Now that I see what my parents didn’t give me, how do I continue to interact with them?
Should I tell my parents how they failed me?
If I talk to my parents about CEN, won’t it make them feel bad?
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?
If you were raised by parents who were not tuned in enough to your emotional needs, you have probably experienced the results of this parental failure over and over throughout the years and into your adulthood. 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.
One of the most frequent questions that I am asked by people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect is, “Should I talk to my parents about CEN?”
It’s actually quite difficult to answer the questions above. Every single living human being had a childhood, and no two stories are the same. Indeed, the number of possible answers to the questions is as infinite as the variety of different ways that CEN can happen. But generally, it can be extremely healing when adult child and parents are able to come to a mutual understanding of how an emotional failure happened and why, and how it affected everyone involved. This, however, can be a complicated business; difficult, and even risky.
It’s important to keep in mind that it is not at all necessary to include your parents in your recovery from CEN. As an adult, you can identify what you didn’t get, and you can give it to yourself. I have seen many people go through this process with great success without ever including their parents.
That said, you may certainly feel a wish or need to reach some understanding about CEN with your parents. If so, it is very understandable that you might feel this way. If you are wondering about whether to talk to them, one extremely important factor to consider is the type of CEN parents that you have. Here are the three main categories:
Parents who are in the last two categories, Struggling or WMBNT stand a better chance of being able to get past their initial hurt, guilt or defensiveness to have a fruitful talk with their adult children about CEN. If your parents were in the Self-centered category, were abusive, or failed you in many other ways as well, see the section below called Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents.
First let’s look at some general suggestions to consider. Then we’ll talk about how to apply them to the different types of parents.
Self-Centered, Abusive, or Multiple-Failure Parents
If you have parents who fall into one of these categories, then you are faced with a situation that is even more complex than those above. Unless your parents have changed and grown since your childhood, I am sorry to say that most likely they will not be able to grasp the CEN concept or to respond to you in any positive way.
For you, I offer one guiding principle that may be difficult for you to accept. But I stand by it, after having treated scores of CEN people with parents like this. Here it is:
Make the decision about whether to talk to your parents about CEN based solely upon your own needs. If you think it may strengthen you or make you feel better to talk with them, then do it. If not, then do not. You are not obligated to take your parent’s needs and preferences into account. On this, it’s all about you.
In other words, if you had an abusive or multiple-failure parent, you have carte blanche permission to do whatever you feel will benefit you in your life. You, your children and your spouse come first. You do not need to protect your parents from the knowledge that they failed you.
Parents who were abusive to you as a child, either verbally, emotionally, physically or sexually, are also, by definition, emotionally neglectful. If they had been emotionally attuned to you enough, they would not have been able to treat you this way. Also, if your parents were / are abusive in any way, then it may be of more value to talk with them about the abuse than about the neglect, since abuse is far more visible and tangible than CEN. Because CEN can be so imperceptible, and hides beneath abuse, it will be very difficult and unlikely for abusive parents to ever grasp the concept.
Unless your parents have been to therapy, have confronted their own issues and abusive ways and actively changed, (for example, an alcoholic or addicted parent who gets sober and goes to AA such that his/her personality becomes truly different) they will probably be no more able to hear you now than they could when you were a child.
So ask yourself, “If I talk to my parents about CEN, what are the possible outcomes?” Will they tell you that you are too sensitive, and that you are blowing things out of proportion? Will they blow up in anger? Will they likely say something abusive? Will they twist around what you are saying, and use it against you somehow?
If any of these are likely, I suggest that you put your energy toward healing yourself, and leave your parents out of it. It is extremely important, if you do decide to talk with them, that you do it with the understanding that you may need to protect yourself emotionally. Also it is vital that you be strong enough to not be emotionally damaged by their words or reactions. This is a tall order for anyone, but is especially so when you were raised by self-centered or abusive parents.
IN SUMMARY: It is certainly not necessary to talk to your parents about CEN. You can heal from it without ever doing so. 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. Your path to healing is unique to you. There are no right or wrong answers. If you decide to talk with your parents about CEN, follow the tips and guidelines above, and proceed with care.
To learn much more about whether you should talk with your parents about CEN, how to do it, and how to cope if you can’t, 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, how it’s different from emotional abuse, how it happens, and how to heal from it, see my book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Above all else, remember that your feelings are important and your needs are important. Yes, you matter.
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.
A few months ago I was interviewed about my book, “Running on Empty,” on a radio show. I was waiting on the line to go on-air when the Producer said to me behind the scenes, “We have a great audience today; looks like about 23,000 people are listening.” Since I’m not often in situations where I’m speaking to 23,000 people, that made me pretty nervous. Immediately, the host came on, introduced me, and asked a question I was not expecting. He said, “Where did you come up with this title? Can you explain it to our audience?” If I hadn’t been nervous, I could have articulated it more clearly. As it was, I somewhat stammered through a fairly vague but somewhat adequate answer.
Since that day, I have given this question some thought, and have been called upon to explain it a number of times. Let me start by describing–
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.