Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): An incredibly subtle, unmemorable, yet deceptively powerful childhood experience that happens when your parents fail to respond sufficiently to your emotional needs.
Growing up in a household that under-responds to your emotions (CEN) leaves its mark on you. It leaves you blocked from your richest internal resource: your feelings. If you grew up this way you are unlikely to recall the Emotional Neglect happening, but you nevertheless now live with its effects.
As a therapist, I have helped hundreds of people through the process of recovering from their Childhood Emotional Neglect, and continue to do so. During this incredibly rewarding process, I noticed a very important, key aspect of Childhood Emotional Neglect.
It robs your joy.
On top of it all, CEN is so silent and pernicious that you don’t even realize it is happening.
3 Ways CEN Robs Your Joy
1. It burdens you with shame, self-blame, and self-directed anger. If you grew up with CEN, chances are high that you are prone to feeling ashamed of things that would never cause most people to feel shame. You may be ashamed that you are not happier, ashamed that you are not smarter; ashamed that you’re not more interesting, or even ashamed that you have emotions. On top of all the shame, you likely blame yourself for those things and more.
Why can’t I ………. the way other people do?
Why did I …………? I should have known better.
What’s my problem?
Shouldn’t I be………..?
What is wrong with me?
Not only does all of this self-doubt, questioning, and blame damage your self-confidence and self-esteem, it takes a great amount of energy. It drains away your capacity for joy.
2. It dampens the color in your life. One of the things I often say about Childhood Emotional Neglect is that living with it is a bit like experiencing your life in grayscale. That childhood message, your feelings don’t matter, spoke loudly and clearly to you. Your brain automatically walled off your emotions to adapt. This got you through your childhood, but what about now? You need your emotions back. You need to feel your feelings fully and completely, as they are the fuel of your life. They’re the glue that binds you to others, the power that motivates you, and the vibrancy and color you should be seeing in the world. Living without proper access to feel and use your emotions, you are missing some key elements of joy.
3. It changes your brain. Before we talk about this one, a very important point: brain changes can be reversed. Please keep this fact in mind while reading the next few sentences. In 2015, a study conducted at Duke University by three neuroscientists (Hanson, Hariri, and Williamson), found that children who grew up with emotional neglect showed a dulled ventral striatum (the brains reward system) activity in adolescence. This means that these children did not experience the positives in life as intensely or rewardingly as other people do. Essentially, their brains’ command post for rewards had been dulled. Fortunately, neuroscience has proven that the human brain has neuroplasticity, which means that it is amazingly changeable. A changed brain does not need to be a permanent situation.
The Road To Recovery
Believe it or not, there is one! And thanks to the many who have traveled it before you, it’s already quite well-defined and clear.
It is entirely possible for you to reverse the joy-sapping effects of the CEN you were raised with. Follow these three steps.
- Accept and believe that your feelings do matter. What do you feel? What do you like? What do you enjoy? How do you feel? What do you need? What do you dislike? Pay attention to yourself. Pay attention to your feelings. Because you need them for your joy.
- Stop blaming yourself. You did not bring this upon yourself, so stop taking the blame. Change “Why can’t I?” to “I will try.” Change “Shouldn’t I be?” to “I will do my best to be.” Change “What is wrong with me?” to “Here’s what’s right with me.” Pay attention to how your inner voice speaks to you, and cultivate some self-compassion. You deserve it.
- Look for small moments of joy in your life. Pay attention, and you will see them, for they are everywhere. A deep blue sky, shimmering sunlight on the water, a small child running with a kite; a look of kindness in a stranger’s eye, an unexpected cookie offered in an unlikely situation. You find a store open that you thought would be closed, or a neighbor helps you jump your car. The world is full of joy, and when you look for it, you will find it.
You can recapture the feelings you were always meant to have, value and know yourself as you have never done before, and find those invaluable sources of positive feeling that have been there, all along.
Perhaps one day we will be able to scan the brains of CEN folks who do these three things over an extended period of time. I think it’s entirely possible that if we did, we might find that your ventral striatum has bounced back.
But biology and neurology aside, what really matters is that you will come alive. So follow the steps, and do the work.
It’s your joy, after all. It is yours to claim, and you must reclaim it.
Since it’s difficult to remember CEN in your childhood, it can be hard to know if you have it. I invite you to Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn more about how CEN affects your adult relationships, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Click Here to read the Duke study on Childhood Emotional Neglect.