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.
Growing up with your feelings ignored, Childhood Emotional Neglect or (CEN), takes its toll on you. It’s true. In fact, it takes such a lasting toll that I can see its lingering effects decades later in my adult patients.
Children who grow up with their feelings ignored take a very powerful step to get by in their childhood home. They wall off the deepest, most biological part of who they are: their emotions. That way they can stop burdening others with their feelings. What a brilliant and powerful tool for your child’s brain to make for you.
But as an adult, your life is affected greatly.
The lingering effects above are important parts of the toll of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). When your feelings are walled off, you are missing some life ingredients that will have a profound effect on your quality of life.
I know this because I see it in my office every single day.
Whether you realize it or not, this particular group of struggles affects you in many areas of your life. You are living without access to some vital life ingredient that everyone else enjoys. For example, it can make it hard to ask for a promotion or a raise at work, or to trust yourself to try new things or take risks.
But I have also seen that there is one area of life that’s affected far more than any other. It’s your relationships. As you read the 5 Important Ways below, be sure to keep in mind that none of these 5 are permanent. They are only effects from your childhood. You can fix every single one!
Never fear! I know these 5 challenges might seem practically insurmountable. But I have watched many people transform their relationships by working in 3 key areas.
You can learn far more about how to become more emotionally aware and skilled and how to communicate on an emotional level in the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty No More.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be subtle and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. Take The CEN Test. It’s free!
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.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty No More.
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.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty No More.
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 better we grieve, the better we live.
I do believe that the quote above is absolutely true. It’s almost impossible to make it through your adulthood without experiencing a loss of some kind.
Being able to grieve in a healthy way requires a series of personality traits and skills that not everyone possesses. I have seen many people go to great lengths to avoid feeling their grief or get stuck in it, unable to look forward from it.
Many of these folks grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Joanne, who lost her husband four years ago is so bogged down in sadness that she enjoys very little in her life, and has problems getting out of bed every day.
Alex, whose sister died of breast cancer two years ago, lives a full and busy life, but feels dull and sad inside every time he stops running around and tries to relax.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote her now-famous book called On Death and Dying. In it she described the 5 stages that she frequently saw people going through after receiving a dire medical diagnosis. Since that day the 5 Stages of Grief have been applied more broadly to all kinds of losses, like break-ups or accepting the loss of a loved one. It’s also important to note that these stages are not set in stone; everyone grieves differently, and may experience different feelings in different order at different times.
The Five Stages of Grief
In my experience, having helped many clients through many losses, one of the greatest prolongers of each of the 5 Stages is having grown up without enough emotional attention, validation and response from one’s parents: Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.
When your parents do not respond enough to your emotions as a child, you learn very early and well that your emotions and emotional needs are irrelevant (or even bad) and should be avoided. To adapt, you wall off your feelings and needs so that they will not burden your parents. Not surprisingly, when you are living with your feelings blocked off, it throws major obstacles into your path through the 5 Stages.
How Childhood Emotional Neglect Blocks the 5 Stages of Grief
The whole point of the 5 Stages is to move through them. Experiencing one phase, allowing yourself to be in it and face it prepares you to move to the next phase. Moving through the phases allows your brain to process the reality, preparing you for acceptance. Acceptance must happen before you can turn your attention forward to rebuilding yourself and your life.
If this is you, it’s important to re-direct and focus yourself.
4 Ways to Manage Your CEN Through Grief
When you are grieving something, it’s crucial to acknowledge that you only feel grief when you had something great to begin with. So a part of your grief must be appreciation and gratefulness for what you had.
And remember the words of one of the greatest authors of all time:
Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.
― Leo Tolstoy
It was a scorching day in Costa Rica. My husband and I decided to take our 8-year-old son for a hike to get as close as possible to the Arenal Volcano. We walked several hours through beautiful, lush forest.
As the sun got higher and the day got hotter, we reached an endpoint marked by signs reading, DANGER, KEEP OUT. We walked around the safe side of the area for a while enjoying the beautiful birds and monkeys in the trees, and then decided to head back.
As I turned to go back in the direction we had come from, my husband said, “No, let’s not go that way. We can get there by going this way.” Puzzled, I slowly turned around and followed. As we traipsed back through the forest, I had a trembly feeling in my belly that, in hindsight I realized was fear. This did not feel right.
It had taken several hours to reach the volcano, and I knew that if we went the wrong way it could be dangerous. We had consumed all of the water we had carried, and it was getting hotter by the minute.
My gut was telling me to speak up, but my brain said, “You know you’re terrible with directions. You’re almost never right about these things. Just keep quiet and follow.”
Perhaps you’ve seen the many amazing studies over the past few years that have proven that there is a direct connection between your brain and your gut.
These new studies explain many things that used to baffle us: why we get butterflies in our stomachs when we’re nervous, and why Irritable Bowel Syndrome and ulcers are both so closely connected to and influenced by the amount of stress we are under.
Here’s the most amazing thing about the new research. We now know that the brain-gut connection travels in both directions. Not only does your emotional state (and emotional health) affect your stomach; the reverse is also true. Believe it or not, recent studies have shown that the health of your gut can also affect your psychological health and your emotions.
Clearly our human brains are wired to our guts for a reason: to connect our brain with our body in a useful way.
So choosing to ignore this vital source of information is choosing to ignore a remarkable feedback system that we are meant to have, and meant to use to our benefit.
4 Ways Your Gut Can Help You
Did some of the “gut feelings” described above seem hard for you to grasp? That is a sign that you are not closely enough connected to your gut. Which means you’re missing out an incredibly useful tool in your life.
It is certainly true that some folks are not as good at tuning in to their gut. If you’re out of touch with yours, there is probably an explanation for it. Your brain / gut pathway became disconnected for a reason. There are many possible ways for this to happen.
Potential Reasons You’re Missing Signals From Your Gut
Hopefully as you’ve been reading this you’ve been tuning in to your gut. Perhaps you’ve attempted to feel some of the gut feelings I described. Perhaps you’ve imagined the connection between your brain and gut, or even tried to visualize it.
If you have, congratulations! You have begun the process of joining your brain with your gut.
How to Start Taking Advantage of Your Brain/Gut Feedback System
And now to finish the Costa Rica story. As you may have guessed, we were indeed headed the wrong way. We were moving further from our destination, not closer. Eventually, thirsty, sweaty and covered with dust from walking down a dirt road for several hours, a kind local picked us up, gave us water, and drove us back to our hotel.
For me, this was an important lesson in trusting my gut.
And I have never forgotten it.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how it leaves you disconnected from your feelings in adulthood, see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running on Empty.
To learn more about the newest research findings on the gut/brain connection, see:
That Gut Feeling on The American Psychological Association website.
The Gut-Brain Connection on the Harvard Health Publications Website.
Everything that’s wrong in your life is the fault of your parents. Whatever your struggles, your mistakes and your pain, you are not to blame. You are an innocent victim of those who raised you.
At least that’s the way some folks interpret my definition of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
The definition of CEN: A parent’s failure to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs. People who grow up this way go forward into adulthood out of touch with their own emotions, feeling empty, alone and disconnected, and are baffled about what is wrong with them.
Here’s a comment that was posted on Ten Steps to Learn Self-Discipline:
Are you saying that when a parent fails to teach their children this skill well enough, that parent is guilty of Childhood Emotional Neglect? This article was insulting.
I’ve received many such comments. They point to one of the biggest barriers I have encountered in my efforts to bring the concept of Childhood Emotional Neglect to more people: the discomfort of blaming the parents.
Despite the overwhelming body of research proving it, many people strongly resist the fact that their parents’ treatment of them in childhood had a profound effect upon who they are as adults. It is uncomfortable to blame our parents for the problems and issues that we experience in adulthood. It feels like letting ourselves off the hook. Some people consider it “whining.”Continue reading
Luke prepares himself to walk into the office party. Despite his reputation as the most helpful and productive salesperson in the company, his self-confidence flies out the window when he has to face people socially. “I never fit in anywhere,” he thinks to himself.
Often they are referred to as, “the strong, silent type.” They are giving, reliable, stand-up guys. They may be excessively driven, but that drive is mostly to provide for their families. They are there for others but ask for little in return. They are baffled by other people’s emotions, and typically just want to escape when anyone cries, yells, or shows intense feelings of any kind. They live in dread of the moment when their wife says, “I need to talk with you about something.”Continue reading
The Fuel of life is feeling. If we are not filled up in childhood, we must fill ourselves as adults. Otherwise, we will find ourselves running on empty.
A quote from the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect
There are legions of fine people walking around feeling numb or empty, and for good reason. They all grew up in homes that did not notice their feelings or respond to them enough.
There is, indeed, a real connection between this type of childhood and that feeling. And the short quote above, in some ways, says it all.
But to summarize in a nutshell how this happens: Your parents act as if your emotions are invisible or irrelevant, so you do too. You block your emotions off to “protect” yourself from being bothered or burdened by them. You lose access to this deepest, most personal expression of who you are.
Then, as an adult, you feel it. Perhaps you know you should be feeling something but you’re not. Perhaps you look around and see other people living in a bright, colorful world but yours seems gray. Perhaps you have a deep sense of something missing inside you. Perhaps you feel an empty feeling in your belly or chest or throat.
Perhaps your body is trying to tell you that something is very wrong.
Healing your emptiness is not necessarily simple, but it is definitely possible. It has been done successfully by many people before you, and it will be done by many after.
The healing process takes place in three different areas, outlined in the table below. Once you’ve looked through the 3 areas of healing your emptiness, continue on to see the steps you can take to work on this.
|Thoughts/Behavior||Relationships||Your Inner Life|
|Recognize what you didn’t get in childhood||Increase emotional connections||Grieve what you didn’t get|
|Emotional awareness & management||Boundaries (distance?) with parents as needed||Develop compassion for yourself|
|Self-care||Work on trusting others||Decrease self-directed anger|
|Decrease self-blame||Therapy relationship||Self-acceptance & self-love|
|Increase self-knowledge||Share your pain with another||Value your emotions|
|If you have depression or anxiety, consider therapy and medication||Let down your walls||Reclaim the parts of yourself that your parents rejected or ignored|
If you find this Table overwhelming, please don’t be alarmed. As I said above, all of these can be done. I know this because I have been through them with many people in therapy, and have witnessed amazing progress.
However, please take note of two things: It takes commitment, a conscious effort, and time; and it often helps tremendously to work with a skilled therapist who you feel very comfortable with.
Step 1: Recognition and Grieving: The first and most vital step for everyone who feels Empty is to recognize that your empty space represents something that you didn’t get in childhood. Identify what is missing (emotional validation, connection and perhaps rejected parts of yourself), and grieve it all. This may involve feeling sad and/or angry. It’s okay. You have to feel it to move forward.
Step 2: Start to Fill the Holes: Befriend your emotions; start noticing when you have them; learn to name them and to manage them. Listen to what they are telling you.
Step 3: Work on Self-Care: Put yourself first, learn to say no. Pay attention to your own needs and recognize that your needs matter. Stop blaming yourself.
Steps 1, 2 and 3 can all be worked on by making a conscious effort, paying attention, and self-monitoring on the tracking sheets from the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. You may want to enlist the help of a CEN therapist. Visit the Find A CEN Therapist List to find a CEN-trained therapist to help.
Step 4: Let Down Your Walls: Share with a trusted person that you are working on getting closer to people, and to accept and feel more connection and love. Try to express your feelings more and to be more assertive.
You may make more progress here by getting some emotional or physical distance from your neglectful parents. The distance can be temporary, while you work on this.
Step 5: Learn to Love Yourself: Yes, it is easier said than done. This process involves seeing yourself as the child you were, growing up as you did. What parts of you did your parents ignore or reject? Know that they did so because of who they were, not because of who you were.
Have compassion for that little child, and for yourself as an adult. Your struggle is real, and you deserve more and better. You must reclaim, and learn to love, all of the different parts of who you are: your emotions, your needs, your inner you.
Above all, as you do this work, please carry these words with you:
Your emptiness is an important part of you. It represents the old and the past, but also the future and the new.
It is not an absence but free space filled not with pain, but with possibility. It is room for your new story, the one you will write yourself. It is room for your life, your feelings, and the people who you choose.
Fill it with self-knowledge, self-care, self-compassion, self-love, and your people.
Then you will find yourself running on empty no more.
To read more about healing the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect on your relationships see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.
“After reading Running on Empty I told my therapist that I’m pretty sure I was emotionally neglected as a child. He understood what I meant but he never mentioned it again”.
“I’ve been seeing my therapist for a year and she has never mentioned Emotional Neglect to me.”
“I live in San Francisco. I can’t find a therapist who is an expert in Childhood Emotional Neglect!”
Since I first started speaking and writing about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) in 2012 I’ve heard the above comments many times, from people all over the world.
Yes. In a way, it is puzzling. CEN is so widespread and causes so much pain. Why don’t therapists talk about it more directly and more often? Why aren’t there Emotional Neglect specialists? Emotional Neglect articles and workshops?Continue reading