Childhood Emotional Neglect: Man vs. Woman

“CEN people, both men and women, are exceptionally likable folk. This is part of the tragedy of CEN. These are some of the most lovable people in the world, and yet they feel the most alone.”

I often get asked whether Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) affects men and women differently. My answer is,  “yes, it does.” Although the essential effects are the same, some of those effects tend to play out differently in men than in women.

In Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect I tried to represent both genders in my descriptions, examples and vignettes. Before I talk about this more, I need to mention one large caveat. The differences that I’ve seen between CEN men and women are general descriptions that do not apply across-the-board. I often see the masculine effects in women and vice-versa. Since there is significant crossover, please don’t take these differences too firmly or stringently. And definitely do not think there is something wrong with you if you fit more neatly into the opposite gender. It does not indicate a problem of any kind.

As you look over the table below, you may notice that the differences are not very surprising. In recent years, neuroscientists have found that men have more connections in their brains from front to back and within each hemisphere than women, making them more suited to perception and coordinated actions. Women, on the other hand, have more connections between the hemispheres. This gives women an advantage in the areas of intuition and interpersonal processing. You can see the abstract of the study HERE.

TABLE OF CEN GENDER DIFFERENCES 

Adult CEN Characteristic Women Men
 
Emptiness or numbness Attempt to fill selves with other people and their needs Seek adventure to feel something or isolate themselves
Counter-Dependence Seek to fill others’ needs in place of their own Fervently embrace and pride themselves on independence & competence
Little Compassion For Self Harsh judgments drive down self-esteem Harsh judgments become pressure to be “the best,” often at work. May become driven.
Fatal Flaw Feel unlikeable or unlovable Feel invisible and overlooked
Struggles With Self-Discipline Self-care suffers: eating, exercise, sleep and rest May become overly or compulsively self-disciplined at times
Alexithymia May learn the language of emotion but it’s hard to apply it to themselves Emotions go underground and come out as irritability
Self-Directed Anger and Blame Anger is directed at themselves and may turn into depression Anger is more likely to also be turned outward at others

 

Generally, men and women suffer equally when it comes to CEN. But women tend to be harder on themselves and to become excessive caretakers and givers, ignoring their own needs and feelings. They can end up feeling drained and exhausted because they are not taking care of themselves and have difficulty saying “no” to others.

Men, on the other hand, are more inclined to embrace and value the feelings of isolation and disconnection that go along with CEN. Men with CEN may misperceive their isolation as a sign of masculine strength. Yet these men are also pained by the feeling that they are not connected when they are with other people. They struggle with feeling ignored and overlooked by others, but lack the words to express it.

One thing that I have seen over and over in CEN men is an acute discomfort (often anxiety) in large groups of people, especially when they are expected to socialize. In these situations, their intensive individuality combines with the feeling of being ignored to create a special type of misery.

The other primary difference I see between women and men’s CEN is what they do with their feelings. Women feel ashamed for having emotions. They turn their anger against themselves. Men are more likely to be totally unaware that they have feelings at all.

Anger is more accepted from men than from women in today’s world. So men don’t suppress their anger as much as women. Instead, they may alternate between suppressing it and then feeling it unexpectedly, sometimes directing it towards others and sometimes toward themselves.

What happens when two people with CEN form a relationship or marry? I can tell you that it makes for some very interesting challenges. Check back to see a future blog on this topic.

Some of the most remarkable characteristics of people with CEN deserve mention here. CEN people, both men and women, are exceptionally likeable folk. This is part of the tragedy of CEN. These are some of the most lovable people in the world, and yet they feel the most alone. They are typically excessively competent, stand-up folks; yet they feel invisible. They suffer because some vital ingredient is missing from their lives. Yet that missing ingredient is their own emotions, which are not missing; just suppressed.

If I could gather all of the CEN men and women in the world together in one huge room, here is what I would say to them:

You are not invisible, and you are not to blame. You have no reason to be ashamed. Ask yourself what you feel and why, and you will find your true self there. Your emotions will become your compass, your comfort and your connection to life. And then you will realize how very much you matter.

If you would like to learn more about CEN, you can purchase a copy of Running on Empty at a special discount via the right sidebar of this website. Or click on the link below to get it in paperback, Kindle or hardcover from Amazon.

Jonice

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Anonymous - December 30, 2017 Reply

I am female and relate to almost exclusively to all the male traits of CEN. I was raised by a neglectful isolated single father whose spiritual practice emphasized detachment, so maybe this is why. I inherited his traits. I find it quite difficult to relate to most women because they share the trait of “caretaker”. I am healing with the help of a loving therapist and sponsor. I would like to form a support group for CEN survivors.

Hazel - June 12, 2017 Reply

You mention writing an article about two spouses who are both victims of emotional neglect. Did you ever write that? I’ve searched and I cannot find it. Both of us match a lot of items on the checklist. Our oldest was recently committed to a psych hospital for being suicidal. he also has a ton of items on the checklist. He is 23. We all look so successful on the outside. I’ve been to therapy before, but it didn’t help. My husband went and they talked about how well he coped. Therapy just didn’t seem helpful. Right now we are polite, never fight, are great partners when working together, but there is no passion. We make love maybe once a month. Anyway, is this article anywhere?

Grace - September 24, 2015 Reply

After reading everything I’ve been able to find on CEN, a lot of my behavioral patterns make sense. I’ve known for a while that I had problems with feeling neglected, but it’s still hard to even let myself express them. I feel like I should be done being upset about feeling neglected as a child, because I’ve even talked with my parents about their emotional unavailability, and I can see that they’re trying much more to actually have a relationship with me, but there’s still that gaping hole… I don’t want my current relationship with my boyfriend to be damaged because I can’t handle my emotions, but anytime I’m with him, if he’s not directly paying attention to me, or touching me, etc etc, the hole opens up again and I just want to curl up in a corner. I wouldn’t say that he’s neglegent, he does take good care of me, but only as far as he can with what he knows. It’s so hard for me to open up and voice if I have concerns because I don’t feel like they’re valid – for example: last night I was with him, and he could tell something was wrong and was encouraging me to talk about it, but it took me over an hour to finally be able to get the words out of my mouth.
I’m currently seeing a therapist for anxiety/depression, but I don’t know how much work he’s done into studying neglect and such. I’m just not sure what direction to go at this point..

anon - May 5, 2015 Reply

I’m female but I can relate to half the male ones and half the female ones. When I was in therapy, it was suggested my problems were caused by emotional neglect in childhood and that I overcompensate through self-sacrifice (looking after others’ needs) and being driven at work, although I still cannot shake the feeling that I am too self-absorbed and do not ever do anything quite enough. I tend to be of the compulsively self-disciplined variety – I used to have anorexia, but nowadays I tend to be self-disciplined in particular over which emotions I express (and feel) and over-control in that area instead (I think I always did this). I relate to your suggestion that women are ashamed of their emotions as I am very ashamed of feeling emotion – and expressing it is much worse, especially on the occasion that I feel more emotion than the situation calls for, though in those times I try to cling on to my self esteem by remembering that at my most distressed it still takes me a week to give in to any impulses. This does not stop me from feeling impulsive, however, and then I am furious at myself for ‘behaving in a manner not fitting my stature’ as I feel I am willingly destroying my own self esteem.

I’ve since heard this called emotional perfectionism and it’s the hardest thing to deal with I think: not being allowed to feel, and then hating yourself for feeling, thus making the feeling that much worse until eventually you are distressed enough to react externally, thus bringing shame on to your own head.

    Jonice - May 13, 2015 Reply

    Dear anon, feeling ashamed of your feelings is one of the most clear signs of CEN. Your emotions are literally wired into you, so it is extremely harmful to yourself to get angry at yourself for having them. I hope you’ll do the work to heal from this. You deserve more and better. All the best to you!

      anon - December 17, 2015 Reply

      Thank you. I think the shame over emotions thing relates very much to the pride in independence thing, by the way. I think the idea that one is vulnerable or needy can bring on such excruciating shame that it’s difficult not to avoid emotions altogether. I’m trying to look at it in other ways, though.

      Female friends of mine who feel similarly can relate with me about avoiding at all costs the idea that one is “a hysterical woman” (and therefore losing all credibility – linking there with the feeling of being invisible). In order to be “visible” to others and to continue having my voice heard there is a compulsion to ignore emotion in favour of rationality. At the end of the day, I personally take the words of an emotional person with a pinch of salt. Not to their faces, but frankly I assume they’re just saying things because of their emotion and I don’t really put much stock into their words. If they present a rational argument, I have more respect for them and am more likely to listen. I guess because I’m like that, I assume others are too (although I keep bumping into people who are the opposite and that’s frustrating as it seems they feel they do not need to listen to me say the words “that upsets me” unless I am actually displaying an emotion, which is not going to happen. I just leave those people behind me.

Will - April 4, 2015 Reply

Dr.Webb
I’m a 54 year old male, and in all my years I could not understand why people seemed to gravitate to me yet I struggle to keep relationships going. After reading your book I’m beginning to understand how I got to where I am today. As a child I spent much of my time on my own, I have a brother who is 3 years younger, no other siblings. Talking about our childhood it is like we grew up in different homes with different parents. I have dyslexia and even though I got help early on I felt that my parents didn’t expect me to go very far academically, where as my brother excelled in school. My parents demanded that we kids be seen and not heard. My parents friends were impressed with how well behaved we were.My dad travled a lot for work, so much of the time growing up it was just my mother, brother, and I. When my dad was home he was always calling me or my brother to get him coffee, or change the channel on the tv.Growing the my brother had a close relationship with our mother, I always felt like I couldn’t have a relationship with her.When my father was home he would wrestle with me or my brother, he would make my brother cry, and my father would say cry baby, so I decided to never cry so he could never say that about me, to this day I feel ashamed to cry and avoid letting anyone see me do so.
I’m beginning to do the exercises in the book, though trying to figure out how I feel is hard and confusing, sometimes all I can come up with is numb.
Thank you for your book, and your time,
Will

    Jonice - April 5, 2015 Reply

    Dear Will, thank you for sharing your story. You sound like a classic case of CEN. It’s OK if you’re coming up with numb. Just keep doing the exercise and you will eventually break through the wall. Also, I suggest that you make an appointment with a psychologist or therapist so you’ll have someone to help you through the process. Take your copy of Running on Empty to your therapist and explain what you’re doing and they will be able to help. Take care and keep up the good work!

Trish - March 10, 2015 Reply

Dr Jonice, your work seems to have hit the nail on the head with the next piece of the puzzle in my emotional recovery. After many years of emotional work, yoga, meditation, physical and energy therapies I am feeling much more aware & in touch with myself. But the problem of emptiness still arose & I wondered whether maybe it was a spiritual, existential problem but reading your website I realise that its CEN, combining the 3 different types of neglect you detail.
In this article you explain exactly how I feel- extremely competent, caring of others, loving- but I still feel invisible at a core level. Even though I am now connected to my emotions there was still a gap- and that it working through my emotions of the younger me-the inner child that is still trapped in neglect. I have a long term lack of primary relationships in my life as my parents simply didn’t feel it was their job to participate in my life in this way, although I was required to be available for them to meet their needs at this level, it just wasn’t about my needs (I found the book the ‘Fantasy Bond’ by Robert Firestone very revealing and confronting about this reverse parenting style).
I would say my main challenge at the moment is unwinding the beliefs that I took on in childhood- that I don’t deserve support at a primary level, that I’m being ungrateful & demanding if I don’t think practical care is enough and expect to be treated as an emotional human being with needs, that if someone genuinely cares for me then I’ve really ‘sucked them in’ and am manipulative and selfish etc etc. I’ve also realised to a certain degree my mother has a Borderline Personality Disorder & my father is narcisstic, I’ve no doubt many people with CEN have a similar story & I’ve found readings on that really helpful.
I am constantly feeling something is fundamentally wrong with my life although I knew it wasn’t really me, there was a missing piece of the trauma (there’s been a variety). Just naming this issue & having the ‘invisible-ness yet very capable & loving at the same time’ aspect acknowledged has provided deep relief at a heart level & I look forward to uncovering more in your book. Thank you so much.

    Jonice - March 11, 2015 Reply

    Hi Trish, you truly have a way with words. I’m so glad to know that the concept of CEN has provided some answers that you so deserve. I hope you’ll not only read the book but do the healing sections, because you ARE an emotional human being with needs, and that’s a GOOD thing. Please take care!

      Trish - March 14, 2015 Reply

      Thanks for your support and I look forward to the insights from the book, definitely will complete the exercises.

    Jonice - March 15, 2015 Reply

    Trish, thank you for sharing your story. I have no doubt that many who read this will identify with you and your experience. I’m honored to have helped you feel relief. I hope you enjoy Running on Empty and find even more answers. Take care!

Hanna - February 1, 2015 Reply

Very good! Me and my husband talked about the anger thing today. I said that overall anger is more accepted from men than from women which I believe is true but my husband also pointed out that in Sweden anger is more suppressed amongst men than in many other cultures (same with Thailand).

taj - November 18, 2014 Reply

My finace and I have been engaged for almost five years. We have been going to a therapist to figure out why we are both so alike in negative ways. She has said that negativity is a hard hurdle to overcome. but she sees we clearly love one another deeply. I have been trying to say that my husbands childhood has to be the cause of perpetual negativity, where she says it was actually my childhood. I have been looking for answers for sooo long and now I can see though we both have loving families. We were both very emotionally neglected, accidentally of course. Now I know why we are so alike. It breaks my heart. But hopefully there will be tools in your book that can help us overcome it. I will be looking for your next post on relationships. Who know maybe we will actually plan our wedding and get married;)
z

    Jonice - November 18, 2014 Reply

    I know how baffling and invisible CEN can be. It makes sense that it’s taken time for you to see it. I assure you there are many tools in the book. I hope you and your fiance find them helpful. Check back in later and let us know OK? Best wishes to you both!

      taj - November 19, 2014 Reply

      Funny got the book yesterday….almost done reading it. I will be using the worksheets. Many things I have been working on already for years. The weekend before last I hit a big wall with self compassion. It has sent me two steps back and feeling very miserable and my self directed anger is at an all time high. I’m very stuck. Mostly I just feel helpless. My fiance doesn’t read. So he’s not reading our relationship book and he will not read this book. No one taught him to read very well and its a source of embarrassment he just ignores the issue. My main thought at the moment is figuring out the yoyo we have with each other. When I’m up, he’s down. and visa versa. we can’t seem to go up, stay up, and support each other.
      Thank you for writing this book. I have felt empty for so long. I have been told I am not depressed, but have depressive tendencies….ADD…My first and only suicide attempt was a year after the divorce I was 10 and thought I could hold a pillow over my face. All my serious relationships failed mostly me ending them to avoid hurt. I never felt connected or loved. I am so lonely even now wishing my fiance wanted to spend more time with me. I cannot sustain any self discipline or routines for more than six months.
      Anyway gotta get back to it, Z

        Jonice - November 20, 2014 Reply

        It sounds like you grew up very alone. It’s hard to overcome that as an adult, but it is definitely possible. I can tell that you are someone who is willing to work on it. Certainly feeling lonely in a relationship is a sign that your needs are not being met. Please consider whether your current choices could be recreating your childhood? It’s just a guess. You deserve to be happier and more fulfilled. So keep up the work, and you will get there. Sending you all my best.

ach - August 1, 2014 Reply

This description of personality traits and coping mechanisms is very accurate: as it is impossible to explain this sort of things to friends…..
I wish there was not such a stigma in even accepting let alone telling others that we are damaged in some ways by our up-bringing, as it is instinctive to blame ourselves-especially if we have siblings who were not treated in the same way. Yet the traits you outline above would be so helpful to show others who cannot comprehend the literal selflessness and long work hours at the expense of everything else….

Anon - June 23, 2014 Reply

HI Dr Jonice Webb,

Thank you very much for the blog post about CEN. I’m a male and have been trying to figure out what’s wrong with me since I became an adult.

I’ve tried many different “symptom checklists” and never resonate with any except with yours here: http://www.drjonicewebb.com/about-emotional-neglect/

My answer is “YES” to pretty much all 22 items.

My life has been great in a sense that no one has done anything bad to me. I’m extremely successful at my career but struggle to connect with most people on a personal level.

Your description that men struggle in large groups of people also resonate with me.

I look forward to reading your book Running on Empty . Thank you again.

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