Jackie has a hard time reading her husband Luke’s reactions to things. Is he happy or sad, disappointed, or proud? She often cannot tell.
Adrian wishes his girlfriend Steph would state her wishes more often. Where does she want to go? What does she want to do? When he asks her, she usually says, “Whatever you want is fine with me.”
Bonnie helplessly watches her wife Sarah skip the gym yet again despite having been told by her doctor that her cholesterol and blood sugar are high and that she needs to exercise every day.
When John tries to talk with his wife about conflicts he has with her family she waves it off and changes the topic. John is getting frustrated.
Bill is a well-respected and liked manager at his company with 14 people under him. But when two of his employees came to him with interpersonal conflicts that had to be addressed for them to work effectively together, they were surprised that he seemed to freeze up and become highly ineffective in the meeting.
Grace loves to hang out with her friend Sophie. She feels like Sophie knows almost everything about her and she can always rely on Sophie for understanding and advice. But strangely, Sophie seldom shares much about her own personal life or problems. Sometimes Grace wonders if Sophie ever has any problems at all.
What do Jackie, Adrian, Bonnie, John, Bill’s employees, and Grace have in common?
Let’s start with a brief quote from my book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
“Think of childhood as the foundation of a house. Think of adulthood as the house. It is certainly possible to build a house with a flawed foundation, and in fact, it may look exactly the same as a well-built house. Bit if the foundation is cracked, crooked or weak, it will not be an important source of strength and security. It’s not a noticeable flaw, but it could place the structure of the house itself at risk: one strong wind, and it comes tumbling down.”
Now, the answer to the question. What do these folks have in common? They are each close to someone who appears strong, and they each are surprised and perplexed when they glimpse the crack in their person’s foundation. They are each catching a glimpse of someone’s Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
When you grow up in a household that either disregards or discourages your emotions, you grow up without some essential ingredients that you will need to emotionally thrive in your adult life.
In short, you look fine and in many ways, you feel fine. Other people look at you and believe that you are fine. But you are not fine, your foundation was compromised in your childhood.
Realizing that someone in your life has Childhood Emotional Neglect can be monumental. It can help you understand them, help you communicate better with them and, in some cases, it can even help you talk with them about what is wrong.
If Someone Has These 6 Personality Traits, They May Have Childhood Emotional Neglect
- It’s often difficult to tell what they are feeling. Are they angry, sad, or hurt? It’s difficult to know.
- They are reluctant or unable to state their preferences. You find yourself trying to guess.
- They neglect their own self-care. You watch them neglect themselves without a thought to their own needs, or perhaps they struggle with it. Chances are high they blame themselves.
- They avoid conflict. You find it hard to get them to talk about problems or issues so that you can address them.
- They become acutely uncomfortable when other people are having strong feelings. They apologize for getting upset about upsetting things. They may try to change the subject or flee when someone becomes upset or cries.
- They don’t talk much about themselves. You wish they would share more but they seem to want you to do most of the talking. Or they do talk, but it’s not so much about themselves.
Children who grow up with their emotions disregarded, discouraged, or rejected learn how to disregard their own feelings. They virtually wall them off so that they will not “interfere” or burden themselves or anyone else.
Some may think this sounds like a great strategy, and in terms of getting through your childhood, in many ways it is. But you do pay a very high price.
You grow up disconnected from your feelings. This makes it hard to know what you feel, like, want, and need, and even when you do know, it may feel selfish and wrong or impossible to express it. Deep down, you feel less important, less valid, less deserving than everyone else. You are mystified by the world of feelings and are easily overwhelmed by them.
But you go through your life perhaps thinking that you should be fine, sometimes believing that you are fine. And sometimes, unbeknownst to you, people close to you catch a glimpse of what is missing and are perplexed by it.
What You Can Do if You Think Someone Has CEN
- Give them encouragement to express themselves. Make a point to tell them you are interested in knowing what they want, need, feel, and think. Ask them point-blank questions instead of expecting they will speak up.
- Offer extra support when a problem, issue, or conflict comes up. Understanding this is hard for them and why may help you have more empathy toward their discomfort.
- Depending on your relationship with the person, you may be able to talk with them about the concept of CEN. If they are interested, send them a link to this blog or a previous one that you think they may identify with. Or ask them to Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire (link below) or read the book Running On Empty (links to both below in my Bio).
- A mild warning. CEN folks cannot see their Emotional Neglect until they are ready so be careful about taking this on yourself. You can try to plant a seed of understanding but the rest is up to them. Ultimately, as an adult now, they must take responsibility for their CEN and how it affects them and the people in their life. Ultimately, it is up to them to heal.
Since those with CEN did not receive enough empathy and emotional education as children, they do not expect to receive it as adults.
Others may cherish glory or fame, but the CEN person is unique. When you are in a position to offer empathy, attention, and compassion to a CEN person in your life, you are giving them the best, most caring, most valuable gift of all.