Childhood Emotional Neglect: How to Stop Your Fatal Flaw in its Tracks

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The Fatal Flaw: A deep-seated feeling that something is wrong with you. You are missing something that other people have. You are living life on the outside, looking in. You don’t quite fit in anywhere.

If you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), chances are, The Fatal Flaw is at work in your life.

If you pushed your feelings away as a child, you now lack access to them as an adult. You sense deep down that something is missing (it’s your emotions).  And your life lacks the richness, connection and meaning that your feelings should be bringing to your life. This is the basic cause of the Fatal Flaw. Most people who have it are not aware of it, and this gives it incredible power.

The 7 Key Effects of Your Fatal Flaw

  1. You are not in touch with your gut feelings, so you don’t trust your gut (even though for the majority of CEN folks, their gut is most often right).
  2. It undermines your confidence to take risks.
  3. It makes you uncomfortable in social situations.
  4. It keeps many of your relationships at a surface level.
  5. It makes you question the meaning and purpose of your life.
  6. It makes you fear that if people get to know you well, they won’t like what they see.
  7. Therefore you are quite fearful of rejection.

6 Ways to Take Control of Your Fatal Flaw

  1. Become aware of your Fatal Flaw: This will take away its power.
  2. Understand that your Fatal Flaw is not a real flaw. It’s only a feeling.
  3. A feeling can be managed, so start to manage it. Pay attention to when you feel it, and how it affects you.
  4. Put it into words and tell someone about it.
  5. Override it every time that you possibly can. Do the opposite of everything your Fatal Flaw tells you to do.
  6. Start breaking down the wall between you and your feelings. Welcome them as the vital source of information, guidance, and richness that they are (even the painful ones).

Yes, your Fatal Flaw is powerful. But so are you. You have a great deal of personal power that is being drained by your Fatal Flaw.

So today’s the day. Declare war on your Fatal Flaw, and start using your weapons of awareness, your emotions, your intellect, and your words.

This is a battle that you can win. I promise.

To learn more about the Fatal Flaw, what caused it and how to overcome it, see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

A version of this article was originally published on and has been republished here with the permission of the author.


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Shirley - September 9, 2019 Reply

Thank you, Janice for your deep and powerful work. Even though I was a social worker for over thirty years and now a spiritual teacher and healer, I’ve always felt I didn’t belong . Something was wrong with me. Having a perpetually sick mother and having to concentrate on being the fixer , my emotional needs went underground. What hurts the most , that even though , I was a helicopter parent to my two sons, I did not really allow them to feel sad or lonely without stepping in to fix it. I see the CEN in my eldest son, in his thirties and it hurts my heart. He is not open to healing right now. I will get your book and continue healing me and hoping he heals too. Ty ty ty

    Jonice - September 9, 2019 Reply

    Dear Shirly, the good news is that you are on the right road now. You can start healing yourself and, in the process, reach out to your son (my second book, Running On Empty No More), has lots of help for how to to do that. All my best to you!

Ann - September 9, 2019 Reply

What can i do to identify that one ‘fatal flaw’?

    Jonice - September 9, 2019 Reply

    Watch for a deep, negative feeling inside that holds you back from taking advantage of possibilities or from connecting with people. Many folks have more than one Fatal Flaw.

Nima - September 8, 2019 Reply

Dr. Webb,

For the last year or so after finding your work and going through your first book, I now realize what was wrong with me. I had always though that the low mood/depression was my diagnosis, but now I understand that it is just a symptom among the myriad of symptoms I show. Feeling lonely, lack of confidence despite being successful, inability to tolerate critics, feeling abandoned, and list goes on. Now I understand these all come from the fact that I have never been in touch with my feelings. I have never been able to recognize my feelings and still struggle even naming them. For me all the negative feelings I felt have always been a spectrum of sadness. Even when I feel down, I am still not able to identify exactly what makes me sad. Anyways, that’s the first part that I recognized the problem through your work and book. But, going through solving the problem is also difficult as in my opinion the science of psychology has advance in terms of finding the flaws, but we are still struggling with addressing the issues. I am still struggling on my day to day life. I would die to feel loved!

    Jonice - September 8, 2019 Reply

    Dear Nima, you have done some good work already. Next, I would suggest you either see a therapist on the Find A CEN Therapist list on this site. Or you could take the Fuel UP For Life online CEN recovery course which will walk you through the steps of recovery. All my best to you!

Catherine - September 8, 2019 Reply

This sums up my life. I’ve always felt that I wasn’t right, I wasn’t normal, I wasn’t good enough. It’s taken me many years to realise this is because my mother has always treated me like a servant and undermined me at every occasion. Also, all my life people have told me I’m weird, strange, odd, funny (as in peculiar) so that’s underlined my feeling.
Since finding out about CEN though, I’ve tried to a) feel and learn about my feelings and b) make friends with people by being more positive and less focused on my wrongness. It’s a long, long journey but I’m getting there.

    Jonice - September 8, 2019 Reply

    That’s awesome. Way to go, Catherine, keep up the good work!

GWOR - September 8, 2019 Reply

Wow a home run and grand slam as the article evolves on attunement & validation.

Without any attachment in the whole never allowed to our parents one or both for many of us we had to find our attachment to friends because many relatives wanted no involvement . In my case my great friends never discussed my home out of respect my so called friends the hypocrites at best did everything to unravel and upset me at every chance especially in the district high school I attended and I paid for it as being labeled stupid nervous, and sickly and pale and totally screwed up and out of it. But my real friends today we are all successful in engineering , law and as professionals in many capacities and it is the new friends in those days from he farming community being the students who bused in to our district high school were fantastic and gave me the necessary attachments seamlessly as did their parents through our agriculture affiliations and churches Once detached from parents or one parent the powerful one with the money no attunement or validation can take place because the other parent can not cope escape help their child or children and dies lifeless while enduring a living death until one leaves home and finds their own identity .Yes we all need anchors to attach to and my senior friends are no different today than they were in the 1950s and 1960s as caring friends and it is 2019 and we are aging are still attached, attuned .and validated as one . Life must go on and we must move forward never giving counsel to our fears real or unreal.

    Jonice - September 8, 2019 Reply

    Good friends are valuable indeed and surely can make up for a lot of the empty space left by parents. Thanks for sharing that!

Shannon Oneill - September 8, 2019 Reply

I have to thank you for finally verifying why i feel so out of touch with everything in my life.
Positive influencial book

    Jonice - September 8, 2019 Reply

    You are welcome, Shannon! Thanks for your comment.

Donna - November 5, 2015 Reply

Hi Jonice
I’m reading these stories and tears are streaming down my cheeks. I finally feel like I belong, not that anyone would want to but these are my feelings. I know I have all these fatal flaws and I need help. My biggest problem I need to overcome is the embarrassment I feel to show and express affection. Apart from a kiss on birthdays and xmas day, that was it. I never heard the words I love you, never hugged, but plenty of verbal abuse like stupid, dumb, idiot, slut even I wish u were never born and a few slaps across the face. But I just want to feel normal for my boys sake. Im antisocial, angry, critical. It’s getting easier to show my boys love because I have forced myself too and I do, but my partner suffers more then anyone. He is the total opposite and he really has saved me, I owe him more then he will ever know. I will be reading your book and trying your techniques.

Persephone - October 26, 2015 Reply

Wow! Thank you again Dr. WEbb! I have most of these “fatal flaws”, always have felt like the outsider looking in. I’ve never felt fully or truly accepted by anyone, not family, not so called friends. I have not been able to trust my gut instincts at all. I have attracted and am (working on changing this) Narcissists, BorderlinePD and emotionally abusive people all of my life. In my early 40’s, a whole new world has opened up to me, simply because I have always been a seeker of my own truths but had to work so hard at finding the answers. Two years ago when I decided to attend therapy, I’ve had so many “ah ha” moments, so much pain, confusion, self loathing, fogginess, has been linked back to childhood, teens, even adulthood. Who knew ( at least I didn’t until a couple of days ago) that all of how I internalized the abuse was emotional abuse?! I do have a difficult time with my emotions, it’s hard to decipher what I am feeling, yet I am emotionally sensitive, I do not trust my gut but do take certain risks, like I keep trying to have healthy, relationships with others, unfortunately my attempts have been what I’ve always known, however, I want to break that cycle, and seek a way to heal this abuse, so that my life reflects what I am, a loving, kind, compassionate, and healthy human being. Other than your book, which I will be purchasing in, can you please give me a nudge in the right direction on what I can do to heal?

Thank you so much for all that you do! You are truly making a positive difference in people’s lives.

Brian D - June 29, 2015 Reply

I’m 65 years old and grew up in a household with 3 younger brothers, one with severe downs syndrome, and two older sisters and I’ve realized in the last few years that what I thought I lacked genetically all my life was apparently emotional neglect or most of it anyway. I was extremely shy which didn’t help and there was never any interaction between the kids and parents. They never played with us or never any love yous, hugs, emotional support or simply a hand on the shoulder assuring you things would be OK when you were frightened. All my life I felt like I had a hole in me I couldn’t fill, struggled talking with others, especially females, lacked self confidence and basically was scared of life. I found myself people pleasing, doing things unconsciously to get attention that I didn’t consciously want and I could never set my sights on any goals in life because I always felt like I needed to finish me first but I could never get it done and spent a good part of my life wishing I was someone else. Alcohol seemed like a friend as a teenager since it seemed to knock down some of the barriers but I crossed the line with it in 2001 and have been in recovery and have never drank since the day I was told I was an alcoholic. It looks like I’d better get your book and start getting educated. I started noticing I was different in 6 or 7th grade and haven’t sleep normally since without help and I’d sure like to get more comfortable in what’s left of this life. Thank you

    Jonice Webb - July 3, 2015 Reply

    Dear Brian, you do sound like a classic case of CEN to me. I’m so sorry you grew up with so very little support and care. I hope you’ll read the book and work through this. You obviously have lots of strength since you’ve had no alcohol for so many years. You can definitely be happier and more comfortable in your life. Wishing you all the best!

      Brian D - July 7, 2015 Reply

      Thank you, it will be nice to finally have a target. God bless you, yours and the rest of the people with the same problem.

        BD - April 8, 2016 Reply

        After a lot of investigating I finally got a look at what happened and it wasn’t all that terrible except to me. The only time my father had anything to do with me was when he’d get the report from Mom of the days activities and I’d get a backhand or whatever, but it wasn’t that it was so bad it’s just that there was never any positive to go with it. That, with the shyness on top of it had me in a terrible hole believing I was less than everyone else to the core, like genetically and I had no clue until my early fifties that it might be something I could do something about. My saving grace was AA which showed me how to take myself out of the equation and strictly help others. Fifteen years of that and meditation and I slowly started realizing that I’d reached another level of consciousness and that I’m no longer in that hole that took me 66 years to get out of. The 1st 66 were a bit sketchy but the future looks wonderful. I have no ill feelings about what went on in that I know it wasn’t intentional but what a tough way to go through life.

Grace - June 13, 2015 Reply

Dr. Jonice,
I’ve been checking in on your website off and on for several months now and it’s the place where I could finally give how I feel a name. I’ve always felt left out, empty and alone, but never knew why. I’ve come to learn it was because of the emotional neglect from my parents. It was very hard for me to come to this conclusion. I’m sure you’ve heard this before… I grew up in a supportive household and was provided for. Went to private school and my parents came to all my never-ending list of extracurricular activities… yet I wasn’t really checked in with emotionally. I was expected to do well and when I didn’t I was questioned…when I did I was praised. This led to a very performance-driven personality and way of life into my adulthood to get acceptance and praise since that’s what happened in my childhood. After working with my therapist, I finally had “the talk” with my parents about their emotional neglect and how it’s affected me with the hope to move forward. My mom was really understanding. She received what I had to say and our relationship is better than ever. My Dad not sooo much. He has narcissistic tendencies. I’m not prepared to call him a narcissist. Because there was so much anxiety centered around our talk I decided to pour my heart in a letter that in the end turned out to be more than 2,400 words explaining our past relationship, present relationship and boundaries that I’d like to put in place.
It went in one ear and out of the other… it’s almost like he heard NOTHING I read in the letter. It turned into a self help talk about me needing to grateful for my “success” and him not understanding why I’d want to kick around emotions to process, but to instead jump from problem to solution with no emotional processing at all. I felt empty and totally neglected again. We’ve talked twice since “the talk” we had in person. I don’t know how to act with him. Sometimes I feel like I’m being mean and other times I just need major space. I know our relationship is going to be surface level without me going deep because he chose not to take the letter seriously. He’s trying to get into our old routine of calling once a week and “Shooting the breeze” and I really don’t want to, but I don’t want to stop talking to my Dad either. I’m really at a loss on how to move on with him in my life without me feeling like I’m being fake again. Hope this is not too all over the place. There’s more to me and my Dad’s relationship, but this is all I could go into without feeling drained.
Thanks for reading.

    Jonice Webb - June 16, 2015 Reply

    Dear Grace, good job with your mother! Your father sounds like a WMBNT parent that I described in Running on Empty; neglected himself. He will probably not be able to understand your needs or feelings. I encourage you to focus on your relationship with your mother, and develop an internal boundary to protect you from your father. He is probably giving you all he has to offer, and his version of love: shooting the breeze. Wishing you the best.

JJR - May 22, 2015 Reply

Hi dr. I did your cen test and scored at least 15. Should i be worried?

    Jonice Webb - May 24, 2015 Reply

    Dear JJR, no not worried. You must have taken the test looking for answers, and now you’ve found your answer. And CEN can be healed. I hope you’ll take the steps and do the work, and it will make a big difference.

      jjr - May 27, 2015 Reply

      thank you – is there a connection (read huge overlap) between a narcissistic parent (NPD) and CEN in a child/adult? If so, which one should you focus on in terms of treatment?

        Jonice Webb - June 4, 2015 Reply

        Yes, there’s a huge connection. And you should focus on both! There’s an entire section in the book on the NPD parent. I hope you will read it and get started on healing.

      Cynthia - May 30, 2015 Reply

      Please, I’ve almost finished the book, what are the steps to begin the work. I am ready. Thank you.

        Jonice Webb - June 4, 2015 Reply

        Hi Cynthia, I recommend that you identify the exercises in the last half of the book that apply to you, and start doing them. It may help to find a good therapist to go through the process with you. All my best wishes.

Survivor - May 22, 2015 Reply

I am 59 and having struggled with this emptiness for most of my life, why wouldn’t I think there is something wrong with me? There IS something wrong with me. At least now it has a name. I was riding on a crowded train about 15 years ago when I overheard a conversation in which a young man stated that he lives his life in various degrees of unhappiness. My first thought was “He just described how I feel” my second thought was “How sad for both of us.” It really hadn’t occurred to my how unhappy I was until I heard that young man’s statement. It really is not depression, just a constant state of unhappiness. There is no doubt that this unhappiness stems from the emptiness and the inability to connect with others. I can intellectually understand other people’s struggles, give them encouragement and fake empathy. However, I feel very little in the way of positive emotions and I repel intimacy. I am sure now that it has to do with the extreme emotional neglect I experienced as a child because I was not born this way.

I remember very well how it felt when my parents and siblings dismissed me, shut me down and out, and bullied me. I made it worse for myself by trying to get attention because those attempts mostly ended poorly for me, even the many times I did the right thing because I was ignored or criticized. I was physically abused and was told by everyone who witnessed it that I was to blame because I had a smart mouth and was a cry baby. The thing is I do not remember talking back or breaking many rules. Regardless, the physical abuse paled in comparison to the emotional neglect. Nobody ever comforted me after my dad lost his temper with me for completely minor offenses. On two occasions he strangled me and left marks on my neck. He would drag me by the hair up the stairs and whack the heck out of me. Everyone loved him so I got the blame. At 13 my mom threw my dad out because he was having a relationship with my mom’s best friend and my mom became even more withdrawn from us. My dad was her whole world and I do not believe she was capable of loving her children as much as she loved him. I also believe that her purpose for having children was to keep him in a relationship with her as he cheated on her from day one. By 16 I was anorexic with suicidal thoughts and I became more withdrawn. I used my rational, intellectual brain to get ahold of my emotions and buried them deeply. I was able to finish high school and move on to college. I have not had a close personal friend since high school. I have missed out on so much of the richness that life has to offer and believe if it were not for the emotional neglect, I would have accomplished much more.

I felt nothing when each of my parents died. My dad changed in his later years. However, he denied having treated me the way he did when I confronted him with it. That was very painful and I do not recommend it. He helped me out a lot when I had struggled in the last 10 years. His help did nothing to help me heal emotionally. However, he did interact with my children in a positive manner which I appreciate.

Throughout my life I have had recurring suicide and hermit fantasies. After reading your book I learned I am not alone in experiencing these. I have been to numerous therapists which got me through some of the more difficult times but I do not believe I will ever completely heal.

I managed to be a good parent. I have always listened to my children and asked them what they were feeling. I got them therapy when I noticed a problem. They seem well-adjusted even though there have been struggles because I always put them first. I knew what to provide my children because, as a child, I was instinctually aware of what was missing and what my parents were doing wrong and I never forgot. Yes, they were to blame. They could have done better. I do not ascribe to “they did the best they could with what they had.” I was a child and I knew what they were doing to their children was wrong. How could they not know? Perhaps I was wise beyond my years.

All I ask now people is please take care of the children. It is really too late for some of us. We can’t get back the lost time but we can make sure that others do not suffer.

Thanks for giving me someplace to tell my story. It is comforting to know that others will be able to relate. I have never found anyone who could. Typically, I would be made to feel like I was making a big deal out of something that happened so long ago that it doesn’t really matter. More dismissal and rejection. Bury the hurt more deeply. Maybe that is where it should stay.

Cindy W. - May 10, 2015 Reply

Thank you for your book on Emotional Neglect. It confirmed my feelings about my childhood and struggles in adulthood with fitting in. I have surprisingly healed a great deal already according to your worksheets. I have also read on Emotional Intelligence. What would be a next step in the healing process? I feel, I understand, I accept the way I am, I practice the skills I have learned, but I am still empty inside at the end of the day.

    Jonice Webb - May 14, 2015 Reply

    Dear Cindy, good work! That’s fantastic work you’ve done. My suggestion at this point is that you work on letting down your wall. The empty feeling goes away the more you love and trust deserving people who love and trust you back. Keep up the good work.

Jennifer - April 9, 2015 Reply

I have read and agree with your book on everything except this point. I would say that people who experienced CEN and are now incapable of expressing feelings and go through life numb, that is their fatal flaw. You have said you have seen many patients with their spouses at the end of their rope dealing with their CEN spouse. I’m sure many divorces have come from this very problem. CEN people are flawed. We can’t relate well to others and others end up unhappy being with us. It’s best not to even enter into relationships. It isn’t fair to the other person. I decided a long time ago I would never get married or even date for this very reason.

    Jonice Webb - April 15, 2015 Reply

    But Jennifer you are so fatalistic about CEN. I know from experience that many, many people heal from this. Your feelings are there and you can access them and use them in a healthy way. I hope you will reconsider your way of thinking about CEN, and open up your mind to new possibilities of change. All the best to you Jennifer.

    Deb - July 20, 2015 Reply

    Had my spouse and I understood about CEN in the beginning it would’ve made our lives so much happier and richer. We’ve been together over 35 years and I still love him for so many reasons. But we’re trying to heal from damage done by NOT understanding. Our love is winning. And even if our present limitations are it, which I very much doubt after seeing what fulfilling changes have happened in the last two years, at least we could find a way to work with that. So I hope that you will reconsider the potential for love in your life; a special someone can see all that you have to offer.

Jeremy Deverell - February 11, 2015 Reply

Hello Dr Webb,
Thank you for your continuing posts on CEN. I’m really struggling with my CEN as I experience very few emotions at all and have no ‘connections’ to others in my live. I view everything in a logical manner and have to ‘will’ my interactions with others, e.g. asking someone how they are feeling and how their family are, otherwise I just don’t care. I’ve been trying to journal my feelings and utilise ‘change sheets’ for a year now with no perceivable change in my emotional state. It is very frustrating as most of my journal entries are ‘didn’t feel anything again today’. I’ve recently read ‘Healing the Unaffirmed’ and have begun to wonder if my emotions are not repressed, but never fully developed in the first place. I have noticed egocentrism in what emotions I do experience, together with a strong desire for praise and pleasing others. I can often see a ‘child-like’ level of emotional development in what I feel and how I interact with others, except without any love or desired to be loved. I doubt there are many therapists who would go to the lengths required in Baars & Terruwe’s ‘affirmation therapy’ to help a patient grow emotionally. So, what are you’re thoughts on what someone can do to grow emotionally when they are socially isolated and when journalling doesn’t seem to be effective? Thank you.

    Jonice Webb - February 12, 2015 Reply

    Dear Jeremy, I have a couple of thoughts for you. First, some people actually have fewer and less emotions, biologically. It is possible that it could be the case for you. But more importantly, I think you are wrong about what therapists will do to help you grow emotionally. I urge you to find a trained, experienced therapist who you feel comfortable with, and let that person work with you. I think the fact that you’ve been trying to do this alone may be the problem. I wish you the best!

Molli - February 8, 2015 Reply

At age 59, I feel relieved to be able to give this problem a name. I’ve never been good enough, always feel like an awkward outsider-

    Jonice Webb - February 8, 2015 Reply

    Dear Molli, I’m happy to hear that you feel relief. Naming it helps so much. I hope you’ll continue learning and working on the problem because the good news is, you can heal from this! Thank you for sharing, and take care.

Hanna - February 7, 2015 Reply

Thank you for this post. It’s so true. It’s very frustrating when you sense that you have many talents that could be used, but because you feel this fatal flaw that’s something wrong with you, you hesitate and stop yourself. We only live this life once and it’s too much of a waste to let this stop us.

I have two dreams: to become a great singer and a great documentary filmmaker. And to reach my goals I try step by step to feel better about myself and go after it but sometimes I feel I’m not “special” enough, or that I’m not like other people who succeeds. Even though my last singing teacher told me I was better than all her students in the University (I took singing lessons with her in a nearby church).

I quit taking lessons after 2,5 years because I got so scared of going forward. When my teacher asked me if I wanted to be a singer my whole jaw froze and I couldn’t open my mouth haha. I got so scared of thinking that I could really make it as a singer. Luckily she kept talking and didn’t notice my jaw and the lesson was over. I haven’t been taking lessons for 5,5 years but really wants to go at it again.

    Zaara - February 8, 2015 Reply

    Hi, Hanna. When I read the article, it occurred to me, why am I feeling like so, when I’m still a teenager.
    Then I read your comment, and I thought that no matter at what age, there is no reason to stop, to run away from a dream.
    “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” – C. S. Lewis
    You are never too old to grow. And like people say, every day is a new day, every day is a new chance of a life.
    I have a couple of big dreams too. I’m nowhere near the first step (which would be, after I finish school) , yet I’m already scared of taking each step.

    I think the trick is to not look at how other people are better. I think everyone is unique, you can never really put them (other people) as the reference on how good someone should be.

    I hope you go for your dream. Do it for yourself, don’t think of other people.

      Jonice Webb - February 8, 2015 Reply

      Well-said Zaara! Thank you for your helpful comments for Hanna.

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