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.
It’s that time again, the holidays are coming. First comes Thanksgiving so let’s start preparing now.
Since Thanksgiving is generally a family holiday, you may be excited about Thanksgiving or not-so-much. And that is likely determined by the type of family you have.
How do you feel when you get together with your family? Is it enriching and enjoyable? Or is it more draining and challenging? Or is your family experience somewhere in between?
If your family has any kind of abuse, grief, or addiction in it, for example, this family-focused holiday may be extra challenging for you.
There is one very large group of folks who either look forward to Thanksgiving and then find themselves disappointed every year, or have learned to dread it because of its draining, disheartening nature.
This large group of people struggles to identify why Thanksgiving is disappointing each year. And the answer is not anything that happens at Thanksgiving dinner. It is actually because of what does not happen when their family gets together.
What’s missing is a real, substantial emotional connection.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN: Growing up with CEN is essentially growing up in a family that has “emotion blindness.” These families are not able to see and respond to the feelings of the children enough. They may avoid meaningful discussion and tamp down or negate strong feelings instead of responding in a helpful, instructive, and supportive way to emotions.
Recent research studies have found that feeling gratitude makes people happy. So Thanksgiving is a special opportunity to focus on what you are grateful for.
And there is a silver lining to growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect. Being raised in a family that ignores your emotions forces you to adapt. You learn some life skills that will be useful throughout your lifetime.
So now, at Thanksgiving, you have some valuable things in your life to be thankful for. And when you do, I hope it will help to bring you some of the happiness that you deserve this holiday season.
Think about whether there might be one person in your family you can connect with more; it may be a sibling, a parent, aunt, uncle, cousin, or in-law. Just one person you can perhaps share your CEN experience with. You can ask them to read this blog or the Running On Empty books. It helps enormously to have an understanding person in your family.
Wondering if this blog applies to you? Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable when it happens in childhood so, as an adult, it can be difficult to know. To find out, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
Yes, Childhood Emotional Neglect left its mark on you. Yes, it will color your holidays gray if you let it. But there is a silver lining to your CEN. And now, at Thanksgiving, you can set your sights on healing and give yourself the emotional attention you never got. You are worth it.
Warmest wishes for a safe and happy Thanksgiving from me to you.
A version of this article first appeared on Psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
For centuries people have been baffled about why particular people in their lives continually hurt or manipulate them. For centuries they have searched for answers.
After years of being concerned about labeling people and causing harm, we mental health professionals finally realized that we were failing to educate people about how to manage these challenging and damaging relationships. By not talking openly about narcissism and sociopathy, we were failing to validate and protect the people who needed it the most.
Today, fortunately, you can find plentiful articles about narcissism and sociopathy throughout this entire psychcentral site as well as in many other sources on the internet.
But one thing you will not find much information about is the question of what makes some people more vulnerable to narcissistic and sociopathic people in their lives. What makes you unintentionally gravitate toward people who will manipulate you and use you strictly to fulfill their own needs? Why is it so hard to see how they are harming you or to say, “No more,
to them? Or why do you seem to attract them?
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN is far more common than most people would think. It happens in homes that seem caring and supportive, but where the parents are simply emotionally unaware. It also happens in homes with addicted, self-absorbed, depressed, or personality disordered parents.
But no matter why it happens, its effects on the child are the same. It leaves behind a child who grows into an adult disconnected from her own emotions and her own emotional needs. It creates an adult who asks for little, and who unconsciously continues the pattern of neglecting himself.
This is a perfect draw for a narcissist.
If you saw yourself in the description above, then I have one thing to say to you: it’s time. It is time to make yourself less vulnerable.
And the good news is, you can! You can heal the Emotional Neglect from your childhood and this will help you stop attracting emotionally harmful people into your life.
You can start by beginning to pay attention to yourself in all the ways that did not happen when you were a child. To do this, pause for a moment twice each day and ask yourself some very important questions that you were not asked enough as a child:
What do I want?
What do I feel?
What do I need?
Your next step will be to start saying those words, “I want, I feel, and I need,” out loud to others, finally expressing your wants, feelings and needs more.
Through all of these steps, you will be creating your own limelight. A limelight of your own making. A reflection of your inner self that you are finally allowing to shine. A limelight that is healthy and real, and that has been there all along.
The more you pay attention to yourself, the less attention you will get from narcissists or sociopaths.
The more you like and care about yourself, the less you will feel drawn to narcissists.
The more you learn to express yourself, the easier it will be for you to say, “No more” to a narcissist or sociopath in your life.
Starting down the path of recovery from your Childhood Emotional Neglect is the start to your new life. A life free of manipulation and emotional harm. A life in which you are finally protected in exactly the way you were always meant to be.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often subtle and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn how to set limits with a narcissistic parent without feeling guilty, and also why CEN makes you more likely to enter relationships with narcissists see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
All therapists know that people can change. We know this because we have been party to so many remarkable transformations made by so many people.
We see people change their habits, their ways of thinking, work through feelings, and make durable adjustments in themselves and their relationships.
I have seen countless people alter their lives from the inside by overcoming the effects of their Childhood Emotional Neglect. I have seen people heal their depression, learn to manage and defeat their anxiety, and improve their marriages and parenting skills.
But let’s face it, change is not usually easy. It takes courage, motivation, and perseverance. But so do most things of value in this life.
Watch for a future article about the specific challenges that are built into the process of healing Childhood Emotional Neglect. But there are certain challenges that derail many people as they try to change many different parts of their lives. I have seen countless good people derailed from their heartfelt efforts to grow and change by three very predictable experiences that they encounter along the way.
1. False Beliefs Set You Up For Disappointment
2. Avoidance Beckons
Change is difficult in four specific ways.
A natural reaction to all four of these challenges is avoidance. Isn’t it pretty tough to take on all of those? Wouldn’t it be more comfortable to simply put it out of your mind and not worry about taking on those battles? Of course, it would! But avoidance is the enemy of progress. Avoidance may beckon like an oasis in the desert, but it will leave you parched.
The only way to deal with a natural pull toward avoidance is to face it head-on. Take notice of those moments when your avoidance kicks in, then turn around and challenge it.
Remind yourself that avoidance will take you down a one-way street to nowhere. Remind yourself that all things worth having require effort. Then pull yourself back on track.
3. Discomfort Takes You Down
Change can be a very frightening thing. When you start to feel different from your old self, or when people start to react to you differently because of the changes you’ve made, it can feel like you’re living in an alien world.
It can become hard to know how to behave and how you should react. Suddenly, things don’t feel as safe as they once did.
In my experience, most people are unaware of their discomfort. But they feel it. And then they naturally want to retreat from their new selves and go back to where they were before.
This desire to retreat is a completely natural feeling and a very normal response. But it’s just as dangerous as any of the factors above. It definitely has the power to send you right back toward square one.
For example, many dieters, after they’ve lost their first few pounds, suddenly feel different. Even if it feels better, it also feels strange, and that’s uncomfortable. So they lose momentum and their efforts fade. Be aware of the strong possibility that this will happen to you. Watch for it. Recognize that the feelings of discomfort are normal but destructive. Don’t let them take you down. Just keep going, and eventually what feels so uncomfortable at first will become your new normal.
If you are in the process of growth, I hope you will pause for a moment and give yourself credit. Many, many, if not most, people give in to the avoidance that feels so much easier than fighting for improvement.
Giving yourself credit for your efforts will keep you energized and motivated to keep advancing. Watching for small changes instead of demanding dramatic steps from yourself will prevent you from being disappointed. Be prepared for the uncomfortable aspects of change.
Whether you are recovering from Childhood Emotional Neglect or changing some other aspect of yourself and your life, be ready. Keep at it. Don’t give up.
That is the way to make sure you won’t get stuck.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
In all of the interviews and talks I have done about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), as well as the articles I have written, certain questions keep coming up over and over again. They are excellent questions that are natural for anyone to ask, especially if you have realized that you grew up in an emotionally neglectful home, but also if you are wondering if CEN applies to you.
First, let’s define what Childhood Emotional Neglect is. It’s your parents’ failure to respond enough to your emotional needs as they raise you. This failure to respond enough emotionally can be difficult to see in many families, and it can be hard to remember as an adult. Yet its effects stay with you for a lifetime.
Once you realize this is you, it can be very, very unsettling, to say the least. Finding the answer of CEN can bring you understanding and great relief. But it also raises questions.
Unfortunately, I do not have exact numbers on this, but I can answer based on my own clinical experience plus reports from my therapist colleagues. I believe it is very common among the general population. It varies in severity from mild to extreme, based on how pervasive the emotional neglect was in childhood. I think a large portion of the population has some degree of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
Childhood is meant to be an emotional training ground. When your parents under-respond to your emotions as they raise you, they miss the opportunity to teach you how to handle your emotions. Since emotions are the most important key to healthy relationships, CEN sets you up to be at a great disadvantage in your primary relationship, with your family, and in raising your own children.
You may find yourself feeling confused about how to identify your own feelings and the feelings of others, put them into words to share them, manage conflict, and even respond in an attuned way to your children’s emotions once you become a parent.
It’s very difficult to give what you never got: emotional attunement and awareness.
The effects of CEN can be very invisible, so it is indeed hard to see in a relationship. Yet those effects can be very harmful to the warmth and connection in a relationship, especially over time. Here are some signs to look for:
• A feeling of distance that you can’t explain.
• A tendency to sweep problems under the rug.
• He/she often misrepresents what he is feeling: saying, “I’m not angry” when is quite obviously angry, for example.
• Discomfort with strong emotions in the relationship, either positive feelings, negative ones or both.
• A tendency to talk about facts and events and logistics, with little ability to focus on what really matters in a relationship: feelings, struggles, warmth.
• A sense that you are leading separate lives.
You may be drawn to partner with someone who also has CEN: If you were raised to be uncomfortable with emotions, your own as well as others’, as an adult you may feel most comfortable with someone who treats emotions the same way. You will experience them as non-threatening and safe. This will likely lead to the two of you drifting apart over time.
Being out of touch with your emotions can leave you with a deep feeling of emptiness inside. That emptiness may seek to be filled and may lead you to marry or commit too soon before you fully know the person you are marrying.
If your emotional needs were ignored or denied when you were a child, you may have a powerful fear of ever appearing needy as an adult (I call this counter-dependence). This can make the act of dating and forming a meaningful relationship feel like a weakness, or just plain wrong. Some folks with CEN are not able to override this fear of needing someone, and they are never able to commit at all.
Since emotions are the spice of life (most people don’t realize this), when your emotions are walled off due to CEN you may feel a sense of blandness in your life. You may be drawn to someone who has intense emotions. This may work out fine, but it can backfire if the other person’s intense emotions are unpredictable or can be directed at you unfairly at times.
Part of CEN is a tendency to ignore not only your feelings but also your emotional needs. If you appear to take up little emotional space and to have few needs, you may be attractive to people who take a lot of emotional space and have intense emotional needs, like a person with narcissism. This can play out over time in a damaging and negative way.
It is very helpful for the person with CEN to become aware that they have the CEN emotional style, and of how it is affecting the relationship.
Sometimes the person who does not have CEN can reach out to their CEN partner and ask them to read this article or my blog or the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect or take the CEN Questionnaire (see below), to help them understand what CEN is and become aware that they have it.
Setting a goal of paying more attention to emotions in the relationship is very helpful. In the book Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children, there are exercises and worksheets specially designed to help couples do this.
Structuring time for “meaningful talk” where surface topics are not allowed can be challenging but very helpful.
Sometimes it’s very helpful to get the support and help of a therapist to help the couple talk through old conflicts that have been ignored instead of dealt with directly. Old feelings of anger or hurt can weigh on a relationship even more than current ones.
Addressing CEN in yourself and in your relationship can have profound effects that go to every corner of your life. It changes your self-view, the quality of your connections with others, and perhaps most importantly, your parenting.
You can give yourself what you never got, and then you’ll be able to give it to the people most important to you.
If you’re not sure if you have CEN, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To heal your CEN in your self and your relationships, see Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
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.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you.
Adults who were emotionally neglected in childhood can be quite perfectionistic and hard on themselves. But for many, it does not stop there.
Why? Because the messages of Childhood Emotional Neglect run deep. They go to the heart of the child and stay there for a lifetime. They not only damage your ability to understand and trust your own feelings, but they also damage your ability to understand and trust yourself.
The messages of CEN are like invisible infusions of guilt and shame that happen every day in the life of the child.
When, because of emotional neglect, children receive the message from their parents that their feelings are a burden, excessive, or simply wrong, they take a highly effective, adaptive action. They naturally push their emotions down, under the surface so that they will trouble no one.
Believe it or not, this brilliant strategy usually works quite well. As a child, you become un-sad, un-angry, un-needy, and overall unemotional so that your parents are less bothered or burdened by you. Life becomes easier in the family, but life inside you becomes deeply lonely.
As a child of CEN, you are set up to feel, on some deep level for your entire life, that you are a burden, excessive, or somehow wrong.
Because Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) affects your relationship with your own feelings, it sets you up to feel guilty and ashamed for the very personal, inescapable human experience of having feelings.
It feels wrong to feel your feelings, and wrong to let others see your feelings. And it feels right to hide your feelings. You may even try not to have feelings at all. Yet your feelings are the most deeply personal, biological expression of your true self. They will not be denied.
Trying to deny your feelings is like the classic little Dutch boy trying to block the hole in the dike with his finger. It may feel like it works temporarily, but those feelings just keep coming and growing and pressurizing, like the water behind the dike. Being unable to control them and stop them altogether makes you feel weak and incompetent. And ashamed.
Since many emotionally neglected adults were not actively mistreated in childhood, they may remember their childhoods as fairly happy and carefree. When they look back on their childhoods for an explanation for their issues and struggles in their adult lives, they can’t pinpoint any incidents or factors to explain their current problems.
Between a “happy childhood” and inexplicable emotions, they are left with the assumption that some deep part of themselves is seriously amiss. “It’s my own fault. Something is wrong with me,” is a natural conclusion.
I hope that as you read the Guilt/Shame messages above, you realized one glaring fact about them: THEY ARE ALL FALSE!
Now please read the three vital and true remedies below. If you absorb them and own them and follow them, they will change how you feel about yourself and your life.
You can learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect leads to excess guilt and shame in adulthood in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psych central.
One of the most important challenges of growing up with your emotions under-responded to by your parents (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN) is that you then enter adulthood without the essential knowledge of what to do with your emotions.
If your parents had noticed and named what you were feeling; if they had talked with you about your intense child emotions, they would have automatically been teaching you that your feelings are real, are important, and can be managed. And just as importantly, their “emotion coaching” would have taught you some vital emotion skills for your life.
Everyone has intense emotions from time to time. I have discovered that even the people who experience themselves as emotionally empty or numb due to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) actually do have moments of strong feelings at various times.
One of the hardest questions you can ask yourself is “What am I feeling right now?” Yet there is a sort of resolving magic, like a salve, that happens with any emotion as soon as you put it into words.
If you grew up with CEN, there’s a good chance you have a tendency to judge and criticize your own feelings. “I shouldn’t feel angry/hurt/sad/afraid,” or pretty much any other emotion. But this way of judging something that is biologically wired into you, and outside of your control is a tremendous waste of energy as well as damaging to your self-esteem. Accepting what you feel must happen before you can manage the feeling.
The next step after putting what you are feeling into words and accepting it is to try to understand your feeling. Why are you feeling this emotion? What is the cause? Is this feeling old or new or a mixture of both? Is it attached to a particular situation or person?
Your emotions are a message from your body. So each time you identify that you are feeling an emotion, it’s important to quickly ask yourself some questions. First, is this feeling telling me to do something? And second, should I do it?
The first three skills above are all about honoring your emotion. Honoring an emotion involves sitting with it, accepting it and trying to understand it. For some emotions, going through the process of honoring it is enough to make it tolerable.
But some emotions carry messages so powerful that they push you toward action. And for these, Step 4 becomes an absolute necessity. If you fail to follow through with Step 4, these feelings will keep revisiting you until you either attend properly to them or follow their directive. And their directive may be the absolute wrong thing for you.
So Stage 4 is, in some ways, the most important. It’s the difference between indulging your emotion and using it in a healthy and productive way.
Rachel has processed her emotion, and realized that the feeling she is experiencing is anger and that she’s feeling it toward her fiancé Toby for forgetting to pick her up from the train.
Rachel asks herself if this anger is telling her to do something. “It’s telling me to yell at Toby. I want to tell him he’s inconsiderate and selfish.”
“Should I do that?” Rachel asked herself. “Does Toby deserve that?” As she considers this question, Rachel thinks about Toby. Has he left me stranded before? Is he generally a selfish person? Am I worried about this happening again?
As with most emotions, Rachel’s answer is complex. Early in their relationship, Toby was thoughtless and careless, and they had multiple fights about that. But Toby had listened and grown, and for a solid two years he had been reliable and caring and devoted to her. The likely reason he forgot today is that he had a stressful job interview that didn’t go well.
Rachel realizes that much of her anger about Toby’s mistake was old anger left over from the early years. Yet she notices that this realization is not enough to make the feeling go away.
I need to tell Toby that his mistake upset me, and reminded me of the past. But I need to do it with care because this time it was an honest mistake. And Toby has earned my understanding.
In truth, learning these four emotion skills and using them can change the course of your life. When you learn how to process your feelings in this way, you are finally connecting to a font of natural energy and direction that erupts from your deepest self.
You are also healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be a subtle experience in your childhood so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn more about how to use your emotions to connect to the people you care about, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
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.