Why Understanding What Makes You Feel Emotionally Numb Is The First Step To Feeling Again

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Way back in 2008, an amazing thing happened that changed everything. It changed the way I saw myself and parented my children. Ultimately, it changed the way I practice psychology.  Here’s what happened.

I was busy seeing clients in my psychology practice. I was working with couples, individuals, and families. I was treating problems like depression, marriage and family conflict, anxiety, communication problems, anger and more. Some of my clients had traumatic or abusive childhoods, and some did not. My clients were a varied mix: plumbers, doctors, salespeople, secretaries, scientists, stay-at-home parents, and more.

Many of my clients had very little in common with each other, yet I began to see a pattern among them that appeared over and over again.

A remarkable number of very different people tried to express a particular burden to me — a burden they had carried through their lives and felt deeply, but never had the words to express. They all said it differently:

I am not like other people.

I’m missing something.

I feel empty.

I’m not alone, but I feel alone.

I am numb.

These folks were not damaged, traumatized, or mentally ill. There was no diagnosis to capture their struggle. They weren’t actually different, or empty, or alone, but they felt this way for a reason. It took me two years of delving into the question and researching to find the answer, and when I did I was very surprised.

The answer was deceptively simple, and not at all what I had expected. The cause of this burdensome feeling was the one life experience all these varied people shared. They had all grown up with their feelings ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN).

As children, they all had learned that their emotions were not accepted in their childhood homes. As children, they all had, out of necessity, walled their emotions off. Now, as adults, they were emotionally numb.

Becoming aware that you are emotionally numb is painful, for sure. But understanding the reason why can be surprisingly hard to do. Yet it is the first step to stopping the pain of numb.

How Do I Take The First Step?

  1. Think back and try to remember the times and ways that your parents failed you emotionally. Did they fail to notice when you were sad, hurt, angry or anxious? Did they fail to ask you what you wanted and needed? Did they not get to know you in the most deeply personal way — emotionally?
  2. Understand that your parents probably did come through for you in some important ways. The problem is they did not come through for you emotionally enough, and you are now left with the results.
  3. Accept that your brain did what it needed to protect you. It walled off your emotions to protect your parents (and you) from them in your childhood home.
  4. Realize that numbness is a feeling that comes and goes. Like every other feeling, it is your body talking to you. It is saying, “Wake up. Pay attention. Something is not right.”

The Amazing Shift That Happens When You Finally Understand

Since I wrote Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More, I now work almost exclusively with folks who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). As a therapist, it is the most rewarding work that I have ever done. Walking my clients through the steps of understanding is like walking them inward, toward their true selves.

Understanding that you are numb because your emotions are blocked off frees you up in a truly amazing way. Suddenly you realize that you are not damaged after all, and also that you did not ask for this. Suddenly you realize that your lifelong struggle is there for a reason and that it’s not your fault. You see that what you thought was missing, your emotions, are still there after all.

This is the vital first step to feeling again.

The Choice You Have To Make Now

Once you cross the line from being baffled and numb to understanding, you will have a big decision to make. You will need to answer this question:

Do you want your feelings back, or do you want to stay numb?

If you wish to stay numb, you can go on with your life. Just like always, you will sometimes feel glimmers of emotions, but probably not when you need them the most, and not with the depth and richness they should have. Sometimes you’ll be aware of the numbness, and sometimes you will not.

In contrast, if you want your feelings back you have some work ahead of you. But I assure you that, albeit scary at times, it will be the most rewarding work you will ever do.

It All Comes Down To Your  Wall

Are you making the choice to feel? If not, I understand that you may not be ready yet. It’s okay because it’s never too late to come back when you are ready.

If you are making the decision to feel, I am proud of you. You have chosen to challenge yourself in a way that can change your life. And you can take comfort in the fact that there are answers for you.

Your path is well-defined, and you are in the comforting company of the many thousands of CEN people who have walked this path before you.

Bit by bit, you can follow the steps to CEN recovery. You can take down the wall that protected you as a child but is now in your way, holding you back, blocking you off, and keeping you emotionally numb.

Piece by piece, you can tear down that wall, and fill your empty space. Step by step you can learn the emotion skills you missed. 

Inch by inch, you can move forward, reaping the rewards of finally accepting, and learning to love, your deepest, truest self.

To learn all about the steps of CEN recovery and how to take them, see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

To learn how CEN is interfering with your key relationships, and how to fix it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.


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Lisa - February 13, 2022 Reply

My abuse in childhood was severe. Physical, emotional, and sexual. At 11, we got away and mom went to work and trying to find her next husband. I began drugs and alcohol. Fast forward to my late 20s, I got clean/sober. Was getting my nursing degree. Also got married and we had our first child. A son. He died in a moses basket when he was 33 days old. A year after his funeral we had a daughter. 2 years after, twin daughters. Right after the twins 2nd birthday, my husband died from cancer. Whatever had not already shut down in me, shut down. That has been almost 25yrs ago. I am still trying to find my way out of this darkness. Since the girls all went to college(8-9yrs ago). I have continously sunk further into depression and isolation. But I am still trying to claw my way out and try to have some sort of life before I die. I will be 58 this year.
While not having hope for myself, your book gives me hope that my daughters will be able to heal from all I wasn’t able to say or do. I have 1 daughter picking it up from the library tomorrow. I’m hoping to reach the other 2 with this when they are ready.
Thank you !!!!!!
Thank you for your books.

Sandy - September 26, 2021 Reply

Not only were my feelings ignored, They were laughed at.

    Jonice - September 27, 2021 Reply

    I’m so sorry, Sandy. That is very wrong. I hope you’ll be able to give your own feelings the attention and care that they deserve.

Jenni - August 6, 2019 Reply

I’ve been going to therapy for 2 years and I can’t seem to pinpoint what is wrong but I keep telling my therapist I feel like I have a wall. I am struggling terribly to feel love or feelings of goodness but I do have a lot of anger and negativity. I feel consumed by it. It is driving my husband and kids away but I can’t seem to stop. It’s like I’m on this path of destruction and I won’t be happy until I’ve destroyed everything.
I grew up pretty strict religiously and homeschooled. I remember when I was 16 and my dad took us on vacation and then told us that we would not be back at our church and he was starting his own church. We had no voice in the matter and this upset me so much, but I had to go along and be the good daughter. Also, happy emotions were squashed regularly in our home. Christians who were too happy were deemed fake. I’m 42 years old…I’m honestly married to an incredible man who puts up with a lot but I’m pushing him away at a high rate. Why am I still struggling with my crap.

    Jonice - August 11, 2019 Reply

    Dear Jenni, please do find a CEN Therapist near you. See the Find a CEN Therapist List in the resources of this website.

Jennifer Bradshaw - January 21, 2019 Reply

I am undergoing therapy for CEN and the pain of not only my emotions but the relationship with my therapist is immense. I think I am frightened of both what he says and what he doesn’t say. I end up in panic about each session and long after them. Sometimes the panic is overwhelming. Relationships with others have improved tremendously and I feel less alone, but I could do with more close friends so am going to have to cope with more pain and terror of disclosure. I find it impossible to completely accept how limited my emotional up bring was. I can’t even tell when I am hungry or thirsty. Pain was another sensation that was opaque to me until recently

C. - January 21, 2019 Reply

I knew something was off with me…and im noticing alot at work especially the past tow years. The people i work with notice…we work in preschool. They call me cold…..they ask me why im like this….

Karen Malone - January 21, 2019 Reply

I am a babyboomer born to a mother born in 1924
who was emotionally im-mature rejected by her own mother and grew up with much neglect herself.
Expecting her own child to
fill her emptiness and everything she missed from her own family. She had no clue how to parent
than the man in the moon! She always said to me that i never responded
to her. I was the first grandchild on her side and didnt know a stranger. I feel she was jealous of the attention i
Received from the family
and strangers! I no doubt
Sensed early on her neediness and unconsciously was driven
To fill it somehow. It must have caused anger in me .
I also had a hard birth with an older female doc
Who must have been a ‘b’.
There was alot of drama before during and after my birth. Time goes on
and i developed anger
Personality clahes with her from as early as i can
remember. I began not coming home for lun h from the playground. Home was a moble home with a walkthru bedroom. It was lonely and soooo boring. My dad began traveling in his work. This evoked anger he was leaving me with her. This started when i was 4! School was horrid for me.
Couldn’t understand concepts!! By the time i was in 9-12th grades my personality got me thru. I was well liked and popular. Was voted best dressed of the senior class. Ever since 8 yrs old
I told my mom i didnt feel
like i was really here. Of course that continued and the haunting question always was whats wrong with me?? Why do i feelike
Im different from everyone else?? The questions ive read on this site! AT 17 I Met my husband. We married 3 yrs later. He was from another state. Ironically we were raised very similarly. He also being an emotionally immature person. We came thru many ups and downs crisises, deaths, devastating house fire, caretaking of his parents and my mom after my father dropped dead of a massive heart attack. We had to do yhe very worst thing for me was to move in with my mom because she couldnt function without my dad. She had no income and had a house to pay for. As a young couple with a 13mo old little girl we had his parents whose fTher had parkinsons and a very emotionally immature demanding mother a d my mother who was dependant on me as well.
The only way i got thru this mess was because i was numb. But depression
would soon take its toll and i had had a split in my personality yrs prior. The repressed anger would explode at times!!! Yrs and yrs later had to bring my mom into live w us after having had cardiac arrest.
While i was growing up and after she would say youve had a charmed life.
You dont know how hard i had i growing up! Of course having CEN that fed my guilt and whatever
multitude of other things.
I failed to mention we were only children. After our daughter married brought mom into live w us. That evoked jealousy and resentment from my mother in law!! Always drama from her! I finally had a breakdown with major deep depression that lasted 8 yrs. Refused
treatment and medication. I learned later
i didnt feel worthy of treatment. At the end of the 8 yrs i landed in the hospital for a month. Came home to find out my husband had a girlfriend! This behavior continued for the next 10 yrs on and off. During 17-18 He was running around
With a woman from work
lying his way thru the whole time! This past April
he left me a letter confessing. He was 70 and she is 55. He never tried to win back my trust from yrs prior. He just didnt want to! We have lived as housemates w him living a double life in front of me, our children, grandchildren, close friends, work associates.
Because of his history the kids were shocked but not
Surprised. In reality i know
that im better off w/o him.
We were married for 48 yrs. CEN interwoven through all my life. When I first read about CEN it was so profound!! Still is.
Looking forward to learning more. Thank you!!

Ellen - September 26, 2018 Reply

I’m a woman in my 50s and have just come out of a long period of complicated grief, after having lost my elder brother and my spouse within a year of each other. It’s been 3 years now, but I seem unable to shake a lingering serious depression, sense of isolation, and feelings of emptiness about my my life now and my potential for the future.

Researching and finding the CEN connection seemed to open my eyes to what lies behind my lifelong dysthymia, substance abuse (now recovered from) and perpetual avoidance of others. I scored nearly 100% on the CEN “quiz”.

And so I shared it with my younger brother, also in his 50s and his response was that he thinks almost everybody would score high on this survey. I think maybe it’s because our “everybody” includes a circle of friends who share a similar psychology and thus is why we’re attracted to them. (I know that almost all my relationships with men over the years, including a 17 year marriage, have been with narcissists, my husband being one of the most severe, so I know that the attraction factor is an important one.)

But is my brother correct? How common is CEN?

I’m so sad that I didn’t make this connection earlier in my life before I likely damaged my own beautiful children.)

    Jonice - September 27, 2018 Reply

    Dear Ellen, people with CEN often assume everyone feels as they do. I think CEN is very common but there are many people who answer NO to most of those questions. My goal is to make it far more. Take care!

Sandy - September 13, 2018 Reply

Not only do I feel numb, I feel indifferent. I don’t care about anything any more. I don’t care how I look or what others think of me. Nothing matters. I have nothing to grab onto. I’m in a very slow free fall.

    Jonice - September 13, 2018 Reply

    Dear Sandy, please find a CEN therapist near you on the Find A cEN Therapist page of this website. You deserve to be happier, and only you can make that happen. I’m sorry you are suffering like this.

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