In late 2016 the Red Cross conducted a research study on loneliness in Great Britain. Their findings stunned the world.
Approximately 1/5 of the population of the UK reported persistent feelings of loneliness. Other research has shown that chronic feelings of loneliness lead to physical ailments and shorter lifespans in the people who are living with them.
Fortunately, we now understand the importance and impact of loneliness. But this realization also raises some very important questions. What is causing this rampant loneliness? And how do we reduce the loneliness in the world?
As a seasoned psychologist and an expert in the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect, I do believe that I have at least a part of the answer to both questions.
Why? Because I have seen that growing up with your emotions ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN) is a direct cause of deep feelings of loneliness in scores of people. And I have seen that these deep feelings can endure throughout adulthood. You can end up feeling alone at the oddest times, even when you are among people.
What I have seen by working with CEN folks for the last 6 years is that when your parents under-respond to your feelings as a child, it’s as if they are, usually unintentionally, raising you to feel alone as an adult.
For many, the idea of growing up with your feelings under-responded to by your parents seems like it should be no big deal. But, in reality, there are ways in which this kind of upbringing undermines some of the key building blocks for forming rewarding connections and relationships with others. The effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect spread through the child’s adult years, leaving you feeling separate and apart, and also take a toll in other ways as well.
As you read below about how CEN sets you up to feel lonely, I hope you will feel the opposite of alone. I hope you will feel validated and hopeful because there are two very important and positive things about Childhood Emotional Neglect.
You are not alone with it. And it can be healed.
6 Ways CEN Makes You Feel Alone as an Adult
- Families who ignore or dismiss emotions tend to have few meaningful conversations. One CEN client told me that his family was great about discussing plans and logistics, but if someone got sad, angry or hurt, everyone in the household scattered. Talking about painful things is difficult, for sure. It requires practice to build the skills. So if meaningful conversations did not take place very much in your family, you may not have learned how to do it. Since the capacity for meaningful discussion is an important part of the fabric of a friendship or relationship, not having this skill makes it hard for you to have meaningful connections. This leaves you feeling alone as an adult.
- Children who grow up with their feelings ignored or discouraged automatically wall their feelings off to survive. As a child, pushing your feelings down and away helps you cope with the environment you’re growing up in. it enables you to stop troubling your parents with the “burden” of your feelings. But with your emotions walled off, you are lacking the one most important ingredient that connects human beings together: feelings. Lacking enough of this relationship “glue,” it’s hard to form the deep and resilient emotional connections that should be fulfilling your natural human needs for connection. As an adult, you feel separate and alone.
- When you grow up with your feelings ignored, you receive a subliminal message each and every day, “Your feelings don’t matter.” But since your feelings are the most deeply personal, biological expression of who you are, you naturally hear the message as, “You don’t matter.” Adults who grew up with CEN tend to feel, deep down, less important. You tend to put your own feelings, wishes and needs behind others’. Feeling and acting “less than” makes you feel you are living on a different plane, alone and apart from everyone else.
- Hidden in the CEN message that there is something wrong with your feelings is another message: that there is something wrong with you. Growing up with Emotional Neglect in your family leaves you feeling deeply flawed. This notion that you are flawed is one that you form in childhood and then take forward with you. It makes you afraid to let others get to know you, for fear that they will see that you are flawed. This keeps your relationships safe but unsatisfying. You feel distant.
- When you looked to your parents for emotional help as a child, as all children naturally do, you were repeatedly disappointed. Now as an adult this childhood experience leaves you afraid to look to anyone for emotional validation and support. Fearing disappointment at best or rejection at worst, you make sure that you take care of all of your own needs. “I can do it myself” is your constant mantra. But your fear of asking for help leaves you isolated and on your own. You feel alone.
- Childhood Emotional Neglect is often very difficult to see or remember. Even after you realize it’s at work in your life, it can be hard to explain it to others. This can leave you feeling like the only one who lives this way. You end up believing you are alone in your own secret struggles.
You are Not Alone
Did some of the factors above hit home for you? The remarkable thing is that you are in the good company of countless numbers of other fine people who feel the same as you.
Most are stand-up, solid folks who you pass at the grocery store, see at the office or share holidays with. They, like you, are no more physically alone than anyone else; they just feel emotionally alone. They don’t need to round up more people for their lives, they only need to deal differently with their emotions.
There is a way to begin to treat your feelings with more care. There is a way to learn the skills you need. There is a way to give yourself the emotional nurturing and care that you missed as a child.
And once you start down that path, there will be no turning back. Your life will become richer, your relationships deeper.
And you will feel alone no more.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn how to manage and use your emotions in a way that will make you feel less alone, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.