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How Childhood Emotional Neglect Affects Your Adult Friendships

I have lots of acquaintances, but not enough close friends.

I’m always there for my friends when they need me, but then when I need them they seem to let me down.

My friendships seem to gradually drift apart.

I usually feel drained after spending time with my friends.

I feel like people take me for granted.

I have heard the statements above, in various forms and combinations, expressed by hundreds of people. Those people all share one primary trait. They all grew up in emotionally neglectful homes.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents do not notice or respond enough to your feelings as they raise you.

CEN happens under the radar in many, many otherwise loving families. It also happens in obvious ways in many dysfunctional families, but since it’s subtle and essentially a “failure to act,” it usually gets upstaged by the more apparent dysfunctional events and actions in those families.

The result? We have legions of people walking through their lives being good friends to others while deeply mystified about why their friendship is not returned in kind.

How Growing Up With CEN Affects Your Friendships Now

As a child, day after day you received a subtle message from your parents: your feelings don’t matter.

Growing up with the most important people in your life (your family) ignoring or squelching the most deeply personal, biological expression of who you are (your emotions), you have no choice but to adapt.

As a child, your brain walled off your feelings to “protect” you and your parents from them. This childhood coping mechanism, which was remarkably adaptive at the time, set up a cascade of future struggles for you.

That childhood wall is still there now. But instead of protecting you, it is isolating you. It is blocking off the one ingredient most vital to having rich, mutually rewarding friendships. Yes, it’s your feelings.

Contrary to those CEN messages from your parents, your feelings are not your enemies. They are, in fact, your best friends. They will connect, enrich and deepen your friendships if only you begin to allow it to happen.

The 3 Most Impactful Effects of CEN On Your Friendships

  • Along with undervaluing your feelings comes undervaluing yourself. You are giving too much, and asking for too little. This makes your friendships weighted in the favor of the other person.
  • Your lack of access to your own emotions makes you seem somehow unknowable to others. Your friends can’t connect with the deepest, most authentic part of you: your feelings.
  • You didn’t get to learn some vital emotion skills in your childhood that your parents should have been teaching you. This makes it hard to accurately interpret and respond to your own and your friends’ feelings, behaviors, and needs.

These 3 challenges may seem insurmountable as you read them, but I assure you they are not. I have seen many CEN people change their friendships from sparse and anemic to rich and rewarding.

And if they can do it, you can do it too!

3 Ways to Improve Your Friendships

3 Ways to Improve Your Friendships

  1. Force yourself to take up more space with your friends. Start by assessing each friendship for the amount of time you talk when you’re together vs. the amount they talk. Are you sharing enough? Start talking more until it’s 50/50.
  2. Focus on using the words “I feel,” “I want,” and “I think” at least once per day each. Using these words forces you to assert yourself in a way that you probably do not do naturally.
  3. Feel. This one may seem to be the least direct solution, but it is actually the most effective one overall. It involves beginning the first step of healing the effects of the Emotional Neglect you grew up with. It’s the simplest, yet most powerful thing you can do for your friendships. Begin to pay attention to your own feelings. Here’s how to do it:

Step 1: Download the free Feelings Sheet from my website here: http://drjonicewebb.com/the-book/.

Step 2: Choose a time of day when you reliably have a few minutes alone; for example in the morning right before you go to work or school; on your drive home in the afternoon; or right before you go to bed in the evening. Commit to doing the following exercise every single day at that time.

Step 3: At the designated time every day, while alone, sit comfortably and close your eyes if you can. Turn your attention inward and ask yourself what you are feeling. If you come up with anything, write down the word for the feeling(s) on your sheet. If you’re not feeling anything, write that down too.

The Takeaway

These 3 ways and 3 steps are all so very important. They will help you not only with your friendships, but they will also help you in so many other ways too. When you treat yourself as if you matter you begin to feel as if you matter.

Now here is a key point. The way you feel about yourself and treat yourself shows. Other people will start to see and feel that you are a person who matters. They will naturally treat you differently.

You will begin to draw people closer. You will realize that you are talking about substantial things that previously you would have avoided. You will find yourself getting what you want and need far more often. Gradually, you will notice that you are energized by your friendships, and supported by them.

By doing the direct opposite of those emotionally neglectful messages from your childhood, you may be surprised how very different you feel.

To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn how to repair Emotional Neglect with your partner, your parents, and your children, see the new book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

The Emotional Legacy of Childhood Emotional Neglect: Guilt and Shame

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you.

Adults who were emotionally neglected in childhood can be quite perfectionistic and hard on themselves. But for many, it does not stop there.

Why? Because the messages of Childhood Emotional Neglect run deep. They go to the heart of the child and stay there for a lifetime. They not only damage your ability to understand and trust your own feelings, but they also damage your ability to understand and trust yourself.

The messages of CEN are like invisible infusions of guilt and shame that happen every day in the life of the child.

  • The First Guilt/Shame Message of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): No one wants to see your feelings.

When, because of emotional neglect, children receive the message from their parents that their feelings are a burden, excessive, or simply wrong, they take a highly effective, adaptive action. They naturally push their emotions down, under the surface so that they will trouble no one.

Believe it or not, this brilliant strategy usually works quite well. As a child, you become un-sad, un-angry, un-needy, and overall unemotional so that your parents are less bothered or burdened by you. Life becomes easier in the family, but life inside you becomes deeply lonely. 

  • The Second Guilt/Shame Message of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Your feelings are shameful.

As a child of CEN, you are set up to feel, on some deep level for your entire life, that you are a burden, excessive, or somehow wrong.

Because Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) affects your relationship with your own feelings, it sets you up to feel guilty and ashamed for the very personal, inescapable human experience of having feelings.

It feels wrong to feel your feelings, and wrong to let others see your feelings. And it feels right to hide your feelings. You may even try not to have feelings at all. Yet your feelings are the most deeply personal, biological expression of your true self. They will not be denied.

Trying to deny your feelings is like the classic little Dutch boy trying to block the hole in the dike with his finger. It may feel like it works temporarily, but those feelings just keep coming and growing and pressurizing, like the water behind the dike. Being unable to control them and stop them altogether makes you feel weak and incompetent. And ashamed.

  • The Third Guilt/Shame Message of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): There is something wrong with you.

Since many emotionally neglected adults were not actively mistreated in childhood, they may remember their childhoods as fairly happy and carefree. When they look back on their childhoods for an explanation for their issues and struggles in their adult lives, they can’t pinpoint any incidents or factors to explain their current problems. 

Between a “happy childhood” and inexplicable emotions, they are left with the assumption that some deep part of themselves is seriously amiss. “It’s my own fault. Something is wrong with me,” is a natural conclusion.

Signs and Signals of CEN-Induced Guilt and Shame – From the Book Running on Empty

  • You sometimes feel emotionally numb
  • You have a deep sense that something is wrong with you
  • You feel that you are somehow different from other people
  • You tend to push down feelings or avoid them
  • You try to hide your feelings so others won’t see them
  • You tend to feel inferior to others
  • You believe you have no excuse for not being happier in your life

The Antidote For Your Guilt & Shame

I hope that as you read the Guilt/Shame messages above, you realized one glaring fact about them: THEY ARE ALL FALSE!

Now please read the three vital and true remedies below. If you absorb them and own them and follow them, they will change how you feel about yourself and your life.

  • Feelings are not subject to the laws of right and wrong. You cannot choose your feelings because they’re literally wired into your biology. It is essential to accept what you feel because that must be done before you can manage what you feel.
  • Your feelings are a sign of your health and strength. Your emotions are the opposite of a sign of weakness. When others see what you feel, they instantly connect with you. And when others know your feelings they have an opportunity to respond to your true self. That is powerful.
  • There is nothing wrong with you. The only thing wrong with you is the message of CEN that your child self internalized. And you share those same messages with millions of other people. You are an intact, healthy person who can learn and change your beliefs, learn to manage your emotions, let go of your guilt and shame, and heal.

You can learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect leads to excess guilt and shame in adulthood in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

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

Are All Achievement Focused Parents Emotionally Neglectful?

The Achievement/Perfection Parent can be difficult to satisfy. If his child comes home with all A’s, he will say (or almost worse, convey through body language), “Next time I’ll expect to see A+.”

This parent has a few things in common with the narcissistic parent. In fact, many of her behaviors can seem similar. Many narcissistic parents are perfection-focused because they want their child to reflect well on them. In other words, “If my child is the best skater on the team, it makes me look really good.”

This narcissistic mirror effect is part of what motivates many Achievement/Perfection parents (we’ll call them AP parents for short), but for many, it is not. AP parents can be driven by a number of different factors.

Some AP parents pressure their children to achieve because they desperately want opportunities for their children that they did not have in their own childhoods. Many are acting out of their own feeling that they themselves must be perfect. Some are trying to live their own life through their child. Still other AP parents may be simply raising their child the way they themselves were raised because it is all they know.

To understand the different motivations of different AP parents, let’s visit 8-year-old Mandy, who is having a bad day. We’ll see the different reactions of different kinds of AP parents.

Mandy’s Achievement/Perfection Mom

Soccer practice just ended, and Mandy walks slowly toward the car while catching glimpses of her mom and coach speaking intensely. She knows her coach is telling her mother that she goofed around at practice today, distracted her teammates, and at one point actually smarted off to the coach.

AP Mom 1

“Mandy, how could you behave that way today? Now Coach Simpson might change her mind about recommending you for the Ivy League-Bound A team next year. Are you serious about soccer or not?! You need to write an apology note right now, and we need to fix this immediately!”

AP Mom 2

“Mandy, you know better than to act up in soccer practice. Your coaches see your potential, but if you don’t behave yourself you won’t keep improving your skills!”

AP Mom 3

“Mandy, I’m terribly disappointed in you. I’ve made many sacrifices so that you can go to this expensive school that really promotes its soccer team. If Coach Simpson starts to see you as a problem child you may ruin everything I’ve done for you. And every time you act up, it makes me look bad!”

Notice that all three of these reactions seem to, in some ways, have Mandy’s best interests in mind. These AP mothers are clearly concerned about their child and want the best for her. The problem is that all three moms are emotionally neglecting Mandy with their responses.

None of these responses addresses Mandy’s need to learn to control her impulses. None addresses the reasons for Mandy’s uncharacteristic acting-up behavior. Only Mandy knows that she has lately been excluded by her two best friends on the team, and has been dreading soccer practice for the entire last week.

None of these mother’s responses talks to Mandy about anything that matters to her. All of the responses address the parent’s needs, not Mandy’s. They address Mandy’s future, which she is too young to care about or even understand. They all miss a valuable opportunity for Mandy to learn something about herself, her nature, her feelings, and how to get along with friends, teammates and authority figures.

Over time, Mandy will absorb the simplistic message, “Be good so that you can be successful.” To comply, Mandy will have to squelch many of her own needs and feelings. This may work reasonably okay in childhood, but she will enter adolescence and adulthood with something missing inside; self-knowledge, emotional awareness, and self-love.

So now to answer our main question. Are all AP parents emotionally neglectful? Not necessarily.

Many parents of high-achieving kids, such as Olympic athletes, concert pianists or pro-league bound baseball players could be considered AP because they are driven and they support their child to be the best. But they may be doing so because their child is driven to accomplish. So the difference between a non-neglectful AP parent and a neglectful one is this: support.

A healthy AP parent is supporting her child to achieve what the child wants. An emotionally neglectful AP parent is pressuring her child to achieve what the parent wants.

When a child is treated by her AP parents as if her feelings and emotional needs don’t matter, a deeply personal part of herself is being denied. That part of her becomes like the elephant in the room. No one wants to see or hear from it, yet it’s the part of her which is most her.

The only way that children can adapt in these circumstances is to participate in the denial, and pretend that their emotional self doesn’t exist. No wonder emotionally neglected children grow up with an empty space in their sense of themselves, their love for themselves, and their ability to emotionally connect with others.

If you see yourself in this description of AP parents or child, I hope you will pause and think. Consider what you want, what you feel, and what is motivating you now.

If you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), now is your time to heal. If you are an AP parent, there are some powerful things you can do to make sure you stay connected and invested in supporting what your child wants.

To find out if you grew up with CEN, Take the CEN Questionnaire. To learn more about healing yourself and parenting your children free from emotional neglect, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

7 Signs You May Be Counter-Dependent

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.

James

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.

7 Signs and Signals of Counter-Dependence

  1. Other people sometimes perceive you as aloof
  2. You remember your childhood as lonely, even if it was happy
  3. You sometimes have fantasies about running away from your current life
  4. Loved ones complain that you are emotionally distant
  5. You prefer to do things for yourself
  6. It’s very hard to ask for help
  7. You tend to feel uncomfortable in close relationships

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.

Parents, You Can Reverse Generations of Emotional Neglect By Doing 3 Small Things

Can well-meaning, loving parents fail their child emotionally? Surprisingly, and unfortunately, the answer is yes.

It is possible for even the most caring and well-intentioned parents to be emotionally neglectful. In fact, the largest subset of emotionally neglectful parents genuinely do love their children and want the best for them. I have encountered so many such parents over the years that I assigned them a name: Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves parents — or WMBNTs.

Those who were raised by emotionally neglectful parents are literally set up to under-respond to their own children’s feelings once they become parents. No matter how well-meaning they are as parents, it becomes not only vital but necessary for them to make a special, conscious effort to attend to the feeling side of life with their own children.

The truth is, to love your child is a very different thing from being in tune with your child. For healthy development, loving a child just isn’t enough. Parents must also be in tune with their child.

For a parent to be in tune, he must be a person who is aware of and understands emotions in general. He must be observant so that he can see what his child can and can’t do as he develops. And he must be willing and able to put in the effort and energy required to deeply know his child. A well-meaning parent who lacks in any one of these areas is at risk of emotionally failing his child.

To get a better idea of how Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves (WMBNT) parenting works, I’m going to share a vignette from my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Jack

Jack walks home from school with a worry on his mind. He knows that his teacher, Ms. Simpson, sent an email to his mother about his disrespectful behavior in class today. When Jack walks into the house, his Mother is in the living room watching her favorite show. “Hi, Jack, how was school?” she says absent-mindedly. Jack stands next to his mother on the couch and nervously stammers, “Well, actually Ms. Simpson…”  

“Hang on one sec, Jack. This is the very end of the show,” Jack’s mom says, interrupting him. Jack stands awkwardly next to the sofa for a moment, but after a minute or so he gets bored and distracted. Retreating to his bedroom to play video games, Jack forgets all about the email. The next day his mother sees Ms. Simpson’s email, which says, “Jack was disrespectful to me in class today. He continued to laugh and talk with his friend after I’d asked him several times to stop.” As Jack’s mom reads the message, she is momentarily bothered. But she thinks to herself, “Wow, Ms. Simpson sure overreacts to things,” and puts the note, and the problem, behind her.

In this example, Jack’s mom, although a loving mother, is not attending to the feeling level of life. She didn’t sense Jack’s anxiety about the problem at school. She does not see a reason to be concerned about his disrespect toward his teacher because she’s blind to the connection between behavior, feelings, and relationships — in this case, the relationship between Jack and Mrs. Simpson. She places no value on Mrs. Simpson’s feelings, dismissing them as an “overreaction.” These are all sure signs of a person who is not aware or in touch with the world of emotion, and who lives mostly on the surface of life.

The world is full of WMBNT Parents. And probably almost none of these well-meaning people have any idea that they are not providing their children with the fuel that they would need for a happy, connected life. They are each simply recreating what they experienced in their own childhoods.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of Emotional Neglect is that it’s self-propagating. Emotionally neglected children grow up with a blind spot to emotions, their own as well as those of others. When they become parents themselves, they’re unaware of the emotions of their own children, and just like Jack’s mom, they raise their children to have the same blind spot. And so on and so on and so on, the circle continues.

The Good News – 3 Things You Can Start Doing Right Now

As a WMBNT parent, it is never too late. Whether your child is a toddler, tween, teen or adult, there are specific things you can do to prevent or heal the Childhood Emotional Neglect that was passed down to you, and never your choice.

  • Begin to address your own Emotional Neglect. You were raised to ignore your own feelings, and so now you do. But you can turn the tables, and start to honor yourself in a new way. By caring about and noticing your own feelings and emotional needs, you will naturally begin to notice your child’s in a new way. The more you heal yourself, the more emotionally healthy and strong your child will be.
  • Get more curious. Ask your child more questions. Emotionally neglectful parents tend to talk when it’s necessary. You can change that! Talking more, especially asking questions and then listening intently, gives your child a loud and clear message that will turn the tides on the Childhood Emotional Neglect you were handed by your parents. The message is, “You matter. I care what you feel and think. I care who you are.”
  • Make a point to talk about meaningful things with your child. Life is full activities, plans, events, and things people do. Try to focus more on the world of emotion that runs like a river through it all. Notice your small child’s feelings; or if she is older, ask her what she’s feeling. Help her name what she is feeling, and talk with her on an emotional level. You can do that with a child of any age.

When you give your child the message that you are interested in his true self, you are plowing through generations of neglect, and reversing it.

You are making a difference that will change your child’s life forever. To learn much more about how to heal Childhood Emotional Neglect with the people you care about the most, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is often subtle and invisible so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. 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

3 Ways Emotional Neglect From Childhood Affects Your Adult Emotions

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is the silent scourge that hangs like a cloud over countless people’s lives, robbing them of the zest, the warmth, and the connection they should be feeling each and every day.

Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents (perhaps unintentionally) fail to respond to your emotional needs enough when they are raising you.

Yes, that’s all it takes.

When your parents don’t respond to your emotions enough, they send you the powerful, subliminal message that your feelings don’t matter enough. This never-stated-out-loud message in your childhood has an incredible ability to disrupt your adult life in immeasurable ways.

As a child, when you receive the subliminal CEN message over and over, your brain somehow understands the unspoken request to hide your feelings, and somehow, surprisingly, knows just what to do.

It walls off your emotions so that they will not bother your parents — or you. Tucked away on the other side, your emotions almost seem to go away. This may allow you to cope in your childhood home, but as an adult, your walled-off emotions may become a great problem for you.

**Important: Before you read about these problems, I want to tell you that there are answers to all of them. The one good thing about CEN is that all 3 of these effects  can be healed.

3 Ways CEN Affects Your Adult Emotions

  1. You don’t take your emotions seriously. Part of CEN is an important lesson that is false: that your feelings are useless, unacceptable, excessive, wrong or bad. So when some emotions do manage to leak through your wall, you are likely to distrust them, disavow them, or even belittle them as a sign of weakness. You may even be ashamed of them. Since your emotions are the deepest, most personal expression of your true self, you are actually distrusting, disavowing, and belittling your true self. Over time, this takes a tremendous toll on your self-confidence, self-trust, and self-esteem.
  2. Emotions that are pushed away or ignored become more powerful. Deep emotions must be accepted, acknowledged, and considered before they go away. When they are walled-off or minimized, emotions may seem to disappear. But they do not, they do the opposite. They get stronger. They grow and grow behind your wall, and may leak out at the wrong times, about the wrong things, or perhaps directed at the wrong person.
  3. You miss out on the subtle variations and depths of feelings that other people enjoy. To get through your wall an emotion has to be “big.” So you may go through most of your hours and days feeling nothing; and then suddenly experience an emotion unexpectedly intensely. But what about all the possibilities in-between? Most people use the subtle variations in their emotions to tell them how they feel about things: what matters, what they care about, what they enjoy, like, and dislike. This is incredibly valuable in knowing yourself, making decisions, finding direction and, most importantly, enjoying the richness of life.

The Solution

A subliminal message gains its power from lurking in the shadows. As long as you remain unaware, your belief that your feelings are useless silently, invisibly runs your life. But fortunately for us, the opposite is also true. When you shine a light on that shadow, and see this buried belief for what it is, you can redefine it as simply this: a false belief from your childhood that is now a problem.

Once you have done this, you have taken control. You can begin to actively take it on and change it. You can replace your old, false, harmful belief with a new, healthy strategy:

My emotions are important, and I will begin to welcome them and learn to work with them.

  • Begin to value your emotions, as messages from your deepest self. When you feel your feelings, you are honoring who you are. Not all of your feelings are “right,” and not all of them should be acted upon, but they are all real, important and a sign of your humanity and strength.
  • Start paying more attention to the feelings of the people closest to you. All your life, your CEN message has been undermining your relationships. Paying attention to what others are feeling is a key to everything you’ve been missing so far.

If you work on these steps repeatedly, consistently and persistently, over time it will make a tremendous difference in your life. You will drive away that cloud that’s been hanging over you, and you will experience the zest, the warmth and the connection you’ve been watching others enjoy.

Finally, in honoring and living in your deepest self, you will, at last, be home.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

To learn how to heal the effects of Emotional Neglect in your relationships, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

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.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Can Make You an Avoidant Adult

You shy away from the limelight. You stay out of trouble. You prefer to stay out of the way. You try not to make waves.

Of all of the kinds of anxiety people can experience, avoidance is probably one of the least studied and least talked about. I think that’s probably because avoidant folks are quiet. They do stay out of the way and they do not tend to make waves.

But, the reality is, avoidance is a serious problem to live with. Take a look at the characteristics of avoidance below. These are some of the symptoms listed in the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) to identify Avoidant Personality Disorder. Please note that these are not a full description of Avoidant Personality. Do not attempt to use these symptoms to diagnose yourself or someone else. Only a licensed mental health professional is qualified to make a diagnosis.

  • Secretly feeling inferior to others, and struggling with shame
  • Reluctance to pursue goals, take risks or meet new people
  • High sensitivity to criticism, and fear of rejection
  • Assuming that others see you in a negative light
  • Trying not to get too close to people
  • You suspect that you enjoy things less than other people do
  • Often having anxiety in social situations

You may read through the list above and feel that you are reading about yourself. Even if you answer yes to only some of the items above, it means that you may have an “avoidant style.”

Many people are living their lives with Avoidant Personality disorder. And many, many more folks have an avoidant style. Most avoidant folks fight their own private battles on their own, secretly and quietly.

It is very possible to suffer silently with an intense fear of rejection, closeness, or social situations but still soldier on, essentially unimpaired on the outside, but miserable on the inside.

Now let’s talk about you. Do you see yourself in this description of avoidance? We will talk more about avoidance in a moment. But first, we must discuss Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Because I have seen a remarkable connection between Childhood Emotional Neglect and avoidant tendencies in adults.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): When your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions and emotional needs.

What happens to a child whose parents too seldom say, “What’s wrong?” and then listen with care to their answer. How does it affect a child to have parents who are blind to what they are feeling? Parents who, through probably no fault of their own, fail to offer emotional support, or fail to truly see the child for who she is?

Childhood Emotional Neglect teaches you, the child, to avoid feeling, expressing, and needing. You are learning to avoid the very thing that makes you the most real and the most human: your emotions.

When you grow up this way, you grow up feeling invisible, and believing that your emotions and emotional needs are irrelevant. You grow up feeling that your emotional needs should not exist and are a sign of weakness. You grow up to feel ashamed that you have feelings and needs at all.

CEN is a breeding ground for shame, low self-worth, and yes, avoidance.

Five Important Points About Avoidance

  1. Avoidance is actually nothing more than a coping mechanism. If you avoid something that scares you, you do not have to deal with it. That feels like success.
  2. You developed this coping mechanism for a reason in your childhood. You needed it, and it probably, in some way, served you well in your childhood home. It may have been the only coping mechanism you could learn if no one was helping you learn other, more effective ways of coping.
  3. When you use avoidance enough as a way to cope, it eventually becomes your “signature move.” It becomes a solution that you go to over and over again. It becomes your style.
  4. Avoidance feeds fear. The more you avoid what you fear, the more you fear it. Then the more you avoid it. And so on and so on and so on, around and around it goes in an endless circle, growing ever larger.
  5. All of the symptoms of avoidance you saw at the beginning of this article have one common denominator that drives them. It’s a feeling and also a belief. It is this: a deep, powerful feeling that you are not as valid as everyone else. Somehow, on some level, you just don’t matter as much. This is one of the prime consequences of Childhood Emotional Neglect. (I call it The Fatal Flaw.)

It is very difficult to take on challenges in life when you don’t believe in yourself. It’s hard to be vulnerable in relationships when you don’t feel on equal footing with the other person. It’s hard to put yourself out there when you feel so secretly flawed.

This is why you must not let avoidance run your life. You must turn around and face it. Not later. Not tomorrow. But now.

You Can Become Less Avoidant

  1. Answer this question for yourself: What did you need to avoid in your childhood home?
  2. Accept that your avoidance is a coping mechanism that can be replaced by far better, healthier coping skills.
  3. Start observing yourself. Make it your mission to notice every time you avoid something. Start a list, and record every incident. Awareness is a vital first step.
  4. Look through the list, and notice the themes. Is there a trend toward avoiding social situations? Risks? Goals? Feelings? Needs?
  5. Start, little by little, one-step-at-a-time, facing things. How pervasive is your avoidance? If it is everywhere of everything, I urge you to seek a therapist’s help. If you have success on your own, be persistent. Don’t give up, no matter how hard it gets.
  6. Learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect. To find out whether CEN was a part of your childhood, I invite you to take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

The more you face things, the less scary they become, and the easier they become to face again, and the more you face. And so on and so on and so on, around and around it goes in an endless circle, growing ever larger.

But this circle is a healthy, strong one that is a reversal of the circle of avoidance that began in your childhood. This circle will take you somewhere healthy and positive and good.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, and how it causes avoidance, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Three Amazing Ways You Can Re-Parent Yourself

The First Way – Compassionate Accountability

In my office, I’ve heard from clients stories of broken phones, punched walls, and even bent steering wheels. All in the name of anger.

At themselves.

For making a mistake.

What You Didn’t Get

When a parent sits down with a child who has behaved badly, used poor judgment, or made a mistake, and says, “Let’s figure out what happened,” that parent is teaching her (or his) child Compassionate Accountability.

e833b5092cf0013ecd0b470de7444e90fe76e6d21db7124997f2c3_640_parents-and-childBut many parents don’t know that it’s their job to teach their child how to process a mistake; how to sift through what happened and sort out what part of it belongs to circumstances, and what part belongs to the child. What can we learn from this? What should you do differently next time?

There is a balance between all of these factors which must be understood. The parent holds the child accountable, but also helps him (or her) understand himself and have compassion for himself and his mistake.

What To Give Yourself

If your parents were too hard or too easy on you for mistakes, or failed to notice them at all, it’s not too late for you now. You can learn Compassionate Accountability today. Follow these steps when you make a mistake.

  1. Remind yourself that you are human, and humans are not perfect. Everyone makes mistakes.
  2. Think through the situation. What went wrong? Are there things you should have known, or realized, or thought about? Those are the parts that you own. Those are where you’ll find the lessons for you to take away from this. Take note of what you can learn, and etch it into your memory. This can be the growth that results from your error.
  3. Have compassion for your humanness: Your age, your stress level, and the many factors that contributed to this mistake.
  4. Vow that next time you’ll use your new knowledge to do better. Then put this behind you.

The Second Way – Self-Discipline

We are not born with the ability to manage our impulses. Self-discipline is not something that you should expect yourself to have automatically. Self-discipline is learned. In childhood.

What You Didn’t Get

When parents have rules, and enforce them firmly and with love, they are naturally teaching their childre how to do this for themselves. Do your homework before you go out to play. Fill the dishwasher, even though you don’t want to. You are not allowed to have a second dessert. Balanced, fair requirements enforced with care by your parents teach you how, years later, to do this for yourself.

What To Give Yourself

If you struggle with self-discipline more than most other people, it does not mean that you are weak-willed or less strong than others. It only means that you didn’t get to learn some important things in childhood. Never fear, you can learn them now. Follow these steps.

  1. Stop blaming yourself for your struggles with self-discipline. When you accuse yourself of being weak or deficient, you make it harder to get a foothold on making yourself do things you don’t want to do, and on stopping yourself from doing things that you shouldn’t do.
  2. If you are too hard on yourself at times, chances are high that you also, at other times, go too far in the opposite direction. Do you sometimes let yourself off the hook when you don’t follow your own rules? This, too, is damaging.
  3. Use the Compassionate Accountability skills you are building by applying them each time you fall down on self-discipline.

The Third Way – Learn to Love the Real You

We all learn to love ourselves in childhood; that is, when things go well. When we feel our parents’ love for us, it becomes our own love for ourselves, and we carry that forward through adulthood.

What You Didn’t Get

We tend to assume that if our parents loved us, that’s enough. But it isn’t necessarily, at all. There are many different ways for a parent to love a child. There’s the universal type of parental love: “Of course, I love you. You’re my child.” Then there’s real, substantive, meaningful parental love. This is the love of a parent who really watches the child, really sees and knows the child, and really loves the person for who he or she truly, deeply is.

What to Give Yourself

Most people receive at least some of the first type of love. Far fewer receive the second type. Do you feel that your parents truly know the real you? Do they love you for who you are? Do you love yourself this way? Truly and deeply? If you sense something is missing in your love for yourself, it may be because you didn’t receive enough genuine, deeply felt love from your parents. But it’s not too late for you to get it. You can give it to yourself.

  1. Accept that it’s not your fault that your parents couldn’t love you in the way you needed.
  2. Start paying more attention to yourself. Who are you? What do you love and hate, like and dislike, care about, feel, think? These are the aspects of you that make you who you are.
  3. Pay special attention to what’s good about you. Make a list and keep adding to it. Are you a loyal friend? A hard worker? Dependable? Caring? Honest? Write down everything that occurs to you, even if it’s very small. Re-read the list often. Take these qualities in and own them. They are you.

Growing up with mostly Type 1 Love has a far more serious impact than you think. It’s highly correlated to not learning Compassionate Accountability and self-discipline. If you see yourself in this article, read more at EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running on Empty.