Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when either your Mother or Father fail to notice and respond enough to your feelings and emotional needs as they raise you.
Growing up with your emotional needs unmet takes a remarkable toll on a child. Children sense when their feelings are unwelcome, and they naturally learn to hide them. Unbeknownst to them, their brains push their feelings down, virtually walling them off so that they will not be a bother in their childhood home.
But when, as a child, you push your feelings down, you are playing a dangerous game. You are actually pushing away a vital life force that you will desperately need through your adulthood. Yes, you are coping with your situation in a rather ingenious way, but you are also starting down a path that will cause you many problems years later.
Going through your life with your feelings walled off leaves you struggling in several ways. As a CEN adult, you end up with a lack of understanding of how emotions work, how to know when you are having feelings, how to identify, tolerate, interpret and share them. Also, since you lack access to a vital source of grounding, stimulation, and connection (your emotions), you end up feeling, in some deep way, disconnected, unfulfilled, and alone.
Since CEN is something your Mother or Father failed to do for you in childhood, it is difficult for many people to see it or recall it. So this means that you likely have no idea that CEN happened to you, which gives it far more power over you.
The result: you are vulnerable to your own feelings and at the mercy of all the things that happen in your life. Things that would only slightly bother, or not at all bother, non-neglected people, can trigger very difficult or painful feelings in you.
6 Common Events That Trigger Your Childhood Emotional Neglect
- Being with or around someone who is feeling strong emotions. For years, I ran a variety of different kinds of therapy groups: for women, for depression, and for addictions. Of all the surprising things that happened in those groups, one stood out. I noticed that in every group there were certain people who became excruciatingly discomfited every time any group member showed a strong feeling. And now I understand why. I now realize that those were the CEN folks in my groups essentially outing themselves. When your own feelings are blocked off, you are not able to learn and understand how feelings work. Your tolerance for your own feelings has no chance to build. Powerful feelings become a kind of confusing and violent trigger that seems to obliterate you. Your natural tendency is to escape, squirm, crack a joke or change the subject whenever you are in this situation.
- Seeing, talking about, or thinking about, your parents. Countless CEN people have asked me how to cope with their emotionally neglectful parents. As a child, you naturally, as all children automatically do, went to your parents for emotional validation, discussion, and solace. Over and over, each time you tried, they were not emotionally there for you. Now, when you are around your parents, you feel their emotional absence in big and small ways. You are triggered by their lack of notice, lack of attention, and superficial or meaningless conversation. You end up feeling angry, hurt, alone, or sad. If you’re not aware of your CEN (like most people), you are also likely to feel confused and guilty for even having these feelings. This means that you are doubly affected.
- Being overlooked. Growing up with CEN, no matter how much attention you received in other ways, is a form of being ignored. Your deepest, most personal expression of who you are, your feelings, are not noticed or responded to. So, it’s only natural that you end up feeling like you are not seen or heard. This has two strong, opposing effects on your adult life. You end up surprisingly comfortable with taking the back seat or playing wallflower. But when you are in a situation in which you are actually overlooked (which happens to everyone), this can trigger your CEN childhood pain of feeling unimportant and invisible.
- You need help. Going to your parents’ empty emotional well over and over again as a child, you found that help was not there for you. Over and over again you were disappointed. Over and over again you were let down. Over and over again you learned that expecting help is a painful set-up, and you learned to avoid it at all costs. Now, as an adult, you live by that edict. When you need help, your fear of disappointment is triggered, and you become anxious or avoidant. Asking for help, and accepting it, are most likely some of your greatest fears.
- Encountering conflict. To deal with a conflictual situation in a direct and capable way, one must have skills. First, you must be comfortable being with someone who is angry or hurt. Second, you must be comfortable with feeling angry or hurt yourself. Being able to feel what you feel and stay in the situation to put your feelings into words is not something that everyone can do. When you grew up with CEN you have no opportunity to learn these skills. Then, when you are hurt by someone, suddenly you realize you have no toolkit to rely on to manage the situation. Instead, your avoidance strategy is triggered. So you sweep your feelings, and the conflict, under the rug, and try to pretend that everything is A-okay.
- Being at a party or in a large group of people. Growing up with your deepest self unnoticed as a child made you feel unseen and unheard. On the fringes of your family home, you learned that your place is in the margins. It’s where you feel most comfortable. It’s where you feel at home. But because of this, it’s also hard to feel that you belong anywhere. As an adult, when you find yourself in any large gathering, your CEN sense of not belonging can be triggered. You may find yourself feeling awkward and anxious, only wanting to hide an escape.
Believe it or not, there is some very good news about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). All of the triggers above do not need to follow you all of your life. They are all temporary and they will go away once you become aware and take control of them.
Find links to the free Emotion Neglect Test and the books Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More in the Bio below.
There is a process, identified and tested, that helps you reconnect with your feelings and learn how to accept, identify, tolerate, process, and listen to them.
Once you start down the path of accepting and using your emotions there is no turning back. Your life starts to gain a depth of feeling, direction, and connection that you never knew existed.
Bit by bit, as you take step after step, you are getting in touch with your deepest, truest self. You are not only grabbing those triggers and taking their power away, but you are also reclaiming that power for someone who deserves it.
Jonice Webb PhD
Jonice Webb, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who is recognized worldwide for her groundbreaking work in defining, describing, and calling attention to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). She writes, speaks, and trains therapists on the topic, and is the bestselling author of two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. She also created and runs the Fuel Up For Life Online CEN Recovery Program. Since CEN can be difficult to see and remember, Dr. Webb created the CEN Questionnaire and other free resources to help you figure out if you have it. Take the CEN Questionnaire and learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how to heal it at her website EmotionalNeglect.com.
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