Find Purpose and Meaning Despite Childhood Emotional Neglect

One of the most painful symptoms of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is also, amazingly, the most directly fixable.

Who hasn’t, at some moments of their life, wondered what it’s all for?

What’s the point?

Why am I here on this earth?

What am I supposed to be doing?

Does anything really matter?

I have noticed that some people struggle more than others with these questions.

And I’ve also realized that there seems to be something about growing up emotionally neglected that predisposes you even more to this struggle.

“But what could that possibly be??!” you may be wondering, just as I have wondered for years.

Today, I’d like to share my best answers to all of these questions. Of course, I don’t claim to know the meaning of life. But I can surely talk about what makes life feel meaningful.

2 Things That Make Life Feel Meaningful

Most psychologists, I think, would agree that two key factors make life feel meaningful, and both are supported by research:

  1. Your Emotions: Your emotions drive, motivate, direct, and inspire you. The most memorable moments in your life are the ones in which you feel something. Awed, sad, overwhelmed, shocked, delighted, or disappointed, these moments lodge themselves in your memory. When you feel an emotion, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, you feel real. Feeling a feeling is a way of feeling alive. Emotions tell you that what is happening matters. They carry with them the message “this matters.”
  2. Your Relationships: Study after study has shown that it’s your connections to others that both anchor and stimulate you. Who is there for you when things get rough? Who’s present to celebrate with you and console you? To care for you and be cared for by you? These kinds of connections create the substance that makes life worth living.

These two important life factors offer keys to the struggle for purpose and meaning that many emotionally neglected people experience. When your feelings are under-validated as a child (CEN), you grow up pushing away, questioning, or numbing out your own emotions. This leads to 3 special challenges when it comes to feeling, as an adult, that your life is meaningful.

  • You are out of touch with your feelings. This undermines your search for meaning in 3 important ways:

a) It leaves you feeling, on some level, that you’re not fully alive.

b) The feelings that should be informing you about what matters to you are not available enough.

c) Feelings are a source of passion and direction. A shortage of these messages from within may leave you feeling lost and alone.

  • Your relationships are overly one-sided: CEN leaves you more focused on caring for others. You give more in your relationships than you’re able to take. Your giving nature warms you and moves you, but its one-way nature may limit the depth of your relationships. And it may simply not be quite enough.
  • You feel that you don’t matter: The unspoken message you received in childhood was, “Your feelings don’t matter.” But since your emotions are the most deeply personal part of who you are, what your child self heard was, “You don’t matter.” As an adult, this message undermines your feelings of life purpose and meaning. After all, if you don’t matter, how can your life matter?

Now back to the first sentence: “the most painful but most directly fixable.” Yes, it is true.

The Fix

What’s the best fix for all of this? Welcome your emotions back into your life.

I have seen over and over again that these three deceptively simple steps can make a huge difference in how important your life feels to you.

  1. Try to feel: This may sound strange but it actually works. Making an effort to have an emotion will start to yield results. You will start to feel more.
  2. Tune in to your feelings: Chances are, you’re having feelings all the time, but you are simply not aware of them. All this takes is focusing your attention more on what you’re feeling. Several times a day pause, focus your attention inward, and ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?”
  3. Increase your feeling word vocabulary: An important part of getting in touch with your feelings is being able to put words to them. You can find an exhaustive Feeling Word List HERE (Click on the third purple CLICK HERE on the page).

I know it may be hard to believe, but to me, it’s abundantly clear:

The fuel of life is feeling. If we’re not filled up in childhood, we must fill ourselves as adults. Otherwise, we will find ourselves running on empty.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and how to recover from it, see my books Running Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships and Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect , and  Take The Emotional Neglect Test for free.

This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.

Jonice

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Shane - November 22, 2021 Reply

I see emotions as uranium and nuclear power: potentially a superb energy source, but potentially a radioactive danger if mismanaged or hit with a natural disaster from the outside. People do hurt each other with their emotions sometimes. I think one critical component of CEN is when people decide they’re unwilling to do that at any cost, even if it hurts themselves. Of course CEN can accidentally hurt others around them anyway.

    Jonice - November 22, 2021 Reply

    Interesting, thank you Shane. Yes, when emotions aren’t handled in a healthy way, they certainly hurt people in various ways.

Chrissy - November 18, 2021 Reply

Thanks so much, Jonice, for another hugely helpful article!. I was constantly ignored and invalidated by my parents my whole life which made me feel invisible. I felt like I was in a fish bowl like bubble, very detached from reality and when someone would say hello I was totally shocked that they could actually see me. Is this a symptom of CEN? Thanks for your help in understanding this.

    Jonice - November 21, 2021 Reply

    Dear Chrissy, I’m so sorry you experienced such invalidation. It’s not surprising that you feel invisible, but I assure you that you are not! I encourage you to pay attention to your feelings and start trying to understand them. It’s the path to healing. And when you can begin to see yourself better, others will see you better as well.

olliesmom - November 15, 2021 Reply

I realized and accepted quite awhile ago that my purpose on this Earth was to be the “support” for others and make others feel better about their lives (kind of a cautionary tale) and that is how I make it through each day. I’ve always worked in support (secretarial/lower pay) positions during my “career”. I’m very good at what I do. Not that there isn’t anything wrong with the jobs that I do and we are a necessary part of businesses and to keep them running, but I know deep down inside that I could have had more and I settled for this. Because I don’t feel like I’m good enough or that I deserve something more, despite the fact that I have a college degree. I’m the one that fills in for you when you get to get married and go on your fabulous honeymoon. I’m the one that fills in for you when you have your babies and you take your maternity leave. I’m the one that fills in for you on your fantastic family vacations. I’m the one the one that fills in for you when you and your husband go on your milestone anniversary beach vacation. Yep, that’s me. I never take vacations and I never am out sick. Ms. Dependable. Always there and always willing for you to dump on me and do your job while you live your life.

    Jonice - November 15, 2021 Reply

    Dear OM, at the rate you are going you will burn yourself out. You are likely to start feeling more resentment toward others and perhaps also at yourself. I encourage you to turn your attention inward and focus on your own feelings, wants, and needs. that is where you can grow and fulfill your true abilities and passions. All my best to you, especially because I can relate to how you feel, having been there myself.

Robert - November 14, 2021 Reply

The bells keep ringing! As I keep reading and listening to You I find solace in a way that I never had. I have real hope. Thank you so much.

    Jonice - November 15, 2021 Reply

    That is a wonderful thing to hear, Robert. thanks for sharing!

RACHAEL - November 14, 2021 Reply

I love this. Thank you Dr. Webb

    Jonice - November 15, 2021 Reply

    I’m so glad, Rachael!

Arnold J Rimmer - December 7, 2019 Reply

Total eclipse of the heart.
My parents were caring and fine. Other issues broke the child I was.
Maybe i was stupid enough to believe fables. That i too could be a prince charming and would find happily ever after if only I gave 100%. Well I gave. Now im empty. The princesses drained all. They took and took but never gave then discarded what was no longer of use.
I dont blame them, I was the stupid one. Even the ones who still act like im the bad guy for giving up can only be who they are.

One of my earliest fears was being forgotten. Now I know why, it was inevetable and i dont fear it anymore. I envy those who dont feel deeply. Those who can feel happiness over simple things.

    Jonice - December 8, 2019 Reply

    Dear Arnold, giving too much is a problem that you can fix. Please don’t give up. Seek a therapist trained in CEN. You can find one on my website, emotionalneglect.com.

Jon - July 27, 2017 Reply

What happens when you try to open yourself to emotions, but the only ones you feel are sadness and despair? I have been trying to go down this road, but all that’s happened is that I have become more of a mess than I ever was. All I do is cry all the time, often at inconvenient moments, and I can’t seem to control it. And when it comes to crying — especially when you’re a man — people break down into two categories: those who cry a lot and those who are annoyed by those who cry a lot. At least when I was repressing everything I could maintain some semblance of control. Meaning? Intimacy? Those are just words, they don’t mean anything. I’m so tired of this. I’m so tired of being unhappy all the time. I don’t want to do this any more. I just want it to end.

    Chris - July 27, 2017 Reply

    Jon, I spent years with sadness as the core feeling I could recognize – but eventually others (more positive) started to come around. there’s hope!

    Justg7 - February 17, 2018 Reply

    I really hope your feeling better!? Im right there with you. Im 46 and my emotions consist of sadness,being lost, stuck, alone, helpless, worthless the list goes on. Keep trying is all i can say because thats all i do is try. Am i happy? I should be, great kids, husband, but ME, something in me or about me i dont know how to describe it other than im not happy. Ever. Sad as hell. I read to see if i can fix myself, 2 therapist, etc. Hang in there i know trust me, i feel ill never be happy, but i keep trying.bless all of us messed up adults. My kids, i broke that cycle, i just need to find it and feel it in me.

Juadomitri - May 22, 2017 Reply

Listen to the song, The Remedy. He is dead on. Life = fulfillment, emptiness, joy, despair. The trickiest part is to let it all go and to be ready to embrace the next phase, yes, death, without expectations. Maybe that is just me, but I cannot recall a time in my existence when it was not about strategically thinking and engineering ones emotions to get from one day to another. I may be off topic here, in which case, i apologise. Bkessings to all.

    concerned parent - February 17, 2018 Reply

    Thanks, for your input. But, at this time in my life I’m not experiencing the feelings that people on this post are experiencing. I know I had ECN that’s probably why its hard for me to relate to others to some extent.

concerned parent - January 4, 2017 Reply

In reading the articles on ECN, I realized this is what I experienced as a child to some extent. I was thinking this may be why I do not make friends easily, as I have no friends at this time in my life, which I am 56 years old.

    Juadomitri - May 22, 2017 Reply

    I am 51 and honestly cannot say i have any friends. If you want to talk, im interested.

      concerned parent - July 27, 2017 Reply

      thanks

      Chrissy - November 17, 2021 Reply

      I am 56 and can’t believe I have no real friends either. I really care deeply about everyone and want to be a support to people but I keep getting ignored and forgotten about. Maybe I’m projecting the worthless way my parents treated me. I’ve just about given up all hope of a meaningful happy life. I really don’t know why out me in such a painful and empty life.

nobody - June 2, 2016 Reply

so easy to read about, so impossible to put into my real life. maybe some people are just ment to be unhappy? Getting really tired of trying for something that seems so unlike me.

Mac - March 18, 2016 Reply

Oh have another go at it Sharon…I was 53 when the shit hit the fan about my memory blanked childhood…I’m in my 72nd year and loving it.
If you know you’re needy you have the demon in sight and its well worth spending time and money with a therapist because that will fast track the changes…Three things you need, faith of some sort, the innate right to love yourself, and the determination to achieve that. What does this “loving it” feel like? A cuddly warmth, so I’m told…Love n light and warmies then…

Sharon - March 17, 2016 Reply

I can really relate to the whole concept of emotional neglect and I’ve dealt with the many things mentioned in many different ways over the years ( I am approaching my mid-50’s). It’s the “fix it” part that I get hung up on. If it were only that easy. Those recommendations are great for someone relatively young and inexperienced (in terms of relationships) who is discovering why they have difficulty with various things, but for someone who has struggled years and years to have normal relationships and has finally concluded it ain’t worth trying anymore cuz it hurts too much when things don’t work out because you’re (me) so messed up… It’s back to what’s the point? I’ve had to “shut down” because when I did open up it became overwhelming. “Normal” (I really don’t like this word) human beings can’t deal with a person who is so emotionally needy because they are trying to fill that void from childhood. So, unfortunately, I exist and try to at least serve some worthwhile purpose (so here’s more material to research).

Mac - March 17, 2016 Reply

Thanks Jonice..Nice site for a bit of space for personal self expression. Reminds me of the therapy group I attended many years ago where I found out there was a whole bunch of us sailing in the same ship called SS Neuroses..lol. But seriously the common factor began to draw us out of our shells as we were encouraged to empathise with our fellow sufferers, and offer tentative help to each other, while being quietly overseen by a Cognitive Behaviour Psychologist. Carrying the lone stigma of seemingly being a fruitcake was much relieved by sharing, because as we all found out it was Ok to be neurotic as a result of whatever the cause, and it would have been abnormal not to have been affected. A lot of us needed to bawl and let off steam, but had got tied up with societal mores of behaviour and duty while ignoring our own shredded feelings. Suitcases of personal baggage about to burst the zip and spew forth all sorts of unlaundered smalls…At that time I had burnt out through overwork…Hmmm… It was helpful then, and looking back now having recently discovered the real causality for my own weird character lay in a blank area called the unremembered darker side of my childhood, then the heat is off. I’d often wondered who I really was.There didn’t seem to be any definitive quality about me other than being a nervy people pleasing jerk whom I intensely disliked. I’d have preferred to be” Somebody” but when I looked inside myself there was just a big weird angry sad space which was more frightening than being a jerk . So jerk to the fore. However, when it became clear that abuse and nurture, or lack of it in my case, was the creator of said sad person, I got on the case making peaceful use of nuclear material, my awful temper, to break that character mould. This was/ is not easy,and it hurt, but with the causality objectified rather being an issue which affected me subjectively ,then proper “lil ole me” appeared….An easy going people pleasing….Person…So much for the hero inside myself, or the giant…lol Nice thing is having free ranging emotions. Sounds like happy chickens.. lol , but having these and a lot more sensitivity both for myself and others has opened up a new way of seeing life, though its not particularly a visual experience, more a kind of empathetic radar. Luckily I’ve always had a default setting of kindness, but unlike in the old days when I was often depressed and emotionally brittle, and could be used, this has now got boundaries and potential abusers well know it. This is written by a person, who spent most of his life enduring PTSD from childhood and the depressing concomitant zero self esteem generated by the condition. Happiness is actually a human right. So lovely peeps go find it within, you’re definitely worth it…Todays good deed was to take my best pal, a girl, to her work, lots laughs on the way making up for the lost time since w’ed last seen each other. I have an ordinary life, an ordinary life is good…

    CS - March 22, 2016 Reply

    Mac, thank you for writing out your experience like that. Hearing/reading how other people articulate what has gone on with their own inner struggles has helped clarify some of my own for me, which turns out to be no easy task for me to do on my own. Thanks again, and much appreciation.

Prairie Cat - March 6, 2016 Reply

I have suffered and I now see the reason why I am the way I am. I have discovered that I am on the autism syndrome. I am autistic! I believe that my entire family was and is autistic, parents included. People, please consider this possibility for yourself. Then get help from an autistic syndrome specialist immediately, as I am doing. The autistic syndrome is very broad; you don’t necessarily have to have Asperger’s, all you may have is a few autistic characteristics. Some famous autistics are: Dan Ackroyd, Sarah Boyle, Daryl Hannah, Temple Grandin and Jerry Seinfeld.

killuridolz - February 29, 2016 Reply

Growing up getting abused by my father and getting bullied at school, I am used of being called useless, lame, and the like. I’ve always stayed to myself, but one day ppl wanted to be my friends, so I’ve opened up to them hoping I can finally be accepted. I have had a so called best friend for over 4 years and I felt so over joyed… until the day she left me calling me all kinds of bitches and emotional abused me because I had to live with her because my mother kicked me out (that’s another story.) I’ve also asked my first love out just for her to say she didn’t wanted an relationship at the time and ended up talking to someone else the week later… that was fun. The bosses at my old job also hated my guts and thought I was an challenged idiot since I didn’t talk much at work, despite being a good worker, so I’ve quited. I was optimistic and naive at the time, but now I wonder why I’m even here… perhaps to be treated like an used tool in the shed for the time until proven useless, or to suffer and not tell anyone about, because I was told that “I would get over it.”, or “you’re a man, you’re not suppose to show any signs of weakness, unless you’re a pussy.” It felt like I’ve been suffering for so long, that I’m expecting to fail or if I do exceed, will be left unnoticed, like always. I also think that, if I were to die now, would anyone notice or care at all, since we’re all going to die sooner or later? I doubt my death would matter to anyone…

    Chrissy - November 17, 2021 Reply

    Hi!. I feel the same way. No one would care if I wasn’t alive anymore. They already act like I’m gone anyway. I really do believe that you matter very much. I keep trying to hang on to that fact and hope and pray you do, too!!!

      Jonice - November 17, 2021 Reply

      You both matter! Trust me, you do. It’s childhood programming that makes you have to struggle to see it.

        Chrissy - November 19, 2021 Reply

        Thank you, Jonice, that is very kind and comforting.. I hope one day soon I will feel that way.

Domi - February 29, 2016 Reply

This seems to describe me perfectly, however I am always feeling too much, and I keep wishing I was more numb. I do have difficulties in voicing my feelings, but I think I feel more and more deeply than average. I’m going to try meditation.

Lady Di - February 29, 2016 Reply

I have no identity. All my parenting years I have repeated over and over again to my children “do not end up like me”. I am in amazement and awe of my children’s success. I never take credit or praise for my influence or input into their success. I feel like such a waste of time and space. I know there are people dying of all kinds of illnesses and would give anything to have just one more day, while I grumble and complain and the best part of my day is when I can go to bed albeit 6 pm or 9 pm. Just to have this day over with.

    Vic - March 5, 2016 Reply

    Feel the same…

    David S. - May 8, 2016 Reply

    I can certainly relate to the last part of your paragraph. There’s been times in my life that going to bed was the only thing I looked forward to all day. I rarely ever slept good due to night sweats, night terrors, all kinds of weird dreams and thoughts etc. but still, it was better than being up, awake and aware. The times I did manage to sleep well, usually medicated sleep, when I did wake up, my first thoughts were “damn… another day.” That part of my life is behind me now but I feel empty, numb, and totally unnecessary. My job is the only structure in my life. Otherwise I feel that I have no purpose. I look forward to the weekend but when the weekend gets here, I’m at a loss for something to do. There’s plenty to do, but no motivation, nobody to share anything with, and then I find myself waiting to go back to work. It’s the only place where I am somebody. I was a non-biological parent on the weekends for almost 18 years but when “my daughter” became of age, she moved in with her boyfriend and quit coming around. The only time I heard from her was when she wanted something. She will be 24 next month. I’ve seen her and my granddaughter once in the past two years. If there’s a more powerful word than empty, then I guess that’s what I feel.
    Sorry about rambling on, but there’s not many places to release about this stuff. I see a psychiatrist regularly but what can you put into or get out of a 15 minute session? If you read all of this, thank you.

      RUBEN - November 8, 2019 Reply

      I read your comment – and listened between the words. Thank you for sharing – it somehow makes me feel less alone.

NYCpsychologist - February 29, 2016 Reply

I am responding to those comments who keep saying that what the Author noted about the importance of “fighting” is destructive or dangerous. It DOESN’T HAVE TO BE. That is what the author is saying. “Fighting” does not have to include attacks or abuse. That is what the commentators are thinking “fighting” means–but it isn’t.

There can be productive “fights” and conflict for sure–that in the end, brings couples closer together. That is healthy and productive “fighting.” Not useless attacks, abuse, or the more stealthily dangerous element of emotional neglect and avoidance of conflict or discussion. What Dr. Webb stated about being able to tolerate anger in yourself and others is SPOT ON.

If you came from an abusive or attacking or needy family environment, then of course, anger will trigger all those buried emotions in you. But THAT is the problem–the fact that you have buried these childhood emotions and NOT processed them in therapy.

There is nothing wrong with trying to handle or manage anger in a healthy with for most people. Just because someone is angry doesn’t mean you have to get triggered by it. Notice what you feel in response to the anger in someone else. That itself is very telling and very healing if you can process your own responses to what you perceive as others’ “attack,” “anger,” “need” etc…

It may not all be the OTHER PERSON. It can be YOU, and why you may get triggered by normal human emotions and needs. This is especially true if you had a parent who tried to you get you to take care of THEM instead of them taking care of YOU.

    Cared So Much - April 26, 2016 Reply

    This was true for my ex. He was raised by extremely abusive, neglecfful, parents, both severe alcoholics. After being parentified throughout his life he became the primary caretaker of his mother before she died of cancer. She had the nerve to ask request that he take care of the father who’d abused him his whole life while she ignored it. My ex could never deal with his or anyone else’s emotions. I understand how hard it is for him but he refused to get help. I’d got to know him whsn he reached out as a work acquaintance, year after my divorce. He offered me “emotional support” and a “caring friendship”, only to end up deceiving me in the most humiliating ways. The only person he “supported” ($$$) was his ex-girlfriend’s daughter (a child he purposely kept from knowing her biological father) because it allowed him to be seen as the false-self he has created throughout his life. So sad…this was someone who is worthy of being in a loving relationship if only he’d open up and get proper counseling so he could receive what’s being offered.

Tina - February 29, 2016 Reply

Thank you. Everything in this article rings true to me. Most especially getting an unspoken message almost every day that you arent important and your thoughts and feelings dont matter. That has a lifelong effect on your psyche that is very difficult to shake.

Felix - February 29, 2016 Reply

The author refers to a ‘one-sided’ nature of emotions, but only uses one possibility as example. Not only can people feel they need to care for others, but some other people feel the need to be cared for by others and do so with a sense of entitlement that can be truly destructive to other people. Some children who were abused, yes, can go on into adulthood to be more on the abused end, while others go on to perpetuate the abuse, becoming abusers themselves.

Bethan - February 29, 2016 Reply

This is the biggest challenge I face. I wrote about it here. http://www.hashtagborderlinewhat.blogspot.com/2016/02/whats-point.html?m=1

Thank you so much for this article.

    GypdyLove414 - June 25, 2016 Reply

    I struggle with a weak sense of self, feeling empty as if I am missing something or someone and consequently feeling inadequate. I have many codependant traits and intense fear of abandonment. I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder almost exactly two years ago. Emotional ly neglected children is a newfound piece to the of Gregg

      Justg7 - February 17, 2018 Reply

      I know your post is old, but i also was diagnosed with bpd. A yr. Later and i keep reading and learning, i dont think i have that, ive always known my childhood was differant, definately emotionally neglected. This article. Right here is great!! Im 46 and still not where i want to be emotionally, faaar from it!!

Sharon - February 29, 2016 Reply

I believe I was emotionally neglected and the major characteristic I can describe that I feel is having a huge hole around the area of my heart that seems will never be filled. I’ve spent my life trying to find ways to fill this emptiness, with no success, and now I’ve given up. I feel very hopeless.

    aa - November 17, 2021 Reply

    Hi Sharon, sorry to hear this. I too experienced emotional neglect. My parents didnt set out to do it deliberately, but they were exhausted from working all the time and had been raised by emotionally ignorant parents themselves. Interestingly, i too felt at times that there was a hole near my heart. Unconsciously, my life was a pursuit to fill this hole. For years, i tried to fill it with things that I thought would work but didnt – work success, status, doing ‘cool’ things, adventures. There is a concept in Buddhism called ‘hungry ghosts’ which describes people who are starving, but keep trying to eat poisons that wont fill them up. I came across emotional neglect and counterintuitively, i think not feeling my emotions is part of what that hole is. Also, I think i put down lots of barriers between myself and other people (like prejudice, lack of interest, trying too hard to be funny), so that they cant hurt me. However, i think this backfires because i also cant feel connected to others, and it also reduces my ability to feel positive emotions. I have tried therapy and with the right person, i find it to be lifechanging. This thing is so complex that i certainly couldnt have worked on myself alone. Good luck everyone. Just getting this far to this webpage is an achievement and milestone. Keep trying different things till you find what works for you!

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