How to Know When You Are Having a Feeling

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How do you know when you are having a feeling?

As the pioneer of the concept and full theory of CEN — or Childhood Emotional Neglect — I receive hundreds of questions every week about CEN, what it means, how it works, its effects, and how to heal.

Many readers of my books and blogs have very personal, thoughtful observations and questions to share. In fact, I have learned quite a lot from receiving, reading, and answering them.

Of all those many questions there is one that I receive over and over and over again. And then again. And the next day, there it is again. I get it so often because it’s a key piece of the cause of CEN and a key building block for CEN healing too. In fact, it would be hard to overstate its importance.

How do you know when you are having a feeling?

My answer to this question is not quite as simple as most would like. It’s complicated by the fact that every human being is different.

How Do You Know When You Are Having A Feeling? 3 Signs

Note: Any one of these signs is an alert that you are having a feeling. You do not need to have all three.

  1. Physical sensation: Emotions are literally physical sensations that reside in your body. If you know that you are someone who is unaware of your feelings it may help to pay more attention to your body, paying special attention to the sensations that may come and go. Emotions are often felt in the belly or chest or throat but they can also be in your arms, legs, hands, head, or any other part of your body. Watch for a physical sensation and when one happens, stop and take note.
  2. Physical pain or symptoms: Emotions that are not acknowledged or attended do not go away. They hang around under the surface of your life and can cause physical symptoms like headaches, backaches, fatigue, restlessness, jaw clenching, chest tightness, or an almost endless list of other physical symptoms. In fact, research shows that, for example, repressed anger has been linked to heart attacks. When you notice a physical symptom, stop and ask yourself if you might be repressing an emotion.
  3. Surprised or confused by your own behavior: Our actions are driven by our feelings. When you are aware of what you’re feeling, you have the opportunity to use your brain to consider the feeling you are having and plan your actions. This puts your behavior under your control. If you are surprised or confused by something you do, consider the possibility that you are having a feeling of which you are unaware. Pause to think about this.

What To Do If You Notice One of the 3 Signs of Having a Feeling

The 3 signs above will, hopefully, alert you to the possibility that you may be feeling something and that is an excellent start! But the signs will not tell you what you are feeling or what it means. To help you with that, I created an exercise to guide you. I first shared it in my book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s called The Identifying & Naming Exercise.

The Identifying and Naming Exercise

Step 1: Close your eyes. Picture a blank screen that takes over your mind, banishing all thoughts. Focus all of your attention on the screen, turning your attention inward.

Step 2: Ask yourself the question: “What am I feeling right now?”

Step 3: Focus on your internal experience. Be aware of any thoughts that might pop into your head, and erase them quickly. Keep your focus on: “What am I feeling right now?”

Step 4: Try to identify feeling words to express it. You may need more than one word.

Step 5: If you’re having difficulty identifying any feelings, skim through the Feeling Word List in the Resources at the end of the Running On Empty book, and see if one or more words jump out at you.

Step 6: Once a word jumps out at you, say it out loud. “I feel ______.” Does it sound right when you say it? Does it feel right when you say it? Does it feel partially right but you need more words to describe it?

Step 7: When a feeling word seems like it may be accurate, you are ready to move on to the next step, which is trying to figure out why you are feeling that.

We will save Step 7 for another day because right now we’re trying to help you know when you’re feeling something. Learning the other feeling skills is easier once you have become more skilled at this first one.

The Takeaway

Your emotions are literally physical sensations that reside in your body. When you fail to notice and acknowledge a feeling, it can become a physical problem for you or it can make you act in ways that may be undesirable or regrettable or simply confusing.

Learning how to identify when you are having a feeling is a vital skill for living a happy and healthy life. When you grow up in an emotionally neglectful family you sadly do not have the opportunity to learn it. In fact, you learn the opposite: how to ignore, deny, belittle, and block off your feelings.

Now, as the adult you are, you have the power to make some new choices for yourself. You can choose to focus, choose to learn, and choose to feel.

You can choose to start valuing your feelings and using them to know and understand yourself better. You can start down the path of healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s never too early or too late to choose yourself.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty. 


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Jackie Ellison - February 5, 2020 Reply

Had no idea this was part of my deepest fears and confusion..thank you for your studies and discoveries ..very helpful

Lynne - January 28, 2020 Reply

I am finally aware of having emotions. Have begun identifying them slowly. I can talk back to the nasty little voice in my head and replace(not yet change it). Doing the work is hard but it has helped so much. Thank you for you book and weekly emails.

    Jonice - January 29, 2020 Reply

    Excellent work, Lynne! Thanks for using my work so well.

Taza - January 26, 2020 Reply

As a person who experienced CEN, I often rationalized what happened in my childhood by “understanding” the stresses & limitations my parents were facing.

A very generous p of v, but it leaves out the feelings I had as a child. Very often, things were loud & scary for me (lots of arguments)!

As an adult in therapy, I’ve learned to let the feelings surface & then ask myself, “How old are you now?”
The question helps me direct compassion & love to the hurting child within vs “explaining” and avoiding the feelings.
It’s been difficult to allow these uncomfortable feelings to the surface, but it is getting easier with practice!

I’m so very grateful for your columns and insights. Thank you!

    Jonice - January 26, 2020 Reply

    Dear Taza, that is a very useful process to pay attention to your inner child. We each have one, and when your inner child grew up ignored, it is automatic to continue that. Thanks for sharing your discoveries with us!

Elizabeth - January 21, 2020 Reply

Thank you Jonice. Recognising and validating my feelings as they arise makes all the difference. The problem I have now is exploding into anger (when I am by myself, I don’t do it in front of others) when I feel invalidated. Any advice on how to deal with the anger ? I never used to get angry about anything, so I guess on some level this is also progress.

    Jonice - January 23, 2020 Reply

    It is progress, yes. Your next step will be learning the skills of assertiveness. You can buy a book on the topic and practice, practice, practice!

      Jackie Ellison - February 5, 2020 Reply

      What is the book on assertiveness

        Jonice - February 6, 2020 Reply

        There are many! I often recommend “When I Say No I Feel Guilty,” by Manuel Smith.

      Elizabeth - March 3, 2020 Reply

      Thank you Jonice 🙂

        Jonice - March 5, 2020 Reply

        You’re welcome, Elizabeth!

    M.R. - January 26, 2020 Reply

    I feel just as Elizabeth. Now being aware of feelings, but struggle so much how to handle them. Be it positive or negative. I feel like a wild horse. Not knowing how to accept that its okay to have negative emotions, and to have the right to be angry. But at the same time, being able to solve the problem (with others) without feeling bad for it, and needing someone to validate my (negative) feeling (and thus, myself). :(. Quite difficult. But I know it’s good that I’m aware of this now. Even of I still can’t control it and feel going always back to the same point. mainly, feel also bad for depending on friends to validate and process my emotions :(.

      Jonice - January 26, 2020 Reply

      Dear M.R., now that you’re aware of the problem and more aware of your feelings, you can learn all the skills you described. Practice, practice, practice! And you can also see a CEN therapist to help you build the skills.

C.B. - January 20, 2020 Reply

I turn 65 tomorrow and I am just beginning to glimpse some light at the end of three years of C.E.N. work. When I accessed my rage, overrode my repression and defied convention, I stepped away from toxicity. I knew I would pay for my freedom from emotional blackmail by being excluded, abandoned, “voted off the island”. “. “Conform or die ” seemed their huddled fear. Daily I have been trying to understand
“what happened”. My widowed mother with 4 daughters couldn’t afford for us to have “feelings”. The Depression generation
couldn’t, neither could the stoic WWII generation. Feelings were not indulged, in fact, were minimized. So, here we are, playing catch up in 2020. I still have a long way to go. I read and journal to untie the knots of past familial & societal constructs.
My true comrades emerged, your book validated what I subconsciously knew, and it’s empowering to know I am not alone – C

    Jonice - January 23, 2020 Reply

    Dear C, for sure, you are not alone! Keep up the great work you’re doing.

    J.H. - January 26, 2020 Reply

    C.B., I agree completely with you about the stoic generations of the Depression and WW2. My parents were exactly like that, too. Thank you for talking about the issue!

Paula - January 20, 2020 Reply

Even though I have sought out counseling numerous times over my life it was always to “fix” what was wrong with me. I drink in your Sunday emails as if I am experiencing incredible thirst. When I was ten my mother told me that I had better watch out for my anger or I could stab someone in the back in a fit of rage. I shut down all emotions that she didn’t approve of or could process through enormous discipline and self monitoring. Through understanding childhood emotional neglect I have come to realize that I was an incredibly sensitive sweet little girl that just wanted to belong and having my mother’s approval was like oxygen to me. I am recovering in a way ,but can still get tripped up when I experience some kind of emotion that was not supported and my default mechanism is to suppress by ignoring my distress and chiding myself for struggling. But I am learning and enormously grateful for your research. Thank you Dr. Jonice Webb

    Jonice - January 23, 2020 Reply

    Dear Paula, it sounds clearly like you have figured out what’s wrong for you and that is hugely important! Keep up the work you’re doing on accepting and expressing your feelings. It takes a lot of strength to face this and do this work. And you’re doing it!

Alysson - January 20, 2020 Reply

Thank you for this great article. I’ve gotten much better at identifying and processing negative emotions as they arise. When I don’t, my sleep will be affected. I’ll use your three steps to hopefully avoid the insomnia. One thing is, I still don’t feel positive emotions very often. In time, will this improve? I’m 59 and would like to regularly experience the feelings of joy, peace, and love.

    Jonice - January 20, 2020 Reply

    Good question! You may have to coax along your positive feelings by looking for reasons to have them. Watch for moments of joy in every day. Things that make you feel good. Small moments in life; watch for them and try to feel the associated feelings. It will help develop the part of your brain that registers positivity and reward.

Yvonne - January 20, 2020 Reply

When I feel angry about a situation and do not know what to do, I tend to express my feelings by swearing and calling the perceived culprits everything under the sun. Is there any advice that you can give me concerning this matter?

    Jonice - January 20, 2020 Reply

    This may be a result of lack of assertiveness skills plus dealing with your emotions as they arise instead of letting them build up. Please do read a book on assertiveness and also try to become more aware of what you are feeling on a moment-to-moment basis.

Devery - January 20, 2020 Reply

Because of CEN I have feared emotions. I remember as a child saying I don’t feel good and the response was oh you’re OK. Never being validated. As a Young adult I went to treatment and we would go around the circle and say how we were feeling. I was terrified and felt stupid because I could not identify my emotions. I can’t seem to Focus and stay on task. Now I’m older much older as I have heard you say it’s never to late. Plus I want to be present for my 30-year-old son. For what ever reason feelings terrify me even the word feeling makes me nauseated. Crazy right

    Jonice - January 20, 2020 Reply

    Not crazy at all! CEN recovery can be done in baby steps. Start with just trying to notice when you are having a feeling.

Brenda - January 19, 2020 Reply

Thank you Jonice for your all work on CEN. Learning about it has changed my life, I just wish I knew what I know now decades ago (I’m 50) but better late than never!

I am still struggling to identify my feelings and I have just realised that all my adult life I have been giving myself clues. I will quite often get lyrics from a song stuck in my head. I will also get a song stuck in my head like everyone else, but this seems different because it’s quieter and the lyrics are what is stuck rather than a catchy tune and they can stick around for months. If I actually pay attention to the lyrics they will quite often give me a clear message about what I am feeling or a situation in my life that needs addressing.

    Jonice - January 20, 2020 Reply

    Very interesting, Brenda. I’ve not heard of song lyrics this way but it does make perfect sense. Good for you for figuring that out about yourself!

Sandy - January 19, 2020 Reply

I’m still numb to my feelings. I’m happy, overall, I think, but I don’t feel much of anything. Not love or hate, or loss. I just handle everything the same way. I don’t feel joy with my adult children or teenage grandchildren. I don’t miss them when they aren’t around and don’t feel anything when they are. Everything for just is. My dad was around physically but not emotionally my whole life. He never hugged me and on my wedding day, when he was told to lift my veil and give me a kiss before giving me away, he asked where he should kiss me. Sad. He never said I Love You even on his death bed when I said it to him. He was probably also raised in an emotionally neglectful home being the child of immigrant parents as was my mother. They didn’t know any better. I’ve forgiven them for what they didn’t know while raising me. You can’t give what you didn’t get.

    Jonice - January 20, 2020 Reply

    Dear Sandy, I think you probably do have feelings but you will need to work on accessing them.

Asneath - January 19, 2020 Reply

Thank you for explaining about feelings. I am 53 almost 54 and still find it difficult to identify my feelings, and sometimes to feel at all.

    Jonice - January 19, 2020 Reply

    Dear Asneath, CEN is ageless. But it is never too late to start the healing process! I hope you’re doing that.

Shannon - January 19, 2020 Reply

What I have learned as an adult, is that not being heard, not being able to express your feelings and have them heard, is incredibly damaging. As a child with a childhood full of CEN, my feelings and emotions were not heard, they were not welcome by my parents. My mother was only aware of her own feelings, those were the only ones that mattered to her, she would go into rages that would last for at a minimum, an hour, usually longer, as a child I had to try to withstand it, but of course, I could not. It taught me to be terrified of my mother, which the stress of that day after day, altered my brain and the neural pathways. I developed severe anxiety and have panic disorder. The rages were always just full on verbal attacks over some small mistake or misstep that all children will commit. It taught me to lie to her to desperately try to hide any mistake or misstep to try to avoid the terror she struck in me. I now understand that people who fly into rages are desperate to be heard themselves, but they are so angry inside and may refuse to get help, so they explode on their families. My mother was such a coward she chose the most innocent and helpless target, me.

    Jonice - January 19, 2020 Reply

    I’m so sorry, Shannon. I hope you’ll work on listening to yourself now and attending to your feelings. It’s so very important!

      Shannon - January 20, 2020 Reply

      I introduced my therapist to your website and your books. He has read Running On Empty and I have also, we begin tomorrow working on the exercises and discussing the content. It is very powerful to find yourself and your childhood described so thoroughly and completely in a book written by someone who has never met you. You have unlocked some very powerful information and no doubt knowledge is power. Yes, I am committed to the work of changing myself and my future, my life. Thank you Dr. Webb.

        Jonice - January 20, 2020 Reply

        That’s just wonderful Shannon. Keep up the great work!

    Lynda - January 19, 2020 Reply

    I understand just how you feel. My mother was just like yours. Always raging. And yes, I was always terrified of her as a child which unfortunately shaped me as an adult woman, who continues to struggle with identity issues. Please know that everyday gets better.
    Blessings to you…

      Shannon H Schaefer - January 20, 2020 Reply

      Thank you and blessings to you. With hard work and courage we can undo what our mothers did to us, it doesn’t have to be a life sentence. We are worth it and our feelings deserve to be felt and our voices heard.

    Jackie Ellison - February 5, 2020 Reply

    Don’t know if Shannon will get this email..but wanted to express my compassion for you…my mom was usually pretty upset..I wasn’t heard either..wondered all my life what was wrong with nearly I’m seeing and understanding things in the light of these different texts..thanks much

Derek - January 19, 2020 Reply

thanks for your work identifying this issue. the following is more of a comment on my personal experience with this issue than anything else. When in session with a therapist 5 or 6 years ago, they wanted to do an exercise on identifying feelings in the body. After a few minutes, I was able to articulate that I had no idea where I felt anything, and eventually said what she was asking me to do was impossibly confusing – after a few minutes I think I said “you may as well be speaking another language to me, I dont understand how to do what you are talking about”. She looked completely confused and had no idea how to respond. It essentially ruined the therapeutic relationship as communication had broken down – I had no experience feeling feelings let alone locating them in the body given my upbringing and home environment and this threw her as it seems she didn’t have the awareness that an issue like this even existed. I do your exercises but still really struggle, usually I have to go thru the list of words to find something that resonates – I still dont really ‘feel’ certain feelings, although I have learned that how I need to identify a feeling are when my thoughts cycle into maximum overdrive – having shut down my feelings likely when I was around 6 or 7, I suppose how I moderated them was by thinking about things that bothered me incessantly – that’s how the issue came up from down below so to speak. For decades there was no trip switch to connect the two, my thoughts just cycled and cycled and cycled, like having a car stuck in a rut and continuing to hammer on the gas pedal expecting to get out, and continuing to spin away going nowhere. Getting away from this pattern is difficult, but at least I am aware of it now.

    Jonice - January 19, 2020 Reply

    Dear Derek, I think you are underselling your progress. If you are now able to have some feelings and identify them using the word list, that is wonderful progress. Please just keep going it. The more you put into the practice, the better you will become.

    Brenda - January 19, 2020 Reply

    I have signed on especially to thank you for your comment Derek. Your analogy of the car idling and thoughts and worries going around and around really spoke to me.

Mary - January 19, 2020 Reply

when my brother came home 2012 my life changed. i was just getting over feeling of dealing with my mother’s suicide. He was physically/emotionally abusing me. i began deteriate inside of me. my feelings self harm(suicide) crepted n. really enjoy hearing about feelings emotional neglect. can really relate. thanks for emailing me Webb. by the way, he died 3/8/2017 was so happy i threw phone up n the air when hospice called me!

    Jonice - January 19, 2020 Reply

    That sounds like a terrible experience all the way around, Mary. I’m glad to be helpiing you!

Debbie T - January 19, 2020 Reply

You are just a blessing to people who are CEN. It is thoroughly amazing. I am thankful for you and all of the insightful information you give. You have helped me considerably. Just wanted to say thank you and keep up the good work and helping all of us out the way you are doing.

    Jonice - January 19, 2020 Reply

    That is wonderful to hear, Debbie!

Eva - January 19, 2020 Reply

Today I knew I had a feeling because my hands were shaking which is very unusual. It was anger, rage, despondency. It was so strong I was walking around trying to shake it. I then started writing it down. I had a massage booked anyway and she found me very tense. My shoulders were holding a lot of tension but I hadn’t notice. I m now drinking lots of water and decided to say no and make a point. I ve also seen how much I m copying negative behavior. I wout like to learn a better way to relate.

    Jonice - January 19, 2020 Reply

    Dear Eva, it sounds like your body was sending you important messages and that you did listen and decided on some actions. That is exactly how it’s supposed to work. Keep doing that!

Lori - January 19, 2020 Reply

I learned at a very early age to bury feelings and emotion. It was the only way to survive. I now have no idea what it is like to be loved by anyone or even liked.

    Jonice - January 19, 2020 Reply

    Dear Lori, you can “un-bury” your feelings now. It’s important to get started!

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