I feel like I’m on the outside, looking in
Whoever I’m with, I don’t feel I fit in
I look fine, but I don’t feel fine
The first item on the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire (ENQ) is:
– Do you sometimes feel like you don’t belong when you are with family or friends?
I put that question first in the ENQ on purpose. Because it is one of the most centrally defining qualities of a person who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect.
At first glance, it doesn’t make sense. Why would a person carry around a pervasive feeling of being out-of-place? Of not fitting in? Of being on the outside, looking in? Especially when among people who love you? It’s a difficult to identify, difficult to name feeling; yet it can hold tremendous power over a person. It can make it hard to go to a social gathering, and difficult to stay very long. Perhaps you get irritable when you’re around other people and you’re not sure why. Perhaps you’re good at putting on a show to look like you’re having fun, but only you know that actually, you are not. Perhaps you are actually looking around at other people laughing and talking and appearing comfortable, and wondering what you are missing.
In over twenty years as a psychologist, I have heard many lovely people describe this feeling. They each use different words, but they all have one common factor which links them: they all grew up in a household with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
CEN happens when parents fail to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. When you are a child whose feelings are largely ignored, you receive an indirect, but very powerful message from your parents. That message is, “Your feelings don’t matter.” I have seen time and time again, that when children receive this message, they automatically adapt. They push their feelings down and away, so that they will not bother anyone. This may help the child survive, or even thrive, in a household that is not friendly to emotion. But in adulthood, it becomes a problem.
As adults, we need our emotions. Emotion is the glue that connects us to other people and the spice that keeps things interesting. When your emotions are pushed away, it’s hard to feel the emotional connection that binds people together at a party. It’s even harder to experience the spontaneous, happy synergy that occurs when people are truly fully present with each other. So instead, you are like a baker without yeast. You are operating without a key ingredient that everyone else has. And you feel it.
If you find yourself identifying with this, please remember that while the “On the Outside” feeling is a real feeling, it is not a real thing. The people you are with do not see you that way. They don’t see you on the outside. They don’t feel that you don’t belong. They want to connect with you and enjoy your company.
The best thing about CEN is that it can be overcome. Here are my Four Tips to overcoming, specifically, your “On the Outside” feeling:
- Become more aware of your “On the Outside” feeling. Notice when you feel it. Take notice of the power it has over you. Keep it in the back of your mind at all times. Remind yourself that it’s just a feeling.
- Once you’re more aware of the feeling, its source and its power, start to fight it. Force yourself to go to social gatherings, and constantly fight the feeling while you’re there.
- Tell someone (your spouse, a sibling, a good friend) about this feeling. Explain the source and your struggle. Ask that person for their support at family functions, parties and other gatherings.
- Address your CEN. It’s important to attack your CEN from all angles. One of the best ways to do this is to start working on accepting and feeling your own emotions more. The better you get at this, the weaker your “On the Outside” feeling will become.
Becoming more comfortable with your emotions is the hardest part of this process. If you find yourself mystified or daunted by this step, please read more about CEN throughout this website, or take a look at my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. In it, you will find information about parents and parenting, the unique struggles of people who grew up with CEN, and multiple strategies for healing from it in adulthood.
Once you realize what’s wrong, you are on your way to recovery. You’re on the path to a more connected, more comfortable, and more fully satisfying life.