Last Monday I had the privilege of interviewing Dr Jonice Webb, bestselling author of the Running On Empty books. I was thrilled to talk with Dr Webb, since her pioneering work on Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) has impacted me both professionally and personally. This unprecedented video interview is a followup to our written Psych Central interview in July called What No One Ever Told You About Sex Addiction. In this video we both share our unique expertise, providing a relevant conversation on CEN and addiction recovery. I highly recommend this interview to anyone wanting to understand the long-term impact of their childhood experiences and what recovery can look like. May this interview deepen our healing from early life hurts as we all grow toward recovery and wholeness.
Please note: After having the audio professionally cleaned up, some distracting mic noises remain in the video. For this reason, I am including a transcript of the interview below the video:
Forest Benedict: Hello, this is Forest Benedict, LMFT and author of Life After Lust and today I have the great privilege of interviewing Dr. Jonice Webb, author of Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More. And just to share a little bit about who she is, she has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and has been licensed to practice since 1991. She’s the author of the bestselling books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and the newly released Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. Dr. Webb is a pioneer in the area of Childhood Emotional Neglect. She has been interviewed about the topic on NPR and her work has been cited or quoted in The Chicago Tribune, CNBC, Yahoo, Psychology Today, The Elephant Journal, and many other national and international media. She writes the popular Childhood Emotional Neglect blog on PsychCentral.com and is an expert partner and weekly blogger on YourTango.com. Dr. Webb trains Psychologists and Therapists on Childhood Emotional Neglect and how to heal it. She also created the groundbreaking Fuel Up For Life Childhood Emotional Neglect online recovery program. And so definitely grateful to have her here today.
And just for those that are watching I wanted to explain a little bit of the backstory as to how she and I connected. And so it was actually when I was writing my book Life After Lust that I had quoted her and used some of her materials as a resource because I’ve definitely seen a connection between Childhood Emotional Neglect and sex addiction. So I reached out to her and just asked for her permission to use that as a resource in my book. And she allowed me to, which I was grateful for.
Dr Jonice Webb: I was happy to.
Forest Benedict: I know, it was so great. I really appreciate that. And then I think the way it worked is I sent you a copy of the book and you liked it and invited me to do it’s kind of a dual interview on Psych Central “What No One Ever Told You About Sex Addiction.” So we talked more in-depth about this connection between CEN and sex addiction. And that was popular, it sounds like it was over 7000 views?
Dr Jonice Webb: Oh yeah, I think well beyond that.
Forest Benedict: Oh, awesome. Which is amazing to me. I think there is some talk of this but not as specifically as we’ve talked about. And so that’s pretty amazing to see. And I’ve since added your books Running on Empty and Running On Empty No More into our LifeSTAR program here in Fresno and I’ve found them to be incredible resources for the people that I work with. And personally. You know I feel like I definitely relate to this on a personal level. So anyways that’s kind of how you and I connected. Anything you would add to that as far as how we’ve been able to connect and collaborate?
Dr Jonice Webb: Well I think we have some overlap in our followings and the people who follow your work and people who follow my work. And it’s been really nice to introduce my people to your work and your people to mine. I think it’s just been a really positive collaboration all the way around for everybody. So, I’ve really appreciated it.
Forest Benedict: Yeah, definitely. And I think it’s great too because looking at your book, obviously it doesn’t address sex addiction directly, but when we talk about the origins of sexual addiction, or probably really every addiction, that those that have experienced Childhood Emotional Neglect really are made vulnerable to all types of addictions. So in that sense it really is an essential topic to explore. And so I really appreciate you.
Dr Jonice Webb: Thank you. Same here.
Forest Benedict: So, just for those that maybe aren’t familiar with the term CEN or what that’s about, can you explain what that means? CEN?
Dr Jonice Webb: Absolutely. So, CEN means Childhood Emotional Neglect and it essentially happens to a lot of people who have no idea that they grew up with it. Basically, all it is is when you grow up in a household where feelings are not responded to enough, they’re not noticed, like as a child your feelings are not really treated as if they matter. And that can be because your parents are too busy, because they’re too self-focused, because they’re struggling themselves, or because this is how they were raised, which is actually the largest number of parents. But if you grow up with your feelings treated as if they’re kind of irrelevant or don’t matter, you grow up to treat your own feelings that way. Essentially, you have to wall off your feelings as a child. Your brain does this for you just as a coping mechanism. It walls off feelings so that your feelings will not bother your parents and your family and yourself. And then you grow up lacking this vital resource that helps us all have a happy life and a healthy life and thrive, and that is your emotions. You lack that contact with your emotions that you really need to have. And that’s what Childhood Emotional Neglect is.
Forest Benedict: I would imagine that that would lead to a lot of problems as an adult. As a child it may feel like this is normal. You know, this is the way we deal with feelings or don’t deal with feelings. What would be some of the affects of that into adulthood?
Dr Jonice Webb: As you grow up without access to your feelings you can have this…the reason I named both of my books Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More is because of the empty sense that you grow up with. It’s a feeling like something is missing and you’re a little bit different than other people. You feel a little bit left out wherever you are and like other people have something that you don’t have, but you have no idea what it is. A lot of people struggle to even put what I just described into words, they just feel it. In addition to that because you’re lacking your feelings, you have trouble connecting with people in a rich and meaningful and deep way, the way that emotions…you know, emotions are what make connections and so when the emotions are not there enough, it’s hard to connect enough. So you can end up feeling kind of empty and alone and directionless or having trouble finding your way just because your emotions should be directing you, motivating you, and driving you and they’re walled off. So those are the main parts of it.
Forest Benedict: Yeah, I found that a lot of people that I work with, people that deal with sexual addiction, they already have a sense that something’s wrong with them. They already have this deep sense of shame, that something’s broken within them, something’s uniquely flawed in them. And so it sounds like what you’re saying is that maybe some of this feeling could could be more than just due to the addiction and the choices they’ve made but really goes much earlier than that into childhood.
Dr Jonice Webb: Yes. Absolutely. I think most people who develop addictions, many of them had very loving well-meaning parents, some of them didn’t, but many of them did. And it’s a puzzle, how did this person get this addiction? And it’s because this sort of emptiness inside of them is pulling for something to fill it. And you can fill it with food, you can fill it with shopping, you can fill it with gambling, you can fill it with time spent online, you can even fill it with Netflix. You can fill it with all kinds of things but it’s really just the essential lack of your emotions that you’re trying to make up for and cope with.
Forest Benedict: So is it kind of like through doing those experiences, you feel something? Like people that use pornography addictively, it does make you feel things, right? Is that part of what it is? This experience, even though it’s unhealthy and addictive is actually helping me feel something?
Dr Jonice Webb: Yes, absolutely. In Running On Empty I talked about one person who used skydiving to get a sense of a thrill or some kind of emotion. And people don’t even realize that they’re seeking a feeling, that they’re trying to fill themselves with, they’re trying to just feel something.
Forest Benedict: That does make a lot of sense. When I think about the recovery process, I already conceptualize recovery from an attachment perspective and that the deficiencies in attachment and connection really do make people vulnerable to addiction, like we’re talking about. So, the language I use is “self-connection.” It sounds like these people that have CEN lack self connection and that it can really lead to disconnection with other people and themselves and lots of unhealthy types of behaviors to try and fill that lack of connection.
Dr Jonice Webb: Yeah, exactly. And that was the reason I wrote my second book Running On Empty No More because it’s really about once you start to recognize that you have emotional neglect in your childhood you realize that you’re having trouble connecting with people and they’re having trouble connecting with you because they can’t connect in with your feelings and it keeps the relationship either one way or shallow or unrealized in its potential, I guess you could say.
Forest Benedict: And that’s why I’m so grateful that you wrote that second book because I think what happens to people when they read Running on Empty is they’re like “Wow, how does this play out?” Running On Empty is great and you could tell me if this is how you see it but I’d say Running On Empty is more of how do I heal and connect with myself and then Running On Empty No More is how does this apply to my relationship with my parents and my kids and my partner. Is that how you look at it?
Dr Jonice Webb: Yes, that’s 100% accurate.
Forest Benedict: Okay, cool. And we could feel so lost in how to do that. I mean obviously once we realize CEN is a problem we’re like, “Okay, how do I talk to my parents about this in a way that’s…I know you don’t intend for us to blame our parents…this could stir up quite a bit of anger towards our parents.
Dr Jonice Webb: Some people deserve blame though.
Forest Benedict: Can you share more about that?
Dr Jonice Webb: Parents who really are just bad parents because they either don’t care or they’re too self-involved. I’m really not against people blaming their parents when their parents deserve it. A lot of people who have CEN have it because their parents grew up this way too. Their parents grew up with their parents under responding to their emotions and so they are kind of blind to the emotion world and so they don’t see their children’s emotions just like they don’t see their own. Those parents I don’t think deserve blame. They’re just doing the best that they can with what they have. So, there’s two different groups there.
Forest Benedict: Yeah, that makes sense. And so your book guides people through how respond to parents in both of those scenarios?
Dr Jonice Webb: Yeah. I talk about the three different kinds of parents, which are, first, the self-involved. The second group are struggling and those are people who are struggling financially or taking care of a family member or depressed or something like that but really trying to be a good parent but just don’t have the bandwidth. And the third group are the ones I just talked about, the parents who were neglected themselves as they were growing up. And depending on which of the three groups your parents fall in, you may or may not decide to try to talk with them about it. And of course the first group, the self-involved, are the hardest parents to try to talk with. These are all different kinds of considerations take into account.
Forest Benedict: Yeah, that makes sense. And these will be very difficult conversations to have for most of us, trying to talk about something that was never talked about. And so it’s so helpful to have your book and obviously some people will need more help than that, maybe be getting into therapy with a CEN therapist.
And what about talking to your kids or maybe you don’t talk about it but how does this relate to parents? I certainly am very aware of this as a parent. I really don’t want to do the same thing to my kids. I am already aware of this as a father and a therapist. How do I make emotion a topic of conversation and learn to respond to them in a way that won’t emotionally neglect them?
Dr Jonice Webb: It depends on what age the kids are. There are certain things that you can apply to all age kids from the smallest to adult children even. Those things that you can do are to ask more questions. Initiate more contact, whether it’s just talking with them or calling them. And using more emotion words. That fits with every age group. You can do it with toddlers. You can do it with adults. Just keeping emotion words in mind and trying to use them more is a way to connect and start introducing that concept of feelings into the relationship.
Forest Benedict: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense and it definitely feels like you would need to have done some of your own work first. How can you see your children’s emotions if you don’t even know what your own emotions are. Is that what you see, that people really do have to start with their own work, start naming their own emotions before they can start to see those in other people?
Dr Jonice Webb: Any parent should be aware of what they’re feeling and if a parent lacks that ability…the better you get at being in touch with yourself, the better you’re going to be in touch with your child. They just go hand in hand.
Forest Benedict: I’m sure that would also apply to your partner. If you’re in a relationship with someone, the more you can connect with your own feelings and even name them, then you can communicate them better to your partner and also see their feelings and respond to them. The type of therapy that I would recommend to people would be EFT (Emotion Focused Therapy) or something that helps them learn how to attach, learn how to deal with this scary and undefined realm of emotions.
Dr Jonice Webb: Yes. Absolutely. And sometimes with couples I will give, because I see a lot of couples in my practice, I’ll give them a worksheet to take home where they guess what their partner is feeling at certain times during the day. When they advance enough they can start checking with their partner and see if they were right. As long as they’re both doing it, they can educate each other really quickly about what’s really going on and it can be incredibly connecting and helpful.
Forest Benedict: That sounds really really helpful to have an exercise like that where you’re learning how to do this. Have you found that people with CEN have difficulty engaging in this process? Realizing, “Wow. I want to work on this. I realize that this is an issue.” It seems like there would be shame about it, like “Oh man, what’s wrong with me?” Or have you found that people are more taking ownership and deciding “Hey, I really do want to change this.”
Dr Jonice Webb: I think it varies a lot. And part of it, if there are any therapist’s watching this, part of it is how you introduced it to your clients. But I think really important factors that help people want to deal with this are the fact that it’s not their fault, they didn’t choose emotional neglect. They need to stop blaming themselves. And also the fact that it’s not an illness, it’s not like a disease. It’s just a lack of connection with your emotions and a certain lack of skills, which are the emotions skills, and all of that can be fixed, so it’s completely fixable. This is why I wanted to write this second book because I wanted people to see exactly what it’s like when an individual or couple or family is healing from emotional neglect. Because when you can see how much you have to gain it’s very motivating.
Forest Benedict: It sounds like through self-connection and through connecting with others, the process brings you to life. Once you feel emotion and see it and begin to connect with people, it seems like that would be profound.
Dr Jonice Webb: It is. I liken it to watering a plant that has been without water, like not quite enough water its whole life, and then you start adding the right amount more and more. The more water it gets the more it just kind of fills out and becomes what it should be. And I’ve watched people go through that so many times it’s just amazing and wonderful. It’s energizing.
Forest Benedict: It must be very fulfilling work when you see people engage in the process and actually begin to enjoy their lives more.
Dr Jonice Webb: Yeah. So do you talk with your clients about CEN and do you have problems getting them to connect to the idea and want to work on it? Because I would expect that you would.
Forest Benedict: Well, I use your book. I let you explain it through your book. I give them questions as a way to engage with your book. But it’s definitely difficult. I don’t know if this is actually answering your question but I find that it ruins their childhood, or their view of their childhood, but in the best way. In a way that they need to see in order to get the healing that is to come. So again, I let you introduce it through your books and then I definitely engage them in the conversation. And then the processing of how this applies to them and then how how they can use this information to recover.
I do think that the people that take this seriously and really see recovery from an attachment standpoint and realize, “Okay, recovery isn’t just me stopping the unhealthy behaviors but recovery is me connecting with myself, with my partner, with my Higher Power. That connection really is the opposite of addiction. That’s really what the healing is about. And that’s profound. That really is what recovery is about.” The clients that grab hold of that idea and understand it really do get the deepest healing.
Dr Jonice Webb: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense.
Forest Benedict: Any therapist watching this, especially those dealing with people struggling with addiction, especially sexual addiction, should definitely use your books as a resource. And don’t you have training for therapists as well?
Dr Jonice Webb: Yeah, I have a training on GoodTherapy.org which people who are a member can watch for free. And that’s a two hour training and then in June I’m going to be doing a CEN recovery retreat at Kripalu Retreat Center in western Massachusetts. And that is for laypeople and therapists and it offers continuing education credits for social workers and psychologists.
Forest Benedict: Okay, that’s great. I feel like I understand the concepts. But I also would benefit from the training as a therapist. I’m certain I would also benefit from doing my own work in this area because I definitely relate to that on a personal level as well.
Dr Jonice Webb: I think a lot of therapists grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect and it led them to become therapists because they grew up feeling like what’s missing, something’s wrong. And then they started discovering what it was by going into the mental health field. And then they end up finding this CEN topic and saying “Yes! That’s it!” It fits together.
Forest Benedict: Yeah. That makes sense. That’s awesome. And that would be so essential for a therapist to do their own work in this area. There’s definitely times when I feel overwhelmed by the client’s emotions and if I’m not really aware of my own emotions and able to connect with them and not feel like their emotions are bigger than me. That’s a pretty big deal for a therapist to have done their own work and to not be intimidated by the client’s emotions.
Dr Jonice Webb: It is, yes, a very big deal. I agree.
Forest Benedict: Great. Well, thank you so much for sharing. That gives a really good, broad perspective on what CEN is and what the healing can look like. Is there anything else that we didn’t touch on that you think people exploring this topic should really be aware of?
Dr Jonice Webb: Yes. If someone is watching and wonders if Childhood Emotional Neglect could have happened to them, which is possible because it’s so unmemorable and so invisible. So it’s hard to know. I created a questionnaire called the CEN Questionnaire, and it’s on my website, that anyone can take. It’s free. You just sign up and it joins you to my newsletter. And also you can take the questionnaire for free at your convenience. And that’s at EmotionalNeglect.com.
Forest Benedict: That sounds like a great resource. I’m sure I’ve taken that questionnaire. So if people are watching this and even if they don’t think this applies to them, it probably would be good to just explore and see if it might be a possibility that it’s part of their experience. So, you mentioned some of your resources. Where can people follow you or where can people read more of your work. Obviously we’ve mentioned both books but what else is there that you’re providing that people could be aware of?
Dr Jonice Webb: Well, there’s a lot of information on my website EmotionalNeglect.com. There’s my Childhood Emotional Neglect blog on PsychCentral.com. Also, I’m a partner with YourTango.com so I also have a blog on that website as well.
Forest Benedict: Okay. And you’re on Facebook as well, right?
Dr Jonice Webb: Yep, I’m on Facebook, I’m on Twitter, and my handle is @jwebbphd, and LinkedIn. I’m all over the internet.
Forest Benedict: One thing I’ve noticed is you create tons of content all the time. I do that too. I create a lot of content and so I appreciate that about you and I think you’re making a huge impact. I know that we often don’t see all of the results of the stuff that we do online and whatever else. But I hope you trust that you are making a huge impact in the world.
Dr Jonice Webb: Well, thank you. Thank you very much for saying that. I appreciate it.
Forest Benedict: And I keep sharing your stuff all over the place. I will continue being a Superfan and continue to share with the world the things that you’re creating.
Dr Jonice Webb: Thank you so much.
Forest Benedict: It’s my pleasure. Anytime I find a resource that I think is helpful to clients and other people, it’s meaningful to me to get that out into the hands of the people that need it. Again, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your expertise in this area. I look forward to sharing this with those that need it. It’s been great talking with you. It’s an honor. I wish you the best as you continue getting the word out about your books and the work that you’re doing.
Dr Jonice Webb: Thank you Forest. And I wish all the same for you.
Forest Benedict: Thank you.
Dr Webb’s resources:
Dr Webb’s Life After Lust review:
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Wishing you all healing and wholeness.