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How Should I Act? What Should I Say? How Should I Be?


Stephanie and her boyfriend Zach had decided it was time for her to meet his college friends. Zach had told her so many stories about them since they met 6 months ago that she almost felt that she knew them already.

Getting ready at her apartment, Steph agonized over what to wear. “If I wear shorts, they may not take me seriously enough,” she worried. “But a skirt might seem like I’m trying too hard. I wonder what the other women will be wearing. Is my hair too flat today? Maybe I should put it in a bun.”

Steph felt a pang of anxiety in her belly as she realized there was no good solution about what to wear. “What if I say something dumb? Should I mention that I play the violin, or will that make me seem formal and stuffy? What if they think Zach would be better with someone who’s into blues, like he is. Maybe I should play down my interest in classical music, just in case.”


As soon as Matt accepted his new job offer, he started feeling nervous. He immediately became preoccupied with the fact that he would need to run sales meetings of over 200 people on a regular basis, as well as deliver live reports to the board of directors every month. “I’m going to have to develop a whole new persona. How am I going to come across as confident and experienced in these kinds of situations?” he worried over and over, for days on end.

If you identify with Stephanie or Matt, I want to tell you two things. First, not everyone goes through these kinds of agonizing questions and anxieties. And second, there is a reason you do.

Please be assured, however, that asking these questions is not a sign of weakness or a problem in who you are or your abilities. It does not indicate that you don’t know the answers to the questions. It actually indicates the opposite of all of these things, and in a minute I will tell you why. But first, let’s take a look at the reasons you ask these questions in the first place.

Why You Question How to Act, What to Say, How to Be

  1. You are disconnected from yourself: In order to think and question in this way, you have to be thinking of yourself almost in third person. You are picturing yourself from a distance, as opposed to living inside your own body, your own personality and, most important of all, your own feelings.
  2. You do not trust yourself: Somewhere, somehow, deep down, you doubt your own abilities. You question whether you will know, in the moment, what to say, how to act, how to be.
  3. You are assuming there is a “way to be”: Questions like “how should I act,” “what should I say,” “how should I be” can only be asked if you believe there is an answer that is right, and it is up to you to figure it out. In reality, the way to be is simply to be you.

Have you ever watched a person in a situation who seems utterly themselves? They may walk into a room seemingly completely free of self-consciousness, ask a dumb question and then, instead of appearing embarrassed, laugh at themselves. They may greet people who seem unapproachable, and talk freely and openly.

If you have watched someone like this, there’s a good chance you’ve noticed how they draw people to them. Other people can feel when they are connecting with a person’s true self. People can also feel it  (usually outside of their awareness) when they are interacting with a persona.

And now, back to you. When you ask yourself the question, “How should I act?” you are doing the opposite of the real person described above. You are instead setting up a wall between your public persona and your true self, which blocks everyone off from the real you.

Childhood Emotional Neglect

Children who grow up in a household that under-responds to their feelings learn a powerful lesson early and well: hide your emotions. Yet your emotions are the most deeply personal, biological expression of who you are. You are learning to hide your true self.

Hiding your true self as a child becomes your way of being in the world as an adult. You grow up deeply disconnected from your emotions, and unable to let them guide you in challenging situations. You end up using your cerebral cortex (your intellect) to figure out how to act, instead of allowing your true self to be present and responding to those around you. 

This is the essence of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). There is a wall blocking you from yourself and others. It is in your way.

The Good News!

  • Everything you need to answer the Three Questions is inside you. All your life, you have been a keen observer of others. You have watched others, to see what they want and need, and you have tried to deliver that (like Stephanie and Matt). Since you’ve been watching and caring about others, you have a tremendous amount of data about people and social skills. You only need to learn how to use all that vital information in a new and different way.
  • It is entirely possible to take down the wall that blocks you, access your emotions, and begin to let them guide you. You can reach your emotions by changing the way you view them. You can start to pay attention to your feelings, and learn how to listen to these important messages from your body. I know this is possible because I have helped countless numbers of people do it. Truth be told, I have done it myself.


Stephanie walked into the restaurant in her favorite sundress and cowboy boots, her hair loose around her shoulders, the way she always wears it. Sneaking up behind Zach, who was talking to his friends, she put her hands over his eyes and said, “Guess who has finally arrived. Now the fun can begin,” and laughed along with Zach and his friends as he turned around and gave her a big kiss. One by one, she hugged Zach’s friends warmly as she met them for the first time.


Matt entered his first sales meeting with a big smile on his face that reflected how happy and excited he was to be there. He stood by the door and  introduced himself as people walked in, warmly shaking hands with each person and trying to memorize their names. As he walked toward the podium, he tripped over the powerpoint cord, disconnecting it. “Off to a great start on my first day by demonstrating my grace and expertise,” he commented with a wry smile as soon as he reached the microphone. Everybody laughed with him.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), whether you grew up with it, and how to take down your wall and be the real you, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

Photo by Logan Brumm Photography and Design

How Should I Act? What Should I Say? How Should I Be?

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

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APA Reference
Webb PhD, J. (2017). How Should I Act? What Should I Say? How Should I Be?. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2020, from


Last updated: 15 Aug 2017
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