I’m not happy, and I have no excuse for it.
I’m lacking something that other people seem to have.
What is wrong with me?
I have heard these comments often from scores of clients who have come to my private practice over the last ten years. In fact, I heard them so often, from people who seemed to be truly baffled, that I started to wonder, “Do all of these clients have something in common?”
So I went back with each of these baffled people to review their childhoods, in search of a unifying factor among them. I wondered if there might be some common childhood event; a trauma, parental mistreatment, or abuse of some kind which could explain their deeply-held sense that something was wrong with them.
When these childhood searches came up empty, I gradually started to realize the reason that these clients felt this way. And why they were perplexed. The explanation did not lie in anything that had happened to them in childhood. Instead, it was because of something that had failed to happen for them in childhood. Each of these people had grown up in a household in which their emotions were not noticed, responded to, or attended to enough. I call this Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.
Children whose parents do not notice or respond enough to their feelings receive a subtle but powerful message from their parents, who may have no intention or awareness that they are conveying it. That message is:
“Your feelings don’t matter,” “Your feelings are a bother,” or “Your feelings are not welcome here.”
If the CEN is severe, the child receives a message with an even deeper impact, which is:
“You don’t mater,” “You are a bother,” or “You are not welcome here.”
When children receive this message, they naturally do a very adaptive thing. Without realizing it, they push their emotions down and away, so that they will not be seen by the parents, or even by themselves. Sometimes, they may even become ashamed of having feelings. They may see their natural, biological, human emotions as a burden, or a sign of weakness. They may push their feelings so far away that they lose access to them almost completely.
This may help the child survive in her childhood home. But as an adult, we need our feelings in order to thrive and connect to others. I have seen, over and over again, that an adult without access to her feelings knows that something is missing or wrong. She will have a deep-seated sense that something is qualitatively different about her from other people. She will feel set apart; alone. In some cases, empty or numb.
Many of the clients who had expressed this feeling to me had great difficulty putting it into words. But their greatest difficulty was explaining for themselves why they felt this way. Many looked back upon a childhood which seemed very good; their material needs were met, and perhaps they even knew that their parents loved them. In the absence of an explanation for their struggles in adulthood, they blamed themselves. They assumed that they had done this to themselves, and that they were inherently, deeply flawed.
The human brain is excellent at recording events. We remember things that happen; things that are tangible, visible or audible. But our brains do not record things that fail to happen. If a parent failed to notice when you felt mortified, sad, embarrassed or ashamed; if a parent failed to ask you, “What’s wrong?” or, “Are you OK?” Or if a parent does not see the true essence of who you really are. These are failures to act which leave significant and lasting marks on the developing child, and later upon the adult. But they are not remembered.
On the outside, many of these adults who grew up with CEN appear to be fine; even thriving. But they are not. On the inside, they are struggling. They feel flawed, empty, or set apart. They have no explanation, and no words to express it.
I think that Childhood Emotional Neglect is rampant in today’s world. Its invisibility helps it to be passed down from one generation to the next, unseen and unnoticed. Scores of people who think that they are simply sad, empty, anxious, or angry for no reason are actually feeling this way due to CEN.
Healing from something that has no words or explanation can seem impossible. But once you realize what is wrong and why, the door is opened to a new way of seeing yourself, and a new way of living in the world. Because once you name and understand something, you can take control of it.
To learn more about CEN, whether you might have it, and how to heal from it, see my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Click on the link below to see it on Amazon.
Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect