, I’m glad you’re able to put your guilt aside and do what you need to do. The more you do that, the less power your CEN guilt will have over you. Thanks for sharing and you stay well also!

Emma - March 29, 2020 Reply

Dr Webb – thank you for this and all your other articles; you and your work were truly made for these times and will benefit many people, CEN or not. I’m re-reading Running on Empty and now have time to focus on the work in more depth – this is a major part of my commitment to myself for this period. I too find some sense in that my childhood of constant alert and successful troubleshooting around a mother with NPD has prepared me for troubled times – they aren’t strange and I am finding solutions! Because of the growing awareness of CEN, the work already done and the support on this website, I already feel less alone. And the more connected I feel, the less I need to control what I can’t control and accept that this too, eventually, shall pass.

    Jonice - March 29, 2020 Reply

    Thank you, Emma, that is so well said. It is entirely possible to bring the hard lessons learned from a CEN childhood forward and use them to make your life better. It’s all about taking charge of them instead of letting them have control over you. Thanks for sharing!

Rebecca - March 29, 2020 Reply

Yesterday I found my anxiety level and depression were increasing to a level my meds couldn’t control, when I suddenly had an epiphany. “I need music!” Listened to Etta James, Alison Krause, Carlos Nakai, and John Prine, all day until I finally began to cry. The release of emotions was so cleansing. Today I feel grounded, and more hopeful. Thank you for all you do help!

    Jonice - March 29, 2020 Reply

    Rebecca, that is absolutely awesome! Good for you for thinking about what you needed and providing it. Then accessing your feelings and allowing yourself to feel them. Well done.

Olivia - March 29, 2020 Reply

It’s funny, this lockdown situation is playing to my strengths. I was brought up to be on edge, always preparing for the worst, never knowing what would happen next. Now the worst has happened and I feel like I’ve always been ready. I’ve been a lonely stay at home mum/ homeworker for 10 years so I’m used to being isolated. I have a restricted diet so I’m used to being hungry and searching for food. It’s weird but I feel like this is my time.

    Jonice - March 29, 2020 Reply

    Dear Olivia, perhaps that’s a silver lining for you now, but what about all those years spent preparing for the worst? As long as you’ve been able to enjoy life and be happy, it’s all good. But if it’s kept you on-edge, lonely or anxious, perhaps it’s something to consider working on? It’s a question only you can answer. Take care and be well.

JTS - March 29, 2020 Reply

Thank you, Jonice, for validating the wave of unwelcome feelings our current isolation brings forth, and for offering healthy ways to deal with them. I am unusually anxious, and your helpful articles have given some practical antidotes. Typical of a CEN adult, I thought that I was alone to deal with my flood of emotions. You’re the best!

    Jonice - March 29, 2020 Reply

    Dear JTS, I’m so glad you know you are not alone now! And that your feelings are normal and valid and manageable. Take care of yourself!

Helen - March 29, 2020 Reply

I’ve been in therapy for quite some time, and I’ve grown. I can relate to what you have said, and I’m now able to do as you suggest… separating the past from the present. What I am now struggling with is helplessness. A friend of mine is dying from Covid 19. His wife was just told to prepare for the worst. I can’t help. I can’t console. And my uncertainty in knowing what to say or do, is definitely triggering. I’m dealing with loss, and helplessness.
I’m aware that one thing triggered is a month long hospital stay when I was 9 years old, and I was isolated from the world for the month of May, many years ago. Back in 1965, hospitals were a nightmare for children, bordering abusive. I was and am, a rule follower except when the rules did not make sense, or I was being lied to. So I attempted my escape, just to get outside into the beautiful spring weather. My plan was to walk home. About 15 miles, but I didn’t have that concept then. I was caught at the main entrance, but I don’t remember what happened.
Also, the loss of my favorite Aunt, and a classmate being hit by a car. These things happened within a 6 month period. Not allowed to go to my Aunt’s funeral. Then my mom left me at the door front door of the funeral home for my classmate. Mourning the loss of her sister was fresh, so she made me go in alone. This was my first funeral, and I was the only child there. My classmates mom, so struck by grief, kept hugging me, and I felt trapped. I couldn’t leave. (Trapped and helpless like the hospital stay) After what seemed like a very long time, my mom came in to get me. She was angry with me for being so long.
Thanks for giving me the space to work this out a bit, and keep doing what you are doing. Even though I rarely post, I do read your information.

    Jonice - March 29, 2020 Reply

    Dear Helen, I am so sorry for the emotional neglect you suffered as a child. I’m glad you shared these painful experiences because it will help you sort your feelings more deeply. Being aware of what’s old and what’s new is so important. Please do keep working at it.

Kelly - March 29, 2020 Reply

Thank you for sharing your insights.
In my case I have far more social connections now than I did as a minor. I do feel bad for the extroverts going stir crazy.

    Jonice - March 29, 2020 Reply

    That’s great Kelly! I feel badly for extroverts too. Thanks for sharing.

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