“Scott, I feel uncomfortable at parties sometimes when you tell a story real loud. I know you’re not doing it on purpose, but it embarrasses me. Can you try not to talk so loud?” Andrea said to her husband.
Immediately, Scott’s face turned red. He felt a combination of shock, rage, and hurt. “I-I-I-,” he stuttered. Then he ran down the steps to the basement, slamming the door behind him. Downstairs, he turned his music up as loudly as he could and started lifting weights furiously.
“So now that I’ve explained all the great strengths you bring to the job, Rebecca, there is one thing I’d like you to try to improve over the next year,” her supervisor said as they discussed Rebecca’s 6-month job evaluation. “I want you to work on giving your direct reports more clear feedback about their performance.”
As her supervisor explained that she wasn’t challenging her employees enough, Rebecca’s field of vision literally went blank. Her thoughts were swirling so quickly in her head that she barely heard anything else her boss said. “How can she say that?! I just gave someone feedback yesterday. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I’m going to start looking for a new job.”
Do you identify with Scott or Rebecca? Is it especially difficult for you to hear negative comments about yourself, your actions or your performance, even from people who you know deep down have your best interests in mind?
These four character traits are all hallmarks of one common childhood experience. In fact, they are essentially the footprint of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Growing up in a family that does not address the feelings of its members (the definition of CEN) leaves the children to move into, and through, adulthood lacking some vital skills.
How can you learn who you are when the deepest expression of that, your feelings, are ignored by your parents as they raise you?
How can you have empathy for yourself when your parents were unable to show you compassion and empathy while they raised you?
How can you learn how to manage your emotions when your emotions were ignored in your childhood home?
How can you know how to speak your truth when, as a child, your truth was not accepted by your parents?
Before you start to think it is too late for you, I want to assure you that it is absolutely not.
You can begin to work on thinking of criticism in a new way: like someone’s opinion, which may or may not be true, and may or may not be useful to you. You can realize that criticism is often a useful and valuable way to become a stronger and better person.
You can start to pay more attention to the best source of strength, purpose, connection, validation, and direction available to you, your feelings.
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, and the struggles it leaves you with throughout your adulthood, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, available in bookstores and online everywhere.
Most people who grew up with CEN have no idea that it happened. To find out if you grew up with CEN, visit EmotionalNeglect.com and 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.
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.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty No More.