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Find Purpose and Meaning Despite Childhood Emotional Neglect

One of the most painful symptoms of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is also, amazingly, the most directly fixable.

Who hasn’t, at some moments of their life, wondered what it’s all for?

What’s the point?

Why am I here on this earth?

What am I supposed to be doing?

Does anything really matter?

I have noticed that some people struggle more than others with these questions.

And I’ve also realized that there seems to be something about growing up emotionally neglected that predisposes you even more to this struggle.

“But what could that possibly be??!” you may be wondering, just as I have wondered for years.

Today, I’d like to share my best answers to all of these questions. Of course, I don’t claim to know the meaning of life. But I can surely talk about what makes life feel meaningful.

2 Things That Make Life Feel Meaningful

Most psychologists, I think, would agree that two key factors make life feel meaningful, and both are supported by research:

  1. Your Emotions: Your emotions drive, motivate, direct, and inspire you. The most memorable moments in your life are the ones in which you feel something. Awed, sad, overwhelmed, shocked, delighted, or disappointed, these moments lodge themselves in your memory. When you feel an emotion, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, you feel real. Feeling a feeling is a way of feeling alive. Emotions tell you that what is happening matters. They carry with them the message “this matters.”
  2. Your Relationships: Study after study has shown that it’s your connections to others that both anchor and stimulate you. Who is there for you when things get rough? Who’s present to celebrate with you and console you? To care for you and be cared for by you? These kinds of connections create the substance that makes life worth living.

These two important life factors offer keys to the struggle for purpose and meaning that many emotionally neglected people experience. When your feelings are under-validated as a child (CEN), you grow up pushing away, questioning, or numbing out your own emotions. This leads to 3 special challenges when it comes to feeling, as an adult, that your life is meaningful.

  • You are out of touch with your feelings. This undermines your search for meaning in 3 important ways:

a) It leaves you feeling, on some level, that you’re not fully alive.

b) The feelings that should be informing you about what matters to you are not available enough.

c) Feelings are a source of passion and direction. A shortage of these messages from within may leave you feeling lost and alone.

  • Your relationships are overly one-sided: CEN leaves you more focused on caring for others. You give more in your relationships than you’re able to take. Your giving nature warms you and moves you, but its one-way nature may limit the depth of your relationships. And it may simply not be quite enough.
  • You feel that you don’t matter: The unspoken message you received in childhood was, “Your feelings don’t matter.” But since your emotions are the most deeply personal part of who you are, what your child self heard was, “You don’t matter.” As an adult, this message undermines your feelings of life purpose and meaning. After all, if you don’t matter, how can your life matter?

Now back to the first sentence: “the most painful but most directly fixable.” Yes, it is true.

The Fix

What’s the best fix for all of this? Welcome your emotions back into your life.

I have seen over and over again that these three deceptively simple steps can make a huge difference in how important your life feels to you.

  1. Try to feel: This may sound strange but it actually works. Making an effort to have an emotion will start to yield results. You will start to feel more.
  2. Tune in to your feelings: Chances are, you’re having feelings all the time, but you are simply not aware of them. All this takes is focusing your attention more on what you’re feeling. Several times a day pause, focus your attention inward, and ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?”
  3. Increase your feeling word vocabulary: An important part of getting in touch with your feelings is being able to put words to them. You can find an exhaustive Feeling Word List HERE (Click on the third purple CLICK HERE on the page).

I know it may be hard to believe, but to me, it’s abundantly clear:

The fuel of life is feeling. If we’re not filled up in childhood, we must fill ourselves as adults. Otherwise, we will find ourselves running on empty.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and how to recover from it, see my books Running Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships and Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect , and  Take The Emotional Neglect Test for free.

This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.