Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): When your childhood home treats your own feelings like unwelcome intruders, you absorb a forever lesson (even if it’s never stated outright), “Your emotions don’t matter.” When you receive this message as a child, you naturally adapt. You wall off the deepest, most personal expression of who you are: your emotions, which are meant to stimulate, energize, direct and connect you. You go into your adulthood unable to feel enough, unaware of your feelings, and mostly blocked from them.
Does invisible, unmemorable Childhood Emotional Neglect leave its mark on you? It does.
Can it hang over your head through your entire adult life, interfering with your ability to feel, connect, engage, and enjoy life as you should? It can.
Is it possible to actually recover from the Emotional Neglect you grew up with? Yes!
But it is also true that CEN recovery takes work. And it’s also true that this work is harder for some than for others. In fact, the very symptoms of CEN have a way of blocking your recovery (more about that in a later blog).
During the last 8 years of working with emotionally neglected adults in my office and my online CEN recovery program, I have noticed that there are some healthy practices that are particularly healthy for CEN people to follow, seeming to literally smooth the path of recovery for them.
Of course, the 6 Healing Habits I will describe below are not automatic for CEN people or easy for them to cultivate. Each is, in its own way, a key part of CEN recovery. These are the things I teach and help my clients cultivate in themselves. If you have CEN, think of them as goals to work toward.
The 6 Healthy Habits of People Who Recover From Childhood Emotional Neglect
Noticing your own feelings
Growing up in an emotion-free zone, you had to wall off your feelings to cope. In this way, you were literally trained to ignore what’s going on inside of you. The most vital part of CEN recovery involves welcoming your emotions back into your life. So the first habit to cultivate in yourself is the habit of tuning in to your body. Being aware of your feelings and noticing when they come and go gives you the opportunity to listen to their messages, know yourself better, make more authentic decisions, and feel more valid. This healthy habit lays the foundation for your CEN recovery.
Listening to yourself first — and last
Being taught to ignore your inner experience means ignoring your own gut sense. This prevents you from learning whether you can trust your own judgment. You may automatically rely on other people’s opinions, ideas, and advice about you and your decisions. Or you may leave too many options up to chance, leaving your destiny up to the universe to decide. Cultivating this important habit means always consulting your own gut sense first, and then again last. In-between you may ask others, learn more, or research, but in the end, it’s on you. It’s what you decide for yourself based on what your body tells you.
Actively seeking enjoyment
A Duke University study by Hanson, et al. (2015) found that emotionally neglected kids go into adolescence with an important structure in their brains under-developed. It’s the ventral striatum, which is the area of the brain that registers feelings of reward. If your ventral striatum is a bit undeveloped, never fear. You can develop it now! This habit is actually rather fun to work on too. To cultivate this habit pay close attention to what you like, love, and enjoy. Then actively ask for it, plan it, and structure it into your life. Your brain can change and you can make it happen.
Overriding your impulses
Living your life disconnected from your feelings can leave your emotions unstructured, unprocessed, unmanaged and unruly. Your emotions may drive you to make decisions you shouldn’t make or make mistakes you will regret. And, when you do make a mistake, you are probably very harsh on yourself. The “habit” of overriding your impulses involves forcing yourself to do things you don’t want to do and stopping yourself from doing things you shouldn’t do. Purposely overriding your feelings in making certain choices trains your brain to be controllable. Learn more about how to practice this habit in the book, Running On Empty (link below in Bio).
Self-talk is a remarkable coping technique. This habit is well worth your time to cultivate and practice. It involves literally talking yourself through a painful moment, a scary challenge, or a difficult situation. You can repeat a mantra that you need to absorb, remind yourself what you’re capable of, or challenge negative thoughts. The possibilities are endless and must be tailored specifically to you. Here are some examples:
You can do this.
You are important and you matter.
You deserve to get your needs met just as much as anyone.
Speak up. Say it now.
Saying no (an expression of boundaries)
Saying, “No” is difficult for emotionally neglected folks. For you, it feels wrong, it feels selfish, and you assume you must justify yourself. But none of that is actually true. Saying no is your right under any circumstances, and the more you do it, the easier it will become. As you say, “No, I can’t help you with that.” “No, I’m not available.” “No, I don’t want that,” it starts to help you set your boundaries with people and it gives you the space to focus more on yourself, which is exactly where your focus must be to heal.
Some of these habits will be harder for you than others. I suggest you choose the one that seems the easiest for you and start with that. But try your best to keep them all in your mind each and every day. The more you practice each habit, the easier and more natural it will start to feel.
Noticing what you’re feeling and trusting yourself, talking yourself through tough moments, overriding and managing your impulses, and setting your boundaries. All of these habits work together to help you fill your own shoes and trust your own gut. And heal your own Childhood Emotional Neglect.