“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
— Henry David Thoreau in Walden
If I could ask Thoreau a question, the first thing I’d want to know is what he meant by the words “quiet desperation.” And secondly, I would ask him for his thoughts about why this feeling characterizes so many of the lives of humankind.
Because I have some thoughts of my own.
As a psychologist who has worked with hundreds of clients in my office, I have seen quite a lot of quiet desperation. I have realized that scores of people go through their days secretly feeling they are under a cloud, struggling to “be happy,” and blaming it on themselves.
Over time, the underlying cause of this quiet desperation gradually began to reveal itself to me. It was something I had never learned about in grad school and never read about in books. It wasn’t a diagnosis in the DSM or a complaint that my clients ever put into words.
Instead, I saw that it was a silent scourge that people from all walks of life were carrying forward from their upbringing. An invisible childhood experience that had left its mark on them yet remained unseen and unremembered through their entire adult lives.
I named it Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN and in 2012 I wrote the first book on the subject, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Since that day, thousands of people have sent me messages saying, “Thank you for giving me answers. Now I can move forward in my life.”
For years now, I have been working to cut CEN off at the knees. Since it gets most of its power from its invisibility, we must make every man, woman, and child aware of what CEN is, how it happens, and the enduring effects it leaves behind.
The level of relief that CEN people feel when they finally realize what’s been going wrong for them is beyond considerable. It’s like a tremendously relieving answer that is handed to you, allowing you to stop blaming yourself for not being happier, let go of bitterness and anger and blame, and start taking steps forward to change your life.
The first step toward realizing that Childhood Emotional Neglect has been weighing you down is understanding how it is possible that you never saw it before. I want you to know that there are some very good reasons why you haven’t.
3 Reasons You May Not Know if You Have Childhood Emotional Neglect
- Childhood Emotional Neglect isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something that fails to happen for you. In my book Running On Empty, I described CEN as the background in your family picture rather than the picture itself. That’s because a moment of CEN is not an event. Instead, it’s something like this: Your mom fails to notice how upset you are after school, ferrying to soccer without asking you if anything is wrong; your grandmother passes away and it is barely talked about in your family; your parents defend you against the neighborhood bully but fail to talk with you about the feelings of shame, fear, and weakness that plagued you for weeks and continued to stay with you. Our human brains are designed to record events as memories. Things that fail to happen go unseen and unremembered. Many who experience Childhood Emotional Neglect recall their childhoods as loving and supportive, never able to see or remember how their parents failed them.
- It’s hard to believe that feelings play such a major role in our lives. Just as parents tend to over-focus on their children’s behavior, largely missing the importance of the powerful emotions that drive that behavior, we all, as humans, underestimate and under-appreciate the depth and power of our feelings. We see our feelings as temporary, internal responses that don’t matter much. But, in truth, our emotions have a major influence over the choices we make, the connections we form, and our ability to please and fulfill ourselves. It is hard to grasp that the subtle ways our parents treat our feelings as they raise us could possibly play out over our entire lives. But it is indeed true.
- Emotional Neglect happens in even the most caring homes where everything is provided materially. Emotional Neglect happens in many different kinds of families. Some emotionally neglectful parents are depressed, some addicted, some narcissistic, and others working 3 jobs to support the family. But many, many emotionally neglectful parents are loving, caring, hardworking people who truly want the best for their kids. I have given these parents the name WMBNT Parents. They are Well-Meaning-But-Neglected-Themselves Parents. They themselves were raised by parents who were blind to emotions. So they grew up unaware of the world of feelings, both their own and the feelings of others. Raising you, just like their own parents, they were not aware of what they did not know. They inadvertently passed their own emotional blind spot down to you. Yes, they loved you. Yes, they cared. Did they teach you how to recognize your feelings? Did they validate your feelings as real and important? Did they walk you through the skills of tolerating and managing your emotions? No, they did not. Now, as an adult, lacking all of this knowledge and skills, you likely look back on your childhood and think it looks pretty good. Just like your parents, you are unaware of what you do not know. That is until you hear the words “Childhood Emotional Neglect.” Then, at last, everything clicks into place.
Growing up with your emotions ignored is a painful experience. But it’s a silent pain that speaks volumes, driving home a powerful message: “Keep quiet.” Left in a silent bubble of bafflement you must live your life pretending that all is well. You are sentenced to a life of quiet desperation. But don’t despair. There are answers!
If this article resonates with you, visit EmotionalNeglect.com and take the Emotional Neglect Test. Find links to the website, the test, and the Running On Empty books below.
You are at the beginning of a great journey.