SINS OF OMISSION, EMOTIONAL NEGLECT. What Did Your Family Cook Up For Christmas? * Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect – Jonice Webb PhD.

Good enough parents, or chronic empathic failure?

When a parent effectively recognizes and meets her child’s emotional needs in infancy, a “secure attachment” is formed and maintained. This first attachment forms the basis of a positive self-image and a sense of general well-being throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Your parents’ failure to validate or respond enough to your emotional needs as a child has massive consequences, coming from the totality of important moments in which emotionally neglectful parents are deaf and blind to the emotional needs of their growing child.

There is a minimal amount of parental emotional connection, empathy and ongoing attention which is necessary to fuel a child’s growth and development so that he or she will grow into an emotionally healthy and emotionally connected adult. Less than that minimal amount and the child becomes an adult who struggles emotionally, outwardly successful, perhaps, but empty, missing something within, which the world can’t see.

Childhood Emotional Neglect has a tremendous impact on your ability to achieve happiness and fulfillment in adulthood. You’re feeling empty, disconnected, and different; as if you don’t actually belong anywhere.

It also wreaks havoc with your relationships with your parents and family in adulthood. The CEN adult feels so uncomfortable and empty with family not because of what’s there, but because of what’s missing.

This book is written to help you become aware of what didn’t happen in your childhood, what you don’t remember.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is the result of your parent’s inability to validate and respond adequately to your emotional needs. Childhood emotional neglect can be hard to identify because it’s what didn’t happen in your childhood. It doesn’t leave any visible bruises or scars, but it’s hurtful and confusing for children.

Symptoms of Childhood Emotional Neglect include:

Emptiness

Loneliness

Feeling something’s fundamentally wrong with you

Feeling unfulfilled even when you’re successful

Difficulty connecting with most of your feelings, not feeling anything

Burying, avoiding, or numbing your feelings

Feeling out of place or like you don’t fit in

Difficulty asking for help and not wanting to depend on others

Depression and anxiety

High levels of guilt, shame, and/or anger

Lack of deep, intimate connection with your friends and spouse

Feeling different, unimportant or inadequate

Difficulty with self-control (this could be overeating or drinking)

People-pleasing and focusing on other people’s needs

Not having a good sense of who you are, your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses

Sharon Martin, LCSW

What’s Your Family Cooking Up For Christmas?

Jonice Webb PhD

Do you look forward to family holiday gatherings, but then often end up feeling disappointed?

Do you dread family holiday dinners, but feel confused about the reasons why?

Do you feel guilty for avoiding or snapping at your parents at holiday gatherings, but just can’t stop yourself?

Do you feel strangely uncomfortable when you’re with your family as if you don’t belong there?

In my experience as a psychologist, I have come to realize that for every irritable, out-of-place, or disappointed person at a family gathering, there is a valid explanation for how that person feels.

I have also found that the explanation is often something rooted in childhood. Something that as an adult you can’t see or remember but is likely still happening to this day: Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to validate or respond enough to your emotional needs as they raise you. Adults whose parents failed them in this way in childhood typically have no awareness that this failure happened. A failure to validate or respond is not an action or an event. It’s a failure to act and a non-event. Therefore, your eyes don’t see it and your brain can’t record it. As an adult, you will likely have no memory of it.

Yet CEN has a tremendous impact on your ability to achieve happiness and fulfillment in adulthood. Growing up with your feelings unaddressed in your family plays out in your own adult life in some very important ways. But it also wreaks havoc with your relationships with your parents and family in adulthood.

Once you’re grown up, Emotional Neglect from childhood can make you resent your parents and feel uncomfortable with your family without you even realizing it. On top of all that, CEN can leave you feeling empty, disconnected, and different; as if you don’t actually belong anywhere.

There is no situation that immerses you in all of your CEN symptoms more than being at a family gathering. And this is especially true when it happens under the pressure-cooker of the holidays.

Chelsea

Chelsea fastened her necklace while simultaneously calling up the stairs for her 3 children to find their shoes and put them on. “We don’t want to be late to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for holiday brunch!” she yelled. As she gathered up the pie she’d made and the bottle of wine she was taking, she was confused by her own mood. She was definitely excited about the holiday and looking forward to the day, but there was also a feeling of darkness lurking in the pit of her stomach. “What is wrong with me? I’m 43 years old and I’m all over the place. This makes no sense,” she thought, angry at herself. She closed her eyes and commanded herself to just be happy and enjoy the day.

Jack

28-year-old Jack sat in his parents’ family room surrounded by his niece and nephew, siblings and dad. It’s their annual New Years Day family dinner. As everyone watches the children play, Jack is sitting very uncomfortably in his comfortable chair. Knowing he should be feeling happy and warm and loved, he’s never felt less so. He feels deeply uneasy and out of place as if he is among strangers. He feels unknown, invisible, and deeply bored. “What is my problem?” he agonizes.

Chelsea and Jack don’t know it, but they are both struggling to identify something in themselves that’s very hard to see. Their confusion and contradictory feelings do all make sense, and they have them for a reason. But in looking for answers they are both doing what people with emotional neglect usually do: they are getting angry at themselves for having the feelings they have because they can’t see what’s wrong. They are blaming the pain and deprivation from their childhoods on themselves.

The CEN adult feels so uncomfortable and empty with family not because of what’s there, but because of what’s missing.

What’s missing could be best described as three things:

The feeling that people are genuinely interested in you.

Questions about yourself and your life.

Meaningful conversations about interpersonal issues and the feelings involved.

So when Chelsea and Jack see their families now, it’s a sad continuation of their childhoods. Their parents do not ask them genuine questions about themselves or their lives, no one shows interest in their problems or genuine life experience or feelings. And no one talks about anything that really matters, like problems or conflicts or feelings.

What’s missing is what’s failing to happen, which is something Chelsea and Jack may never see because it’s been their reality from childhood. They can feel it but they cannot see it unless they stop blaming themselves for having negative feelings and acknowledge how their parents failed them.

What To Do Differently

Learn as much as you can about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) before your holiday event. This will help you see that this problem is real as well as understand how it’s affected you. Instead of trying to ban your negative feelings (like Chelsea did), do the opposite. Pay attention to them as important messages from your body trying to alert you to a real problem in your experience of your family. Think about how to protect yourself this year. For example, you may limit your time present at the event or bring a support person who understands CEN and your situation. You might lower your expectations or stick close to someone you’re most comfortable with.

Now here’s the thing. The power of Childhood Emotional Neglect comes from your lack of awareness of it. Once you see it, you can beat it. You can treat yourself differently than your family ever treated you. By caring about your own feelings and validating your own experience you can start protecting yourself.

And when you do you will experience your holidays in a very different way. And then you will see that it makes all the difference in the world.

Jonice Webb has a PhD in clinical psychology, and is author of the bestselling books Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationship. She currently has a private psychotherapy practice in the Boston area, where she specializes in the treatment of couples and families. To read more about Dr. Webb, her books and Childhood Emotional Neglect, you can visit her website, Emotionalneglect.com.

PsychCentral

Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

Jonice Webb PhD

Writing this book has been one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. As the concept of Emotional Neglect gradually became clearer and more defined in my head, it changed not only the way I practiced psychology, but also the way I looked at the world. I started to see Emotional Neglect everywhere: in the way I sometimes parented my own children or treated my husband, at the mall, and even on reality TV shows. I found myself often thinking that it would help people enormously if they could become aware of this invisible force that affects us all: Emotional Neglect.

After watching the concept become a vital aspect of my work over several years, and becoming fully convinced of its value, I finally shared it with my colleague, Dr. Christine Musello. Christine responded with immediate understanding, and quickly began seeing Emotional Neglect in her own clinical practice, and all around her, as I had. Together we started to work on outlining and defining the phenomenon. Dr. Musello was helpful in the process of putting the initial words to the concept of Emotional Neglect. The fact that she was so readily able to embrace the concept, and found it so useful, encouraged me to take it forward.

Although Dr. Musello was not able to continue in the writing of this book with me, she was a helpful support at the beginning of the writing process. She composed some of the first sections of the book and several of the clinical vignettes. I am therefore pleased to recognize her contribution.

INTRODUCTION

What do you remember from your childhood? Almost everyone remembers some bits and pieces, if not more. Perhaps you have some positive memories, like family vacations, teachers, friends, summer camps or academic awards; and some negative memories, like family conflicts, sibling rivalries, problems at school, or even some sad or troubling events.

Running on Empty is not about any of those kinds of memories. In fact, it’s not about anything that you can remember or anything that happened in your childhood. This book is written to help you become aware of what didn’t happen in your childhood, what you don’t remember. Because what didn’t happen has as much or more power over who you have become as an adult than any of those events you do remember. Running on Empty will introduce you to the consequences of what didn’t happen: an invisible force that may be at work in your life. I will help you determine whether you’ve been affected by this invisible force and, if so, how to overcome it.

Many fine, high-functioning, capable people secretly feel unfulfilled or disconnected. “Shouldn’t I be happier?” “Why haven’t I accomplished more?” “Why doesn’t my life feel more meaningful?” These are questions which are often prompted by the invisible force at work. They are often asked by people who believe that they had loving, wellmeaning parents, and who remember their childhood as mostly happy and healthy. So they blame themselves for whatever doesn’t feel right as an adult. They don’t realize that they are under the influence of what they don’t remember, the invisible force.

By now, you’re probably wondering, what is this Invisible Force? Rest assured it’s nothing scary. It’s not supernatural, psychic or eerie. It’s actually a very common, human thing that doesn’t happen in homes and families all over the world every day. Yet we don’t realize it exists, matters or has any impact upon us at all. We don’t have a word for it. We don’t think about it and we don’t talk about it. We can’t see it; we can only feel it. And when we do feel it, we don’t know what we’re feeling.

In this book, I’m finally giving this force a name. I’m calling it Emotional Neglect. This is not to be confused with physical neglect. Let’s talk about what Emotional Neglect really is.

Everyone is familiar with the word “neglect.” It’s a common word. The definition of “neglect,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “to give little attention or respect or to disregard; to leave unattended to, especially through carelessness.”

“Neglect” is a word used especially frequently by mental health professionals in the Social Services. It’s commonly used to refer to a dependent person, such as a child or elder, whose physical needs are not being met. For example a child who comes to school with no coat in the winter, or an elder shut-in whose adult daughter frequently “forgets” to bring her groceries.

Pure emotional neglect is invisible. It can be extremely subtle, and it rarely has any physical or visible signs. In fact, many emotionally neglected children have received excellent physical care. Many come from families that seem ideal. The people for whom I write this book are unlikely to have been identified as neglected by any outward signs, and are in fact unlikely to have been identified as neglected at all.

So why write a book? After all, if the topic of Emotional Neglect has gone unnoticed by researchers and professionals all this time, how debilitating can it really be? The truth is, people suffering from Emotional Neglect are in pain. But they can’t figure out why, and too often, neither can the therapists treating them. In writing this book, I identify, define and suggest solutions to a hidden struggle that often stymies its sufferers and even the professionals to whom they sometimes go for help. My goal is to help these people who are suffering in silence, wondering what is wrong with them.

There is a good explanation for why Emotional Neglect has been so overlooked. It hides. It dwells in the sins of omission, rather than commission; it’s the white space in the family picture rather than the picture itself. It’s often what was NOT said or observed or remembered from childhood, rather than what WAS said.

For example, parents may provide a lovely home and plenty of food and clothing, and never abuse or mistreat their child. But these same parents may fail to notice their teen child’s drug use or simply give him too much freedom rather than set the limits that would lead to conflict. When that teen is an adult, he may look back at an “ideal” childhood, never realizing that his parents failed him in the way that he needed them most. He may blame himself for whatever difficulties have ensued from his poor choices as a teen. “I was a real handful”; “I had such a great childhood, I have no excuse for not having achieved more in life.” As a therapist, I have heard these words uttered many times by high-functioning, wonderful people who are unaware that Emotional Neglect was an invisible, powerful force in their childhood. This example offers only one of the infinite numbers of ways that a parent can emotionally neglect a child, leaving him running on empty.

Here I would like to insert a very important caveat: We all have examples of how our parents have failed us here and there. No parent is perfect, and no childhood is perfect. We know that the huge majority of parents struggle to do what’s best for their child. Those of us who are parents know that when we make parenting mistakes, we can almost always correct them. This book is not meant to shame parents or make parents feel like failures. In fact, throughout the book you’ll read about many parents who are loving and well-meaning, but still emotionally neglected their child in some fundamental way. Many emotionally neglectful parents are fine people and good parents, but were emotionally neglected themselves as children. All parents commit occasional acts of Emotional Neglect in raising their children without causing any real harm. It only becomes a problem when it is of a great enough breadth or quantity to gradually emotionally “starve” the child.

Whatever the level of parental failure, emotionally neglected people see themselves as the problem, rather than seeing their parents as having failed them.

Throughout the book I include many examples, or vignettes, taken from the lives of my clients and others, those who have grappled with sadness or anxiety or emptiness in their lives, for which there were no words and for which they could find little explanation. These emotionally neglected people most often know how to give others what they want or need. They know what is expected from them in most of life’s social environments. Yet these sufferers are unable to label and describe what is wrong in their internal experience of life and how it harms them.

This is not to say that adults who were emotionally neglected as children are without observable symptoms. But these symptoms, the ones that may have brought them to a psychotherapist’s door, always masquerade as something else: depression, marital problems, anxiety, anger. Adults who have been emotionally neglected mislabel their unhappiness in such ways, and tend to feel embarrassed by asking for help. Since they have not learned to identify or to be in touch with their true emotional needs, it’s difficult for therapists to keep them in treatment long enough to help them understand themselves better.

So this book is written not only for the emotionally neglected, but also for mental health professionals, who need tools to combat the chronic lack of compassion-for-self which can sabotage the best of treatments.

Whether you picked up Running on Empty because you are looking for answers to your own feelings of emptiness and lack of fulfillment, or because you are a mental health professional trying to help “stuck” patients, this book will provide concrete solutions for invisible wounds.

In Running on Empty, I have used many vignettes to illustrate various aspects of Emotional Neglect in childhood and adulthood. All of the vignettes are based upon real stories from clinical practice, either my own or Dr. Musello’s. However, to protect the privacy of the clients, names, identifying facts, and details were altered, so that no vignette depicts any real person, living or dead. The exceptions are the vignettes involving Zeke which appear throughout Chapters 1 and 2. These vignettes were created to illustrate how different parenting styles might affect the same boy, and are purely fictitious.

Are you wondering if this book applies to you? Take this questionnaire to find out. Circle the questions to which your answer is YES.

Emotional Neglect Questionnaire

Do You:

  • Sometimes feel like you don’t belong when with your family or friends
  • Pride yourself on not relying upon others
  • Have difficulty asking for help
  • Have friends or family who complain that you are aloof or distant
  • Feel you have not met your potential in life
  • Often just want to be left alone
  • Secretly feel that you may be a fraud
  • Tend to feel uncomfortable in social situations
  • Often feel disappointed with, or angry at yourself
  • Judge yourself more harshly than you judge others
  • Compare yourself to others and often find yourself sadly lacking
  • Find it easier to love animals than people
  • Often feel irritable or unhappy for no apparent reason
  • Have trouble knowing what you’re feeling
  • Have trouble identifying your strengths and weaknesses
  • Sometimes feel like you’re on the outside looking in
  • Believe you’re one of those people who could easily live as a hermit
  • Have trouble calming yourself
  • Feel there’s something holding you back from being present in the moment
  • At times feel empty inside
  • Secretly feel there’s something wrong with you
  • Struggle with self-discipline

Look back over your circled (YES) answers. These answers give you a window into the areas in which you may have experienced Emotional Neglect as a child.

Part 1 Running on Empty

Chapter 1

WHY WASN’T THE TANK FILLED?

“…I am trying to draw attention to the immense contribution to the individual and to society which the ordinary good mother with her husband in support makes at the beginning, and which she does simply through being devoted to her infant. ”

D.W. Winnicott, (1964) The Child, the Family, and the Outside World

It doesn’t take a parenting guru, a saint, or, thank goodness, a Ph.D. in psychology to raise a child to be a healthy, happy adult. The child psychiatrist, researcher, writer and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott emphasized this point often throughout writings that spanned 40 years.

While today we recognize that fathers are of equal importance in the development of a child, the meaning of Winnicott’s observations on mothering is still essentially the same:

There is a minimal amount of parental emotional connection, empathy and ongoing attention which is necessary to fuel a child’s growth and development so that he or she will grow into an emotionally healthy and emotionally connected adult. Less than that minimal amount and the child becomes an adult who struggles emotionally, outwardly successful, perhaps, but empty, missing something within, which the world can’t see.

In his writings, Winnicott coined the now wellknown term, “Good Enough Mother” to describe a mother who meets her child’s needs in this way. Parenting that is “good enough” takes many forms, but all of these recognize the child’s emotional or physical need in any given moment, in any given culture, and do a “good enough” job of meeting it. Most parents are good enough. Like all animals, we humans are biologically wired to raise our children to thrive. But what happens when life circumstances interfere with parenting? Or when parents themselves are unhealthy, or have significant character flaws?

Were you raised by “good enough” parents? By the end of this chapter, you will know what “good enough” means, and you will be able to answer this question for yourself.

But first…

If you are a parent as well as a reader, you may find yourself identifying with the parental failures presented in this book, as well as with the emotional experience of the child in the vignettes (because you are, no doubt, hard on yourself.) Therefore, I ask that you pay close attention to the following warnings:

First – All good parents are guilty of emotionally failing their children at times. Nobody is perfect. We all get tired, cranky, stressed, distracted, bored, confused, disconnected, overwhelmed or otherwise compromised here and there. This does not qualify us as emotionally neglectful parents.

Emotionally neglectful parents distinguish themselves in one of two ways, and often both:

Either they emotionally fail their child in some critical way in a moment of crisis, causing the child a wound which may never be repaired (acute empathic failure)

OR they are chronically tone-deaf to some aspect of a child’s need throughout his or her childhood development (chronic empathic failure).

Every single parent on earth can recall a parenting failure that makes him cringe, where he knows that he has failed his child. But the harm comes from the totality of important moments in which emotionally neglectful parents are deaf and blind to the emotional needs of their growing child.

Second – If you were indeed emotionally neglected, and are a parent yourself as well, there is a good chance that as you read this book you will start to see some ways in which you have passed the torch of Emotional Neglect to your child. If so, it’s extremely vital for you to realize that it is not your fault. Because it’s invisible, insidious, and easily passes from generation to generation, it’s extremely unlikely and difficult to stop unless you become explicitly aware of it.

Since you’re reading this book, you are light-years ahead of your parents. You have the opportunity to change the pattern, and you are taking it. The effects of Emotional Neglect can be reversed. And you’re about to learn how to reverse those parental patterns for yourself, and for your children.

Keep reading. No self-blame allowed.

The Ordinary Healthy Parent in Action

The importance of emotion in healthy parenting is best understood through attachment theory. Attachment theory describes how our emotional needs for safety and connection are met by our parents from infancy.

Many ways of looking at human behavior have grown out of attachment theory, but most owe their thinking to the original attachment theorist, psychiatrist John Bowlby. His understanding of parent-child bonding comes from thousands of hours of observation of parents and children, beginning with mothers and infants.

It suggests, quite simply, that when a parent effectively recognizes and meets her child’s emotional needs in infancy, a “secure attachment” is formed and maintained. This first attachment forms the basis of a positive self-image and a sense of general well-being throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Looking at emotional health through the lens of attachment theory, we can identify three essential emotional skills in parents:

1) The parent feels an emotional connection to the child.

2) The parent pays attention to the child and sees him as a unique and separate person, rather than, say, an extension of him or herself, a possession or a burden.

3) Using that emotional connection and paying attention, the parent responds competently to the child’s emotional need.

Although these skills sound simple, in combination they are a powerful tool for helping a child learn about and manage his or her own nature, for creating a secure emotional bond that carries the child into adulthood, so that he may face the world with the emotional health to achieve a happy adulthood.

In short, when parents are mindful of their children’s unique emotional nature, they raise emotionally strong adults. Some parents are able to do this intuitively, but others can learn the skills. Either way, the child will not be neglected.

. . .

from

Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

by Jonice Webb PhD.

get it at Amazon.com

Also on TPPA = CRISIS

BEING THE BLACK SHEEP. COPING WITH A MARGINALIZING FAMILY – VINITA MEHTA PH.D., ED.M. * THE COMMUNICATIVE PROCESS OF RESILIENCE FOR MARGINALIZED FAMILY MEMBERS – ELIZABETH DORRANCE HALL

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