Amy is exhausted. She works 60 hours a week because her boss keeps giving her more responsibilities and more people to manage. She finds herself running errands for her mom during her lunch hour, and was elected president of the local neighborhood association even though she never asked for the post. Amy knows she must stop putting everyone else’s needs above her own, but each time she tries to say, “No,” to someone who asks her for a favor, she immediately feels guilty. In the end, she always relents.
Brent moved his elderly mother into the apartment building next door so that he can take care of her as she ages. After doing so for several weeks he wonders how he can continue this in the long-term. He had hoped that spending more time with his mom might help bring them closer, but instead, he is realizing that he gets more disappointed and angrier every time he sees her. Brent knows this set-up is harmful to him, but he sees no way out. When he considers hiring a home health aid to take over some of the care of his mother, he is overcome by guilt and he does nothing.
Scott’s wife constantly gets on his case for his poor health habits. Scott loves fried foods and desserts, and even though he joined a gym, he seldom goes. Scott’s doctor tells him he absolutely must change his ways or he is headed toward problems with blood sugar and cholesterol. He struggles to do better, but each time he ends up sliding backward. Gradually, Scott is realizing that every time he tries to do something positive for himself, he feels selfish and guilty.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN happens when you grow up in a family that is emotionally blind. Your feelings exist under the radar because they are treated as unimportant, irrelevant, invisible and/or unwelcome. As a child, you learn how to ignore your own feelings and hide them from others, including yourself. As an adult, you live without access to your emotions. This has all kinds of negative and harmful effects throughout your life.
As I work with hundreds of folks who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), both in my office and in my online CEN Recovery Program, Fuel Up For Life, I continually hear from thousands of CEN folks who have read this blog, the Running On Empty books, or my website.
Most CEN people are struggling to reclaim and feel the feelings they pushed away as children growing up in their emotionally neglectful families. But there is one feeling that few of them have to work for. It’s a feeling that visits them freely and often, uninvited and unwelcome. It’s a feeling that stops them from moving forward, rearing its head at the worst possible times. It is, of course, guilt.
3 Key Facts About Guilt & CEN
- CEN people have a grave fear of being selfish. Much of the guilt of CEN folks stems from this fear. Scott, above, is a perfect example of that.
- Guilt is a major problem in most CEN people’s relationships with their emotionally neglectful parents. Since healthy separation/individuation from one’s parents, which we are all required to do, requires you to both say, “no” and put yourself first (before your parents’), CEN people’s guilt prevents them from healthy separation. This is the unfortunate situation for both Brent and Amy, above.
- Fun fact about guilt in general which applies especially to CEN folks: the people who feel the most guilty are typically the ones who actually have the least reason to feel guilty. This is, without a single doubt, true. People who do bad things repeatedly are seldom held up by guilt. It’s the ones who think deeply into things, question themselves, and care about others — in other words, CEN people — who end up feeling the most guilt. You can undoubtedly see how guilt becomes an unhelpful and unhealthy emotion.
In truth, guilt can hold you back from many of the steps that are required for healing your CEN.
To heal, you must start paying more attention to your own feelings and needs. But when you try to do this, your guilt can stop you if you let it.
To heal, you must begin the process of learning how to say, “No,” to others, express your own feelings, wishes, and needs, and ask for help when you need it. But as you speak up and advocate for yourself, you will likely view yourself as selfish and feel guilty.
To heal, it’s vital to work on beginning to interact differently with the central people in your life: your parents, your spouse, and your kids. As you practice using more emotion words with your children, voicing your feelings more with your spouse, and setting limits with your parents, you will have to acknowledge that you haven’t been doing it exactly right so far. Here, your guilt is likely to raise its ugly head and stop you.
How to Stop Your Guilt So You Can Heal Your CEN
Most healing happens like this: 2 steps forward, 1 step back; 1 step forward, 2 steps back. In other words, it is not a perfectly linear process. One must fight for one’s progress, and that is what makes it meaningful and valuable.
Above all, watch for your guilt and become aware of it. Recognize your guilt as a part of your CEN that requires attention and conscious management. When it raises its ugly head, remind yourself that healing is not something to be guilty of, but something to be proud of. Realize that putting yourself and your needs first is not a luxury. It’s your duty as a human being.
In other words, fight. Fight your CEN, fight your guilt, fight for yourself. If you can see the error of Amy, Brent, and Scott; if you can see what they should do, then you see what you must do.
Take on your guilt as you take on your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Now is your time to fight for yourself.
And you are worth it.
To learn much more about how guilt plays out as you work to heal yourself and change your relationships and to learn how to practice my 4-Step Guilt Management Technique, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children (link below).
CEN can be invisible and hard to remember so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free and you can find the link below.