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The Unique Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect on Your Happiness

Most psychotherapists’ first question to their clients: “What do you want to accomplish in therapy?”

Most Clients’ first answer: “I just want to be happy.”

Direct, succinct and clear, this answer cuts to the chase. It makes perfect sense, and we therapists fully concur. We want you to be happy too.

But this understandable request raises a far more complex question with which the greatest minds of all time have grappled:

What is the secret formula for making people happy?

Here are the short versions of a few great thinkers’ answers from the distant past.

Aristotle: Happiness depends on ourselves.

Buddha: Happiness results from mindful thought and action.

Socrates: Happiness comes from gaining rational control over your desires, and harmonizing the different parts of your soul.

Epicurus: To gain happiness, abstain from unnecessary desires to achieve inner tranquility; be content with simple things.

These are all powerful observations, of course. But now, lets fast forward to today’s world and talk about who struggles with happiness and why.

The Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect on Your Potential For Happiness

I have found that the people who struggle with the pursuit of happiness in a most unique way are those with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). It’s because their questions about their own happiness are tainted and complicated by self-blame.

Yes, it’s true. People with CEN actually blame themselves for not being happier.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is far more common than you may think. It happens when your parents ignore or discourage your feelings too much as they are raising you. Even if you have a fine childhood in every other way, you grow up feeling ignored or discouraged on some deep and harmful level. This has a profound effect on your life.

People with Childhood Emotional Neglect, having been raised to ignore their emotions and themselves, are highly prone to self-blame. CEN folks have a tendency to feel at fault for most everything that does not go right. Their own happiness is no exception.

And what do you think happens when you blame your lack of happiness on yourself? It erects a giant barrier between you and happiness. It makes you even less able to feel happy.

Current research on happiness tells us that material wealth has a surprisingly limited effect on human happiness. Three other factors have a much more powerful impact and they are factors that you can cultivate in your life.

3 Life Factors Research Shows are Keys to People’s Overall Happiness

(Plus a #4 Especially for Childhood Emotional Neglect)

  1. Deep and meaningful relationships. Think about your spouse, your children, your supervisor, your colleagues, neighbors, and friends. Looking at your relationships is somewhat like looking into an emotional mirror. Your relationships offer a reflection of who you are. Nurture and strengthen them, and you nurture and strengthen yourself. The happier your relationships, the happier you will be.
  2. Learning and practicing mindfulness. Practicing being in the moment is a way to train your brain to be more under your control. It also makes you more self-aware and more present.  While the past and future are important to consider, learn from and plan, the most important place to live is in the moment, right now. In addition to learning meditation, try to be aware of what you’re doing and how and why you’re doing it. Be aware of what you’re feeling, and how and why you’re feeling it. Research shows that the more mindful you are, the happier you will be.
  3. Increasing your emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence has been found to contribute more to success and general well-being than intellectual intelligence. Understanding your own feelings and the feelings of others gives you the power to manage yourself and complex situations effectively. To increase your emotional intelligence learn more about emotions and how they work.
  4. Stopping the self-blame. Self-blame is a road to nowhere at all. It will actually prevent you from being happier. It will be much more helpful to accept that there have been real reasons for your lack of happiness and that you did not choose them. In many emotionally neglectful families, the CEN is no one’s fault. Parents are not able to give you emotional awareness, emotional understanding, and emotional knowledge if they did not receive it themselves from their own parents. CEN is a blind spot that gets passed down through generations. It’s not your fault that you grew up with it, but it is your choice what to do with it. 

If the four factors above seem overwhelming there is something important I want you to know. While none of them can be achieved suddenly they all can be achieved gradually. If you keep your mind on these 4 goals you can gradually make yourself happier in a deep, meaningful, and lasting way.

To learn more about achieving happiness by facing your self-blame, increasing your emotional intelligence, and using your emotions to enrich your relationships, see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

A version of this article originally appeared on psychcentral.com. It has been rewritten and reproduced here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.

The Hallmarks Of A Resilient Relationship: Harmony Rupture Repair

“Happily Ever After.”

How many times have you heard that phrase?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harmony — Rupture — Repair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Become Your Best Self Despite Childhood Emotional Neglect

If you look around, and if you pay attention you will see something very interesting and surprising: The world is filled with people who have not yet discovered their best selves.

Many are wonderful people who care about others and are trying to do good things in the world. Many are looking for a relationship or are in one, are raising children, and working at their jobs and doing everything they are supposed to do.

So how can you tell if someone has not yet discovered his or her best self? And more importantly, how do you know if you have not yet discovered your best self?

Believe it or not, to answer those questions, first we must talk about emotion. Why? Because what you feel is who you are.

What It Means To Live As Your Best Self

First, some important facts about you:

  • Your emotions are literally wired into you at birth.
  • Your emotions are the most deeply personal, biological expression of who you are. In this way, they are communications from your deepest self.
  • What you genuinely feel is who you genuinely are.
  • What you do with your feelings determines who you choose to become.

Living as your best self requires you to be open to, and accepting of, your own feelings. Attending to what you are feeling is a way to attend to your true self. When you live this way, paying attention to your feelings and caring what they are, is living close to your heart. You are valuing and owning who you are, and this is a very important part of being your best self.

What Gets In The Way?

If your parents paid little attention to your emotions as they raised you (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN), then they did not teach you some vital things that you very much need to know. They failed to teach you what your emotions are and what they mean, or what you should do with them.

It’s much easier for us to accept our positive emotions as reflections of our deepest selves. When you feel love, joy, pride, happiness, warmth or connection, these emotions are much more comfortable to own and be. Yet these feelings are no more important than the emotions that make you uncomfortable.

It is at this step of accepting the feelings we do not like that many of us fail ourselves.

When you feel angry, sad, jealous, irritated, frustrated, envious, enraged, lost, confused, weak or judgmental, for example, these feelings we must also own as reflections of our deepest self. Every single person has felt each of these feelings many times during their lives. It is a part of being human.

We do not have the ability to choose what we feel. Who would choose to be jealous or confused? Who would want to feel weak or sad or angry? No one!

Instead, our feelings, including the uncomfortable ones, arise on their own from a well deep inside us. When you can accept and own these feelings in yourself, you have an opportunity to process and manage them and make decisions based upon them (or in spite of them). This is how your emotions can guide you and drive you.

If you refuse to believe or accept that you feel angry, sad, jealous, enraged or judgmental, for example, you are rejecting who you are. Unfortunately, those emotions are actually empowered by your rejection of them. They go underground and may seem to disappear, but they continue to seep around the edges of your life, influencing your decisions and choices without your knowledge. When this happens, you have taken steps away from your true self. The longer you continue to reject your feelings, the farther away you get from your true and best self.

What To Do

So how do you become the best version of yourself? Make an effort to notice what you are feeling, when and why. Accept all of your emotions, both positives and negatives. Never judge yourself for a having any feeling, no matter how much you dislike it. Listen to their messages, but know that what you do with them is your responsibility and yours alone.

So manage and use your feelings, and this will make you noticeably sincere, honest, and genuine. The people around you will notice, and they will respond with more trust in you. They will sense that you are living with integrity, and according to your true inner self.

As you pay attention, accept, own and trust yourself, you will be walking the path toward who you can be.

Because what you feel is who you are. And what you choose to do with your feelings is who you choose to become.

Who do you want to be?

Growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) takes you away from your true self. Since it can be difficult to see or remember, it may be hard to know if you have it. To find out Take The CEN Test. It’s free.

4 Tips For Dealing With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents

Now that I see what my parents didn’t give me, how do I continue to interact with them?

How do I handle the pain that I feel now, as an adult, each time my parents treat me as if I don’t matter?

I feel sad or disappointed every time I see my parents. Then I end up feeling guilty because I know that I should feel happy to see them. How do I handle that?

If you were raised by parents who were not tuned in enough to your emotional needs, then you have likely lived your life feeling vaguely (or maybe even clearly) uncomfortable around the two people with whom you are supposed to be the most comfortable. Your parents.

One of the hardest things about being raised by emotionally neglectful parents is that they seldom change. They continue to emotionally neglect you all the way into and through your adulthood. So you have probably experienced the pain of your parents’ failure to see and respond to you over and over throughout the years.

This is one of the greatest complications of recovering from CEN. Once you realize how deeply you have been affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), it can become quite difficult to interact with the parents who neglected you.

So back to the questions at the top of this article. What should an emotionally malnourished adult child do? What can be done to protect yourself in this most important relationship?

4 Tips For Dealing With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents

  1. Ask your parents about their own childhoods – If you are unsure about why your parents were blind to your emotional needs, ask them some questions about their own parents and their own childhoods. You may be able to see whether and how your parents were failed by their parents. If you can see your own parents more clearly, you may be able to understand why they failed you. Understanding how they got their emotional blind spots may help you feel less hurt when you are affected by them.
  2. Try to find some compassion for your parents (within limits) – Often, when you can see how your own parents were emotionally neglected, you can feel some compassion for what they didn’t get. This can help you to feel less angry and frustrated with them for failing you. One important caveat, however: be careful with compassion because it can go too far. If your compassion for your parents makes you feel worse, it means you should dial it back, and turn it toward yourself instead. Holding your parents accountable, at least in your own mind, for the ways they failed you, is a necessary part of healing yourself.
  3. Prepare yourself before you interact with your parents – Your human brain has some default settings. One of those settings is an automatic, unconscious expectation that you will receive emotional nurturance from your parents. Since your parents are serving up a watered down version of nurturance, there is simply no way for you to not end up feeling disappointed. When you are about to interact with your parents, purposely lower your expectations. Remind yourself that your parents will not fulfill your natural human needs, and this will help you prevent that feeling of sadness and letdown.
  4. Consider talking with your parents about how they emotionally neglected you – This is not a necessary step to take for your happiness and health.  And for many, it can cause more pain. So this is not a decision to be taken lightly. But for some, when done with care, it can be healing and enlightening for all parties. To make the decision about whether to broach this topic with your parents, it helps to know which type of emotionally neglectful parents you have. To learn more about making this decision, check back for a near future article, Should I Talk With My Parents About Emotional Neglect?

IN SUMMARY:  It is certainly not necessary to talk to your parents about CEN. You can heal yourself without ever involving them. Learning more about your parents’ childhoods and having compassion for them may help make their emotionally neglectful ways less painful to you now. However, sharing the concept of CEN with them can be helpful in some families, and may be a way for you to improve your relationship with them. Be sure to take into account the type of CEN parents that you have when making the decision to talk with them. 

To learn whether CEN is a part of your life, and how it has affected you, Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

And above all else, remember that your feelings are important. And your needs are important.

Yes, you matter.

To learn much more about healing the Emotional Neglect in your relationships, see my new book,  Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

Photo by THX0477

The Painful Secret Many People Live With: The Fatal Flaw

Legions of good people live through decades of their lives harboring a painful secret. They guard it as if their life depends on it, not realizing it’s not even real.

It’s a secret that is buried deep inside them, surrounded and protected by a shield of shame. A secret that harms no one, but does great damage to themselves. A secret with immense power and endurance.

It’s their Fatal Flaw.

A Fatal Flaw is a deep-seated, entrenched feeling/belief that you are somehow different from other people; that something is wrong with you.

Your Fatal Flaw resides beneath the surface of your conscious mind. Outside of your awareness, it drives you to do things you don’t want to do and it also stops you from doing things you should do.

Rooted in your childhood, it’s like a weed. Over time it grows. Bit by bit, drop by drop, it quietly, invisibly erodes away your happiness and well-being. All the while you are unaware.

The power of your Fatal Flaw comes partially from the fact that it is unknown to you. You have likely never purposely put yours into words in your own mind. But if you listen, from time to time you may hear yourself expressing your Fatal Flaw internally to yourself or out loud to someone else.

I’m not as fun as other people.

I don’t have anything interesting to say.

When people get to know me they don’t like me.

I know that I’m not attractive.

No one wants to hear what I have to say.

I’m not worthy.

I’m not lovable.

Your Fatal Flaw could be anything. And your Fatal Flaw is unique to you.

Where did your Fatal Flaw come from, and why do you have it? Its seed was planted by some messages your family conveyed to you, most likely in invisible and unspoken ways.

The Flaw                                                             The Roots

I’m not as fun as other people. Your parents seldom seemed to want to be with you very much.
I don’t have anything interesting to say. Your parents didn’t really listen when you talked.
If people get to know me they won’t like me. You were ignored or rejected as a child by someone who was supposed to love you.
I’m not attractive. As a child, you were not treated as attractive by the people who matter – your family.
No one wants to hear what I have to say. You were seldom asked questions or encouraged to express yourself in your childhood home.
I’m not lovable. As a child, you did not feel deeply seen, known, and loved for who you truly are.

The Good News

Yes, there is some good news. Your Fatal Flaw is a belief, not a fact. A fact cannot be changed, but a belief most certainly can.

How to Defeat Your Fatal Flaw

  1. Recognize that you have it and that it’s not a real flaw. It’s just a belief/feeling.
  2. Find the words to express your own unique version of “something is wrong with me.”
  3. Identify its specific cause in your childhood. What happened, or didn’t happen, in your childhood to plant the seeds of your fatal flaw?
  4. Share your Fatal Flaw with another person; your spouse, a trusted friend, a family member, or a therapist. Describe your belief, and talk about it. 
  5. Watch for evidence that contradicts your Fatal Flaw. I assure you it has been there all along. But you have been blinded to it by your Fatal Flaw.
  6. Track your Fatal Flaw. Pay attention, and take note of when it “speaks” to you.
  7. Start talking back to your Fatal Flaw.

I am fun to be with. I am interesting. People like me more as they get to know me. I am attractive, and I have important things to say. I am just as lovable as anyone else.

Your Fatal Flaw is actually neither fatal nor a flaw. It’s not even real.

It’s powered only by your supercharged belief that it is both.

To learn much more about Fatal Flaws, how they happen, and how to defeat yours, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author.

New Year’s Resolution Revolution: Four Tips for Success in 2013

Make 2013 Your Year

When we think of New Year’s resolutions, we usually think about things we want to change about ourselves. Most people try to think of the things they don’t like about themselves and resolve to change them. Here are some examples of typical resolutions:

  • Stop biting fingernails
  • Spend less
  • Drink less
  • Stop smoking
  • Eat less
  • Exercise more
  • Dress better

This year, I invite you to think of resolutions differently. Instead of changing something you don’t like about yourself, think positively. Think about what you want to accomplish in 2013. Here’s the question to start with:

A year from now, when you look back on 2013, what accomplishment do you want to see?

Here are some examples of possible “Revolution Resolutions” that you might feel happy to see when you look back from 1/1/2014:

  • You got a promotion at work
  • You learned to cook (or improved your cooking skills)
  • You bought a bike and started riding
  • You became a blogger
  • You got a new job
  • You learned to knit
  • You joined a club (Toastmasters, book club, walking club, singles club for some examples)
  • You started a new career or business
  • You took an exciting trip
  • You wrote that book that’s been in the back of your mind for a long time
  • You made some new, good friends
  • You got married

Obviously some of these are bigger than others. It all depends upon what’s going on in your life, and what stage of life you are in. If you’re busy raising small children, it may not make sense to choose something as major as starting a new business, for example. Perhaps making new friends or starting a blog might be more in order. The important thing is to choose a resolution that’s attainable FOR YOU and that will improve your life in some significant way.

Here are 4 Tips to help ensure Resolution success in 2013:

FOUR TIPS

  1. Avoid the age-old tradition of setting three resolutions. It’s too distracting and a set-up for partial success. Instead, choose ONE Revolution Resolution, and stay focused on it.
  2. To keep your focus and your motivation strong, keep picturing yourself on 1/1/2014, looking back and feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment. Vividly imagine what that will feel like, often throughout the year.
  3. Tell your spouse, children and friends about your Resolution, and ask for their support and encouragement. It can be very helpful to feel supported, and also accountable to others.
  4. Break your Resolution down into steps, to help make it feel less daunting. For example “Join a Club” could be broken down into the following steps: a) research possible clubs in my area; b) choose a club; c) contact the leader; d) attend one meeting; and so on.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

Emotional Neglect and Self-Discipline

Several months ago I was at a dinner party. It was late in the evening, after dinner, and we were all sitting around the table talking. I mentioned to the group that writing my book, Running on Empty, has been surprisingly demanding. At times when I would typically be relaxing, reading, or watching TV, I am now brainstorming, planning, or writing. But I explained that I am driven to do this anyway because I feel driven about my message: making people aware of the invisible effects of Emotional Neglect. As my brother-in-law, Rich, was listening to me talk, he said, “I’m going to send you something in the mail that you have to read.”

I didn’t give this another thought until I received an envelope from him a few days later. In it was, “The Common Denominator of Success,” by Albert E.N. Gray. It is a copy of a speech made my Mr. Gray at the National Association of Life Underwriters in 1940. Mr. Gray has now passed away, but his message is timeless. His speech, while geared toward helping insurance salesmen, applies to any human being who wants to be successful.

Here is Mr. Gray’s discovery of “the common denominator of success,” in his own words:

“The common denominator of success–the secret of success of every man who has ever been successful–lies in the fact that he formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.”

In my role as psychologist and therapist, I have had the honor of working with many very bright, capable people who struggle with self-discipline. It is painful when a person who has tremendous potential is held back by their own ability to realize it. I have found that the very thing that gets in many such people’s way in fulfilling the potential that they clearly know they have, is an inability to make themselves do what they don’t want to do. Often these folks call themselves lazy. They get angry at themselves for not carrying through the promises they make themselves to do important things. The anger at themselves drains them and eats away at their self-esteem. Gradually, slowly, they start to give up because they are being taken down by a negative cycle of anger at themselves, frustration, and feelings of failure.

I have been quietly treating these people for years.  I often can see early on what the patient herself cannot: that her struggles with self-discipline are rooted in her Emotional Neglect.   Most people don’t realize that we humans are not born with the ability to structure ourselves. Nor are we born with a natural ability to make ourselves do what we don’t want to do. In fact, quite the opposite.  We learn this skill from our parents.  As a child, each time your parents called you in to dinner, interrupting your play with the neighbor kids, made you take a bath, clear the table, clean your room, brush your teeth, hang up your clothes, weed the garden or empty the dishwasher, they were teaching you the two most vital aspects of self-discipline:  how to make yourself do what you don’t want to do; and how to stop yourself from doing what you do want to do.

Mr. Gray has helped me to recognize that these two most basic skills of self-discipline are not solely a function of childhood parental training. A sense of purpose is also an essential ingredient. Mr. Gray maintains that it is an individual’s personal purpose that drives him or her to make the choice to do things that are unpleasant, boring, or scary. That purpose has to be driven by feeling, not logic, or it will not be strong enough to do the trick. Logic is not a great motivator, whereas emotion is.

Now I realize that beyond helping people stop the self-blame and learn how to make themselves do what they don’t want to do, I also have to help them find their purpose. What do you feel passionate about? What do you really care about. Because once you find what you truly want and desire, your passion will motivate you far beyond what you think you need. And then you will be better able to make yourself do things that you don’t want to do.

I highly recommend reading Mr. Gray’s speech. It is beautiful prose, written in 1940’s (i.e., sexist) style. I suggest that you ignore that part, read, enjoy and learn.

http://www.theintelligentinvestor.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/the-common-denominator-of-success.pdf

Oh, yes, thanks Rich!