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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Before you read the rest of this article please consider this: What do you think is the most personal question you can ask someone?
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 makes 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.”Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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.