Procrastination. Is it a choice? Is it an affliction? Or is it simply the annoying habit that most people think it is?
My answer is that it’s a little bit of all three, but not really any of those things. Does that clear things up for you? No?
OK, here’s the thing. Procrastination is actually a coping mechanism. It’s a form of avoidance that you use when you have no other option. It does not work for anyone, ever. It’s basically a coping-mechanism-gone-wrong.
The reason procrastination does not work is that it’s a set-up to bring feelings of guilt, self-blame, dread, stress, and overwhelm upon yourself. In this way, whenever you procrastinate, you are ignoring your own need to feel good about yourself and your life. You are neglecting yourself.
The Relationship Between Procrastination and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)
There are many different types of emotionally neglectful parents and many different ways that parents can emotionally neglect their children. Generally, CEN is made up of some version of “not enough.”
Here are 3 different forms of CEN that set a child up to have problems with procrastination which may endure life long.
**Special Note: Most CEN parents don’t emotionally neglect their child on purpose. Your parents may have given you everything they have to give but they did not receive the 3 things below themselves when they were growing up.
It’s Friday. Lisbeth is leaving work to meet up with her friends as planned, but she knows she hasn’t finished a report that her team needs to see first thing Monday morning. “I’ll work on it tomorrow,” she reassures herself, putting it out of her mind for the evening.
Lisbeth awakens Saturday morning feeling burdened and tired, and goes through her entire day under that dark cloud trying not to think about the fact that she must finish the report. The weight of the unfinished task drags down her energy all day. She ends up watching Netflix all day, feeling vaguely lazy and guilty all the while.
Sunday is like a repeat of Saturday except under more pressure. As the hours pass, Lisbeth feels the available time slipping away from her and grows angrier and angrier at herself for not having attacked and task and finished the report first thing Saturday morning.
Finally, at 10 p.m., the pressure moves her and she gets to work. Immersing herself in the task, she finally finds her focus and ends up finishing the report at 2 a.m. Of course, she pays the price on Monday. She feels sleep-deprived but also angry at herself for having such a burdensome, joyless, unproductive weekend overall.
Do you identify with Lisbeth? How many days or weekends have you lived like hers?
Growing up emotionally neglected teaches you many things that will color your life forever — until you address it, that is.
CEN teaches you to ignore your own feelings which are the deepest expression of who you are, plus also the loudest alarm bell that alerts you to whether your choices bring you positive or negative results.
So, in essence, CEN teaches you to emotionally neglect yourself all through your life. And procrastination is just one of the possible ways for you to emotionally neglect yourself.
Just as procrastination is not simple, the secret to getting over procrastination is also not simple. But it is definitely something you can do! It involves going directly against your childhood experience and making a conscious effort to do the opposite of the 3 forms of CEN above.
Imagine that Lisbeth follows these 3 steps for long enough that she starts to gain better control of her avoidant tendencies.
Imagine she begins to notice her feelings more and realizes that completing tasks brings her happiness while avoiding tasks drains her energy and makes her angry at herself. Imagine that this emotional awareness enables her to start facing tasks instead of avoiding them.
Imagine that Lisbeth finds herself feeling proud of her daily accomplishments and of how she is no longer neglecting herself.
Now, imagine that instead of Lisbeth, it’s you.
You CAN do this.
You can find the 3 Things Exercise to retrain your brain in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Do you know that children have physical needs? OF COURSE, YOU DO! Virtually all parents, and all people, for that matter, understand that children must be fed, clothed, kept warm and sheltered, rested and exercised. Kids need to have all of these needs met in order to physically survive and thrive.
Most people also realize that children have emotional needs. Children need to be loved. But children’s emotional needs actually go far beyond that.
You, when you were a child, needed much more than love from your parents. One of the things you needed the most is something most parents hardly think about if they think about it at all. It’s emotional validation.
Emotional validation happens when your parents see what you are feeling, acknowledge your feelings, and seem to understand why you are having them.
Just like adults, children’s feelings are the deepest, most personal, biological expression of who they are. In order to feel seen, understood, and heard, a child must feel that their feelings are seen, understood, and heard.
What happens when you feel seen, understood, and heard as a child? You grow up to feel like a person who is seeable, understandable, and hearable. You feel knowable. You feel valid.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If your parents didn’t have the emotional awareness or emotional skills to see and accept what you were feeling, they may have, perhaps of no fault of their own, failed to validate you.
As a result, you may have grown up to feel unseen, misunderstood, and unheard. You may feel less valid than everyone else.
I call this Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Did you see yourself in any of the examples above?
Whether your emotional threshold was not met as a child or your feelings were invalidated (both constitute Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN), I want you to know that it has left its mark on you. The effects are substantial and significant, and they seldom go away on their own.
But they do go away. With your awareness, attention, interest, and commitment, you can reclaim your valuable emotions and learn to listen to their messages. You can learn to understand, trust, and love yourself.
That is the process of validating yourself. It’s never too late to do it.
Let’s get started.
To learn specific ways to emotionally validate and emotionally connect with your child, toddler, teen, or adult see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. You can find helpful resources for understanding and healing Childhood Emotional Neglect throughout this website.
It is definitely true that parenting is an incredibly complex job. We can all see that the huge majority of parents are honestly working hard to offer the very best they possibly can to their children.
As much empathy as I have for parents, being one myself, today I will be talking with all who are on the other side of the fence: those of you who are grown up now and are feeling that your relationship with your parents is a problem in your life.
There are indeed an infinite amount of ways that a parent/child relationship can go wrong. Many are subtle or confusing and can leave all parties feeling burdened or hurt.
Especially if you know that your parents love you, you may end up baffled about your relationship with them, and wondering what is wrong.
How does this happen? Why does this relationship have to be so complicated? Why can’t we just love our parents unconditionally?
Of course, there can be endless different explanations for any of these problems. But for most people, the answer lies somewhere in the area of what psychologists call individuation.
Individuation: The natural, healthy process of the child becoming increasingly separate from the parent by developing his or her own personality, interests, and life apart from the parent.
Individuation usually starts around age 13 but can be as early as 11 or as late as 16. Behaviors we think of as “teenage rebellion” are actually attempts to separate. Talking back, breaking rules, disagreeing, refusing to spend time with the family; all are ways of saying, and feeling, “I’m me, and I make my own decisions.”
Individuation is indeed a delicate process, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. When it doesn’t, and also goes unresolved, it can create a stressful or painful relationship between parent and adult child.
When your adolescence gets off track in any of these ways, a price is paid by both you and your parents. Much later, when you’re trying to live your adult life, you may sadly find yourself feeling burdened, pained, or held back by your parents. On top of that, you might feel guilty for feeling that way.
So now the big question. How do you know when you need some distance from your parents?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, and you also feel burdened by your relationship with your parents, it may be a sign that you need some distance to maximize your own personal growth and health.
Yes, parenting truly is the hardest job in the world. But parents are meant to launch you, not limit you. If your individuation didn’t happen fully through your adolescence, you may need to work at separating from your parents now in order to have the healthy, strong, independent life that you are meant to live.
So what does distancing mean when it comes to parents? It doesn’t mean moving farther away. It doesn’t mean being less kind or loving toward them. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing anything drastically different. In fact, distance can be achieved by changing yourself and your own internal response to what happens between you.
Watch for a future article sharing some of the basics of how to make those changes for yourself. In the meantime, you can learn much, much more about exactly how to do this in the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Guilt is, for many, built into the adult separation process, unfortunately. So separating from your parents may be no less painful now, as an adult, than it was when you were an adolescent. But the good news is, you are grown up. You’re developed. You’re stronger. Now you can better understand what’s wrong.
To learn more about the parent/child relationship and how it can go wrong emotionally, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was first published on Psychcentral.com. It has been revised and reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.
The world is full of mothers who are wondering why their adult sons don’t answer their calls, and fathers who struggle awkwardly to talk to their daughters.
“What did I do wrong?” they ask. “Why can’t we be closer? Shouldn’t our relationship be easier now?”
It’s entirely possible to be a loving, caring parent who worked hard to do everything right in raising your child and to still end up with a strained relationship once your child grows up. It’s because parenting is so complex and multi-layered that it’s far too easy to make one crucial error that your child has difficulty either understanding or recovering from.
One of the easiest and most invisible errors that a parent can make – Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) – passes silently from one generation to the next, unnoticed and unchecked. And unfortunately, it also can lead to some of the greatest parent/child emotional gaps once the child grows up.
Sadly, it’s all too easy to make this mistake. All you have to do is fail to respond enough to your child’s emotional needs when you are raising her. This leaves your child, as a grown-up, without enough access to her emotions. It also leaves her feeling as if you don’t really know her on the most deeply personal level: the emotional level.
So she may then come to you for advice, but not for solace. She may expect you to be there for her financially, but not emotionally. She may share her thoughts with you, but not so much her feelings.
One of the most common questions I receive from readers of this blog is from parents who have realized that they inadvertently, through no fault of their own, emotionally neglected their child. This is a painful realization for any parent, and it’s extra painful when your adult child keeps her distance from you, seems angry at you, or is struggling with issues of her own.
Please know that no matter what’s gone wrong between you and your adult child, the burden generally lies on you, the parent, to initiate fixing it. So what do you do if you want to repair or deepen your relationship with your CEN adult child? The good news is that there are clear steps that you can follow.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it transfers from one generation to the next, and how it affects children once they grow up, see the book, Running on Empty. For many more specific tips and information about improving your relationship with your child see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article was originally posted on psychentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.
Parents, I have an important message for you. Of all the gifts you can give your children, emotional intelligence is probably the most valuable.
For decades, it was believed that IQ (Intelligence Quotient) was the primary factor in the ability of a child or adult to be successful in life. Now, thanks to lots of research, we know differently. Emotional Intelligence (also known as EQ) is more important to life satisfaction and success than IQ.
So what exactly is emotional intelligence? EQ expert Daniel Goleman, Ph.D. defines it as the ability to manage your own emotions, and also the emotions of others. If you have a high EQ, you are able to recognize your feelings when you have them and understand what they mean. You are also able to read what others are feeling and respond to them appropriately. This makes you well-equipped to manage complex interpersonal experiences.
The importance of EQ to life success has been established in study after study over the last 15 years. Research has shown that students who receive training in emotional intelligence at school try harder in classes, have better self-awareness and self-confidence, and manage their stress better in school.
Not only that, high EQ adults are more effective and more successful in leadership positions in both business settings and in the military.
Despite the incredible value of these skills, they are not in the minds of most parents as they raise their children. Parents want to teach their children how to behave, but they are probably not thinking about teaching them how to handle their emotions.
But this must change. Because fortunately, although a parent may have some difficulties helping his child understand complex math or chemistry concepts, all parents have the capacity to help their children develop emotional intelligence.
As Marcy stood chatting with another mom at their daughters’ soccer game, she noticed out of the corner of her eye that her 10-year-old daughter Halley was playing very aggressively. She was kicking the ball in a too-hard, undirected, and out-of-control fashion. As she watched, she saw Halley kick so hard that she missed the ball altogether, and then sit down on the field appearing to be in tears.
Marcy walked over to meet Halley on the sideline, where the coach sent her to cool down. “What’s going on Halley?” she asked her daughter. (This question tells Halley that her feelings are visible and important.)
“I hate soccer and I don’t want to play ever again,” Halley exclaimed with disgust in her voice.
“What’s making you so angry right now, Hon?” (Marcy has named the feeling for her daughter).
“Sophia and Katy were ganging up on me before practice, and they’re still doing it on the field. I hate those two,” Marcy explains, breaking into tears now.
“Aw, Halley, it always hurts so much to get ganged up on. No one likes that!” (Here Marcy has validated Halley’s feelings as understandable while also establishing that her painful experience happens to other people too.)
“You can handle this Halley. I know you’re hurt, but you can put that aside for now and finish the game. Then we’ll talk about what to do about Sophia and Katy on the way home, OK?” Putting her hand in the air for their trademark “pinky high-five,” Marcy says. “You’re strong and you got this.” Halley does the high-five with her mom and nods her head reluctantly. (Here Marcy has shown Halley that her feelings can be managed, and also how to do it.)
Years from now, at age 26, Halley will benefit from this exact experience. She will find herself feeling excluded at work, right before a meeting in which she has to present an important project. She will notice that she’s angry, and she will realize that her feelings matter. She will take a moment to identify the reason (she feels excluded).
Armed with this self-awareness of what she’s feeling and why she will now use the emotion management skills her mother taught her. She will say to herself, “I will think this through later. Right now I need to focus on this presentation.” With that, Halley will put a smile on her face and walk into the meeting looking composed and confident.
Marcy could have handled the soccer situation very differently. She might have walked over to Halley and said any of these things that any parent might say:
Pull it together, Kiddo, and get back out there.
This kind of behavior will get you kicked off the team!
What the heck is the problem?
You’re really annoying the coach!
If you’re not going to play the game right, we might as well go home.
None of these responses from a parent would be horrific or unreasonable, but all would ignore the importance of the child’s feelings (the definition of Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN). And all would miss an important opportunity to teach the child emotional intelligence.
If you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect yourself; if your parents didn’t teach you the EQ skills, then you may need to begin to learn them yourself.
But as a parent, you don’t have to be perfect at this. You only have to be willing to try. Please know that every single time you notice, respond to, and validate your child’s emotions, you are giving him the skills for a lifetime. Skills for confidence, connection, success, and motivation.
Possibly the greatest, most loving gift ever.
To learn how to emotionally connect with, and emotionally validate, a child of any age (small, teen or adult), see the book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, your Parents & Your Children.
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.
For centuries people have been baffled about why particular people in their lives continually hurt or manipulate them. For centuries they have searched for answers.
After years of being concerned about labeling people and causing harm, we mental health professionals finally realized that we were failing to educate people about how to manage these challenging and damaging relationships. By not talking openly about narcissism and sociopathy, we were failing to validate and protect the people who needed it the most.
Today, fortunately, you can find plentiful articles about narcissism and sociopathy throughout this entire psychcentral site as well as in many other sources on the internet.
But one thing you will not find much information about is the question of what makes some people more vulnerable to narcissistic and sociopathic people in their lives. What makes you unintentionally gravitate toward people who will manipulate you and use you strictly to fulfill their own needs? Why is it so hard to see how they are harming you or to say, “No more,
to them? Or why do you seem to attract them?
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN is far more common than most people would think. It happens in homes that seem caring and supportive, but where the parents are simply emotionally unaware. It also happens in homes with addicted, self-absorbed, depressed, or personality disordered parents.
But no matter why it happens, its effects on the child are the same. It leaves behind a child who grows into an adult disconnected from her own emotions and her own emotional needs. It creates an adult who asks for little, and who unconsciously continues the pattern of neglecting himself.
This is a perfect draw for a narcissist.
If you saw yourself in the description above, then I have one thing to say to you: it’s time. It is time to make yourself less vulnerable.
And the good news is, you can! You can heal the Emotional Neglect from your childhood and this will help you stop attracting emotionally harmful people into your life.
You can start by beginning to pay attention to yourself in all the ways that did not happen when you were a child. To do this, pause for a moment twice each day and ask yourself some very important questions that you were not asked enough as a child:
What do I want?
What do I feel?
What do I need?
Your next step will be to start saying those words, “I want, I feel, and I need,” out loud to others, finally expressing your wants, feelings and needs more.
Through all of these steps, you will be creating your own limelight. A limelight of your own making. A reflection of your inner self that you are finally allowing to shine. A limelight that is healthy and real, and that has been there all along.
The more you pay attention to yourself, the less attention you will get from narcissists or sociopaths.
The more you like and care about yourself, the less you will feel drawn to narcissists.
The more you learn to express yourself, the easier it will be for you to say, “No more” to a narcissist or sociopath in your life.
Starting down the path of recovery from your Childhood Emotional Neglect is the start to your new life. A life free of manipulation and emotional harm. A life in which you are finally protected in exactly the way you were always meant to be.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often subtle and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn how to set limits with a narcissistic parent without feeling guilty, and also why CEN makes you more likely to enter relationships with narcissists see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
In research that has gone on since the late 1990s, psychologists and neuroscientists have found that a fraction of the population is simply “wired” differently than most (Aron, E. & Aron, A., 1997).
In 1997, Elaine Aron, Ph.D. wrote The Highly Sensitive Person. She describes the HSP as more sensitive to sounds, textures, and essentially all outside stimulation than average.
HSPs also think more about decisions and actions, and naturally process more deeply. This is thought to be an adaptive, survival mechanism. It has also been found in animal species, like fruit flies, fish, and almost 100 other species.
According to Aron and her research, some of the signs that you may be an HSP are being easily overwhelmed by bright lights, strong smells, and loud noises. You may get rattled when rushed, avoid violent TV shows, and withdraw into bed or a dark room when you get stressed. As children, HSPs also have a rich, complex inner life, and are often seen as shy by adults.
A very important thing to know about highly sensitive people is that they are born this way. In the classic question of nature vs. nurture, scientific evidence shows us that the HSP falls soundly in the Nature camp.
So we know that your parents do not cause you to be highly sensitive by the way they raise you. But it does beg another kind of question:
Is the highly sensitive child affected differently by emotionally neglectful parenting than a non-sensitive child might be?
Based on the thousands of emotionally neglected adults who I have had the privilege to know and/or work with, I would have to answer that question with a resounding yes. In my experience Childhood Emotional Neglect affects HSP children differently than non-HSP.
What is the experience of a child growing up in an emotionally neglectful home? It is a feeling of growing up deeply alone, even if surrounded by people. It is a process of having your emotions ignored, or even thwarted. It is what happens when you are not asked often enough:
What do you want?
What do you need?
What do you prefer?
What are you feeling?
Do you need help?
In the emotionally neglectful home, it’s not so much what your parents do to you that’s a problem. It’s just the opposite. The problem comes from what your parents fail to do for you: validate and respond to your emotional needs enough.
This can be very confusing for the child since from the outside (and sometimes even from the inside too), for many emotionally neglected children their family appears perfectly normal in every way.
Children who grow up in an emotionally neglectful home learn some powerful lessons very early and well:
Your feelings are invisible, a burden, or don’t matter.
Your wishes and needs are not important.
Help is not usually an option.
As we talked about above, the HSP child is born with some special sensitivities. Deep thinkers, thoughtful and responsive by nature, HSPs are greatly affected and more easily overwhelmed by external stimulation. HSPs also have greater emotional reactions and more empathy for others.
Imagine being a deeply thoughtful, intensely feeling child growing up in a family that is neither. Imagine your intense feelings being ignored or discouraged. Imagine that your thoughtfulness is viewed as a weakness. Imagine if it seems the people around you are operating at a different speed, and living on a different plane than you.
What do you do with your powerful anger, sadness, hurt or confusion? How do you try to fit in?
Many HSP adults have shared with me the words they heard often in their childhood homes, from parents and siblings alike:
“You are overly emotional.”
“Don’t be a baby.”
“You are over-sensitive.”
Some HSPs are actively made a joke of in their families. Some can be chided and derided or identified as “the weak one,” “the slow one,” because of the more thoughtful processing, or “the dreamer” because of the rich and complex inner life.
Most emotionally neglectful families are not only unaware that emotions are important, but they are also deeply uncomfortable with the feelings of their members, typically either passively or actively discouraging the show of any feelings.
What if one particular child feels more deeply than the rest? What will he learn about his feelings in this family? How will he learn how to value, tolerate, understand, and express his feelings?
The HSP child in the emotionally neglectful family learns that she is excessively emotional. And since our emotions are the most deeply personal expression of who we are, that HSP child learns that she is different, damaged, weak and wrong. She may grow up to be ashamed of her deepest self.
Do not worry, there are plenty of answers for you!
From the many posts on this blog, or by visiting my website (also linked below), you can learn much more about the Emotional Neglect you grew up with, the messages you received, and how to heal. You can also learn about what it means to be an HSP by visiting the website of Elaine Aron, Ph.D.
Understanding is a good start. After that, there are clear steps to take to fight those messages and heal your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
It is only by clearing the Emotional Neglect from your life that your HSP qualities will be allowed to shine. Only then will you be able to allow your intense emotional energy to empower you, and your deep processing abilities to guide you.
Only then will you be able to celebrate the unique qualities that make you different, and see that being set apart from birth, and again in your childhood, does not need to keep you set apart for life.
As a psychologist, I have worked with many families, teens, adults, and couples. And in this work, I have noticed a very interesting thing. Every family handles blame differently, and every individual person develops his or her own style of handling blame.
Generally, I have noticed 4 specific styles.
The best way to become an Externalizer or an Internalizer or an Inconsistent Internalizer is to grow up in a family that handles blame in an unbalanced way. A family’s unbalanced approach to blame sets its children up to be either overly harsh with themselves or to be Teflon. Or to be Category 4, someone who flips.
You may have surmised that Family #3 is the one that handles blame in the healthiest way. But before we get to that, let’s talk about you. How do you deal with blame?
Chances are high that your way of dealing with blame as an adult is rooted in the way your family dealt with it while you were growing up. Even if you wouldn’t classify yourself as a clear Externalizer or Internalizer, you probably have a general tendency to go more in one direction than the other.
As long as your way of dealing with blame is close enough to the balanced Family #3 description above, you will probably manage okay. But if it’s too close to Option 1 or 2, you may be experiencing some negative effects on your life. And since this is the way you grew up, you are probably unaware that it’s a problem.
Extreme Externalizers tend to be personality disordered in some way. When you are virtually unable to take responsibility for your mistakes and choices, it is very hard to learn from them. This can lead you to repeat your mistakes and to take paths in your life that continue to harm you.
Extreme Internalizers often find themselves depressed or anxious, or both. You become drained by the internal voice in your head accusing you, blaming you and perhaps even criticizing you. It’s also easy to become stuck in your life when you are taking too much responsibility for everything that has, is, or may go wrong and direct mistakes, mishaps, and problems harshly against yourself.
Inconsistent Internalizers flip back and forth between the two extremes described above. So you suffer the drain and pain of the harsh self-judgments and self-criticism, but you also have another disadvantage. Since you are busy attacking yourself or letting yourself off the hook, you also have a hard time learning from your mistakes. And you may end up feeling stuck in your life as a result.
A harsh, un-compassionate, externalizing family is almost definitely emotionally neglectful. But so is the family that skirts responsibility among its members, allowing the children’s errors and poor decisions to go unchecked.
As we have discussed in many other previous blogs, growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect is a recipe for self-blame and shame. And these two types of families do little toward teaching you how to allow yourself to be human, own your mistakes and problems without harshness, and approach them in a balanced way.
Practicing Compassionate Accountability protects you from all of the negative effects of over-externalizing and over-internalizing. It involves these steps:
In Compassionate Accountability there is freedom. Freedom from attack, freedom from harm, and freedom from getting stuck.
By acknowledging, owning, considering and learning, you are taking accountability, but also showing yourself compassion. You are treating yourself the way you wish your parents had treated you as a child.
No Emotional Neglect, no harshness. Just you, being human. Making mistakes and learning from them, exactly as we all are meant to do.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and difficult to remember so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. it’s free.
To learn more about how to raise your children with Compassionate Accountability, and practice it for yourself, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
As a psychologist who works with adults and adolescents, I am in a unique position to observe the results of different types of parenting as they play out through adulthood.
Nevertheless, I found myself baffled for an entire decade. Patient after patient sat in my psychotherapy office telling me that they felt that something was wrong with them.
“I am not happy, and there’s no reason for it.”
“Other people’s lives seem rich and colorful, but I feel like I’m living in black and white.”
“I feel empty. Something is missing, and I have no idea what it is.”
“Even when I’m surrounded by people, I feel alone.”
I was baffled not only by the vagueness of their complaints but even further by the lack of an explanation for them. Many of these people insisted that they had been raised by loving parents, and had fine childhoods. They felt there was no reason for their lack of engagement in life; so they blamed it on themselves.
The more I heard these confusing concerns, the more curious I became. After all, how could so many people with fine adult lives who claimed to have had happy childhoods feel so set apart, empty and alone? It simply did not add up.
Until I realized that my clients were not suffering because of anything that was happening in their adult lives, or anything that had happened to them in their childhoods.
The answer was far more elusive than any of that. Their adult discomfort was actually caused by something that had failed to happen for them in their childhoods. Each had been raised by parents who did not respond enough to their emotional needs: Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.
This subtle failure to act on the part of their parents had left them struggling in adulthood with something which they could not remember or name. So I began to study how it happens, and how it could lead to these particular problems for my patients. I discovered that children whose feelings are not validated or responded to enough receive an unstated but powerful message from their parents. That message is:
Your feelings don’t matter.
Children who receive this message automatically adapt. They push their own emotions down and away so that they will not trouble their parents, or even themselves.
In this process, they lose access to their own emotions, which are a vital source of connection, guidance, meaning, and joy. Without this resource (their emotions), these children grow into adults who feel rudderless, set apart, disconnected and alone.
CEN is silent, invisible, and powerful. It affects untold numbers of people in today’s world. But CEN can be stopped in its tracks by teaching parents how to respond enough to their children’s emotional needs.
Max is a precocious and active second grader, the youngest of 3 children. Lately, he has gotten into trouble at school for “talking back.” On one such day, he brings a note home from his teacher stating “Max was disrespectful today.” His mother sits him down and asks him what happened. In an exasperated tone, he tells her that, when he was in the recess line, Mrs. Simpson told him to stop trying to balance a pencil on his finger, point-side-up, because he might “stab himself in the face.” He frowned and snapped back at Mrs. Simpson by telling her that he would have to bend “alllll the way over the pencil like this” (demonstrating) to stab himself in the face and that he isn’t “that stupid.” In response, Mrs. Simpson confiscated his pencil, and sent him home with a note.
How might an emotionally neglectful parent respond to this situation once she sees the note?
CEN Parent #1: Max hands his mother the note. She reads it and says angrily, “How could you do this, Max? Now Ms. Simpson will think I’ve not taught you good manners! Go to your room.”
CEN Parent #2: Max hands his mother the note. A barely perceptible shadow crosses her face but is quickly replaced by a brightening. She picks up a football that Max had left on the kitchen counter earlier, points toward the living room and said, “Go long!” Max runs to catch the ball. “You’re such a tough guy,” she says while mussing his hair. “Rough day though, huh? Would some ice-cream make it better?”
CEN Parent #1 makes Max’s problem about herself and her own embarrassment. CEN Parent #2 seems caring, but she glosses over the problem. Both parents miss an opportunity to teach Max about his emotions, his behavior and himself.
Now let’s see how an Emotionally Attentive Parent might respond.
Mother: “Mrs. Simpson didn’t understand that you were embarrassed by her thinking you could be stupid enough to stick your eye out with a pencil. But when teachers ask you to stop doing something, the reason doesn’t matter. It’s your job to stop.”
Max: “I know! I was trying to say that to her and she wouldn’t listen!”
Mother: “Yes, I know how frustrated you get when people don’t let you talk. Mrs. Simpson doesn’t know that you’re dealing with your brother and sister not listening to you much lately.”
Max relaxes a little in response to his mother’s understanding: “Yeah, she got me so frustrated and then she took my pencil.”
Mother: “It must’ve been hard for you. But, you see, Mrs. Simpson’s class is very big and she doesn’t have time to talk things over like we are right now. It’s so important that when any grownup at school asks you to do something, you do it right away. Will you try to do as asked without saying anything back, Max?”
Max: “Yes, Mum.”
Mother: “Good! If you do what Mrs. Simpson asks, you’ll never get in trouble. Then you can come home and complain to us if you think it’s unfair. That’s fine. But as a student, respect means cooperating with your teacher’s requests.”
In a conversation that appears deceptively simple, Max’s mother has avoided shaming him for a mistake and named his feelings, creating the emotional learning that will allow Max to sort his feelings out on his own in the future. She has also supported him emotionally, given him a social rule, and asked him to be accountable for following it.
I want to give all the parents in the world the skills of Max’s mother. Then all of the children of the world can learn these valuable lessons when they need them: in their childhoods.
Then, as adults, they will not struggle with secret shame and self-blame, or a deeply buried feeling that something is wrong with them. They will not feel set apart, empty, or alone. Instead, they will be aware of their own feelings and be able to put them into words. They will be able to manage their emotions and behavior. They will live their lives in living color, fully, richly connected to themselves, the world, and the people who matter the most.
To learn exactly how to be an emotionally attuned parent to your child, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
To find out if you grew up with CEN Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
Before you read the rest of this article please consider this: What do you think is the most personal question you can ask someone?
Yes, those are all very personal questions, for sure. But nevertheless, the answer is, as you may have suspected, NONE OF THE ABOVE.
The most personal question you can ask another person is “What are you feeling?”
Two things make this question so distinctly personal. First, you are asking about the other person’s feelings. And second, our feelings are the most deeply personal, biological expression of who we are.
Asking a person what they are feeling is inquiring about their deepest self. When you ask this question you are trying to understand or know this person’s inner experience. So this question is very personal, but it is so much more!
Because of the reasons outlined above, “What are you feeling?” is also one of the most caring questions you can ask. It’s a way of saying, “I care about the experience of your inner self. I want to know about the real you.”
“What are you feeling?” has other versions like:
How do you feel? (Emotionally not physically)
What do you feel about that?
What do you feel?
What are your feelings?
Despite the enormous value and power of all these questions, they are, each and every one, drastically underused in today’s world. Jokes and cartoons abound depicting harassed husbands dreading these questions from their wives.
Many people think of emotion as a weakness that is not to be talked about. Others believe that asking someone about their feelings is a violation of their privacy. But neither of these assumptions is actually true or valid in any way.
Of course, the questions can be applied in the wrong way, to the wrong person or at the wrong time. But most people, fearing any of that, refrain from asking it to the right person at the right time, potentially missing multiple opportunities to express interest and care on a deeply meaningful level.
Use it on yourself.
Yes, that is right. Use it on yourself.
As seldom as you pose this question to others, I’m willing to bet that you pose it even less often to yourself. But this is a very, very important question for you to ask yourself multiple times, every single day.
In my experience as a psychologist, and in my study of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), I have found that this question prevents Childhood Emotional Neglect in children when they are asked it by their parents. I have also seen that it cures Childhood Emotional Neglect when adults ask it of themselves.
Asking yourself, “What am I feeling?” accomplishes multiple healthy aims.
If your parents failed to notice or respond to your feelings enough as they raised you (Childhood Emotional Neglect), they set you up to believe that your feelings do not matter. Perhaps you’ve always felt it best to ignore them.
But sadly, living this way is blocking you from feeling all the joy, warmth, connection, excitement, anticipation, and love that you should be experiencing each and every day. Living with Childhood Emotional Neglect is a little like having a cloud hanging over your head through your entire adult life. It affects your inner life, your decisions, and virtually all of your relationships.
Amazingly, all of these adult struggles can be overcome by a combination of self-focus, self-knowledge and emotion training. And all can be accomplished by the simple act of asking yourself what you are feeling.
When you shift your approach to “feelings” from avoidance to acceptance, a truly remarkable change happens in your life. You begin to become aware of a part of yourself you never saw before, and a level of connection with others that you never knew existed before.
So ask. Ask the people who matter, and especially ask yourself.
What are you feeling? What am I feeling?
And reap the rewards of daring to ask the most personal question of all.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and hard to remember so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The CEN Test. It’s free.
To learn much more about how to deepen and strengthen your relationships by paying more attention to emotions, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.