Nina sits across from me in my therapy office describing an incident that happened the day before at her parents’ house. She had tried to tell her parents that she was struggling in graduate school and could, if she does not improve her GPA, end up being suspended for her academic performance.
But each time Nina uttered a sentence going in that direction with her parents they immediately offered vague, vacant reassurances like, “You’ll figure it out,” or “Everything will work out fine, you’ll see,” and then changed the subject. Nina was, in the end, unable to tell them about her problems. It was clear to her that they did not want to hear it.
“I feel totally alone with this,” she said. “I feel like they assume that since I’m 22 years old, they are done with me. Obviously, I’ll need to figure this out on my own, just like almost everything else in my life. They have never been very interested in my struggles.”
This story may seem unremarkable to many. After all, Nina is in graduate school, she’s 22, and she has two parents. In many people’s minds, she probably seems very lucky. And shouldn’t a 22-year-old be able to sort this out on her own?
Well, yes, perhaps, depending on the specific 22-year-old. At the end of this blog, I will tell you how Nina’s situation worked out. But first, I want to tell you the most remarkable part of Nina’s story. It wasn’t her problems at school, her relationship with her parents, or her feelings about any of that.
The most remarkable part of Nina’s story was that the entire time she was relaying it she had a big, beaming smile on her face. Is this an unusual way for someone to relay a story that involves deep hurt from her parents and painful feelings of being alone in the world? Yes. Is it unusual in my therapy office where I see people with Childhood Emotional Neglect every day? Not at all. And there is a surprising reason for this. A smile provides the perfect cover for someone with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
Why People With Childhood Emotional Neglect Hide Behind a Smile
Growing up in a household that does not notice, validate, or respond to your feelings or emotional needs enough (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN) puts you, the child, in a near-impossible situation. You, the child, are required to hide the most deeply personal, biological expression of who you are: your feelings. You must hide them from your family, but there is really only one way to do that effectively. You must hide them from yourself.
Fortunately, many children are incredibly adaptive. They learn how to push their feelings down and sequester them away so they will not “burden” anyone. But this is almost always an incomplete process. Feelings are literally wired into every child from birth, so when you push them away, they do not go away. They simply go underground and dwell there, getting touched off and leaking through, often at times when you least expect it.
CEN children learn quickly and well that when they smile, it covers everything. No one is concerned about someone who is smiling. No one feels burdened by a smile. A smile is a way to instantly communicate, “I’m fine. All is well. Nothing to see here.” A smile hides your feelings from everyone you encounter and can be especially useful when you must discuss difficult or painful things. A smile also has another surprising benefit. It not only disguises your true feelings for the sake of others; it also allows you to hide your feelings from yourself.
When Nina was finished describing the experience she had with her parents, I said gently, “Nina, are you aware that you were smiling quite brightly as you conveyed that story to me?”
Nina looked surprised for just a moment, then the surprise turned to what looked like thoughtful concern. For just one quick second, her smile disappeared. This moment, I knew, was my opportunity.
I explained to Nina that I had noticed her smiling during other painful moments in therapy and that this is something I have observed before in other adults with CEN. I asked her to tell the story again while consciously preventing herself from smiling.
Then, an amazing thing happened. With no inkling of a smile, Nina took a deep breath and started to retell her story. As she did so, her tears started to flow. As she told the story, she began to feel her feelings. Her feelings reminded her of the layers of rejection and aloneness she had experienced in her family for years.
Finally, for the first time, in our eighth therapy session, Nina and I were able to talk about her parents, her family, her childhood, her feelings of aloneness, and her graduate school problems on a level that was real and significantly impactful. When Nina left her session that day, she said, “I don’t really understand what happened here, but I feel a lot better.”
The Physiology of a Smile and Why it Works
Since the 1990s, psychologists and neuroscientists have been studying the biology of the smile. A study published in 2019 by Coles, Larsen, & Lench analyzed the results of 138 studies on smiling and concluded that smiling actually affects our brain chemicals and lifts our moods.
So, in reality, Nina’s child brain had figured out something that has taken decades for scientists to discover: a smile is an effective way to avoid your true feelings.
Unfortunately, however, effective coping becomes an unhealthy crutch when it becomes a method of avoidance over your lifetime. Especially since smiling takes you away from the messages your body is continually trying to send you.
Over my next few sessions with Nina, we talked about Nina’s true feelings about her childhood and her parents’ lack of responsiveness to her feelings and natural needs for understanding and support. I was finally able to help her understand that her body was sending her messages to help her that she had been ignoring. Her body was saying, “Stop looking to your parents for support and guidance because they do not have it to give.” By finally feeling her feelings, Nina was able to see that she felt alone because she was alone and that she needed to find other sources for validation and support in her life. This was a major, positive turning point for her.
The Good Side of the Story
If you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, there’s a strong possibility that you are continuing the neglect you grew up with. Like Nina, you are likely using your smile to avoid the most valuable and helpful feedback system you have: your feelings.
Now, here’s the good news. A smile disrupts the connection between your body’s messages and your brain. So when you consciously stop yourself from smiling, as Nina did in our session, you are no longer blocked. Stopping your smile can offer you a more direct connection to this valuable feedback system you were born with.
To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens, how it affects adults and families, and how you can heal, see the books Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More (links to both books below).
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free. And you can find the link below, in my Bio.