The Best Kept Secret to Getting Unstuck: Face Your Core Feelings

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At 34 years old, Garrett is doing well in life. He has a good job and a girlfriend he hopes to marry. So Garrett is confused about why, each time he is alone, a sad feeling sneaks up on him. To prevent this from happening, Garrett stays as busy as he possibly can. He avoids being home alone, driving alone, or being unoccupied. When he is forced to be, he always cranks up his music or has a TV show playing on a screen to distract him.

Jolene is very intelligent and has loads of potential. But she lives alone in a dingy apartment and struggles to earn a living as the office manager of a failing business. Jolene is frustrated by her circumstances, yet she is held back from trying for more. She will do anything to avoid a painful feeling that overcomes her each time she thinks about taking a risk such as starting college, applying for a better job, or going on a date. So she never thinks about it.

Lizzy is a 48-year-old Executive Chef at a thriving, popular restaurant. She runs the restaurant with clean efficiency, and kindness toward all who work for her. People see Lizzy as competent, confident and happy. But inside, she struggles. When something goes wrong (as it often does) in her large, busy kitchen, Lizzy immediately gets a very unpleasant feeling which stays the whole day. Lizzy works long and hard to prevent errors and oversights so that she won’t have to experience that bad feeling.

At first glimpse Garrett, Jolene and Lizzy might seem to have little in common. But they are exactly alike in one very key way: They all have a Core Feeling that has power over them, and it affects how they are living their lives. And none of them is consciously aware that this is happening.

Core Feelings

In truth, Core Feelings dwell all around you. They are in the people you know and among your family and friends. Everywhere. But no one talks about Core Feelings. Only therapists use this term, and yet becoming aware of your Core Feelings can change how you live your life.

A Core Feeling is a powerful emotion that’s based in your childhood and which comes and goes throughout your lifespan.

Children are like little computers whose brains are being programmed by their parents. The “software” for their lives is being set up by their parents and their families; the rules, expectations, feelings, and values that surround children are absorbed into their little brains. This all gets wired into them. It becomes a part of who they are. It defines a big part of who they will become as adults. It becomes a part of what they will feel as adults.

The folks most vulnerable to being ruled by their Core Feelings are the ones who grew up in families that did not teach them how emotions work. These are usually families who rarely discuss or address the feelings of their members. These are families that are, by definition, raising the children with Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.

If your parents fail to respond to your emotions as they raise you, they fail to teach you how to recognize, tolerate, manage, or express your feelings. This leaves you sitting with old feelings and, unfortunately, old, unprocessed emotions do not go away.

A Core Feeling is the one emotion that you experienced the most often, or intensely, growing up. It becomes embedded in the software of your brain. As an adult, this feeling is very real, and can at times be very strong.

Throughout the decades of your life, you are not always feeling it. But it dogs you. It hangs around on the sidelines waiting to break through to you. It tends to come, unbidden when you’re alone, undistracted, or otherwise vulnerable to it. Or it gets touched off by specific current events that activate it.

Not everyone has a Core Feeling, but many people do. Therapists know about Core Feelings and often identify them in their patients. Typically, though, they are viewed as an unpleasant burden. Most folks hope that if they avoid and ignore their core feeling, it will eventually go away.

Unfortunately, however, nothing could be further from the truth:

3 Surprising Facts About Your Core Feeling

  • Your Core Feeling is a pipeline to your childhood. It represents unresolved issues from the past. It has great value to you.
  • When you avoid and ignore your Core Feeling, you are actually making it stronger.
  • The only way to make your Core Feeling go away is to allow yourself to feel it, discern its message, and process it.

To understand how a Core Feeling develops, check back for my future blog which will describe exactly how Garrett, Jolene, and Lizzy got their Core Feeling, and how each of them processes it.

But now I’d like to focus on what to do with your Core Feeling if you have one.

The 8 Steps to Process A Core Feeling

  1. Become aware of your Core Feeling. Find the words to describe it.
  2. Pay attention when you’re feeling it. Is it at certain times, or when you’re with certain people, or under particular circumstances?
  3. Stop avoiding or fighting the feeling. When it comes, make an effort to sit with it, tolerate it and feel it. Even the most painful Core Feelings must be felt and processed.
  4. As you sit with your Core Feeling, think about when you experienced this feeling as a child. Think about what in your current life touches it off. If you can, put your thoughts in writing as you sit with it.
  5. Ask yourself what messages the feeling might be bringing to you. What does this feeling say about you? Why did you feel this as a child?
  6. Share your Core Feeling and your thoughts about it with a trusted person.
  7. See if you can willingly generate your Core Feeling on demand. This is a part of taking control of it.
  8. Learn all you can about Childhood Emotional Neglect. When you start down the path of healing CEN, you change your relationship with your own emotions, making it less likely to develop new core feelings or suffer from old ones.

Welcoming, accepting and sorting through your Core Feeling is a way to manage it. Essentially, you are stopping it from controlling you. You’re turning the tables and are taking control of it.

By listening to its message, you are building your resilience in three ways. You are increasing your tolerance for pain; you are building your self-knowledge by understanding yourself better, and you are improving your emotional health by working through an unresolved issue.

In other words, when you are tired of running, turn around and face it.

To learn more about your emotions, how they work, and how they may be affecting you, see and the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

This article was first published on It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.


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Rachel - May 13, 2019 Reply

Thank you for the two articles that I’ve just read plus related comments. I did not intend to spend time reading but it has been life giving and so fruitful. I have been studying and continue to study online for a Buddhist based mindfulness course and the combination of this and much needed ideas from CEN are working and uncovering things that have been holding me back. Recently I have been feeling totally challenged and lifted by some responses to a huge climate change, and experiencing own changes and still recovering from a painful accident,having to accept a rule of defining and asking for treatment rather than waiting for it. I continue with a therapist in a week-this gives me a chance to continue this!….

    Jonice - May 13, 2019 Reply

    Good work Rachel! Keep doing what you’re doing.

Maria - May 7, 2019 Reply

I really enjoyed this information on the Core Feelings xx

    Jonice - May 8, 2019 Reply

    I’m glad Maria!

Tim R - May 6, 2019 Reply

Hi Dr Webb. This is so insightful, thank you. At this moment I’m feeling such intense anxiety it’s hard to not cry. I’ve been like this for years, and on and off anti depressants and other meds to help me cope. So I’m sitting here with this terrible feeling but I can’t be certain about it’s source. There are obvious potential sources from my childhood. Being given up by my mother, and placed in a children’s home from a very young age, adopted, repeated frequent surgeries throughout my childhood and raised by adoptive parents who only wanted me to be brave, stoic and not show fear. But despite really trying, I cannot recall my emotions at those times, it’s as if I’ve blocked out my feelings as a child. So I seem unable to connect these unending feelings of fear and anxiety to emotions in my past. I exist in an emotional limbo, with overwhelming feelings of fear. Is there a way to break down these walls and connect emotionally with my past so maybe I can start to work with my core emotions?

    Jonice - May 6, 2019 Reply

    Dear Tim, you are describing Childhood Emotional Neglect. I’m sorry you went through all this as a child. Yes you can do those exact things. Please do learn more about CEN via this blog and/or read the book Running On Empty.

mira - May 1, 2019 Reply

I Identify with every one of your articles and they have been extremely eye opening for me As well as the books (purchased both of them). I’m starting to wonder if my CEN though is more severe and could be diagnosed as BPD. Could you clarify the difference?

    Jonice - May 6, 2019 Reply

    Dear Mira, CEN is not similar to borderline personality. One of the main differences is that CEN people have low levels of emotions, whereas BPD is very emotional with swings between extremes. I can try to write a blog post on this.

Ben J - April 30, 2019 Reply

My father was a strict authoritarian with a lot of anger and my mother was very submissive but could be very vengeful. I am 62 with a wife and 7 yo daughter. I’m very happy but seem to struggle with my core feelings and how to overcome them. I never feel good enough and often sabotage myself by using drugs when I know what the end result will bring. I recently relapsed after 6 months clean and was actually very pleased with myself yet used one night knowing how wrong it was. My wife want to separate temporarily but I feel worse because of my daughter. Why do I sabotage myself like this? It’s literally like I don’t deserve happiness. I’m now very sad and feel abandoned. Is this normal behavior ?

    Jonice - May 1, 2019 Reply

    Dear Ben, research shows us that when drugs are involved, it’s important to deal with your addiction first and foremost. The drugs are, in part, a way to cope with feelings. So it’s not possible to access your true feelings until your addiction is under control. I strongly encourage you to deal with your addiction!

M - April 29, 2019 Reply

When I try to listen inside of me, I hear “I don’t want to be alive, better be dead”. I had worked with therapist, who pointed out that what I hear is a thought, not a feeling. If it is a thought, what is my feeling? I do not know.

Although I do function and have a teenager, my child often tells me that “I don’t trust you, I have not been able to tell you anything for long time since I was little.” It hurts. I am aware that I did not learn any tools about feelings. I have been trying to be respectful, open and accepting to my child to provide something better since my child was a toddler. At least my child can express to me that I am not trustworthy, I guess I am giving some room to show some feelings. When I try to express my preference, like “it hurts when I hear you say that you do not trust me”, it is perceived as criticism, then my child retracts.

I have no clue about feelings, other than finding it is very difficult for me and unachievable yet.

margaret - April 29, 2019 Reply

my core feeling goes way back to my child/babyhood and like a jigsaw picture through my existance for it is no life things were said and done that added to it to make it over time like a dormant volcano i am 58 going on 59 now wich considering i wasnt surposed past the age of 5 is pretty good or is it it has been no life the only friends i have are on fb i have never met them with few exceptions every day feels like its just time before the bad guy meets me as i call him for God defeated him at the foot of the cross so we are taught and i wont give him the gratitude of useing his true name only God should get the glory not the bad guy i wish i could draw you a pic that would help i think for you to get an understanding of wear im at but since a baby i put up an invisable wall round me to protect me from the hurt i received from all my dad would from an early age say things your this your that your a burden on other people etc etc i was only little but very impressionable and grew up with this eventially i was assulted when i was old enough often threatened and later at school bullied as a teen i was assulted again as a mother my children were taken from me so you can see there is a lot of core pain and i have only just started recently my care company have put the cherry on the cake and kicked me out for not being happy so we cant help you they said they didnt ask me am i happy they told me nor did they give me the chance to appeal and ask why they just gave a date that i was out regardless of if i had help this just created a death wish and as my family grave and stone with my name is on anyway the wish was strong i didnt care if i died and walked into the road with my support worker in close pursuit to grab me and talk to me else i wouldnt be here so much pain is inside me includeing the loss of 3 cats i loved so i had nothing to console me

    Jonice - May 1, 2019 Reply

    Dear Margaret, you have been through so much. Please do take care of yourself.

Nohope - April 29, 2019 Reply

After two years of focus on getting in touch with my feelings, I have two feelings that surface now when I think about various events in my childhood, namely terror and rage. Are those “core feelings”? I certainly have always been described by the few acquaintances I have had as “an angry man” whenever I’ve slipped out of my default “Mr. Spock” mode. I’m really not sure what value being in touch with feelings are for me since there isn’t anyone in my life that is trustworthy (i.e. any expressed negative feelings or even thoughts by me are criticized/rejected).

    Jonice - April 30, 2019 Reply

    Dear Nohope, there are more steps to the process of getting in touch with your feelings. Learning how to name them, tolerate them, manage and share them are also necessary. You can learn these skills!

Bex - April 28, 2019 Reply

My core feeling brings on some pretty intense emotions. Quite frankly, it is dangerous for me to sit with it. What do I do?

    Jonice - April 28, 2019 Reply

    Dear Bex, definitely do not put yourself in danger. But a core feeling like this is imperative to deal with. Please see a therapist and sit with the feeling with your therapist, with their support to think it through and process it. Sending you my best wishes for healing.

      Bex - April 30, 2019 Reply

      I have been, I’ve just had to finish with my current therapist, as we weren’t getting anywhere. She ‘didn’t know what to do with me’, as when the conversation gets anywhere near any ‘sensitive issue’ for me, I just shut down, disappear into myself and literally can’t talk. Can this be helped? and by who? I feel beyond help. How do I read answers to comments on here without coming back to the article and finding them again?

        Jonice - May 1, 2019 Reply

        Dear Bex, those moments when you can’t talk are probably the ones where you need to simply feel. Can you go back to your therapist (or find a new CEN Therapist from the list on my website) and ask them to sit with you while you feel your feelings? If your therapist can do that, you may find it gets you somewhere.

Jan - April 28, 2019 Reply

The subject line of this email mentioned “abandonment” but I could not find it mentioned again. Perhaps I missed it. Among other emotions, I am dealing with a fear of abandonment in many of my relationships. I would appreciate some statements more clearly talking about how CEN directly precipitates these feelings of abandonment.
Also, if you did say something in this email about this topic, please point me to it.

Thank you.

Rena - April 28, 2019 Reply

How about having a retreat in the Midwest, like in the Chicago area?

    Jonice - April 28, 2019 Reply

    I would be willing to consider that. I would need a retreat center in the midwest to invite me.

Steven R Weiss - April 28, 2019 Reply

You named it. I got it. Lately, i have sometimes been telling it to SHUUT UP, and doing nothing or the opposite of what it is telling me to do or NOT do.
Sometimes i go along with the inner voice, and do what it says….if for some reason i cant seem to have any say, despite my protest..I wind up doing it anyway. I have only recently started to fight. I have been making progress, maybe 50% of the time. It dogs me, especially when i am driving, leaving me to make quick decisions, before i get repeating my past running away behavior. I seem lately, more likely to face my fear of appearing weak or needy. Or asking for help, as i was taught to fight and stand up and stick to my guns. Sometimes sticking to your guns, IS a good decision. I have trouble bringing this isseus up with my therapy person at the VA. I have not been asking the right questions of them. I am just BI-POLAR to them, taking my meds for over 10 years now. I have a feeling, that my meds are making these inner voices stronger, as they have adapted in order for them to survive. A ZERO SUM GAME?
I am in a lock box for my mind. They pay me to be BI-POLAR!
The upside is not living in poverty or home-lessness. Its like that song from DIRE STRAIGHTS back in the late 80s “Money for NOTHING and your CHICKS for FREE! Being just past my over 65 birthday, i feel like it is to late for me anyways. I do not blame anyone.

    Jonice - April 28, 2019 Reply

    It is not too late! The key is to feel the feelings that drive the impulses. You must deal with those, and you absolutely can. Instead of avoiding the feelings, try to allow yourself to feel them, while also thinking about where they come from and why you have them. This is the best way to take control of them. And thank you for your service to your country.

Corinne - April 28, 2019 Reply

I continue to read your emails and refer to Running on Empty while working with a counselor. Both my parents ignored my emotional needs but Im discovering it’s my Mother who did damage by being cold, often critical and denied any attention to hers and my feelings.

    Jonice - April 28, 2019 Reply

    Dear Corinne, good for you! Sounds like you are finally giving yourself what you’ve deserved all along. Keep it up.

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