“In order to move on, you must understand why you felt what you did and why you no longer need to feel it.” ~Mitch Albom
“Your feelings are valid,” said my life coach during one of our sessions, as we were working on an issue I had with my parents.
I had to do a double take. My feelings are valid? She actually accepts them as they are?
Eventually it started to dawn on me: My parents never validated my feelings. This sudden revelation earlier this year threw me into a dark period of my life.
When I was growing up, my parents criticized me for being “overly emotional” and “too sensitive,” and I never felt they truly accepted me.
My whole family shied away from expressing emotions, so I learned not to express or talk about my emotions either. I felt deeply disconnected in romantic relationships and often didn’t want to depend on others for help. Something felt completely off in my life, but I just couldn’t put my finger on what.
It wasn’t until I did more research and came across the term “childhood emotional neglect,” coined by Dr. Jonice Webb, that I started to fully understand my situation.
Childhood emotional neglect, or CEN, refers to a parent’s failure to respond to their child’s emotional needs.
Dr. Jonice explains that CEN is an act of omission—or something that is silent, missing, and not visible—that goes on in the background of a child’s upbringing. In fact, most parents have good intentions and often provide for their child’s material needs but are emotionally unavailable because they were neglected themselves—thus, resulting in a cycle of not being able to express emotions or respond to their child’s feelings.
So how do you know if you’ve experienced CEN? In Dr. Jonice’s CEN questionnaire, she asks questions like:
- Do you sometimes feel like you don’t belong with your family and friends?
- Do you have trouble knowing what you’re feeling?
- Do you have trouble identifying your strengths and weaknesses?
- Do you at times feel empty inside?
- Do you have friends or family members who complain that you are aloof or distant?
The more questions you answer “yes” to, the more likely you have been affected by CEN in those areas of your life.
After taking the CEN questionnaire and reading more about it, I realized that it described my situation perfectly.
Although I come from an Asian background that is generally known for not being expressive, I don’t want to live my life feeling wholly disconnected from myself and my emotions. But for a long time I wasn’t able to change this. It took me spiraling headfirst into anxiety and depression to find the courage to dig myself out of that proverbial black hole and fight back.
I started going for counseling and received more validation that my feelings and emotions should be unconditionally accepted, and that it was okay to express them to others. I learned, through role-playing exercises, how to communicate my feelings properly, without feeling ashamed for having them.
This continued to reinforce a new belief in me: that my feelings are valid and important, and so am I.
As I went through this inner discovery, I learned a few other things that have helped me recover from the effects of CEN.
1. I deserve self-forgiveness and self-compassion.
Because children and adults affected by CEN are often shamed for their feelings, it is important for them to learn how to self-soothe and develop compassion for themselves.
While I was going through my depression, I recognized that I was perpetuating the same behavior by shaming and guilting myself for my thoughts about my parents. I also blamed myself for causing my own pain all this time.
It took much awareness to notice these negative thought patterns and consciously replace them with more positive ones. Now, I choose to be kind to myself when I’m struggling. I validate my own feelings in the way I wish my parents once did.
2. My needs are important.
In addition to accepting my emotional needs, I realized that all of my needs—physical, mental, and spiritual—are important. To ensure I could better honor them, I made a list of my varied needs and now use this as a guide on how to live my life consciously.
I also learned how to communicate effectively when I need to stand up for myself instead of hiding from or running away from difficult situations. I learned that emotions are neither good nor bad; they’re just messages to inform me as I go about my daily life.
For example, I don’t need to feel guilty about feeling angry. Anger is just a sign there’s something I need to address, like a boundary violation or perhaps a miscommunication.
3. It’s okay to put my needs first.
If your parents neglected your needs when you were younger, you may think that they are not a top priority. In my case, it took a lot of relearning, and I often had to stop and ask myself, in relationships or work situations, am I not putting myself first?
I had to be careful to not martyr myself by agreeing to obligations, as this would lead to resentment and often, passive-aggressive behavior. I had to seriously consider whether I was actually saying yes to something because I wanted to or just agreeing because I wanted to please others.
4. I need to regularly tune into my emotions.
I use a simple body scan exercise every day that helps me recognize what I’m feeling. I listen to my body, and if any emotions or tension come up, I write this down, investigate what this really means, and see if I can find a way to meet my own emotional needs.
For example, if I’m sad or angry, I ask myself: How can I tend to those emotions myself? What do I need to accept, change, or address? It’s like do-it-yourself parenting in a way.
Slowly but surely, through the exercises above and counseling, I’ve become more conscious of my needs and emotions. I’ve started feeling more connected to myself, and I’ve opened up to other people. I now feel much freer and better able to accept myself and my emotions, and I find it easier to relate to others.
Often, the biggest challenge for those who’ve been affected by childhood emotional neglect is recognizing they’ve been subjected to it, since many people don’t even recognize how their childhood affected them.
When you have more awareness of your own situation, you can easily implement the above tips and get help from a professional to learn how to re-parent yourself, and also ensure you don’t perpetuate this unhealthy cycle with your own kids.