Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN does not go away just because you grow up.
Being raised in a family that does not address your feelings (or, in other words, an emotionally neglectful family), launches you into your adult life without two things that you absolutely need for a healthy, happy, resilient marriage. The two missing things are full access to your feelings, plus the emotional skills to manage and express them.
It’s difficult enough when one member of a couple has CEN and the other does not. But when two CEN people marry, special challenges abound. Neither spouse has full access to their emotions and neither has the necessary emotion skills.
Meet Olive and Oscar. I told their story in my second bestselling book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children. Today, I am sharing a free vignette from the book that describes exactly how it feels to be in a double-CEN marriage.
Olive and Oscar sit across the table from each other, quietly having their Sunday morning breakfast.
“Is there any more coffee?” Olive asks absentmindedly while reading the day’s news on her laptop. Irritated, Oscar stands up abruptly and walks over to the coffee-maker to check.
“Why does she always ask me? She’s so manipulative. She just doesn’t want to have to walk over to the coffee-maker herself,” he cranks inwardly. Returning to the table with the pot, Oscar fills Olive’s cup. Placing the empty carafe on the table with a slight bit of excessive force, Oscar sits back in his chair with a sigh and an angry glance at Olive’s still-bowed head.
Olive, sensing something amiss from the placement of the carafe and the sigh, quickly looks up. Seeing Oscar already absorbed in his newspaper, she looks back down at her laptop but has difficulty focusing on her reading.
“I wonder what’s going on with Oscar,” she muses. “He seems so irritable lately. I wonder if his work stress is coming back. It must be his job pressure getting to him again.”
After thinking it through, Olive makes a plan to avoid Oscar for the day in hopes that giving him some alone time will help his mood improve (with the added bonus that she won’t have to be around him). Olive makes a plan to ask him about work at dinnertime to see if he is indeed under stress.
Later that evening Olive returns from her errands and finds that Oscar has made dinner for both of them. Sitting down to eat, Oscar seems to be in a better mood.
After a brief exchange about Olive’s errands, she asks, “So how are things at work?”
Looking at Olive quizzically, Oscar answers, “Fine, why do you ask?”
“No reason,” Olive replied, relieved to hear him say it was fine. Do you want to watch the next episode of Game of Thrones while we eat?”
The TV goes on and they eat dinner in silence, each absorbed in the show.
The double CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect) couple seems much like every other couple in many ways. And yet they are very, very different. This type of relationship is riddled with incorrect assumptions and false readings. And unfortunately, neither partner has the communication skills to check with the other to actually find out what he is thinking or feeling, or why she does what she does.
Since neither partner knows how to talk about the frustrations and conflicts that naturally arise (as they do in every relationship), very little gets addressed and worked out. This is a set-up for passive-aggressive retaliation that, over time, eats away at the warmth and caring in the marriage, outside of both partners’ awareness.
Small, indirect actions like carafe-slamming, avoidance, ignoring, and forgetting can become the primary means of coping and communicating in the relationship. None of them are effective.
In the scenario above Oscar misinterprets Olive’s thoughtless absorption in her reading as “manipulative,” and Olive misinterprets Oscar’s irritation with her as the possible result of job stress. Instead of dealing with these issues directly at the moment, Olive chooses avoidance for the day. Her question to Oscar that evening at dinner is too simple and off-target to yield any useful information. She is left with a false sense of reassurance that Oscar’s mood magically improved and that nothing was really wrong in the first place.
So forward they go, into the coming weeks, months, and years, with Oscar viewing Olive as lazy and manipulative, and Olive on constant guard against a return of Oscar’s job stress. Drastically out of tune with one another, they live in separate worlds, growing ever distant from each other.
Olive and Oscar sometimes feel more alone when they are together than they do when they are apart. They are divided by a chasm as wide as the ocean. They each sense that something important is wrong, but sadly, neither can consciously describe nor name it.
Fortunately for Olive and Oscar, they actually have loads of potential. They each have plenty of feelings; they are simply not aware of those feelings or able to use them in a healthy, relationship-enriching way. At the heart of their marriage are companionship, history, concern, and love. All that is really missing from their marriage is emotional awareness and skills, both of which can be learned.
There is a good chance that one day, one of them will “wake up” emotionally, and knock on the other’s wall.
Watch for Olive & Oscar Part 2 in a future article, and you will see that is exactly what happened.
Emotionally neglected kids grow up to emotionally neglect themselves. Then, when they get married, it is natural (not the same thing as healthy) that they will emotionally neglect their spouses.
In so many vitally important ways, the Emotional Neglect that happens in a marriage is no one’s choice and no one’s fault. It is literally programmed into the emotionally neglected child.
Every day, in my office, I help couples understand what’s missing and why. Together, we relieve them from the blame and shame and set them on the path forward.
In a future post, Part 2, I will share the continuation of Olive and Oscar’s story from the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. You will see where the path of CEN recovery took them, which was right to my office for couple’s therapy. You will learn about my work with them, and how their efforts to heal their marriage sent ripple effects through their children and their parents.
To learn more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens, what makes it so unmemorable, and how to heal yourself, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
Let’s start with a few questions about your own personal experience with social distancing during the pandemic.
Read my CEN Pandemic Survival Guide by clicking on the link or the picture below. I hope it offers you ideas, solace, helpful advice, and care.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
As a psychologist who works with adults and adolescents, I am in a unique position to observe the results of different types of parenting as they play out through adulthood.
Nevertheless, I found myself baffled for an entire decade. Patient after patient sat in my psychotherapy office telling me that they felt that something was wrong with them.
“I am not happy, and there’s no reason for it.”
“Other people’s lives seem rich and colorful, but I feel like I’m living in black and white.”
“I feel empty. Something is missing, and I have no idea what it is.”
“Even when I’m surrounded by people, I feel alone.”
I was baffled not only by the vagueness of their complaints but even further by the lack of an explanation for them. Many of these people insisted that they had been raised by loving parents, and had fine childhoods. They felt there was no reason for their lack of engagement in life; so they blamed it on themselves.
The more I heard these confusing concerns, the more curious I became. After all, how could so many people with fine adult lives who claimed to have had happy childhoods feel so set apart, empty and alone? It simply did not add up.
Until I realized that my clients were not suffering because of anything that was happening in their adult lives, or anything that had happened to them in their childhoods.
The answer was far more elusive than any of that. Their adult discomfort was actually caused by something that had failed to happen for them in their childhoods. Each had been raised by parents who did not respond enough to their emotional needs: Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.
This subtle failure to act on the part of their parents had left them struggling in adulthood with something which they could not remember or name. So I began to study how it happens, and how it could lead to these particular problems for my patients. I discovered that children whose feelings are not validated or responded to enough receive an unstated but powerful message from their parents. That message is:
Your feelings don’t matter.
Children who receive this message automatically adapt. They push their own emotions down and away so that they will not trouble their parents, or even themselves.
In this process, they lose access to their own emotions, which are a vital source of connection, guidance, meaning, and joy. Without this resource (their emotions), these children grow into adults who feel rudderless, set apart, disconnected and alone.
CEN is silent, invisible, and powerful. It affects untold numbers of people in today’s world. But CEN can be stopped in its tracks by teaching parents how to respond enough to their children’s emotional needs.
Max is a precocious and active second grader, the youngest of 3 children. Lately, he has gotten into trouble at school for “talking back.” On one such day, he brings a note home from his teacher stating “Max was disrespectful today.” His mother sits him down and asks him what happened. In an exasperated tone, he tells her that, when he was in the recess line, Mrs. Simpson told him to stop trying to balance a pencil on his finger, point-side-up, because he might “stab himself in the face.” He frowned and snapped back at Mrs. Simpson by telling her that he would have to bend “alllll the way over the pencil like this” (demonstrating) to stab himself in the face and that he isn’t “that stupid.” In response, Mrs. Simpson confiscated his pencil, and sent him home with a note.
How might an emotionally neglectful parent respond to this situation once she sees the note?
CEN Parent #1: Max hands his mother the note. She reads it and says angrily, “How could you do this, Max? Now Ms. Simpson will think I’ve not taught you good manners! Go to your room.”
CEN Parent #2: Max hands his mother the note. A barely perceptible shadow crosses her face but is quickly replaced by a brightening. She picks up a football that Max had left on the kitchen counter earlier, points toward the living room and said, “Go long!” Max runs to catch the ball. “You’re such a tough guy,” she says while mussing his hair. “Rough day though, huh? Would some ice-cream make it better?”
CEN Parent #1 makes Max’s problem about herself and her own embarrassment. CEN Parent #2 seems caring, but she glosses over the problem. Both parents miss an opportunity to teach Max about his emotions, his behavior and himself.
Now let’s see how an Emotionally Attentive Parent might respond.
Mother: “Mrs. Simpson didn’t understand that you were embarrassed by her thinking you could be stupid enough to stick your eye out with a pencil. But when teachers ask you to stop doing something, the reason doesn’t matter. It’s your job to stop.”
Max: “I know! I was trying to say that to her and she wouldn’t listen!”
Mother: “Yes, I know how frustrated you get when people don’t let you talk. Mrs. Simpson doesn’t know that you’re dealing with your brother and sister not listening to you much lately.”
Max relaxes a little in response to his mother’s understanding: “Yeah, she got me so frustrated and then she took my pencil.”
Mother: “It must’ve been hard for you. But, you see, Mrs. Simpson’s class is very big and she doesn’t have time to talk things over like we are right now. It’s so important that when any grownup at school asks you to do something, you do it right away. Will you try to do as asked without saying anything back, Max?”
Max: “Yes, Mum.”
Mother: “Good! If you do what Mrs. Simpson asks, you’ll never get in trouble. Then you can come home and complain to us if you think it’s unfair. That’s fine. But as a student, respect means cooperating with your teacher’s requests.”
In a conversation that appears deceptively simple, Max’s mother has avoided shaming him for a mistake and named his feelings, creating the emotional learning that will allow Max to sort his feelings out on his own in the future. She has also supported him emotionally, given him a social rule, and asked him to be accountable for following it.
I want to give all the parents in the world the skills of Max’s mother. Then all of the children of the world can learn these valuable lessons when they need them: in their childhoods.
Then, as adults, they will not struggle with secret shame and self-blame, or a deeply buried feeling that something is wrong with them. They will not feel set apart, empty, or alone. Instead, they will be aware of their own feelings and be able to put them into words. They will be able to manage their emotions and behavior. They will live their lives in living color, fully, richly connected to themselves, the world, and the people who matter the most.
To learn exactly how to be an emotionally attuned parent to your child, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
To find out if you grew up with CEN Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
I have lots of acquaintances, but not enough close friends.
I’m always there for my friends when they need me, but then when I need them they seem to let me down.
My friendships seem to gradually drift apart.
I usually feel drained after spending time with my friends.
I feel like people take me for granted.
I have heard the statements above, in various forms and combinations, expressed by hundreds of people. Those people all share one primary trait. They all grew up in emotionally neglectful homes.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents do not notice or respond enough to your feelings as they raise you.
CEN happens under the radar in many, many otherwise loving families. It also happens in obvious ways in many dysfunctional families, but since it’s subtle and essentially a “failure to act,” it usually gets upstaged by the more apparent dysfunctional events and actions in those families.
The result? We have legions of people walking through their lives being good friends to others while deeply mystified about why their friendship is not returned in kind.
As a child, day after day you received a subtle message from your parents: your feelings don’t matter.
Growing up with the most important people in your life (your family) ignoring or squelching the most deeply personal, biological expression of who you are (your emotions), you have no choice but to adapt.
As a child, your brain walled off your feelings to “protect” you and your parents from them. This childhood coping mechanism, which was remarkably adaptive at the time, set up a cascade of future struggles for you.
That childhood wall is still there now. But instead of protecting you, it is isolating you. It is blocking off the one ingredient most vital to having rich, mutually rewarding friendships. Yes, it’s your feelings.
Contrary to those CEN messages from your parents, your feelings are not your enemies. They are, in fact, your best friends. They will connect, enrich and deepen your friendships if only you begin to allow it to happen.
These 3 challenges may seem insurmountable as you read them, but I assure you they are not. I have seen many CEN people change their friendships from sparse and anemic to rich and rewarding.
And if they can do it, you can do it too!
Step 1: Download the free Feelings Sheet from my website here: http://drjonicewebb.com/the-book/.
Step 2: Choose a time of day when you reliably have a few minutes alone; for example in the morning right before you go to work or school; on your drive home in the afternoon; or right before you go to bed in the evening. Commit to doing the following exercise every single day at that time.
Step 3: At the designated time every day, while alone, sit comfortably and close your eyes if you can. Turn your attention inward and ask yourself what you are feeling. If you come up with anything, write down the word for the feeling(s) on your sheet. If you’re not feeling anything, write that down too.
These 3 ways and 3 steps are all so very important. They will help you not only with your friendships, but they will also help you in so many other ways too. When you treat yourself as if you matter you begin to feel as if you matter.
Now here is a key point. The way you feel about yourself and treat yourself shows. Other people will start to see and feel that you are a person who matters. They will naturally treat you differently.
You will begin to draw people closer. You will realize that you are talking about substantial things that previously you would have avoided. You will find yourself getting what you want and need far more often. Gradually, you will notice that you are energized by your friendships, and supported by them.
By doing the direct opposite of those emotionally neglectful messages from your childhood, you may be surprised how very different you feel.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn how to repair Emotional Neglect with your partner, your parents, and your children, see the new book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
If you look around, and if you pay attention you will see something very interesting and surprising: The world is filled with people who have not yet discovered their best selves.
Many are wonderful people who care about others and are trying to do good things in the world. Many are looking for a relationship or are in one, are raising children, and working at their jobs and doing everything they are supposed to do.
So how can you tell if someone has not yet discovered his or her best self? And more importantly, how do you know if you have not yet discovered your best self?
Believe it or not, to answer those questions, first we must talk about emotion. Why? Because what you feel is who you are.
First, some important facts about you:
Living as your best self requires you to be open to, and accepting of, your own feelings. Attending to what you are feeling is a way to attend to your true self. When you live this way, paying attention to your feelings and caring what they are, is living close to your heart. You are valuing and owning who you are, and this is a very important part of being your best self.
If your parents paid little attention to your emotions as they raised you (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN), then they did not teach you some vital things that you very much need to know. They failed to teach you what your emotions are and what they mean, or what you should do with them.
It’s much easier for us to accept our positive emotions as reflections of our deepest selves. When you feel love, joy, pride, happiness, warmth or connection, these emotions are much more comfortable to own and be. Yet these feelings are no more important than the emotions that make you uncomfortable.
It is at this step of accepting the feelings we do not like that many of us fail ourselves.
When you feel angry, sad, jealous, irritated, frustrated, envious, enraged, lost, confused, weak or judgmental, for example, these feelings we must also own as reflections of our deepest self. Every single person has felt each of these feelings many times during their lives. It is a part of being human.
We do not have the ability to choose what we feel. Who would choose to be jealous or confused? Who would want to feel weak or sad or angry? No one!
Instead, our feelings, including the uncomfortable ones, arise on their own from a well deep inside us. When you can accept and own these feelings in yourself, you have an opportunity to process and manage them and make decisions based upon them (or in spite of them). This is how your emotions can guide you and drive you.
If you refuse to believe or accept that you feel angry, sad, jealous, enraged or judgmental, for example, you are rejecting who you are. Unfortunately, those emotions are actually empowered by your rejection of them. They go underground and may seem to disappear, but they continue to seep around the edges of your life, influencing your decisions and choices without your knowledge. When this happens, you have taken steps away from your true self. The longer you continue to reject your feelings, the farther away you get from your true and best self.
So how do you become the best version of yourself? Make an effort to notice what you are feeling, when and why. Accept all of your emotions, both positives and negatives. Never judge yourself for a having any feeling, no matter how much you dislike it. Listen to their messages, but know that what you do with them is your responsibility and yours alone.
So manage and use your feelings, and this will make you noticeably sincere, honest, and genuine. The people around you will notice, and they will respond with more trust in you. They will sense that you are living with integrity, and according to your true inner self.
As you pay attention, accept, own and trust yourself, you will be walking the path toward who you can be.
Because what you feel is who you are. And what you choose to do with your feelings is who you choose to become.
Who do you want to be?
Growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) takes you away from your true self. Since it can be difficult to see or remember, it may be hard to know if you have it. To find out Take The CEN Test. It’s free.
Everyone knows what the word “dependent” means. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “determined or conditioned by another; relying on another for support.”
Not many people have heard the term “counter-dependence.” It’s not a term that is in common use. In fact, it’s used mostly by mental health professionals.
Counter-dependence is the extreme opposite of dependence. It refers to the fear of depending on other people. If you are counter-dependent, you will go to great lengths to avoid asking for help. You may have a great fear of feeling, or appearing to feel, in need. In fact, the word “needy” may set your teeth on edge.
Counter-dependence is one of the main results of growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Here’s an example of how an emotionally neglected child grew up to be counter-dependent.
When James first came to see me for therapy, he was a successful 40-something businessman with a wife and three children. He had done very well financially, and his children were all young adults who would be leaving home soon. James came seeking help for longstanding depression. He initially described his childhood as happy and free. But as he told me his story, it became evident that he had been greatly affected by the absence of a vital ingredient.
James grew up the youngest of seven children. He was a surprise, born nine years after his next youngest sibling. When James was born, his mother was 47 and his father 52. James’s parents were good, hard-working people who meant well, and he always knew they loved him. But by the time James was born, they were tired of raising children, so James essentially raised himself.
As a child, James’s parents did not ask to see his report cards (all A’s), and he didn’t show them. If he had a problem at school, he didn’t tell his parents; he knew he must handle it himself.
James had complete freedom to do anything he wished after school because his parents seldom asked him where he was. They knew he was a good kid, so they didn’t worry. Even though James enjoyed this extensive freedom from rules and structure, he grew up feeling deep within himself that he was alone.
The message James internalized from all this freedom was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He understood from a very early age that his accomplishments were not to be shared, nor his failures, difficulties or needs. Even though he couldn’t recall his parents ever actually telling him such a thing, he absorbed it into the very fiber of his being that this was life for him. It became a part of his identity.
When I first met James, he seemed somewhat emotionless and self-contained. His wife, after 15 years of marriage, was at the end of her rope. She felt that James was incapable of connecting with her emotionally. He told her he loved her often, but seldom showed her any emotion, positive or negative. She pointed out that he was a wonderful provider, but described their relationship as empty and meaningless. James described himself as feeling empty inside. He revealed that the one person in the world he actually felt emotional about was his teenage daughter, and that he sometimes resented her for being important to him.
James’s frequent fantasy was of running away to live alone on a deserted tropical island. All his life he experienced periodic wishes to be dead. He was mystified about why he would feel this way since he knew that he had such a great life.
Can you guess the ingredient that was missing from James’s childhood? It was emotional connection. Emotions were treated as non-existent in his family. There was little interaction of any kind between James and his parents. No positives, but none of the important negatives, either.
He didn’t get to see joy in his parents’ eyes as they looked at his report card, or experience their anxiety or anger when he came home from school long after dark. James’s relationship with his parents could be summed up by one word: cordial.
The message James’s parents unwittingly taught him, completely outside of his own and their awareness, was “don’t have feelings, don’t show feelings, don’t need anything from anyone, ever.”
James’s fantasies about being dead or running off to a tropical island were the best ways he could imagine to accomplish that mandate. He was a good boy who learned his lesson well.
If you see yourself in my description of James or in the 7 Signs above, do not despair because there is hope for you! Your counter-dependence is likely caused by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). And one very good thing about CEN is that it can be healed.
You can correct what went wrong in your childhood by giving yourself the emotional interest and validation that you missed as a child. As you do so, you will not only heal yourself, you will become fortified by your connections with others. And you will gradually realize that it is actually your ability to emotionally rely on others that makes you strong.
When it happens, Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle, so it may be difficult to know if you have it. To learn whether it’s negatively impacting your life, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn how to repair the effects of CEN on your relationships, see the book Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Do you have a stereotypical picture of a person who feels lonely on Valentine’s Day? You might imagine someone who wishes to be in a relationship and is sitting alone feeling sad.
In truth, most of us know how this stereotypical picture feels since we have been there ourselves at some point. Navigating the complicated world of relationships is not easy, so it’s likely that you have spent one or more Valentine’s Days alone, or perhaps for you, this year is this one.
Surprisingly, however, this image of loneliness is often highly inaccurate. A 2010 study by John Cacioppo published in the journal Social Science and Medicine found that feelings of loneliness were unrelated to marital status or the number of relatives and friends nearby.
It’s not only possible but common, to feel lonely when you’re not alone. And to be alone, but to not feel lonely. It’s because loneliness is not a state, it’s a state of mind. Loneliness is not a situation, it’s a feeling.
Yes, indeed, scores of people feel lonely on Valentine’s Day, and many are in relationships or surrounded by people. Many have no idea why they feel alone.
Whether you are actually alone this holiday or not, it is possible for you to change how you feel this Valentine’s Day. Start by understanding where your alone feelings originate.
Did you notice the one common element that unites these three factors that lead to loneliness? It’s fear. Fear of being known, fear of having needs, and fear of being vulnerable.
These fears are powerful and can do great damage to your quality of life. If you want to stop feeling lonely, you must battle your fear. The good news is, you can!
Once you realize why you feel lonely, an opportunity automatically presents itself. You realize that fixing your loneliness has nothing to do with anyone else, and everything to do with you.
Whether you find yourself on your own, a part of a couple, or surrounded by friends this Valentine’s Day, you can face your fears and see that there is no need to feel lonely.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is invisible and is often the root cause of these kinds of fears. To learn more about it, see the book, Running on Empty. To learn how CEN prevents deep emotional connections in adulthood see Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Since CEN is so subtle and invisible, it can be hard to know if you have it. Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.