Our childhoods are in the past. As adults, we must put childhood behind us and focus on the now. Right?
Today we know that our child selves live within us, and that the power of that child is remarkable. Our parents’ view of us as children is the way we view ourselves as adults. The way our parents treated us as children in large part determines how we treat ourselves as adults.
This child/adult connection has been proven over and over again by research. I see it every day in my psychotherapy office; and never more clearly than in the case of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
In CEN, the child is given a subliminal message, often inadvertently, that his/her emotions are irrelevant. This leaves a profound mark upon the child in adulthood. To see how this works, let’s look in on Zach as a child, and then meet up with him again twenty-three years later.
Seven-year-old Zach is a sweet, sensitive boy. His brother Collin, who is six, is a loud and boisterous type. He loves to poke and pinch Zach to make him cry. Today, it has happened again. He sneaks up on Zach, who is quietly playing, and pokes him in the ribs, hard. Zach howls. Zach and Collin’s mom is in the kitchen cooking and his dad is at work. Today she handles it the same way she always does. She calls from the kitchen, “Zach, you leave your brother alone!” Zach runs into the kitchen to make his case, but his mother is not interested. “I’m busy Zach,” she says. “You need to work this out with your brother.”
In this scenario, Zach’s mother has done nothing abusive or mean. She has done nothing obviously bad or memorable. This situation probably seems like a typical, everyday event in any household in the world. Indeed these types of incidents go on all the time, and typically they do no real harm.
But if this is how Zach’s parents handle things enough, and he receives this subtle but powerful message enough, he will grow up with the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Let’s take a look at what is actually happening in this seemingly everyday incident. Actually, Zach is being invalidated in multiple ways and on multiple levels.
- Zach’s smaller brother picking on him makes him feel helpless and angry. By not taking the time to notice what he is feeling, Zach’s mother gives him the message that his feelings –the most deeply personal part of who he is—are not valid or relevant.
Subtle Message: You are not valid or relevant to me.
- Zach’s mother assumes that Zach is the aggressor, not Collin, which shows that she does not see his true nature: that he is generally kind and sensitive, not an aggressive type.
Subtle Message: I do not see who you truly are.
- When Zach’s mom says, “I’m busy. Handle it yourself,” she is giving him a subtle, powerful, though unintended message.
Subtle Message: You are alone. Your problems and feelings don’t matter.
- Zach is left feeling lost in a sea of undefined emotion, misunderstood, overlooked, alone, invalid and invisible.
Now let’s look at how all of this will play out in Zach’s adult life if he is raised with enough of this type of parenting.
At age thirty, Zach is a likeable fellow. His kind nature is seen by all who meet him. But Zach cannot see this himself because he does not know his true self. He is sometimes baffled by others’ reactions to him. “Why do people like me?” he wonders. Although he is an outwardly successful man, Zach is not certain, deep down, that he is worth seeing or that he is worth knowing.
Zach is a stand-up guy who takes care of his wife and children, and they love him very much. Although he knows that they love him, he does not feel their love. No matter how much love Zach receives, inside he feels disconnected and alone. When Zach walks into a meeting at work or when he walks down the hall of his daughter’s school, he knows, deep down, that he walks alone.
Zach pushes his feelings down and away so that they will not trouble others or himself. He prides himself on his individuality, yet he seldom feels that he belongs anywhere. He feels disconnected but he does not know why. He does not know that he grew up with CEN and that he is living his life in its invisible grip.
If only Zach knew what he feels and why, he could get himself on the path to healing. He could learn that his feelings matter. He could realize that he matters. He could learn to see himself as others see him. He could realize that he is worth knowing and loving.
The world is full of people like Zach: stand-up folks who are loving and kind, but who cannot see themselves truly and clearly; people who live life in vivid color but who can only experience it in black and white; people who feel overlooked and unseen; people who matter but who feel that they do not.