The Difference Between Honoring an Emotion and Indulging It

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One of the most important challenges of growing up with your emotions under-responded to by your parents (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN) is that you then enter adulthood without the essential knowledge of what to do with your emotions.

If your parents had noticed and named what you were feeling; if they had talked with you about your intense child emotions, they would have automatically been teaching you that your feelings are real, are important, and can be managed. And just as importantly, their “emotion coaching” would have taught you some vital emotion skills for your life.

Everyone has intense emotions from time to time. I have discovered that even the people who experience themselves as emotionally empty or numb due to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) actually do have moments of strong feelings at various times.

The 4 Emotion Skills For Dealing With A Difficult Feeling

  • Identifying your emotion

One of the hardest questions you can ask yourself is “What am I feeling right now?” Yet there is a sort of resolving magic, like a salve, that happens with any emotion as soon as you put it into words.

  • Accepting your emotion

If you grew up with CEN, there’s a good chance you have a tendency to judge and criticize your own feelings. “I shouldn’t feel angry/hurt/sad/afraid,” or pretty much any other emotion. But this way of judging something that is biologically wired into you, and outside of your control is a tremendous waste of energy as well as damaging to your self-esteem. Accepting what you feel must happen before you can manage the feeling.

  • Understanding your emotion

The next step after putting what you are feeling into words and accepting it is to try to understand your feeling. Why are you feeling this emotion? What is the cause? Is this feeling old or new or a mixture of both? Is it attached to a particular situation or person?

  • Deciding what to do with your emotion

Your emotions are a message from your body. So each time you identify that you are feeling an emotion, it’s important to quickly ask yourself some questions. First, is this feeling telling me to do something? And second, should I do it?

Honoring vs. Indulging

The first three skills above are all about honoring your emotion. Honoring an emotion involves sitting with it, accepting it and trying to understand it. For some emotions, going through the process of honoring it is enough to make it tolerable.

But some emotions carry messages so powerful that they push you toward action. And for these, Step 4 becomes an absolute necessity. If you fail to follow through with Step 4, these feelings will keep revisiting you until you either attend properly to them or follow their directive. And their directive may be the absolute wrong thing for you.

So Stage 4 is, in some ways, the most important. It’s the difference between indulging your emotion and using it in a healthy and productive way.

Rachel Goes Through Step 4

Rachel has processed her emotion, and realized that the feeling she is experiencing is anger and that she’s feeling it toward her fiancé Toby for forgetting to pick her up from the train.

Rachel asks herself if this anger is telling her to do something. “It’s telling me to yell at Toby. I want to tell him he’s inconsiderate and selfish.”

“Should I do that?” Rachel asked herself. “Does Toby deserve that?” As she considers this question, Rachel thinks about Toby. Has he left me stranded before? Is he generally a selfish person? Am I worried about this happening again?

As with most emotions, Rachel’s answer is complex. Early in their relationship, Toby was thoughtless and careless, and they had multiple fights about that. But Toby had listened and grown, and for a solid two years he had been reliable and caring and devoted to her. The likely reason he forgot today is that he had a stressful job interview that didn’t go well.

Rachel realizes that much of her anger about Toby’s mistake was old anger left over from the early years. Yet she notices that this realization is not enough to make the feeling go away.

I need to tell Toby that his mistake upset me, and reminded me of the past. But I need to do it with care because this time it was an honest mistake. And Toby has earned my understanding.

In Summary

In truth, learning these four emotion skills and using them can change the course of your life. When you learn how to process your feelings in this way, you are finally connecting to a font of natural energy and direction that erupts from your deepest self.

You are also healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be a subtle experience in your childhood so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn more about how to use your emotions to connect to the people you care about, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty No More. 


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Deb - April 19, 2018 Reply

So, what is the difference between CEN and plain old feeling sorry for yourself? My mother did not want me. She was angry when she found out she was pregnant with me. In my teens, my father said I was just feeling sorry for myself after telling him I had tried to commit suicide. So you just suck it up, and get on with getting on. That’s what I think normal people do.

    Deb - May 3, 2018 Reply

    Well. I stupidly thought someone might care and reach out to me. Once again my voice unheard.

Ann - February 3, 2018 Reply

This is the first time I’ve ever seen someone explain how to process feelings. I’ve been told many times that I need to process my feelings rather than avoid them but was never told how to do it even when I asked. Knowing this probably would have helped so much especially with my teen daughter who has been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar and borderline. I was never effective with helping her when she felt hurt because it would then turn into vengeful feelings. I would try to talk her out of feeling vengeful rather than being able to help her process the feelings. She’s now at the point where she won’t listen to anything I say even if I now figured it out.

    Jonice Webb PhD - February 4, 2018 Reply

    Dear Ann, now that you have this information, it’s not too late to reach out to your daughter. I hope you will try to connect with her and repair this problem. It’s not your fault that you didn’t know!

    Pam - April 8, 2018 Reply

    And…….it’s NEVER TOO LATE….

Tyler - January 28, 2018 Reply

The intensity and appropriateness of Rachel’s reaction is also at play here. If Rachel has had a lifetime of parental failures to meet her basic needs for security and love as child then she is going to react far more strongly than someone who has had. The secure Rachel would tell Toby what an asshole he was and then work it out. And she would do it early.

The trouble is that childhood emotional neglect starts at a preverbal stage. A stage that does not understand the seemingly simple concept of time. What was true then is true now regardless of time passed.

For a victim of childhood emotional neglect the neglect you received as a five year old remains just as vivid and fresh now as the decades in which it happened. And this neglect is almost never singular but repeated over and over throughout your young life so by the time you reach your teens it is nearly impossible to believe that your loneliness and alienation and isolation could be any other way. it is part of you in the deepest most timeless sense.

As a victim of incompetent emotional parenting you become hypervigilant to never to be hurt again. Which. of course, precludes any of the vulnerability or spontaneity necessary for happy and secure relationships.

The challenge for therapists is that you have to be as comfortable and feel as safe to engage a client’s emotional awakening as you do for a patient’s cognitive awakening. Without the two together and as one your treatment is temporary and weak at best.

    Jonice Webb PhD - January 29, 2018 Reply

    Thank you for your comment Tyler! I second everything you said. I do think that more and more therapists are seeing the importance of engaging their clients’ emotions and using them, plus actively teaching the emotion skills. But none of that can be done until the client’s wall has been broken down enough to access their emotions in the first place, of course. Also, one note: the secure Rachel wouldn’t need to call Toby a name. She would speak her truth in an emotionally sincere, honest way that would be compassionate to him as well. That would maximize his ability to take in her message. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us!

      Don - February 3, 2018 Reply

      As a 64 year old male that has not realized what my problem was for sure until I read your book and started to receive your e-mails. My wall separating me from my emotions has been well built and re-enforced over my lifetime. I display all the signs of CEM and live? with the consequences all the time. I am seeing a great therapist who encourages me to come out of my shell and experience life a little at a time and find what works for me. I have found what I hope is the start of the process. My neighbor and her partner. yes she is gay, were involved in a bad car crash just before Christmas. Her partner was seriously injured and my neighbor blames herself for the accident. She stopped at my house to get some air in her tire and totally broke down and cried on my shoulder. I did the only thing I knew and just held her tight and let her cry herself out. She broke through my most unbreakable wall. It was such a rush of caring and empathy that I had never experienced before and never thought that I would never feel in my life. In short her partner recovered although she is still in a wheelchair but my neighbor and I have become very close. Every time we meet it involves a tight hug that keeps chipping away my wall. Even more I discovered through our conversations that she suffers the same issues I do. Having someone to talk to that feels the same way I do is a treasure worth more than anything money can buy. Am I fixed? Not by a long shot but when I feel the despair creeping in I just think of her and it makes it easier. I always thought my case was hopeless but out of the blue this happened. I wish the circumstances were better but it is what it is.Resulting from this I enjoyed one of the best Christmas’s that I have had in a lot of years. My life is a little brighter now. It’s a long way from perfect. I still suffer the effects of my childhood, but I am writing to hopefully give others encouragement that the cycle can be broken, we just need to break out if only a little bit and search for the someone you can depend on for support in you endeavor. You never know where it can come from, but I am proof it does exist.

        Jonice Webb PhD - February 4, 2018 Reply

        Dear Don, what a tragic but beautiful story. It is amazing how powerful our walls can be, and how incredible it can be once we break through them. I am so glad you and your neighbor have made something healthy out of a very hard situation. I hope you’ll now try to let others in as well. All my best wishes to you.

        Kim - February 13, 2018 Reply

        What a beautiful story. I had tears running down my face reading your post. I find myself always in that helper role, It is so difficult to be the one who needs help. I have found the same relationship (as you and your neighbor) with only one person on this earth, one of my nieces. We both have CEN, and have this sixth sense of understanding about each other. It is the most wonderful thing there is! You sound like a great person, to your core. She is one lucky woman to have you for a neighbor, and now a friend. This world so desperately needs people like you! Any houses for sale on your street?
        Sincerely, Kim

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