I have lots of acquaintances, but not enough close friends.
I’m always there for my friends when they need me, but then when I need them they seem to let me down.
My friendships seem to gradually drift apart.
I usually feel drained after spending time with my friends.
I feel like people take me for granted.
I have heard the statements above, in various forms and combinations, expressed by hundreds of people. Those people all share one primary trait. They all grew up in emotionally neglectful homes.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents do not notice or respond enough to your feelings as they raise you.
CEN happens under the radar in many, many otherwise loving families. It also happens in obvious ways in many dysfunctional families, but since it’s subtle and essentially a “failure to act,” it usually gets upstaged by the more apparent dysfunctional events and actions in those families.
The result? We have legions of people walking through their lives being a good friend to others while deeply mystified about why their friendship is not returned in kind.
How Growing Up With CEN Affects Your Friendships Now
As a child, day after day you received a subtle message from your parents: your feelings don’t matter.
Growing up with the most important people in your life (your family) ignoring or squelching the most deeply personal, biological expression of who you are (your emotions), you have no choice but to adapt.
As a child, your brain walled off your feelings to “protect” you and your parents from them. This childhood coping mechanism, which was remarkably adaptive at the time, set up a cascade of future struggles for you.
That childhood wall is still there now. But instead of protecting you it is isolating you. It is blocking off the one ingredient most vital to having rich, mutually rewarding friendships. Yes, it’s your feelings.
Contrary to those CEN messages from your parents, your feelings are not your enemies. They are, in fact, your best friends. They will connect, enrich and deepen your friendships if only you begin to allow it to happen.
The 3 Most Impactful Effects of CEN On Your Friendships
- Along with undervaluing your feelings comes undervaluing yourself. You are giving too much, and asking for too little. This makes your friendships weighted in the favor of the other person.
- Your lack of access to your own emotions makes you seem somehow unknowable to others. Your friends can’t connect with the deepest, most authentic part of you: your feelings.
- You didn’t get to learn some vital emotion skills in your childhood that your parents should have been teaching you. This makes it hard to accurately interpret and respond to your own and your friends’ feelings, behaviors, and needs.
These 3 challenges may seem insurmountable as you read them, but I assure you they are not. I have seen many CEN people change their friendships from sparse and anemic to rich and rewarding.
And if they can do it, you can do it too!
3 Ways to Improve Your Friendships
- Force yourself to take up more space with your friends. Start by assessing each friendship for the amount of time you talk when you’re together vs. the amount they talk. Are you sharing enough? Start talking more until it’s 50/50.
- Focus on using the words “I feel,” “I want,” and “I think” at least once per day each. Using these words forces you to assert yourself in a way that you probably do not do naturally.
- Feel. This one may seem to be the least direct solution, but it is actually the most effective one overall. It involves beginning the first step of healing the effects of the Emotional Neglect you grew up with. It’s the simplest, yet most powerful thing you can do for your friendships. Begin to pay attention to your own feelings. Here’s how to do it:
Step 1: Make a recording sheet with each day’s date going down the left side of the page (or download the free Feelings Sheet from my website here: http://drjonicewebb.com/the-book/.
Step 2: Choose a time of day when you reliably have a few minutes alone; for example in the morning right before you go to work or school; on your drive home in the afternoon; or right before you go to bed in the evening. Commit to doing the following exercise every single day at that time.
Step 3: At the designated time every day, while alone, sit comfortably and close your eyes if you can. Turn your attention inward and ask yourself what you are feeling. If you come up with anything, write down the word for the feeling(s) on your sheet. If you’re not feeling anything, write that down too.
These 3 ways and 3 steps are all so very important. They will help you not only with your friendships, they will help you in so many other ways too. When you treat yourself as if you matter you begin to feel as if you matter.
Now here is a key point. The way you feel about yourself and treat yourself shows. Other people will start to see and feel that you are a person who matters. They will naturally treat you differently.
You will begin to draw people closer. You will realize that you are talking about substantial things that previously you would have avoided. You will find yourself getting what you want and need far more often. Gradually, you’ll notice that you are energized by your friendships, and supported by them.
By doing the direct opposite of those emotionally neglectful messages from your childhood, you may be surprised how very different you feel.
To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn how to repair Emotional Neglect with your partner, your parents and your children, see the new book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.