If you already know something about Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN and how it affects adults you may expect this article to be about guilt or shame. And indeed, despite having their feelings virtually walled off and inaccessible, most CEN people are still burdened by a pretty heavy dose of both of those two feelings in their everyday lives.
But there is one other feeling that also manages to break through CEN folks’ protective “wall” often. Most CEN people are not aware of this feeling, have never named it for themselves, and are frequently driven to act by it in ways that are not good for them. I am talking about the feeling of being responsible. Yes, “responsible” is a feeling!
I have noticed that the feeling of responsibility runs rampant in CEN adults. Some CEN folks feel so concerned that their friends are having fun at an outing that they are unaware of whether they themselves are having fun. Many CEN people become the “go-to” person at work because they are quick to take on more responsibilities with little thought about themselves. CEN people are automatic caretakers who others find it easy to rely upon.
So what makes it so natural for CEN folks to feel responsible? First, a word about Childhood Emotional Neglect, what it is and what it’s not.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)
CEN is not a form of childhood abuse because it is far more subtle than that. In fact, it is best described as an absence of something. It’s an absence of emotional awareness in your childhood home.
Growing up without emotional awareness may seem insignificant to many. But CEN is actually somewhat of a “gaslight” of the child. It is a mind-altering experience.
Our emotions are literally wired into us from birth. They are a valuable internal feedback system that motivates, energizes, directs, informs and connects us. A child’s feelings are also the deepest, most personal, biological expression of who they are. Imagine how confusing it is when your parents act as if yours are unacceptable or don’t exist.
As a child growing up in a CEN family you have no choice you must cope with the requirement to show no feelings. Like other children in this situation, you must push your feelings down and away so they will not bother anyone. You wall them off.
How CEN Makes You Feel Too Responsible For Everything & Everyone
In my first book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect I outline 10 Characteristics of CEN adults. But to understand why people with CEN feel such a deep sense of responsibility we will focus specifically on 4 special ones below.
- Lack of awareness of self and own feelings and needs: With your feelings walled off from childhood forward, it is difficult to know yourself as an adult. Your emotions should be informing you about what you want, enjoy, dislike, and need. But with your access to that rich source of data blocked, it’s hard for you to know any of that.
- Outer focus on others: Growing up in an emotionally blind family required you to turn your attention away from inside and to instead direct it toward outside. You become an astute observer of other people. You see their needs and wants much better than you are able to perceive your own.
- Feeling invalid or less-than: Going through your adult life with incomplete access to your anchor and rudder (your emotions) makes you vulnerable. It’s hard to believe that you are as important as other people or that you matter as much as they do. This may lead you to automatically assume a one-down position in friendships, relationships, and maybe even work relationships.
- Exceedingly self-contained and competent: Growing up with your feelings and emotional needs thwarted taught you one highly valuable thing: how to take care of things. CEN people are skilled at that; they are exceptionally capable folks. Loathe to ask for help themselves they are, paradoxically, quick to give it to others. “You have a problem? I can solve it,” is a typical stance.
These four lingering effects are all at work in the life of the CEN adult. Like four separate streams they flow together to form a river of responsibility that runs through you.
Under-focused and under-aware of your own feelings and needs, acutely aware of others, who seem more important to you, combined with amazing problem-solving and self-care skills, you are literally set up to feel overly responsible for other people’s happiness, comfort, health, success or satisfaction.
How to Feel Less Responsible
- Redirect your focus inward. Start paying attention to your own feelings and needs. The more you become aware of your own the less room you will have for others. This will begin to balance the scales back where they should be.
- Learn to say no. This is one of the prime skills of assertiveness, which is notoriously hard for CEN people. It may feel wrong to refuse to do someone a favor but it’s not. Learning how to say no, plus accepting that it’s a healthy thing to do will be a good start toward setting limits on your excess of responsibility.
- Accept that you are your own first priority. You learned the opposite in your childhood, and this makes it difficult to embrace as an adult. But it is true! Everyone else in the world is putting their own needs and well-being first, as they should. It’s your job to make your own needs your #1 consideration.
Your childhood sent you up with certain patterns, yes. Through the unspoken rules of your childhood home, you learned to feel — and be — responsible. You can take this great strength and, like a powerful light, turn it away from everyone else and shine it upon yourself.
You deserve the attention. You deserve the care. You are responsible for making sure that your feelings, your needs, and your wishes are known and considered. First, you know and consider them yourself. Then, others will follow.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take the Emotional Neglect Test (link below). It’s free.
To learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect (link below).
To learn how to address the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in your family, connect with your spouse and parents, and emotionally validate your children, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships (also link below).