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How COVID-19 May Be Affecting Your Relationship With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents at the Holidays

Two things are going on right now that are causing more pain in adults’ relationships with their emotionally neglectful parents. Care to guess what they are? It’s the holidays plus the COVID-19 Pandemic. Mixed together, they create a cocktail of uncertainty, worry, emotional distance, and feelings of emptiness.

COVID-19 is affecting many people in many different ways. But one effect that is shared by most, perhaps virtually all, of us these days is that it, especially combined with the holidays during this unusual year, is making us feel more vulnerable.

Exactly what do I mean by vulnerable? I mean many different flavors of vulnerable feelings.

In this unprecedented time, you may be feeling more physically, socially, and emotionally vulnerable than usual and perhaps more so than ever before in your life.

You may feel physically vulnerable due to the risk of getting sick.

You may feel socially vulnerable due to being cut off or distanced from your family and friends.

And you may be feeling emotionally vulnerable, a product of all three of the factors above. On top of all that, most of us are spending more time alone with fewer distractions. The pandemic, with its social distancing, requires you to sit with yourself more, so it’s difficult to escape your feelings, anxieties, doubts, and fears. And they may be many.

Your Relationships

As COVID-19 drags on, the holidays approaching, and the world awaiting a vaccine, many relationships have been affected. Some have been enlivened or deepened or enriched. Marriages, friendships, and families have become closer, more mutually dependent, and more supportive.

Other relationships have been strained by the present situation we are in. They have been challenged, weakened, frustrated, broken, or pained.

As someone who hears from hundreds of people every week who are doing their best to cope with the pandemic, as well as the holidays, one of the relationship types that I have noticed taking a lot of boosts, as well as hits, are the relationships between CEN adults and their parents.

Whatever your situation with your parents, the pandemic may be complicating it. Your parents may live nearby or far away. You may have had issues with your parents before COVID-19. Your parents may be healthy emotionally and physically or they may be elderly and frail. They may be living in a facility.

Whatever the circumstances, I believe that millions of people are feeling extra vulnerable right now and are finding themselves struggling with their parents in some new way. And it is all due to circumstances that are completely out of their control.

7 Ways COVID-19 + the Holidays are Affecting Adults’ Relationships With Their Parents

  1. You may feel a need to reconnect. As the 2020 holidays approach, you may have become somewhat distant from your parents. Whether that was intentional or unintentional, you may find yourself feeling a longing to be more in touch with them.
  2. You may worry about their physical and mental health. The Pandemic may be making it hard for you to communicate with or see your parents. You may feel less able to be involved in their choices or care.
  3. You may feel more in need of validation. All human beings need to feel seen and known and loved by their parents. We need to hear certain things from our parents that assure us that our feelings and needs matter. If we don’t receive enough of that in our childhoods (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN), our brains automatically continue to seek it as adults. To need this from your parents is not a sign of weakness, but of your humanity. Feeling vulnerable right now in general may make you need this validation from your parents even more. It’s painful.
  4. You may feel afraid of losing them. Will your parents get COVID? You may find yourself worrying about or imagining how you would feel if you lost them.
  5. You may find yourself appreciating them more. There’s nothing like a fear of loss to make you more appreciative. You may be feeling more love, more warmth, or gratefulness for what your parents have done for you.
  6. You may experience them as needy. Are your parents calling you more often, asking you for help or advice or support? Do they need to connect with you more often than has been typical of them? This is likely because they are feeling vulnerable or worrying about you.
  7. Family dynamics may be intensified. Not surprisingly, stress aggravates previously existing problems of all kinds. So, in many families, old anger or frustration, or resentment has been fomenting and increasing under the powerful pressure and strain of COVID-19.

The Role of Childhood Emotional Neglect

If you grew up in an emotionally unavailable (CEN) family, you may be experiencing several of the effects above. You may feel a longing to receive the ingredients that were missing from your childhood, while also feeling distant and helpless and disappointed in your parents.

When you do not receive enough emotional attention, empathy, meaningful conversation, or validation from your parents as a child, (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN) you are naturally, as an adult, continually driven back to try to capture it. But your CEN parents may simply not have it to give, and this compounds your pain.

3 Ways to Cope

  • Put yourself first. Your parents are important people, of course, but your primary responsibility in life is to yourself. So be sure to prioritize your own needs during this stressful time. Your physical, mental and emotional needs must be addressed before you can give to others, even your parents.
  • Try to accept what you cannot change. This wise principle is one of the tenets of 12-Step Programs and it applies here. You do not have control over your parents and you cannot change their choices. You also cannot get from your parents what that they do not have to give, like emotional validation, empathy, or connection. Accepting your powerlessness in this relationship can be quite painful, but it does protect you from the wheel-spinning and frustration of continually going back to an empty well, looking for the emotional connection that never appears.
  • Take note of what your feelings are telling you. Your feelings are communications from your body. Every feeling carries a specific message. For example, the feeling of longing drives you to contact them more, whereas anger/frustration tells you to take protective action. Your feelings are trying to guide you, but there is a second question to ask yourself: Is this feeling telling me to do something healthy for me or something that may be unhealthy or damaging? It is important to notice and listen to your feelings, but it’s important to process them first. Sometimes, it can help to run this by someone you trust to gain a more objective opinion of what is healthy for you.

Most likely, this pandemic is affecting many of your relationships for better or for worse. And now, with the holidays upon us too, the one thing you can do right now that will make you stronger in every area of your life: nurture yourself, care for yourself, and pay attention to what you are feeling.

When you feel vulnerable, treat yourself as if you are your own number one. Because you are.

Wonder if you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family? Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. See the book Running On Empty to learn what CEN is and how it affects you now; and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships to learn how you can heal CEN with your partner, parents, and children.

4 Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Can Take a Toll on Your Physical Health

In recent years, medical and psychological journals have been exploding with studies showing the close relationship between our bodies and our minds.

Study after study shows that the way we think and feel each day has a powerful effect on our health.

For example, carrying around negative feelings (like sadness, anger, hurt, or stress, for example), has been shown to increase the amount of inflammation in your body, which then affects the strength of your immune system which makes you more vulnerable to getting sick. — Jennifer E.Graham-Engelanda, et al.; Brain, Behavior and Immunity, 2018.

Another important study showed that people who are better at regulating their feelings, or in other words managing them, have overall better physical health than people who are not skilled in this way. — Yiying Song, et al., Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, 2014.

And yet another study that looked at how couples argue confirmed what has been shown in multiple other studies: being prone to angry outbursts makes you more prone to cardiovascular problems; and holding in your anger or hurt feelings in a conflict, (the researchers call this stonewalling) over time, is highly associated with back and muscular problems. — Robert Levenson, et al., Emotion, 2016.

This is only a very tiny sampling of the large body of research that proves the close relationship between how you treat your feelings and many aspects of your physical health.

This, of course, begs the question: Why aren’t we all actively trying to get better at managing our emotions so that we can improve our physical health? What’s stopping us? What is in the way?

As a psychologist, just like other therapists, I face these questions every single day. I see how people struggle with their own emotions, and I watch the effects of it all.

I also see that the most common reason people struggle with their feelings so much is Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you. It is common and even happens in loving homes.

We are all born with our emotions biologically hardwired into us. They emanate from the base of our human brains and travel through special receptors into and through our bellies.

We all have emotions, whether we like it or not. We cannot choose to have feelings or not have feelings, and we cannot choose what we feel.

This is why, if you grew up with CEN, you may be unknowingly living with the effects of CEN, destined for physical problems that you could have prevented if only you had known.

Don’t be worried as you read this. Because you are about to know. And once you know, you can reverse it all.

3 Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Harms Your Physical Health

  1. Internalization of anger can cause heart problems. As the Levenson study above shows, holding in your anger takes a toll on your heart. If you grow up in a household that is intolerant of your anger, ignores your anger, or fails to name, discuss or validate the reasons for your anger, you learn only one way to deal with it: wall it off. This may allow you to cope as a child, but it can harm your heart.
  2. Sensitivity to stress can cause back problems or headaches. What makes you sensitive to stress? Not dealing with your feelings. When you wall off your fear, your insecurity, your uncertainty, your anger, sadness, or hurt, those feelings do not go away. They simply pool together on the other side of the wall, waiting for something to touch them off. Then, when it happens, they all surge at you, making you feel overwhelmed and stressed. So going through your life with your feelings blocked makes you more sensitive to stress.
  3. Lack of self-awareness makes you vulnerable to poor habits. Families who don’t notice what their child is feeling miss getting to know their child on a deeply personal level. So they sadly remain unaware of who their child really is. I have seen, over decades of treating Childhood Emotional Neglect, that if your parents don’t see you, you do not learn that you are worth looking at. You grow up to be unaware of your own needs, and deep down you don’t realize that your needs even matter. You then are vulnerable to eating or sleeping too much or too little, drinking too much, or engaging in other behaviors that can harm your health.

3 Steps to Stop Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) From Harming Your Health

  1. Start paying attention to your feelings as you go through your day.
  2. Learn more emotion words and make an effort to use them, including naming your own feelings see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect for an exhaustive list of feeling words).
  3. As you do steps 1 and 2 you will start to feel more. Now it is time to begin to actively take charge of your feelings. Work on learning the emotion skills: tolerating, identifying, and expressing your feelings.

As a therapist who specializes in Childhood Emotional Neglect, I help people stop allowing their unmanaged emotions to damage their lives and health every single day.

I have watched people go from a near-complete lack of awareness of their emotions and a deeply held belief that they don’t matter to not only feeling their feelings but being aware of them and actively managing them.

Amazingly, once we allow ourselves to feel, along comes with it a sense of being a real person with real needs, wants, opinions and value.

A real person who matters, and whose health matters. Someone who is worth caring for. And someone who cares.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, see the author’s biography below this article for a link to Take the free Emotional Neglect Test.

To learn much more about how to feel your emotions and show yourself better self-care, see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More.

3 Factors That Will Keep You Stuck If You Let Them

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.

3 Factors That Will Keep You Stuck — If You Let Them

1. False Beliefs Set You Up For Disappointment

  • The belief that change should be linear: It is natural to expect that, once you start working to make a change, you should see success that gradually builds upon itself, getting better and better over time. Picture a staircase that you are climbing, taking one step at a time, with steady progress upward. Most real change does not work that way at all. Instead, it comes in fits and starts. Two steps up, one step down. The real key is to just keep working through the backward steps, consistently and persistently, until you take another step forward.
  • The belief that setbacks are failures: The danger of feeling like you’ve failed when you have a setback is that feelings of failure can easily turn into self-anger. And self-anger is the enemy of progress. It can freely send you off track or backward.
  • The belief that if you get off track, you may as well give up: Getting off track is built into the process of making a change. If you are trying to eat better, exercise, or change any longstanding behavior or habit, there’s a very high probability that more than once you will get off track. It is absolutely OK if it happens, and it’s immaterial to your ultimate success, as long as you don’t give up.

2. Avoidance Beckons

Change is difficult in four specific ways.

  • You have to make yourself do something that feels foreign and new
  • You have to be able to make yourself do something that’s difficult
  • You have to be persistent, as described above
  • You have to do a lot of work

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.

Summary

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.

The Most Personal Question You Can Ask Someone

Before you read the rest of this article please consider this: What do you think is the most personal question you can ask someone?

Some possibilities:

  1. How much money do you make?
  2. How old are you?
  3. How much do you weigh?
  4. What’s your biggest secret?
  5. Boxers or briefs?

Yes, those are all very personal questions, for sure. But nevertheless, the answer is, as you may have suspected, NONE OF THE ABOVE.

The most personal question you can ask another person is “What are you feeling?”

Two things make this question so distinctly personal. First, you are asking about the other person’s feelings. And second, our feelings are the most deeply personal, biological expression of who we are.

Asking a person what they are feeling is inquiring about their deepest self. When you ask this question you are trying to understand or know this person’s inner experience. So this question is very personal, but it is so much more!

Because of the reasons outlined above, “What are you feeling?” is also one of the most caring questions you can ask. It’s a way of saying, “I care about the experience of your inner self. I want to know about the real you.”

“What are you feeling?” has other versions like:

How do you feel? (Emotionally not physically)

What do you feel about that?

What do you feel?

What are your feelings?

Despite the enormous value and power of all these questions, they are, each and every one, drastically underused in today’s world. Jokes and cartoons abound depicting harassed husbands dreading these questions from their wives.

Many people think of emotion as a weakness that is not to be talked about. Others believe that asking someone about their feelings is a violation of their privacy. But neither of these assumptions is actually true or valid in any way.

Of course, the questions can be applied in the wrong way, to the wrong person or at the wrong time. But most people, fearing any of that, refrain from asking it to the right person at the right time, potentially missing multiple opportunities to express interest and care on a deeply meaningful level.

3 Ways To Use The Most Personal Question

  1. Ask it to your partner in the middle of a difficult conversation to express interest and care on a deep level.
  2. Pose it to your child to help her become aware that she has feelings and give her the message that you care what she is feeling.
  3. Put it to a friend who seems out of sorts, to help him focus inward.

The Most Important Way To Use The Most Personal Question

Use it on yourself.

Yes, that is right. Use it on yourself.

As seldom as you pose this question to others, I’m willing to bet that you pose it even less often to yourself. But this is a very, very important question for you to ask yourself multiple times, every single day.

In my experience as a psychologist, and in my study of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), I have found that this question prevents Childhood Emotional Neglect in children when they are asked it by their parents. I have also seen that it cures Childhood Emotional Neglect when adults ask it of themselves.

Asking yourself, “What am I feeling?” accomplishes multiple healthy aims.

  • It turns your attention inward as you try to answer it.
  • It forces you to pay attention to your feelings.
  • It helps you learn how to name your emotions.
  • It validates the importance of your feelings.
  • It puts you in touch with your feelings, which will allow them to help and guide you.

If your parents failed to notice or respond to your feelings enough as they raised you (Childhood Emotional Neglect), they set you up to believe that your feelings do not matter. Perhaps you’ve always felt it best to ignore them.

But sadly, living this way is blocking you from feeling all the joy, warmth, connection, excitement, anticipation, and love that you should be experiencing each and every day. Living with Childhood Emotional Neglect is a little like having a cloud hanging over your head through your entire adult life. It affects your inner life, your decisions, and virtually all of your relationships.

Amazingly, all of these adult struggles can be overcome by a combination of self-focus,  self-knowledge and emotion training. And all can be accomplished by the simple act of asking yourself what you are feeling.

When you shift your approach to “feelings” from avoidance to acceptance, a truly remarkable change happens in your life. You begin to become aware of a part of yourself you never saw before, and a level of connection with others that you never knew existed before.

So ask. Ask the people who matter, and especially ask yourself.

What are you feeling? What am I feeling?

And reap the rewards of daring to ask the most personal question of all.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and hard to remember so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The CEN Test. It’s free.

To learn much more about how to deepen and strengthen your relationships by paying more attention to emotions, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

The Hallmarks Of A Resilient Relationship: Harmony Rupture Repair

“Happily Ever After.”

How many times have you heard that phrase?

Speaking for myself, it is many, many, many. And every single time I hear it, I wince.

Since the phrase is used so often to describe the hopes and expectations of people in relationships, I do find myself wincing a lot.

Every couples therapist knows that happiness in a long-term relationship does not come easily. Both members of every couple must fight for their love each and every day. Anyone who has successfully navigated a successful long-term relationship or marriage knows that there is no such thing as happily ever after.

Nevertheless, common culture continues to promote the notion that when you find the right person, things should naturally flow in a positive direction. Nothing could be further from the truth.

One of the worst enemies of happiness in a relationship is stagnation. The couple that stops growing together ends up growing apart. In every successful relationship, each member of the couple must be challenging the other to grow and change in meaningful ways.

It’s not about changing into a different person for your partner; it’s only about listening to your partner’s feelings and needs and making an honest effort, out of love, to meet them. As long as your partner is asking for healthy things (even if they’re painful or difficult), this is a process of pushing each other to grow. That is the hallmark of a successful relationship.

When you are truly in a relationship that is working, there must be friction to keep both partners growing. The friction shows that you are being honest with each other and that you are willing to fight for the relationship. The changes you make for each other are both an expression of your love and a product of your love.

Every healthy relationship follows a predictable, productive pattern. This pattern is the hallmark of a healthy, stimulating, growing, resilient relationship.

Harmony — Rupture — Repair

  • Harmony: This is everyone’s favorite part of the relationship cycle. It’s the feeling you have when things are going smoothly between you and your partner. You’re enjoying each other’s company and you are getting along. No fighting, no friction. This is what people are imagining when they utter the phrase “happy ever after.” And it’s the picture that popular culture likes to paint of successful relationships. Everyone would like to believe that this is how relationships are supposed to be. But actually, this stage must be earned not just once, but over and over again.
  • Rupture: It is actually not humanly possible for the Harmony stage to last forever. Every single coupling of human beings on this earth is on a path toward rupture. It’s not a matter of whether a rupture will occur; it is a matter of when. But the good news is that ruptures are not bad. They are actually opportunities to deepen, enrich and enliven the relationship. The rupture holds the passion and the clash brings out the feeling. And feeling is the glue and spice that makes every relationship valuable and worthwhile.
  • Repair: The Repair phase is where the real work happens. What do you need your partner to do to fix this problem, and what can you do to make him happy? Working out a new understanding or a compromise, or deciding to work toward a change communicates love and care, shows commitment and builds trust with each other. When you do this phase right, you continually learn more and more relationship skills that you can use over and over again, making problems become less and less painful as they happen. Going through rough waters together and coming through to the other side intact propels you into the Harmony phase, where you enjoy the love and dedication and care that has been there all along.

If you grew up in a family that avoided conflict, squelched emotions or discouraged meaningful conversation (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN), you are at great risk of avoiding or squelching the healthy rupture your relationship needs or being unable to initiate and/or tolerate the meaningful conversation to repair it.

If you grew up with CEN, learning that rupture in your adult relationship is not a failure but an opportunity can open doors to building valuable communication and emotion skills and to a much more rewarding and resilient relationship.

Harmony – Rupture – Repair – Harmony – Rupture – Repair – Harmony – Rupture – Repair. On and on it goes, one phase following another. It’s not a sign of a problem, but a sign of health and love and commitment.

The harmony brings the joy, the rupture stokes the passion and the repair builds the trust.

And that’s what “Happily Ever After” actually looks like.

To learn exactly how to take the steps to connect emotionally with your partner, see the book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, your Parents & Your Children.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take the CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.

The Emotional Legacy of Childhood Emotional Neglect: Guilt and Shame

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.

  • The First Guilt/Shame Message of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): No one wants to see your feelings.

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. 

  • The Second Guilt/Shame Message of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Your feelings are shameful.

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.

  • The Third Guilt/Shame Message of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): There is something wrong with you.

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.

Signs and Signals of CEN-Induced Guilt and Shame – From the Book Running on Empty

  • You sometimes feel emotionally numb
  • You have a deep sense that something is wrong with you
  • You feel that you are somehow different from other people
  • You tend to push down feelings or avoid them
  • You try to hide your feelings so others won’t see them
  • You tend to feel inferior to others
  • You believe you have no excuse for not being happier in your life

The Antidote For Your Guilt & Shame

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.

  • Feelings are not subject to the laws of right and wrong. You cannot choose your feelings because they’re literally wired into your biology. It is essential to accept what you feel because that must be done before you can manage what you feel.
  • Your feelings are a sign of your health and strength. Your emotions are the opposite of a sign of weakness. When others see what you feel, they instantly connect with you. And when others know your feelings they have an opportunity to respond to your true self. That is powerful.
  • There is nothing wrong with you. The only thing wrong with you is the message of CEN that your child self internalized. And you share those same messages with millions of other people. You are an intact, healthy person who can learn and change your beliefs, learn to manage your emotions, let go of your guilt and shame, and heal.

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.

Parents, You Can Reverse Generations of Emotional Neglect By Doing 3 Small Things

Can well-meaning, loving parents fail their child emotionally? Surprisingly, and unfortunately, the answer is yes.

It is possible for even the most caring and well-intentioned parents to be emotionally neglectful. In fact, the largest subset of emotionally neglectful parents genuinely do love their children and want the best for them. I have encountered so many such parents over the years that I assigned them a name: Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves parents — or WMBNTs.

Those who were raised by emotionally neglectful parents are literally set up to under-respond to their own children’s feelings once they become parents. No matter how well-meaning they are as parents, it becomes not only vital but necessary for them to make a special, conscious effort to attend to the feeling side of life with their own children.

The truth is, to love your child is a very different thing from being in tune with your child. For healthy development, loving a child just isn’t enough. Parents must also be in tune with their child.

For a parent to be in tune, he must be a person who is aware of and understands emotions in general. He must be observant so that he can see what his child can and can’t do as he develops. And he must be willing and able to put in the effort and energy required to deeply know his child. A well-meaning parent who lacks in any one of these areas is at risk of emotionally failing his child.

To get a better idea of how Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves (WMBNT) parenting works, I’m going to share a vignette from my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Jack

Jack walks home from school with a worry on his mind. He knows that his teacher, Ms. Simpson, sent an email to his mother about his disrespectful behavior in class today. When Jack walks into the house, his Mother is in the living room watching her favorite show. “Hi, Jack, how was school?” she says absent-mindedly. Jack stands next to his mother on the couch and nervously stammers, “Well, actually Ms. Simpson…”  

“Hang on one sec, Jack. This is the very end of the show,” Jack’s mom says, interrupting him. Jack stands awkwardly next to the sofa for a moment, but after a minute or so he gets bored and distracted. Retreating to his bedroom to play video games, Jack forgets all about the email. The next day his mother sees Ms. Simpson’s email, which says, “Jack was disrespectful to me in class today. He continued to laugh and talk with his friend after I’d asked him several times to stop.” As Jack’s mom reads the message, she is momentarily bothered. But she thinks to herself, “Wow, Ms. Simpson sure overreacts to things,” and puts the note, and the problem, behind her.

In this example, Jack’s mom, although a loving mother, is not attending to the feeling level of life. She didn’t sense Jack’s anxiety about the problem at school. She does not see a reason to be concerned about his disrespect toward his teacher because she’s blind to the connection between behavior, feelings, and relationships — in this case, the relationship between Jack and Mrs. Simpson. She places no value on Mrs. Simpson’s feelings, dismissing them as an “overreaction.” These are all sure signs of a person who is not aware or in touch with the world of emotion, and who lives mostly on the surface of life.

The world is full of WMBNT Parents. And probably almost none of these well-meaning people have any idea that they are not providing their children with the fuel that they would need for a happy, connected life. They are each simply recreating what they experienced in their own childhoods.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of Emotional Neglect is that it’s self-propagating. Emotionally neglected children grow up with a blind spot to emotions, their own as well as those of others. When they become parents themselves, they’re unaware of the emotions of their own children, and just like Jack’s mom, they raise their children to have the same blind spot. And so on and so on and so on, the circle continues.

The Good News – 3 Things You Can Start Doing Right Now

As a WMBNT parent, it is never too late. Whether your child is a toddler, tween, teen or adult, there are specific things you can do to prevent or heal the Childhood Emotional Neglect that was passed down to you, and never your choice.

  • Begin to address your own Emotional Neglect. You were raised to ignore your own feelings, and so now you do. But you can turn the tables, and start to honor yourself in a new way. By caring about and noticing your own feelings and emotional needs, you will naturally begin to notice your child’s in a new way. The more you heal yourself, the more emotionally healthy and strong your child will be.
  • Get more curious. Ask your child more questions. Emotionally neglectful parents tend to talk when it’s necessary. You can change that! Talking more, especially asking questions and then listening intently, gives your child a loud and clear message that will turn the tides on the Childhood Emotional Neglect you were handed by your parents. The message is, “You matter. I care what you feel and think. I care who you are.”
  • Make a point to talk about meaningful things with your child. Life is full activities, plans, events, and things people do. Try to focus more on the world of emotion that runs like a river through it all. Notice your small child’s feelings; or if she is older, ask her what she’s feeling. Help her name what she is feeling, and talk with her on an emotional level. You can do that with a child of any age.

When you give your child the message that you are interested in his true self, you are plowing through generations of neglect, and reversing it.

You are making a difference that will change your child’s life forever. To learn much more about how to heal Childhood Emotional Neglect with the people you care about the most, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is often subtle and invisible so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

The Incredible Power of Validation and How To Do It

What Does Validation Look Like?

Tim and Barbie sat slumped in their chairs feeling exhausted and hopeless. A full hour of talking had failed to make progress toward resolving their conflict. In fact, they were now much farther apart than they were when they started.

I see it all the time and everywhere. In families, marriages, friendships, politics, and the workplace. People going head-to-head and toe-to-toe, often with the best intentions to reach a resolution, only to find that their attempts to discuss it make things worse.

If all these people knew that there is a simple, almost magical thing they can do to reach through the conflict, connect with the other person, and forge forward, I’m sure that they would do it right away.

As she slumped in her chair, Barbie realized that she was perseverating on her own point of view. She became aware of how angry she was at Tim for not listening and not seeming to care how she felt. Then suddenly, a lightbulb went on in her head, and she said,” Tim, please tell me again why you refuse to spend the holiday weekend with my family.”

It’s Not About Giving In

Validation is not about compromising your own point of view. It’s not about giving in. It’s not about manipulation, or agreeing, or even resolving. Validation is something that can happen in one sentence, in one moment. It’s a blip that occurs in a conversation that can make all the difference in where that conversation goes.

“As I already explained multiple times, I cannot stand being around your brother that long,” Tim explained. “He is the most boorish, obnoxious, unpleasant person I have ever met. He will ruin the holidays for me, and I don’t want our children around him,” Tim repeated with exasperation.

Keep reading, because validation has not happened yet. Barbie is, however, listening intently to Tim’s words, looking directly into his eyes as he talks. This is something she did not do for the entire hour of their previous conversation.

“I get it,” Barbie said. “I totally understand why you feel that way.”

This was the moment of validation. If you were watching this conversation happen between Barbie and Tim, you would see Tim’s angry posture slightly relax as he took in Barbie’s words. At that moment, he feels unexpectedly heard and understood. He feels validated.

To validate someone is not at all the same as agreeing with them. It’s only a way to say that you understand their feelings. That one moment of understanding has the power to change the course of your interaction, sending you on the road to a resolution.

3 Steps to Validate Someone

  1. Change to a listening posture. Listen to what the person is saying, and try to grasp the feelings behind it. When Barbie did this, she realized that Tim finds her brother far more offensive than she does. She puts a realization together in her head: Tim didn’t grow up with her brother and doesn’t understand him as she does. Tim takes her brother’s behavior at face value and is greatly offended by it.

  2. Try your hardest to feel what the other person is feeling, especially if you don’t agree with it. When Barbie actually listens and imagines being Tim, she is able to feel his frustration and irritation. As she feels Tim’s feelings for just that moment, he experiences a moment of validation. In that moment, he finally feels heard and understood.
  3. Tell the other person you understand why they would feel that way. You don’t need to say, “I feel the same way,” “I agree,” or “You are right.” You only need to say that you get it.

The Takeaway

When you give someone a moment of validation, you are accomplishing several goals simultaneously. You are establishing a meeting-of-the-minds, you are connecting, and you are helping the other person open up to your point of view as well.

People who feel validated are far more open to the opinions of others. Now that Barbie has validated Tim’s feelings, he will be far more able to hear what she has to say, and imagine what she is feeling.

If you grew up with a lack of validation yourself (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN), you will likely have a hard time validating others, especially during times of conflict or anger. Yet validation has the power to turn a negative cycle into a positive one.

Growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can leave you devoid of many emotion skills like validation. To learn more, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn many more ways to improve your relationships with the people you care about, see my new book,  Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Can Make You an Avoidant Adult

You shy away from the limelight. You stay out of trouble. You prefer to stay out of the way. You try not to make waves.

Of all of the kinds of anxiety people can experience, avoidance is probably one of the least studied and least talked about. I think that’s probably because avoidant folks are quiet. They do stay out of the way and they do not tend to make waves.

But, the reality is, avoidance is a serious problem to live with. Take a look at the characteristics of avoidance below. These are some of the symptoms listed in the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) to identify Avoidant Personality Disorder. Please note that these are not a full description of Avoidant Personality. Do not attempt to use these symptoms to diagnose yourself or someone else. Only a licensed mental health professional is qualified to make a diagnosis.

  • Secretly feeling inferior to others, and struggling with shame
  • Reluctance to pursue goals, take risks or meet new people
  • High sensitivity to criticism, and fear of rejection
  • Assuming that others see you in a negative light
  • Trying not to get too close to people
  • You suspect that you enjoy things less than other people do
  • Often having anxiety in social situations

You may read through the list above and feel that you are reading about yourself. Even if you answer yes to only some of the items above, it means that you may have an “avoidant style.”

Many people are living their lives with Avoidant Personality disorder. And many, many more folks have an avoidant style. Most avoidant folks fight their own private battles on their own, secretly and quietly.

It is very possible to suffer silently with an intense fear of rejection, closeness, or social situations but still soldier on, essentially unimpaired on the outside, but miserable on the inside.

Now let’s talk about you. Do you see yourself in this description of avoidance? We will talk more about avoidance in a moment. But first, we must discuss Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Because I have seen a remarkable connection between Childhood Emotional Neglect and avoidant tendencies in adults.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): When your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions and emotional needs.

What happens to a child whose parents too seldom say, “What’s wrong?” and then listen with care to their answer. How does it affect a child to have parents who are blind to what they are feeling? Parents who, through probably no fault of their own, fail to offer emotional support, or fail to truly see the child for who she is?

Childhood Emotional Neglect teaches you, the child, to avoid feeling, expressing, and needing. You are learning to avoid the very thing that makes you the most real and the most human: your emotions.

When you grow up this way, you grow up feeling invisible, and believing that your emotions and emotional needs are irrelevant. You grow up feeling that your emotional needs should not exist and are a sign of weakness. You grow up to feel ashamed that you have feelings and needs at all.

CEN is a breeding ground for shame, low self-worth, and yes, avoidance.

Five Important Points About Avoidance

  1. Avoidance is actually nothing more than a coping mechanism. If you avoid something that scares you, you do not have to deal with it. That feels like success.
  2. You developed this coping mechanism for a reason in your childhood. You needed it, and it probably, in some way, served you well in your childhood home. It may have been the only coping mechanism you could learn if no one was helping you learn other, more effective ways of coping.
  3. When you use avoidance enough as a way to cope, it eventually becomes your “signature move.” It becomes a solution that you go to over and over again. It becomes your style.
  4. Avoidance feeds fear. The more you avoid what you fear, the more you fear it. Then the more you avoid it. And so on and so on and so on, around and around it goes in an endless circle, growing ever larger.
  5. All of the symptoms of avoidance you saw at the beginning of this article have one common denominator that drives them. It’s a feeling and also a belief. It is this: a deep, powerful feeling that you are not as valid as everyone else. Somehow, on some level, you just don’t matter as much. This is one of the prime consequences of Childhood Emotional Neglect. (I call it The Fatal Flaw.)

It is very difficult to take on challenges in life when you don’t believe in yourself. It’s hard to be vulnerable in relationships when you don’t feel on equal footing with the other person. It’s hard to put yourself out there when you feel so secretly flawed.

This is why you must not let avoidance run your life. You must turn around and face it. Not later. Not tomorrow. But now.

You Can Become Less Avoidant

  1. Answer this question for yourself: What did you need to avoid in your childhood home?
  2. Accept that your avoidance is a coping mechanism that can be replaced by far better, healthier coping skills.
  3. Start observing yourself. Make it your mission to notice every time you avoid something. Start a list, and record every incident. Awareness is a vital first step.
  4. Look through the list, and notice the themes. Is there a trend toward avoiding social situations? Risks? Goals? Feelings? Needs?
  5. Start, little by little, one-step-at-a-time, facing things. How pervasive is your avoidance? If it is everywhere of everything, I urge you to seek a therapist’s help. If you have success on your own, be persistent. Don’t give up, no matter how hard it gets.
  6. Learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect. To find out whether CEN was a part of your childhood, I invite you to take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

The more you face things, the less scary they become, and the easier they become to face again, and the more you face. And so on and so on and so on, around and around it goes in an endless circle, growing ever larger.

But this circle is a healthy, strong one that is a reversal of the circle of avoidance that began in your childhood. This circle will take you somewhere healthy and positive and good.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, and how it causes avoidance, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

7 Common False Beliefs About Relationships

7 Common False Beliefs About Relationships

  1. Sharing your feelings with others will make you look weak.
  2. It’s best not to fight if you want to have a good relationship.
  3. Sharing your feelings or troubles with another person burdens them.
  4. Talking about a problem isn’t helpful. Only action solves a problem.
  5. Sharing your feelings or troubles with another person will chase them away.
  6. Letting others see your weaknesses puts you at a disadvantage.
  7. If you let other people see how you feel, they will use it against you.

As you read the list of beliefs above, did any jump out at you? Was there one, or two, or more, that you thought, “Hey, that one’s not false!”?

If so, you are not alone. Many, many people go through their lives following some or all of these guidelines. And many, many people are held back by them. These beliefs have the power to keep you at an emotional distance from others, damage your friendships and marriage, and leave you feeling alone in the world.

The beliefs are typically rooted in your childhood. They are often messages passed down from one generation to another. They take root in your mind and live there, sometimes outside of your awareness.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Teaches You the False Beliefs

These ideas tend to thrive in any family that struggles with emotions, either by over or under-expressing it. They’re so common among folks who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) that they’re included in my book, Running on Empty. All of the beliefs are based on false notions of how emotions work.

If you grew up in a family that didn’t understand how to manage, express or talk about emotion, you probably didn’t learn how and when to share or be vulnerable. You may have learned that it’s actually wrong to communicate about these things.

And chances are some of the 7 beliefs were communicated to you, either directly or indirectly.

The 7 False Beliefs Made True

  1. Letting people see your feelings usually makes them like you more. It also fosters intimacy.
  2. The hallmark of a strong, healthy relationship or friendship is the ability to have a conflict, process it together, and work through it together. In fact, fighting is often a sign of closeness.
  3. Sharing your feelings or troubles with the right person at the right time does not burden them. It increases warmth and caring from the other person.
  4. Talking about a problem with a well-chosen person can help you get perspective, feel less burdened, sort out your feelings and thoughts, and sometimes even provide solutions
  5. Sharing your feelings or troubles with the right person will make him/her feel closer to you.
  6. Letting another person see your weakness does not put you at a disadvantage unless the other person is the type of person to take advantage of you. Be aware of who you’re letting in. The huge majority of people will not take advantage.
  7. If you let someone see how you feel, they will know and understand you better, and that’s a good thing. The only exception to this is if they are actively trying to hurt you. Generally, if there are people like this in your life, you know who they are. Do not share with them.

How To Change Your Beliefs From False to True

  • Choose your people carefully. Take care who you choose to open your heart to, as either a friend or lover. Focus on integrity, trust, and care. Pay attention to the other person’s intentions. None of the True Beliefs apply if the person is not trustworthy.
  • Timing is everything. We all underestimate the importance of timing. Choose your moment, taking into account the other person’s mood, needs, and situation. The same message can have a very different impact given at the wrong time vs. the right one.
  • Take chances. There is no intimacy without vulnerability. To change these beliefs, you will have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations.
  • The Costanza Experiment (Taken from the book Running on Empty): Remember the Seinfeld episode when George decided to go through an entire week doing the opposite of what he would normally do? (If you’re under 40, you may not have seen this, but the concept will still work for you.) For you, this would mean doing the opposite of what you would normally do when it comes to sharing your feelings. Tell your friend about your work worries instead of keeping them to yourself; share your financial stress with your brother instead of pretending everything’s fine; fight it out with your husband and wife instead of avoiding conflict.

Take a chance, and see what happens. The False Beliefs will start to melt away as you begin to experience the value of trust, openness, and closeness. Your relationships will thrive, and a whole new world will open up to you.

To learn more about emotions, relationships, and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.