New Year’s Resolutions are a tricky business indeed. According to recent research, 80% of people drop theirs by the second week of February every year.
I think New Year’s Resolutions are even more difficult for those who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). And for some very good reasons.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): This happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions while they are raising you.
I know, I know, everything above sounds so negative. You may be feeling discouraged about setting resolutions for 2021. You may be wondering the classic CEN question: “Why bother?”
If so, good news! I have thought this through, and I have some answers for you.
First, set only one resolution. Trying to do more is distracting and can be overwhelming. Second, make resolutions that will be immediately rewarding and bring quick and positive results. That way, you will set up a positive cycle that will feed itself, becoming more and more powerful every day of the year.
— Research has shown that Emotional Neglect in childhood slows the development of the ventral striatum in the brain. The ventral striatum is your brain’s reward center, so if it’s under-developed, the concept of feeling joy may seem like a distant one for you. But a remarkable thing: I have asked many CEN people to start purposely seeking happiness and enjoyment, and I have watched it make a significant difference in their lives. You may find it in a small, rewarding task that you never gave much thought, a small child who smiles at you for no reason, or a beautiful orange leaf falling from a tree. At other times you may need to make something happen to bring yourself joy: call a friend, see a movie, schedule a trip, or take a day away. The more you choose joy, the more it will choose you. You will be setting yourself on a very rewarding path that will pay off in spades.
Your 2021 Resolution: I will find at least one moment of enjoyment in every day of this year.
— When you have CEN, one of the most powerful ways of changing your life is to simply learn and use more emotion words every day. Using a word like dismayed, despondent, incensed, blissful, morose, bland, raw, depleted, wary, strained, deflated, perky, free, quiet, devoted, or feisty adds dimension and realness to your life. Both are necessary things that you were denied in your childhood. Making this change in the way you speak on the outside will change the way you think and feel on the inside. It will also carry the added bonus of improving the quality and depth of your relationships. It is a win-win-win at very little cost to you. You can find an exhaustive list of Feeling Words in the book Running on Empty, or you can download it from the Running on Empty Page of my website.
Your 2021 Resolution: I will use one new feeling word every day of this year.
— I designed this exercise to help people with CEN develop the pathways for self-discipline in their own brains. I do not have brain scans to prove that it works, but I can honestly assure you that it does. It is a way to give yourself the ability to make yourself do things you should do and to stop yourself from doing things you shouldn’t do. These two skills together form the foundation for all self-discipline. Overriding what you want to do or not do 3 times per day, in some small way, trains your brain to be able to do so in situations when you need to. The overrides do not need to be big. They can be very small and still count. You can learn more about this exercise in the book Running on Empty.
Your 2021 Resolution: Every day of this year I will, three times, in some small way, make myself do something I don’t want to do, or stop myself from doing something I should not do.
No matter where you go, and no matter what you do in 2021, you can re-program your brain and take control of your life. Keep it simple, take control, and find your joy. Take your needs seriously, and let yourself feel.
This will be your way to treat yourself to a changing, more positive life through 2021.
This will be your way to finally, definitively, realize, and believe that you are worth the effort. And you matter.
To find out if you have CEN, Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) and how to heal it to improve your relationships, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is the silent scourge that hangs like a cloud over countless people’s lives, robbing them of the zest, the warmth, and the connection they should be feeling each and every day.
Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents (perhaps unintentionally) fail to respond to your emotional needs enough when they are raising you.
Yes, that’s all it takes.
When your parents don’t respond to your emotions enough, they send you the powerful, subliminal message that your feelings don’t matter enough. This never-stated-out-loud message in your childhood has an incredible ability to disrupt your adult life in immeasurable ways.
As a child, when you receive the subliminal CEN message over and over, your brain somehow understands the unspoken request to hide your feelings, and somehow, surprisingly, knows just what to do.
It walls off your emotions so that they will not bother your parents — or you. Tucked away on the other side, your emotions almost seem to go away. This may allow you to cope in your childhood home, but as an adult, your walled-off emotions may become a great problem for you.
**Important: Before you read about these problems, I want to tell you that there are answers to all of them. The one good thing about CEN is that all 3 of these effects can be healed.
A subliminal message gains its power from lurking in the shadows. As long as you remain unaware, your belief that your feelings are useless silently, invisibly runs your life. But fortunately for us, the opposite is also true. When you shine a light on that shadow, and see this buried belief for what it is, you can redefine it as simply this: a false belief from your childhood that is now a problem.
Once you have done this, you have taken control. You can begin to actively take it on and change it. You can replace your old, false, harmful belief with a new, healthy strategy:
My emotions are important, and I will begin to welcome them and learn to work with them.
If you work on these steps repeatedly, consistently and persistently, over time it will make a tremendous difference in your life. You will drive away that cloud that’s been hanging over you, and you will experience the zest, the warmth and the connection you’ve been watching others enjoy.
Finally, in honoring and living in your deepest self, you will, at last, be home.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn how to heal the effects of Emotional Neglect in your relationships, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
The better we grieve, the better we live.
I do believe that the quote above is absolutely true. It’s almost impossible to make it through your adulthood without experiencing a loss of some kind.
Being able to grieve in a healthy way requires a series of personality traits and skills that not everyone possesses. I have seen many people go to great lengths to avoid feeling their grief or get stuck in it, unable to look forward from it.
Many of these folks grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Joanne, who lost her husband four years ago is so bogged down in sadness that she enjoys very little in her life, and has problems getting out of bed every day.
Alex, whose sister died of breast cancer two years ago, lives a full and busy life, but feels dull and sad inside every time he stops running around and tries to relax.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote her now-famous book called On Death and Dying. In it she described the 5 stages that she frequently saw people going through after receiving a dire medical diagnosis. Since that day the 5 Stages of Grief have been applied more broadly to all kinds of losses, like break-ups or accepting the loss of a loved one. It’s also important to note that these stages are not set in stone; everyone grieves differently, and may experience different feelings in different order at different times.
The Five Stages of Grief
In my experience, having helped many clients through many losses, one of the greatest prolongers of each of the 5 Stages is having grown up without enough emotional attention, validation and response from one’s parents: Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.
When your parents do not respond enough to your emotions as a child, you learn very early and well that your emotions and emotional needs are irrelevant (or even bad) and should be avoided. To adapt, you wall off your feelings and needs so that they will not burden your parents. Not surprisingly, when you are living with your feelings blocked off, it throws major obstacles into your path through the 5 Stages.
How Childhood Emotional Neglect Blocks the 5 Stages of Grief
The whole point of the 5 Stages is to move through them. Experiencing one phase, allowing yourself to be in it and face it prepares you to move to the next phase. Moving through the phases allows your brain to process the reality, preparing you for acceptance. Acceptance must happen before you can turn your attention forward to rebuilding yourself and your life.
If this is you, it’s important to re-direct and focus yourself.
4 Ways to Manage Your CEN Through Grief
When you are grieving something, it’s crucial to acknowledge that you only feel grief when you had something great to begin with. So a part of your grief must be appreciation and gratefulness for what you had.
And remember the words of one of the greatest authors of all time:
Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.
― Leo Tolstoy
It was a scorching day in Costa Rica. My husband and I decided to take our 8-year-old son for a hike to get as close as possible to the Arenal Volcano. We walked several hours through beautiful, lush forest.
As the sun got higher and the day got hotter, we reached an endpoint marked by signs reading, DANGER, KEEP OUT. We walked around the safe side of the area for a while enjoying the beautiful birds and monkeys in the trees, and then decided to head back.
As I turned to go back in the direction we had come from, my husband said, “No, let’s not go that way. We can get there by going this way.” Puzzled, I slowly turned around and followed. As we traipsed back through the forest, I had a trembly feeling in my belly that, in hindsight I realized was fear. This did not feel right.
It had taken several hours to reach the volcano, and I knew that if we went the wrong way it could be dangerous. We had consumed all of the water we had carried, and it was getting hotter by the minute.
My gut was telling me to speak up, but my brain said, “You know you’re terrible with directions. You’re almost never right about these things. Just keep quiet and follow.”
Perhaps you’ve seen the many amazing studies over the past few years that have proven that there is a direct connection between your brain and your gut.
These new studies explain many things that used to baffle us: why we get butterflies in our stomachs when we’re nervous, and why Irritable Bowel Syndrome and ulcers are both so closely connected to and influenced by the amount of stress we are under.
Here’s the most amazing thing about the new research. We now know that the brain-gut connection travels in both directions. Not only does your emotional state (and emotional health) affect your stomach; the reverse is also true. Believe it or not, recent studies have shown that the health of your gut can also affect your psychological health and your emotions.
Clearly our human brains are wired to our guts for a reason: to connect our brain with our body in a useful way.
So choosing to ignore this vital source of information is choosing to ignore a remarkable feedback system that we are meant to have, and meant to use to our benefit.
4 Ways Your Gut Can Help You
Did some of the “gut feelings” described above seem hard for you to grasp? That is a sign that you are not closely enough connected to your gut. Which means you’re missing out an incredibly useful tool in your life.
It is certainly true that some folks are not as good at tuning in to their gut. If you’re out of touch with yours, there is probably an explanation for it. Your brain / gut pathway became disconnected for a reason. There are many possible ways for this to happen.
Potential Reasons You’re Missing Signals From Your Gut
Hopefully as you’ve been reading this you’ve been tuning in to your gut. Perhaps you’ve attempted to feel some of the gut feelings I described. Perhaps you’ve imagined the connection between your brain and gut, or even tried to visualize it.
If you have, congratulations! You have begun the process of joining your brain with your gut.
How to Start Taking Advantage of Your Brain/Gut Feedback System
And now to finish the Costa Rica story. As you may have guessed, we were indeed headed the wrong way. We were moving further from our destination, not closer. Eventually, thirsty, sweaty and covered with dust from walking down a dirt road for several hours, a kind local picked us up, gave us water, and drove us back to our hotel.
For me, this was an important lesson in trusting my gut.
And I have never forgotten it.
To learn more about the newest research findings on the gut/brain connection, see:
That Gut Feeling on The American Psychological Association website.
The Gut-Brain Connection on the Harvard Health Publications Website.
Of all human emotions, the one that people struggle with the most is anger. That’s understandable!
After all, it’s the emotion with the most potential to get us into trouble. It can be exquisitely uncomfortable, and it’s the most difficult to control.
Many people find it easier to push anger down altogether (or suppress it) to avoid discomfort and conflict and to stay out of trouble.
Some wear anger like armor in hopes it will protect them from being hurt or mistreated.
Others go back and forth between pushing it down and erupting. In fact, these two things go together. The more you suppress your anger, the more intense it will be when it finally erupts.
If you were raised by parents who had low tolerance for your feelings (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN), then you may be all too good at pushing your anger away; suppressing it and repressing it so that you don’t even have to feel it.
In fact, you may – especially if you have CEN – be so uncomfortable with the A-Word that you can’t even say it.
you may say instead of, I’m angry.
If you’re not comfortable with your anger, you’re more likely to misread and mislabel it as something milder or more diffuse.
“Isn’t stopping yourself from feeling angry a good skill to have?” you may be wondering.
The answer is actually NO.
Research has shown how very important anger is to living a healthy life.
Aarts et al. (2010) found that people who were shown a picture of an angry face were more driven to obtain an object that they were shown later. Anger is like a driver that pushes you to strive for what you want or need. Anger carries with it the message, “Act!”
Example Without Anger: Alana was getting weary of being overlooked at work. She was well-known to be skilled and reliable, and yet she was repeatedly passed over for promotion to manager. Silently she watched younger, less experienced employees move past her, one by one.
Example With Anger: Alana became angry when a less-experienced colleague was promoted. “I deserve an explanation for this. I have to get myself promoted or leave the company,” she realized. The next day she walked into her supervisor’s office and asked why she was passed over. She was promised the next promotion slot.
2. Anger can make your relationship better and stronger
Anger, when used appropriately, can be very helpful in communication:
Baumeister et al. (1990) found that hiding anger in intimate relationships can be detrimental. When you hide your anger from your partner, you’re bypassing an important message that he or she may very much need to hear.
Of course, it’s important to take great care in how you express your anger. Try your best to calibrate it to the situation and express it with as much compassion for your partner as you can.
Example Without Anger: Lance was tired of his wife Joanne’s clutter. She kept, it seemed to Lance, virtually everything. There were stacks of newspapers on the dining room table, five pairs of sneakers of various ages in their closet, and a roomful of clothes that their children had outgrown. Lance wanted that room for an office. “I’ll never get that room,” he thought resignedly. All this time Joanne had no idea that there was a problem.
Example With Anger: Lance was fed up with the clutter. He told Joanne that it was making him feel stressed and unhappy, and also angry at her. After several heated discussions, Joanne removed her personal clutter from the spare room so that Lance could make it his office. They made a truce to try to meet each other in the middle.
3. Anger can help you better understand yourself
Anger can provide insight into ourselves if we allow it.
Kassinove et al. (1997) asked a large sample of people how recent outbursts of anger had affected them. Fifty-five percent said that getting angry had led to a positive outcome. Many respondents said that the anger episode had provided them with some insight into their own faults.
Anger can help you see yourself more clearly. And it can motivate self-change.
Example Without Anger: Joanne was surprised when Lance told her how angry her clutter was making him. “That’s too bad, you’ll just have to deal with it,” she said dully while exiting the room. She promptly put it out of her mind because she didn’t want to think about it.
Example With Anger: “That’s too bad, you’ll just have to deal with it,” Joanne fired back immediately. She stormed out of the room and slammed the bedroom door. Sitting on her bed she felt enraged and criticized.
The next day Joanne woke up with a different perspective on the conflict. She looked around and saw her home as though through Lance’s eyes. She realized that she felt criticized by Lance’s request. “I need to get better at taking criticism,” she thought.
4. Anger helps you negotiate
Anger can help you get what you want.
In a study of negotiation by Van Kleef et al. (2002), people made larger concessions and fewer demands of participants who were angry than ones who were not angry.
Anger makes you more powerful, especially when it’s justified and expressed with thought and care. Lets revisit Alana, who needed to have a difficult conversation with her supervisor.
Example Without Anger: Alana walked timidly into her supervisor’s office. After chatting about the weather, she said casually, “So what do I need to do to get promoted?” Her boss answered her question and went on with her day.
Example With Anger: Alana knew she was angry and that she needed to manage her anger when talking with her boss if she wanted to be effective. She walked into her boss’s office and said, “I need to talk to you about something important.” Alana explained how upset she was by her co-worker’s promotion. Her boss explained that the promoted co-worker was an excellent employee. This made Alana even angrier. She pushed, “Yes, he’s really good. But so am I, and I have more experience and excellent skills,” she stated clearly. Her boss paused, surprised at Alana’s persistence. “You’re right,” she said. Her boss then promised Alana the next available promotion.
If you grew up emotionally ignored or in an environment that did not have the room or tolerance for you to get angry (CEN), some small part of your brain probably screams “STOP!” as soon as you get an inkling of anger. The reality is that it’s not easy to turn that around.
But you can do it. Start thinking of anger as a helpful emotion, not something to avoid. Pay attention to your anger, and try to notice when you’re feeling it. Stop saying “STOP!” to your anger. Instead, listen to your anger’s message, consciously manage your angry feeling, and let your anger motivate and energize you.
Anger, when properly managed and expressed, is power.
So when you suppress your anger, you’re suppressing your power.
And why would you do that?
To learn more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect makes you unaware of your feelings of anger see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.