The Most Important Relationship Of All

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“Although many of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think”

     — Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, Neuroscientist and author of My Stroke of Insight.

What is the most important relationship in your life? Your spouse? Your child? Your mother or father?

If you answered yes to any of those, that’s nice. But you actually have another relationship that is more important than any of them. It’s one you probably never thought about before.

It’s your relationship with your own emotions.

How we treat our own feelings has a tremendous impact on how we treat others. Your relationship with your emotions is the foundation for all other relationships in your life.

Emotions are complex and can be mysterious. Sometimes they do what we tell them. Other times they refuse to obey. We may fall in love with someone we don’t like, or stop liking someone we love. We can lose our tempers unexpectedly, or surprise ourselves by staying calm in a stressful situation.

Just as you have to listen to the people in your life, you also have to listen to your emotions. Your emotions are your body’s way of speaking to you. Indeed your emotions provide an invaluable feedback system that can anchor, inform and direct you through life.

Our emotions tell us when something is wrong. They connect us, enrich us, and give our lives meaning. Nevertheless, many of us either over-indulge our emotions, or treat them as if they are a nuisance.

If you have a healthy relationship with your emotions:

  1. You pay attention to what you are feeling and why.
  2. You accept your feelings without judging them.
  3. You manage your feeling instead of unleashing them upon others.
  4. You determine what that emotion is telling you to do, and take action if needed.
  5. You are able to express your emotions to others.

If you have a problem relationship with your emotions:

  1. You are generally unaware of what you are feeling.
  2. You doubt that your feelings are real or justified.
  3. You ignore your feelings.
  4. You overindulge your feelings.
  5. You view your feelings as a sign of weakness.
  6. You get angry at yourself for having feelings.
  7. You are generally unable to express your feelings.

Brenda, Jerry and Joanna all have problem relationships with their emotions:

Brenda feels stupid for feeling sad when her abusive husband moves out.

Jerry has been treating his wife badly for several weeks, often yelling at her for seemingly nothing. When she tries to ask him what’s wrong, he seems truly baffled and insists there’s nothing.

Joanna feels embarrassed for feeling hurt by her friend Trish’s recent lack of time for her.

Each of these three people is missing a valuable message from his body which could help him grow, heal and move forward:

Brenda is judging herself for having feelings (sadness). This will prevent her from getting perspective on her marriage, the complexities of the relationship, and her own needs. She is setting herself up to repeat the pattern by getting into another abusive relationship.

Jerry is unaware of his feelings and is letting them run rampant. Inadvertently he is giving them too much power in his life. If he tuned into his feelings, he would see that he feels distant from his wife for traveling for work so much; he could talk to her about it and they could potentially work it out.

Joanna views her emotional needs as weak. If she accepted her needs as normal and listened to her hurt feelings, they would tell her to talk to Trish and find out what’s going on.

We learn how to relate to our emotions in childhood. We learn this from our parents; from how they treated their own emotions, and how they treated our emotions. If you grew up in a household flooded with emotion (as perhaps Jerry did), you learned that your feelings are all-powerful. In contrast, if your parents squelched or ignored your emotions (as perhaps Brenda’s or Joanna’s did), you learned that your feelings are irrelevant or negative, and how to squelch them. Either way, flooded or squelched, you did not learn how to interpret or manage them. These are examples of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

To improve your relationship with your emotions, make friends with them by keeping these simple steps in mind as you go about your daily life. (Adapted from Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.)

The IAAA Steps:

Identify your feelings.

Accept your feelings without judgment. Judge yourself for your actions, not your feelings.

Attribute your emotions to a cause whenever possible. Ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this?”

Act With Care if the emotion is telling you to do something.  Listen and take thoughtful action.

Your emotions are the most deeply personal, biological part of who you are. When you discount what you feel, you discount yourself. When you get angry at yourself for having a feeling, you are angry at yourself for being human. When you deny your own feelings you deny yourself, and you deny people the opportunity to truly know you.

If all of the people in the world knew how to listen to their emotions, express and manage them, the world would be a very different place: more connected, more alive, more enriched, and more real.

And so would you.

To learn whether you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty. 

This article was originally published on and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral


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Robin L - November 30, 2018 Reply

I love your work and these small articles help so much. Thank you for what you do. It’s life saving!

Michael (Myke) - November 30, 2018 Reply

I have ADHD and TBI. I also suffer from CEN. How could I go about talking to my father who was and is emotionally neglectful, but wants to be there for me?

    Jonice - December 3, 2018 Reply

    Dear Myke, this sounds like it may have some possibilities. I recommend you see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. It describes exactly how to approach your dad to talk about CEN in a non-blaming way. You can find the book anywhere, including libraries or Amazon or bookstores everywhere.

Rose Cook - November 27, 2018 Reply

Please place me on your email list to receive your mailings directly: Often I carry your 2 books
along to SHOW to others!

Thank you!

    Jonice - November 29, 2018 Reply

    I just added you to the list Rose. Best wishes to you!

Amber - November 26, 2018 Reply

Is it possible to have been raised in a family flooded with emotions…but also to have had my emotions squelched and learned they don’t matter? I can relate to both.

    Jonice - November 29, 2018 Reply

    Yes it is. “Outdoing” or overshadowing a child’s emotions is one way to emotionally neglect her.

Andrea - November 26, 2018 Reply

I have CEN, and believe I basically recreated my family of origin relationships in my marriage. My husband has very little warmth and seems to have very little empathy towards me. He does not have Asperger’s but I think he has CEN as well, but is not interested in learning about it. We are in couples therapy (for the 3rd time), but I’m getting more and more hopeless about our ever having the kind of relationship I long for. Any advice or recommendations?

Alisha - November 26, 2018 Reply

What do you do when you live with people who don’t understand you and don’t really want to try?
I’m constantly feeling crushed, afraid, and isolated.. and at the same time dealing with anger so hot it scares me.
I am quite positive I’m a highly sensitive person as well, I also really identify with being an INFP-T.

    Jonice - November 26, 2018 Reply

    Dear Alisha, I’m sorry you’re in this situation. Since you can’t change other people, one thing you can do is work on understanding yourself. Anger that intense usually is rooted in childhood. I hope you will keep working on yourself.

Andrea - November 25, 2018 Reply

I have written about this before. I know I have CEN. I also know that all this good information is of no help when you are married to someone with Asperger’s and have children on the continuum as well. We learned about AS too late in life so could not be of help to our kids and now see it in our grandchildren. I think many of the neurotypical wives who end up with AS spouses probably have CEN, but your advice is of little use to us in our NT-AS relationships.

Jessica - November 25, 2018 Reply

It is hard having CEN/bipolar because I do not always know whether I can trust emotions to be “real” or just a manifestation of bipolar disorder. I am working on not squelching my heart. But when I do try to express my emotions, although I try to do it in a good way, if people think they don’t fit the situation (and usually they don’t), people take it upon themselves to “help” me by telling me those feelings are “incorrect”. I find myself overthinking every emotion and not saying or doing what needs to be done in the moment; by then the feeling is usually over and no longer relevant. It’s easier to have a friend, spouse, or family member understand that you have problems with anxiety, or just depression than having the bipolar-type problems with emotions. It’s hard to use moderation in emotional expression. But the hardest part is that in the moment the emotion is as real as the ground beneath your feet, and you’re too lonely and afraid to ask for help processing it and NOT say “it’s just you being bipolar, it’s not real” and invalidate yourself. Talk about compounding problems! I’m blessed to have finally found a friend who understands bc they also deal with bipolar, but not CEN so they’re helping me be comfortable talking about emotions. One person isn’t always enough, but at least I have someone.

    Alisha - November 25, 2018 Reply

    Hi Jessica!
    I’m sorry you’re having a hard time with CEN and distinguishing it from bipolar as well. I have the same kind of problem, except it’s high-functioning anxiety and introversion..
    There are so many people who are going to say your emotions aren’t real. It’s because they don’t understand you and what you are going through at the moment.
    That’s why it’s so incredibly important to always have time to process your emotions, whether it’s through a journal or listening to sad music.. or talking to a friend! I’m so glad you have one that understands you. 🙂
    Just wanted to say, keep going strong. I believe in you. 🙂

Cha'Lea l Stafford - November 25, 2018 Reply

What do you say to people who would say we need to stop being emotional and more logical when responding to situations?

    Jonice - November 25, 2018 Reply

    Hi Cha’Lea, I would say we need to be more of both. Using our intellect to manage our feelings is the best of all worlds. I hope this makes sense!

suzanne - August 19, 2017 Reply

I’m sorry, but the few times I have decided to “get really real” and tell someone my true feelings it always bites me in the *ss as I’ve found people really DON’T want to know/hear my true feelings….Not even my family cares to hear my feelings!!

I’ve heard (from people) that others have this “Perception” of me that since I’m Very Attractive and a Go-getter (self-motivated/successful), that I have nothing to “complain’ about…(ie: my family refuses to understand that I’ve suffered from CEN/Anxiety/Depression my entire Adult Life – & that’s why Im still single 50…
So now I don’t tell anyone sh*t! I just deal with my emotionally-lonely life on my own. Yippee.

    Jonice Webb - August 20, 2017 Reply

    It’s great that you tried to speak your feelings! Please don’t skip the next step which is to share your feelings in a way that the other person can hear you. Meaning not to aggressive so that you hurt them, but not too passive either. These are difficult skills that most who grew up with CEN didn’t get to learn. But you can learn them now.

    Rachel - November 27, 2018 Reply

    Suzanne-I understand what you’re saying, and the frustration sometimes of being quite misunderstood.Maybe that kind of “shallow” perception is a kind that I would have had, coming from a younger place of more limited and more unquestioned experience.
    What keeps me going is discovery that is meaningful to me.
    So,ultimately, I’m not at the answer (yet!),I am still juggling, trying to find a healthy-feeling balance between the me stuff, shared stuff and other stuff. And that,for me, brings a big helping of consciousness into all relationships.
    Ooh, this isn’t what I expected!
    Best Wishes!

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