The Absence of Something is Not Nothing...
In this blog post, I want to credit Dr. Jonice Webb for coining the term “Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)” in her book, Running on Empty.
Have you ever heard of childhood emotional neglect (CEN)? It might make you think of a child who was not being dressed or fed properly, or being left home alone without supervision. While that may have happened, CEN is different from physical neglect. CEN is a particular form of neglect. But it’s almost invisible, because it’s about what didn’t happen in childhood.
When a child doesn’t have enough of their emotional experience acknowledged or validated, something happens inside the child that tells them that their feelings and needs aren’t important. The child absorbs this message, and it becomes an element in their developing self-image.
Consider the math here: A lack of attention to my needs and feelings plus the perception that I am unimportant equals something is wrong with me...
When the balance tips toward not enough attunement to emotional needs in childhood, the effects accumulate, and it’s likely there will be an impact in adult life. At the core of CEN, you learn to discount your emotions because no one else paid attention to them.
Why does this matter? Emotions provide the life energy that motivates action. Emotions help us to acknowledge our needs and evaluate the choices we face, and act in our own best interest. Emotions enliven our experiences and relationships, and deepen our connections with ourselves and others. When emotions are diminished, it takes the color out of life.
Many adults are going about their lives, successful in their endeavors – working, raising children, caring for aging parents, volunteering in their communities. Yet, something is missing. It’s difficult to put words to what that nagging feeling might be. It’s in the background, running constantly. It drags you down. You feel blue, melancholy. You may even call it depression, but it doesn’t stop you from functioning, even if functioning is a struggle at times. It could also show up as anxiety, with constant worry that things aren’t as they should be. And there seems to be no particular reason for the feelings you have.
There may be a voice in your head that says things like, “what do you have to complain about? You have a great life and wonderful family and friends.” It may say things like, “you’re a loser,” “you don’t matter,” or, “don’t bother expressing your needs or feelings because no one cares.”
You decide that this voice is just something you have to live with. It doesn’t have to be dealt with; it’s just the cost of being alive. It may even propel you to strive for more. You may think it helps you stay honest and motivated. What you don’t do is question whether it’s possible that this voice might not be telling you the truth.
So what happened? What is the cause of our silent suffering? With CEN, we didn’t get the quality of attention that we needed to affirm our true nature, leaving a big void in our sense of self. Our parents were too busy, too preoccupied, too self-centered or otherwise didn’t attend to our needs. It was most likely unintentional, as they couldn’t give to you what they didn’t have themselves. It isn't about blaming your parents, but it is about understanding what happened, or what didn't happen for you.
Childhood emotional neglect creates a lasting legacy. Something was missing for you, and the absence of that something is not nothing.
Stay tuned for how to overcome CEN.