Is childhood neglect keeping you from living joyfully as an adult?

Feelings of emptiness, disconnection and low self-esteem could be traced to your childhood, says a clinical psychologist

Woman loodking sea

Rita watches her children play, and thinks about how lucky she is to have them. “I have so many good things in my life. Why do I still feel empty inside?

Ashish prepares himself to walk into the office party. “No matter how successful I am, I never feel like I belong,” he thinks.

When someone asks Miloni what she prefers, she usually stammers uncomfortably, “Whatever you want is fine with me.”

Ketan looks around at other people walking down the street laughing and talking. “What do they have that I don’t have?” he wonders.

Rahul, Ashish, Miloni and Ketan may appear to be quite different. But actually they have more in common than they could ever know. They are all living with the same invisible force inside, a powerful, eroding experience from childhood of which they are unaware: Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Childhood Emotional Neglect [CEN]:

A parent’s failure to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs.

So CEN is not something that a parent does for a child. Instead, it’s the opposite. CEN is what the parent fails to do for the child. For example, the CEN parent fails to ask or say enough:

Are you OK?
Are you hurt?
You look sad.
What do you want?
What do you need?
What do you feel?
What do you prefer?
Why do you say that?

Here’s what to do when you’re angry.

Since CEN is not an act but a failure to act, it goes unseen, unnoticed and unremembered while it does its silent damage to people’s lives.

Of course, no child’s emotions are responded to 100 per cent correctly by his parents. They can’t be. But CEN only happens when the child’s emotions are ignored, unnoticed, or discouraged enough. When this happens, the child receives this subtle, unspoken message: Your feelings don’t matter.

When a child gets this message from her parents, two things happen: a] she pushes her emotions down and away so that they will not bother her parents; b] since her emotions are the most deeply personal, biological part of who she is, she hears her parents’ message as: You don’t matter.

Since CEN is not an act but a failure to act, it goes unseen, unnoticed and unremembered while it does its silent damage to people’s lives

Pushing feelings away is adaptive, and may be quite helpful to get through childhood. But as adults, we need our emotions. Our emotions anchor, motivate, inform, direct and connect us. Without access to this rich, grounding source of connection, we can go through decades of adulthood sensing that we are missing some vital ingredient that others have.

So the world is full of people who march through their lives with smiles on their faces, secretly confused and baffled with no explanation, hoping no one sees what they feel deep down: Something is wrong with me.

How to know if you have CEN

Sad boy sitting on banchSince CEN is invisible and unmemorable, how can you know if you have it? The truth is it’s not simple or clear-cut. But here are five questions you can ask yourself:

  • Do you struggle to feel as intensely what others seem to naturally feel, like love, happiness, warmth or sadness?
  • Do you sometimes feel inexplicably alone, no matter how many people surround you or love you?
  • Have you tried various efforts to address your lack of happiness, to little avail? Therapy, self-help books or even medication may help, but don’t seem to address what’s really wrong?
  • Do you put others’ needs and wishes before your own? Do you struggle to know what you like, want, need and feel?
  • Are you feeling something as you read these words? Does it strike a chord somewhere inside of you?

If you answered yes to any of the above, it’s a sign that you have CEN.

Steps to healing

The best thing about CEN is that you can heal from it. Every day, all around the world, people are discovering this concept and starting down a new road toward happiness and health.

What would help Rita experience more fully the good things in her life? What would help Ashish feel more like he belongs? How can Miloni find her voice? How could Ketan get what other people have? They [and you] can follow the same steps:

  1. Break down your wall

    As a child, you walled off your emotions to survive. Now, you must break that wall down, brick by brick. This will take effort and persistence, but you can do it. Start paying attention to what you are feeling. Focus your attention inward at least once per day, and ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” Write down any emotions that you can identify.

  2. Get to know yourself

    Children learn who they are by seeing themselves reflected in their parents’ eyes. If your parents didn’t truly get to know you, you may now, as an adult, not know yourself very well. Start paying attention to who you are: your strengths and weaknesses, preferences, likes and dislikes. What’s funny to you? What do you want? Make a list of words or phrases that describe you, and keep adding to it every day.

  3. Prioritise your needs

    When you received the message that your feelings didn’t matter, your child brain understood it as you don’t matter. So now, it is vital that you learn to put yourself first. After all, you cannot do much for others if you are depleted. Work on asking others for help, expressing your wishes and preferences. Make it a goal to have an answer when someone asks you what you want, and to voice it.

  4. Improve your self-care

    People with CEN are excellent at taking care of others, but not so good at taking care of themselves. Start making sure that you get enough sleep, eat well and exercise. Hold yourself accountable. This will become easier as you work on steps one to three; you will start to realise that you deserve to be taken care of.

  5. Stop blaming yourself

    All these years, you have wondered what was wrong. Perhaps you’ve blamed your emptiness, your disconnection, or your lack of self-care on yourself. Perhaps you have felt flawed somehow. Now you know that you didn’t cause this, that it’s not your fault and that there are answers. So show yourself the compassion that you have for others. And recognise that you can heal.

The world is full of people who question and suffer, who are secretly baffled by what is wrong in their lives. Little do they know that there is an answer. And that it is clear, it is real, and it lies within them. So chip away your wall, and watch it crumble. Discover who you are, what you want and what you need. Ask for help, and put your needs first. Take care, and have compassion for what you did not get.

You may also like: I am worth it!

But most importantly, remind yourself each and every day: My feelings matter. And I matter.


A version of this article was first published in the August 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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