What do a joker, a fidgeter, and an over-talker have in common?
Lance’s girlfriend Cathy is trying to tell him that she’s feeling lonely in their relationship. “How can you feel lonely? I’m right here standing next to you?” he responds with a sideways smile on his face. Trying to catch her eye while she looks down sadly, he lifts her chin and says, “Hey, I’m a good cook, right? Isn’t that a redeeming quality? Remember that amazing egg loaf I made for you last month?” When Cathy does not look up and laugh at his joke, Lance desperately searches his mind for another way to make Cathy laugh.
Wanda needs to tell her cousin Sharon how much it meant to her that Sharon threw an amazing surprise 40th birthday party for her. No one in Wanda’s life has ever done anything this wonderful, just for her. Wanda feels so deeply grateful and loving toward Sharon for this gift that all she wants to do is throw her arms around her cousin and thank her warmly. But somehow, each time she starts to express herself, she suddenly feels deeply awkward and uncomfortable, and squirms in her seat instead. Finally Sharon, who knows Wanda all too well says, “Wanda, whatever it is you need to say to me, just spit it out.”
Rob sits across from me in my office. He came to see me because he was having problems with his wife, and also some problems with his co-workers. Right now, he is telling me about an argument he had with his wife the night before. Rob said, “And then she called me selfish. Can you believe that? Does she know me at all?” I begin my sentence to reply, “Rob, how do you feel about…” But before I can finish my sentence, his eyes grow wide with the realization of the question I’m about to ask. He immediately jumps in, preventing me from talking, and filling the space with his own rapid-fire words. “It’s crazy. She really doesn’t know me. Last week she…” After this has happened three times, I begin to realize that I am not going to be able to get a word in edgewise.
Yep, you got it right. Lance, Wanda and Rob are all “emotion avoiders.” None of these three has any idea that he avoids emotion. None of them is choosing to avoid emotion. Yet it’s what they all do, and do quite well.
Emotion avoiders are folks who are intrinsically uncomfortable with feelings. For some, it’s only negative or painful emotions that make them squirm, talk or crack a joke. For others, it’s only positive emotions. But for many, it’s all emotions.
What makes you an emotion avoider? It’s no mystery to me. In fact, the answer is so simple that when I tell you, you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself. It is this: when you grow up in a family that is uncomfortable with your feelings, you learn very early to be uncomfortable with your feelings. You naturally assume that everyone else is uncomfortable with feelings too. But actually, they are not. You have grown up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN. And everyone else has not.
When you learn the CEN “lesson” in childhood, it sets you up for a load of discomfort as an adult. It makes it hard for you to work out conflicts with people you care about, share warm feelings that could be connecting you, or know what you feel, want or need. This is not an easy way to live your life.
But you can change!
4 Ways to Stop Avoiding Emotion
- Become aware of your own ingenious technique to avoid emotion. Watch yourself, and notice when you use it. Try to stop using it. When you do, take a deep breath, and ask yourself what you are feeling instead. Remind yourself that feelings are just feelings, and that you do not need to avoid them.
- Begin to pay more attention to your feelings. Ask yourself what you are feeling several times per day. Start trying to figure out what other people are feeling. It is amazing how much difference it makes to simply pay attention to the very thing you have been trying to suppress and ignore your whole life.
- Practice sitting with your feelings. Most people never think about sitting with their feelings as “a thing.” Yet it is actually a very big thing. When you have a feeling, make a point of accepting that feeling, however uncomfortable, and even if you do not like it. When you start feeling your feelings, you finally have the opportunity to learn some very useful skills.
- Start learning the skills. Learning how to name your feelings, put them into words, and express them to others; using your emotions to guide and direct you, motivate and empower you. These are the skills that can change your life.
The three steps above are some of the most important parts of recovery from Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). The truth is, these 3 lovely people are unaware of how their separation from their own feelings is keeping them separated from the most important people in their lives.
Lance could be so much closer with Cathy if he would only allow himself to feel his feelings, and learn how to express them. Wanda would get so much more joy in her friendship with her cousin if only she could share her true feelings freely. And Rob would hear some important, helpful words that would help him grow, if only he would pause, feel, and listen.
Childhood Emotional Neglect holds you apart from those you care about the most. Watch for my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children, coming 11/7/17.
To find out if you are living with CEN, I invite you to Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
If you have a different method of avoiding emotion than is covered in this article, please share it with us in a comment. We want to know!