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.
Everyone knows what the word “dependent” means. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “determined or conditioned by another; relying on another for support.”
Not many people have heard the term “counter-dependence.” It’s not a term that is in common use. In fact, it’s used mostly by mental health professionals.
Counter-dependence is the extreme opposite of dependence. It refers to the fear of depending on other people. If you are counter-dependent, you will go to great lengths to avoid asking for help. You may have a great fear of feeling, or appearing to feel, in need. In fact, the word “needy” may set your teeth on edge.
Counter-dependence is one of the main results of growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Here’s an example of how an emotionally neglected child grew up to be counter-dependent.
When James first came to see me for therapy, he was a successful 40-something businessman with a wife and three children. He had done very well financially, and his children were all young adults who would be leaving home soon. James came seeking help for longstanding depression. He initially described his childhood as happy and free. But as he told me his story, it became evident that he had been greatly affected by the absence of a vital ingredient.
James grew up the youngest of seven children. He was a surprise, born nine years after his next youngest sibling. When James was born, his mother was 47 and his father 52. James’s parents were good, hard-working people who meant well, and he always knew they loved him. But by the time James was born, they were tired of raising children, so James essentially raised himself.
As a child, James’s parents did not ask to see his report cards (all A’s), and he didn’t show them. If he had a problem at school, he didn’t tell his parents; he knew he must handle it himself.
James had complete freedom to do anything he wished after school because his parents seldom asked him where he was. They knew he was a good kid, so they didn’t worry. Even though James enjoyed this extensive freedom from rules and structure, he grew up feeling deep within himself that he was alone.
The message James internalized from all this freedom was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He understood from a very early age that his accomplishments were not to be shared, nor his failures, difficulties or needs. Even though he couldn’t recall his parents ever actually telling him such a thing, he absorbed it into the very fiber of his being that this was life for him. It became a part of his identity.
When I first met James, he seemed somewhat emotionless and self-contained. His wife, after 15 years of marriage, was at the end of her rope. She felt that James was incapable of connecting with her emotionally. He told her he loved her often, but seldom showed her any emotion, positive or negative. She pointed out that he was a wonderful provider, but described their relationship as empty and meaningless. James described himself as feeling empty inside. He revealed that the one person in the world he actually felt emotional about was his teenage daughter, and that he sometimes resented her for being important to him.
James’s frequent fantasy was of running away to live alone on a deserted tropical island. All his life he experienced periodic wishes to be dead. He was mystified about why he would feel this way since he knew that he had such a great life.
Can you guess the ingredient that was missing from James’s childhood? It was emotional connection. Emotions were treated as non-existent in his family. There was little interaction of any kind between James and his parents. No positives, but none of the important negatives, either.
He didn’t get to see joy in his parents’ eyes as they looked at his report card, or experience their anxiety or anger when he came home from school long after dark. James’s relationship with his parents could be summed up by one word: cordial.
The message James’s parents unwittingly taught him, completely outside of his own and their awareness, was “don’t have feelings, don’t show feelings, don’t need anything from anyone, ever.”
James’s fantasies about being dead or running off to a tropical island were the best ways he could imagine to accomplish that mandate. He was a good boy who learned his lesson well.
If you see yourself in my description of James or in the 7 Signs above, do not despair because there is hope for you! Your counter-dependence is likely caused by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). And one very good thing about CEN is that it can be healed.
You can correct what went wrong in your childhood by giving yourself the emotional interest and validation that you missed as a child. As you do so, you will not only heal yourself, you will become fortified by your connections with others. And you will gradually realize that it is actually your ability to emotionally rely on others that makes you strong.
When it happens, Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle, so it may be difficult to know if you have it. To learn whether it’s negatively impacting your life, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn how to repair the effects of CEN on your relationships, see the book Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty No More.
Barry is good at his job as the manager of a department store, so he continues to do it year after year. But in the back of his mind, he wonders how he ended up here.
Sharon received the Most Dedicated Salesperson Award.
Francesca watched in frustration, feeling overlooked, as her co-workers were promoted over her head, one after another.
Simon’s manager appreciates how quickly he has adapted to his new role in the company, and how little support he’s needed.
Will’s boss gave him a “Needs Improvement” rating, citing inadequate communication with co-workers.
Elizabeth toils away behind the scenes in her customer service job, trying not to call attention to herself. She has no idea that she is capable of much more.
If you have ever been in one of the situations above, you know how it feels. Barry, Francesca, and Elizabeth are in painful situations in their jobs, while Sharon, Simon and Will are thriving in theirs.
You may be surprised to learn that all six of these folks’ job experiences, as different as they are, arise from a common underlying cause. All six grew up in households where their parents overlooked their emotions. They all grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
The funny thing about CEN is that it leaves you with a particular set of challenges. But in some situations, those challenges can actually become your strengths. When it comes to the workplace, CEN is a double-edged sword.
The Advantages of CEN in the Workplace
The Disadvantages of CEN in the Workplace
The folks who are the most rewarded by, and successful in, their jobs are strong communicators. They know themselves well, and they pay attention to what they are feeling and why. They ask for what they want, and they accept help when they need it.
You can become this way too.
Begin right now to focus more on learning who you are. What do you enjoy? What do you like? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Begin right now to pay more attention to your needs. Have you earned a raise? Do you deserve a promotion? Are you due a vacation? If so, ask for it.
Begin right now to change how you relate to others. Talk more, take on more interpersonal challenges. Watch how others discuss difficult topics, learn from it, and practice.
Others have seen your strong points for years, and have benefited from your competence, and your giving, independent nature. Now it is time for you to recognize what you have to offer, and ask for what you deserve.
You are worth it.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.
Do you have a stereotypical picture of a person who feels lonely on Valentine’s Day? You might imagine someone who wishes to be in a relationship and is sitting alone feeling sad.
In truth, most of us know how this stereotypical picture feels since we have been there ourselves at some point. Navigating the complicated world of relationships is not easy, so it’s likely that you have spent one or more Valentine’s Days alone, or perhaps for you, this year is this one.
Surprisingly, however, this image of loneliness is often highly inaccurate. A 2010 study by John Cacioppo published in the journal Social Science and Medicine found that feelings of loneliness were unrelated to marital status or the number of relatives and friends nearby.
It’s not only possible but common, to feel lonely when you’re not alone. And to be alone, but to not feel lonely. It’s because loneliness is not a state, it’s a state of mind. Loneliness is not a situation, it’s a feeling.
Yes, indeed, scores of people feel lonely on Valentine’s Day, and many are in relationships or surrounded by people. Many have no idea why they feel alone.
Whether you are actually alone this holiday or not, it is possible for you to change how you feel this Valentine’s Day. Start by understanding where your alone feelings originate.
Did you notice the one common element that unites these three factors that lead to loneliness? It’s fear. Fear of being known, fear of having needs, and fear of being vulnerable.
These fears are powerful and can do great damage to your quality of life. If you want to stop feeling lonely, you must battle your fear. The good news is, you can!
Once you realize why you feel lonely, an opportunity automatically presents itself. You realize that fixing your loneliness has nothing to do with anyone else, and everything to do with you.
Whether you find yourself on your own, a part of a couple, or surrounded by friends this Valentine’s Day, you can face your fears and see that there is no need to feel lonely.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is invisible and is often the root cause of these kinds of fears. To learn more about it, see the book, Running on Empty. To learn how CEN prevents deep emotional connections in adulthood see Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Since CEN is so subtle and invisible, it can be hard to know if you have it. Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.