If I asked whether you were the victim of childhood emotional neglect (CEN), would you know how to answer? Probably not. CEN is often misunderstood and therefore, misdiagnosed.
Childhood emotional neglect means an individual was not provided the emotional support from parents and other adults that is required to grow up to be a confident person with a healthy self-esteem. Though a parent may never physically harm the child and provide them with food, healthcare, clothing and shelter, they may still emotionally neglect their child causing psychological harm.
I must say, that I myself definitely suffered from CEN. I was never taught how to speak up for myself, voice my feelings, or practice self care. Even when I tried to express how I felt, my feelings were invalidated. Growing up I always heard, “What won’t kill you will only make you stronger.” My response to that now is, well what about your spirit, mental health, and overall happiness. I definitely had the “Strong Black Woman Syndrome” where we are subtly taught that showing any sign of weakness was a no go. This style of thinking spilled over into adulthood leaving me very little to give to myself.
Symptoms of CEN
In her book “Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect”, Dr. Jonice Webb outlined some of the most common symptoms of CEN:
- Feeling numb or cut off from your own feelings
- Feeling like something has always been missing
- Feeling hollow
- Having a low self-esteem
- Having a hard time saying no
- Feeling the need to be perfect
- Being overly-sensitive
- Lack of self-care while taking care of everyone else
That last symptom is a biggie. Have you found that for most of your life, your needs always came second (if not third or fourth?). If yes, it’s time to recognize that your feelings and needs matter.
With this in mind, here are some ways you can begin to treat yourself better:
Take Baby Steps
You’ve spent years believing your needs didn’t matter, don’t expect that putting yourself first will come easy to you. It won’t. It will feel awkward and downright wrong to put yourself first. The important thing is that you take baby steps each day to show yourself you matter.
Ask Yourself What You Need
If you’ve experienced CEN, you’re most likely unaware you even have needs, so you probably won’t be able to identify them right away. Take some time to get to know yourself. Ask yourself what you need and be sure to listen!
You have a big and exciting journey ahead of you, one in which you will be exploring your inner world and getting to finally know yourself. This is going to require strength and energy. Be sure to avoid processed foods and opt instead for whole foods focusing on fruits and veggies.
Also, be sure to get plenty of exercise and enough rest. Adults generally require seven to nine hours of sleep each night, so don’t cheat your body. And avoid using the TV, computer, or your smartphone before bed.
Learn to Say No
Guess what? If you want to put yourself first more often, you’re going to sometimes have to say “no” to other people. Don’t feel guilty about doing this. Having boundaries is healthy. It’s not only your right to say no to others sometimes, it’s your personal responsibility. Set healthy boundaries.
As wonderful as your self-discovery journey will be, it will be fraught with bumps in the road. It’s important that you have someone who will support your efforts without judgements or criticism.
Consider seeking guidance from a professional therapist who can help you navigate your complex emotions and offer tools to manage stress in the future. A therapist will help you prioritize your needs moving forward and recognize your emotions and needs matter.
If you’d like to explore treatment options, please be in touch with me. I’d love to discuss how I may be able to help you on your journey. Remember you only have one you, and no one is going to do this work for you therefore stop expecting others to.