It’s like I have no emotions. I’m numb a lot of the time.
Something is missing in me.
I have no idea how I feel about anything.
Sometimes my chest feels hollow.
I feel empty inside.
What might seem like five unrelated statements is actually five different people describing the same feeling. It’s a hard emotion to identify, and even harder to put into words. Everyone says it differently because there is no standard label for it. But for these five people, and thousands more, it is the same feeling, caused by the same problem.
The one word that sums it up best:
Of all the different emotions that a person can have, Empty is one of the most uncomfortable. To feel Empty is to feel incomplete. It’s a feeling of something absent or missing inside of you, of being different, set apart, alone, lacking, numb.Continue reading
Julie loves her husband Dom very much, but lately, all they seem to do is fight. Julie wonders how Dom can possibly complain that she’s not home enough lately when he can see how many demands she is juggling.
Bill struggles to do everything right in life. He has a good job and a family that loves him. Yet he walks through his days feeling numb. As he provides for his family and responds to his boss’s every request, he sometimes wonders what it’s all for. Recently he’s been drinking more than he should.
House, job, family. Parenting, grocery shopping, errands, and social media; we are all people of the world. And in today’s world, our lives are overly full in so many ways. So it’s ironic that so many of us feel so very UN-full.
The feeling of emptiness is elusive. It’s experienced differently by different people. Hardly anyone knows how to put it into words. So you may at times say you’re stressed or down because it’s the best word you can come up with, even though it doesn’t seem to quite capture what you feel.
Even more likely, you say nothing. After all, you may have a life that is actually quite full. And you may assume that everyone feels this way.
Whatever your personal experience of emptiness, the roots of this feeling almost always can be found in your childhood.
We grow up in households that are busy or struggling, and somehow not quite emotionally nurturing enough. From this, we learn everything about how to stay busy and struggle, but little about how to nurture ourselves.
So we grow up looking in all the wrong places for support and fulfillment. We live our adult lives with a sense that something is missing, and no idea how to find it.
Julie can’t see what Dom sees: that she is hugely over-committed. In addition to her job and her two daughters, she volunteers on two committees at the school. She’s involved in a town fundraiser, and now she’s talking about starting up a small business on the side. Dom watches helplessly as Julie becomes increasingly depleted and worn.
Over-committed and joyless, Julie has lost her way. She seeks to fill herself up with activity, projects, and maybe some recognition, with perhaps a little money thrown in. On this path, Julie will never stop having those pangs of emptiness that come and go.
Bill walks through life feeling numb and knowing that something is not right. He knows he should be happier and more fulfilled. After all, he’s the man with everything. Bill has no idea that throughout his struggle to do everything right in life, he has missed the boat on what truly matters to him.
Bill knows how to walk the walk, but he doesn’t know how to feel. He’s caught up in the externals of life, and he cannot see himself. Bill is missing out on what could give his life meaning: his feelings.
No matter what type of emptiness you feel and how you’ve tried to fill it, it’s never too late or too tall a task to change your course.
Focusing inward instead of outward; noticing your own feelings and needs and trying to meet them; finding what makes you happy, and making memories with people you care about. This is the path to filling yourself.
Surprisingly, once you’re on your new path, you may find that it is actually far easier than your old one.
To learn more about how to become more self-aware and fill yourself up, see the book Running on Empty.
This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and published here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral.
In all of the interviews and talks I have done about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), as well as the articles I have written, certain questions keep coming up over and over again. They are excellent questions that are natural for anyone to ask, especially if you have realized that you grew up in an emotionally neglectful home, but also if you are wondering if CEN applies to you.
First, let’s define what Childhood Emotional Neglect is. It’s your parents’ failure to respond enough to your emotional needs as they raise you. This failure to respond enough emotionally can be difficult to see in many families, and it can be hard to remember as an adult. Yet its effects stay with you for a lifetime.
Once you realize this is you, it can be very, very unsettling, to say the least. Finding the answer of CEN can bring you understanding and great relief. But it also raises questions.
Unfortunately, I do not have exact numbers on this, but I can answer based on my own clinical experience plus reports from my therapist colleagues. I believe it is very common among the general population. It varies in severity from mild to extreme, based on how pervasive the emotional neglect was in childhood. I think a large portion of the population has some degree of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
Childhood is meant to be an emotional training ground. When your parents under-respond to your emotions as they raise you, they miss the opportunity to teach you how to handle your emotions. Since emotions are the most important key to healthy relationships, CEN sets you up to be at a great disadvantage in your primary relationship, with your family, and in raising your own children.
You may find yourself feeling confused about how to identify your own feelings and the feelings of others, put them into words to share them, manage conflict, and even respond in an attuned way to your children’s emotions once you become a parent.
It’s very difficult to give what you never got: emotional attunement and awareness.
The effects of CEN can be very invisible, so it is indeed hard to see in a relationship. Yet those effects can be very harmful to the warmth and connection in a relationship, especially over time. Here are some signs to look for:
• A feeling of distance that you can’t explain.
• A tendency to sweep problems under the rug.
• He/she often misrepresents what he is feeling: saying, “I’m not angry” when is quite obviously angry, for example.
• Discomfort with strong emotions in the relationship, either positive feelings, negative ones or both.
• A tendency to talk about facts and events and logistics, with little ability to focus on what really matters in a relationship: feelings, struggles, warmth.
• A sense that you are leading separate lives.
You may be drawn to partner with someone who also has CEN: If you were raised to be uncomfortable with emotions, your own as well as others’, as an adult you may feel most comfortable with someone who treats emotions the same way. You will experience them as non-threatening and safe. This will likely lead to the two of you drifting apart over time.
Being out of touch with your emotions can leave you with a deep feeling of emptiness inside. That emptiness may seek to be filled and may lead you to marry or commit too soon before you fully know the person you are marrying.
If your emotional needs were ignored or denied when you were a child, you may have a powerful fear of ever appearing needy as an adult (I call this counter-dependence). This can make the act of dating and forming a meaningful relationship feel like a weakness, or just plain wrong. Some folks with CEN are not able to override this fear of needing someone, and they are never able to commit at all.
Since emotions are the spice of life (most people don’t realize this), when your emotions are walled off due to CEN you may feel a sense of blandness in your life. You may be drawn to someone who has intense emotions. This may work out fine, but it can backfire if the other person’s intense emotions are unpredictable or can be directed at you unfairly at times.
Part of CEN is a tendency to ignore not only your feelings but also your emotional needs. If you appear to take up little emotional space and to have few needs, you may be attractive to people who take a lot of emotional space and have intense emotional needs, like a person with narcissism. This can play out over time in a damaging and negative way.
It is very helpful for the person with CEN to become aware that they have the CEN emotional style, and of how it is affecting the relationship.
Sometimes the person who does not have CEN can reach out to their CEN partner and ask them to read this article or my blog or the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect or take the CEN Questionnaire (see below), to help them understand what CEN is and become aware that they have it.
Setting a goal of paying more attention to emotions in the relationship is very helpful. In the book Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children, there are exercises and worksheets specially designed to help couples do this.
Structuring time for “meaningful talk” where surface topics are not allowed can be challenging but very helpful.
Sometimes it’s very helpful to get the support and help of a therapist to help the couple talk through old conflicts that have been ignored instead of dealt with directly. Old feelings of anger or hurt can weigh on a relationship even more than current ones.
Addressing CEN in yourself and in your relationship can have profound effects that go to every corner of your life. It changes your self-view, the quality of your connections with others, and perhaps most importantly, your parenting.
You can give yourself what you never got, and then you’ll be able to give it to the people most important to you.
If you’re not sure if you have CEN, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To heal your CEN in your self and your relationships, see Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
When you feel emotionally numb, what can you do? Is there anything that can make you feel better?
There are many feelings that can make us human beings uncomfortable. Anger, sadness, hurt, anxiety, fear, loss or grief, for example. Most of us would not choose to feel any of these. In fact, we will often go to great lengths to escape and avoid feeling them.
But there is one feeling that can be more intolerable than any of those. It’s in its own category because it is not like the others.
I have seen this feeling drive people to do extreme things to escape it, like take risks, harm themselves, put themselves in dangerous situations, or even consider suicide. Many people feel this feeling, but few have words to describe it.
I call this feeling the “unfeeling feeling.” The best way to describe it is a deep sense of emptiness or emotional numbness.
Here are some important facts to know about emotional numbness.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to notice, respond to, and validate your emotions enough as they raise you.
When you grow up with your feelings ignored or unwelcome, your young brain builds a wall to block them off. It’s an effective coping mechanism that helps you avoid being a “problem” in your childhood home.
But this effective coping mechanism backfires when you grow up. As you move into adulthood, you need your emotions. If you were a boat, your emotions would be your engine, anchor, and rudder. They should be not only grounding and rooting you but also motivating, directing and guiding you.
When your emotions are blocked off, your body feels it. Something vital is missing. You sense this deeply, and it does not feel good. Just as your body knows when you are hungry or thirsty, it also knows when your feelings are blocked. You are emotionally numb.
And now for the good news. If you feel emotionally numb, there is plenty of hope for you. I am going to give you answers.
There are two ways to address your emotional numbness. One is short-term coping, and the other is long-term solving. To truly address the problem it makes sense to do both. But in this article, we are going to talk about short-term coping. How do you manage the unfeeling feeling when you get it?
Trying to avoid or escape the unfeeling feeling will not work. It’s natural, when you feel numb, to try to escape it by using external or physical stimulation. That’s why so many people might go shopping, sky-dive, drink, use drugs, gamble or even harm themselves. When you’re feeling this, it seems like something extreme will solve it by making you feel something…anything seems better than nothing at that moment.
But when you take any action like this to escape numbness, you are only setting yourself up for more numbness in the future. Plus the numbness can drive you too far, so you are at risk for overspending, over-drinking, or excessive risk that might harm you.
There are, however, a few far healthier and more effective things you can do. First, it’s very important to take note that you are feeling emotionally numb or empty. Second, you must do the opposite of escape or avoidance. The key to dealing with numbness in the moment is to go straight at it.
In other words, the best way to cope with numbness is to try to reach your blocked-off emotions. To do this, you must focus inward, not outward. You must reach out to your emotions.
When you feel emotionally numb, choose an option above and do it to feel more alive.
But overall, the best way to not only manage but extinguish, emotional numbness from your life is to heal the Childhood Emotional Neglect you’ve been living with all these years.
To find out how to remove Emotional Neglect from your relationships, and banish numbness from your life by replacing it with connections to others, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Since the release of Running on Empty in 2012, many people have identified with the feeling of Empty. People who don’t have it don’t understand. But people who feel it know:
In many ways, emptiness or numbness is worse than pain. Many people have told me that they would far prefer feeling anything to nothing. It is very difficult to acknowledge, make sense of, or put words to something that is absent. Emptiness seems like nothing to most people. And nothing is nothing, neither bad nor good. But in the case of a human being’s internal functioning, nothing is definitely something. Empty is actually a feeling in and of itself. And I have discovered that it is a feeling that can be very intense and powerful. In fact, it has the power to drive people to do extreme things to escape it.
(From Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect)
Empty is the” unfeeling” feeling. It’s the painful sense that some vital ingredient is missing from inside. Does it feel the same for everyone who has it? For example, does it feel different if you have depression, a personality disorder, or just straight Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)? The answer is yes. It all depends on one factor: how extreme were its causes?
Causes of Emptiness:
So if you have Empty Type 1 or 2, you have a cohesive “self,” but you lack access to your emotions. With Type 3, you have a fragmented “self” and little access to your emotions. But the anger and pain caused by the unpredictable, shallow and harsh treatment throughout childhood runs deep. Those emotions may erupt unpredictably and intensely, outside your control. You feel empty because you sense, deep down, that your true “self” is fragmented or missing. Sadly, you were not able to develop it while you were growing up.
Here’s the good news. All three forms of emptiness, once understood and acknowledged, can be overcome. Watch for my next post, The Different Forms of Emptiness Part II, which will be about the paths to healing when you have Emptiness Type 1, 2 or 3.
Yes, they are different.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.
This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral
My husband says he loves me, but I don’t feel love from him.
My wife gets confused and overwhelmed every time I try to talk to her about a problem.
My marriage feels flat. Something vital ingredient is missing from it.
As a psychologist who specializes in couple’s therapy, I have worked with hundreds of couples over the years. One of the greatest challenges that I see couples struggling with is when one of the members of the pair grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Often the spouse of the CEN person ends up making statements like those above in their first session of therapy together.
CEN happens when your parents communicate the subtle but powerful message, “Your feelings don’t matter.” Children who live in such households often adapt to their environments by pushing their emotions away so that they won’t bother their parents or themselves.
When you grow up in a household where your emotions are squelched, you miss out on a vital opportunity: to learn how to identify, understand, tolerate, and express your emotions. This causes big problems years later, in adulthood.
The CEN adult ends up struggling with emotional awareness, expression, and connection. So they have difficulty tolerating arguments, expressing opinions, and emotionally connecting with their spouses. “Why can’t you just be happy?” is a common statement that CEN people make to their husbands and wives. It comes from a lack of understanding of how emotions and relationships work. The spouse is often left feeling helpless, disconnected, and alone.
In Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, I used the example of Tim and Trish. Trish dragged Tim to couple’s therapy because she felt very unhappy in their marriage. She said that Tim often seemed irritable and unhappy with Trish and their children, despite his claims that he was happy. Tim was loath to come to see me with Trish, saying, “I don’t see why she won’t just let things go. Why can’t she just be happy?” Trish was experiencing the full impact of marriage to a person with CEN. She said that she knew that Tim loved her, but that she often didn’t feel love from him. Trish was also in the miserable, no-win Catch 22 served up by the CEN spouse, “Why can’t you just be happy?”
It can be very challenging to be married to someone with CEN. Here are some:
The CEN Spouse:
Now for the good news. CEN folks can change, and marriages with CEN can heal and become rich and rewarding. If you are married to a CEN man or woman, there are some things that you can do. I suggest that you follow these:
Throughout this whole process, remember that your CEN spouse didn’t ask for this and is probably just as baffled about what’s wrong as you have been.
Offer loads of compassion, plenty of assurance, and don’t feel bad about asking your partner to do this for you. After all, you deserve a happy, fulfilling, emotionally connected marriage. And so does your partner.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.
The Definition of Empty: “Not Filled”
Everyone knows what the word “empty” means. It’s a simple word, easily understood. But what does “empty” mean in terms of human feelings and emotions? Here, it is not so simply defined.
My definition of emptiness as a human emotion: the feeling that’s caused by the absence of feeling; a general sense that something is missing inside of oneself; a feeling of disconnection from oneself and others; numbness; sometimes experienced physically as an empty space in the belly, chest, throat or other part of the body.
Emptiness is not a clinical term among mental health professionals. It’s not a common term among the general public. It’s not something that people generally talk about. Yet in my 25 years of practicing psychology, I have encountered many people who have tried to express it to me in some way. Few of them have had the words to describe it. Mostly I had to intuit what was going on for them and give them the words. Each time, it brought the person great relief. It is incredibly healing and connecting to put a label on a plaguing, undefined feeling that has dogged one for years. A label offers understanding and hope, and a path somewhere.
I have a theory about why emptiness has gone so unnoticed, unknown and ill-defined. It’s because emptiness is not actually a feeling; it’s an absence of feeling. We human beings are not wired to notice, define or discuss the absence of things. We have a hard enough time talking about feelings. But the absence of feelings seems almost too vague, unimaginable, invisible; too difficult to grab hold of.
This is why so many people live with this feeling on and off throughout a lifetime. Many people don’t even know they have it, much less what it is. They just know that they feel “off”; like something just isn’t right with them. They feel different from other people in some inexplicable way. One person said to me, “I feel like a bit player in the movie of my own life.” Another said, “I feel like I’m on the outside, looking in at other people who are truly living.”
I also have a theory about–
What causes emptiness:
Children who grow up in a household where feelings are not acknowledged, validated or responded to enough, receive a powerful message. They learn that their emotions are not valid, do not matter, or are unacceptable to others. They learn that they must ignore, neutralize, devalue or push away their emotions. For some children, this message permeates every aspect of their emotional lives; for others, it may only affect certain parts. Either way, the child disconnects from his own feelings. He pushes them down and away (because after all, they are useless, negative or unacceptable to others). It’s adaptive for the child to do this, as it will help her to be more comfortable in her family environment. But she is unknowingly sacrificing the most deeply personal, biological part of who she is: her emotions. Years later, as an adult, she will feel the absence of this vital part of herself. She will feel the empty space which her feelings are meant to fill. She will feel disconnected, unfulfilled, empty.
I have noticed, over years of working with people who have emptiness, that they are usually thoroughly stand-up folks. They are folks who care for others better than they care for themselves; who put a smile on their faces and soldier on, never giving away that something’s just not right for them. They literally run on empty.
I‘ve given a name to this process of developing emptiness. I call it Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). I’m trying to educate people about CEN. I’m trying to reach the scores of people who are living their lives under its influence, with little awareness or ability to describe it. I’m trying to offer them the words to talk about it, and the opportunity to heal.
To learn more about emptiness and Childhood Emotional Neglect, read more throughout this website, www.EmotionalNeglect.com, or pick up a copy of my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s available on this website under THE BOOK tab, via Amazon (Kindle or paperback), or through your local bookstore.