How Childhood Emotional Neglect Affects Your Adult Work Life

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Barry is good at his job as the manager of a department store, so he continues to do it year after year. But in the back of his mind, he wonders how he ended up here.

Sharon received the Most Dedicated Salesperson Award.

Francesca watched in frustration, feeling overlooked, as her co-workers were promoted over her head, one after another.

Simon’s manager appreciates how quickly he has adapted to his new role in the company, and how little support he’s needed.

Will’s boss gave him a “Needs Improvement” rating, citing inadequate communication with co-workers.

Elizabeth toils away behind the scenes in her customer service job, trying not to call attention to herself. She has no idea that she is capable of much more.

If you have ever been in one of the situations above, you know how it feels. Barry, Francesca, and Elizabeth are in painful situations in their jobs, while Sharon, Simon and Will are thriving in theirs.

You may be surprised to learn that all six of these folks’ job experiences, as different as they are, arise from a common underlying cause. All six grew up in households where their parents overlooked their emotions. They all grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

The funny thing about CEN is that it leaves you with a particular set of challenges. But in some situations, those challenges can actually become your strengths. When it comes to the workplace, CEN is a double-edged sword.

The Advantages of CEN in the Workplace

  1. You give a lot, and ask for little. Since your emotional needs were treated as unimportant when you were growing up, you now have a hard time feeling okay about having needs, like a day off, a vacation or a raise. This makes you a highly dedicated and desirable employee.
  2. You are self-contained. When you needed help as a child, no one was there for you enough. Now, you are afraid to need help, for fear that you will be let down or viewed as weak. Your default setting is, “I can do this on my own,” and everyone around you can see it.
  3. You are remarkably responsible and reliable as an employee. As a child, you knew that you were mostly on your own, so you became ultra competent. Someone needs something? You’ll make it happen. A problem came up? You’ll fix it. Others know they can rely on you.

The Disadvantages of CEN in the Workplace

  1. Inaccurate self-appraisal:  Growing up, you didn’t get enough feedback about your true nature; nor were you encouraged to pay attention to who you are. So now, it’s hard for you to know what you want, what you enjoy, and what you are good at. This can make it hard for you to choose the right career that will feel fulfilling and gratifying for you.
  2. Difficulty asking for things: Asking for things that inconvenience others feels somehow wrong to you, so you err on the side of giving too much of yourself. It’s harder for you to ask for a vacation, a raise or a promotion than it is for most people, and this puts you at a disadvantage.
  3. Communication is not your strong point: Talking was not encouraged in your childhood home. So now it may not come naturally to you. If your job requires you to manage difficult situations with others, or talk about interpersonal problems, you may struggle to make yourself talk, and it may be hard for you to know what to say.

The folks who are the most rewarded by, and successful in, their jobs are strong communicators. They know themselves well, and they pay attention to what they are feeling and why. They ask for what they want, and they accept help when they need it.

You can become this way too.

Begin right now to focus more on learning who you are. What do you enjoy? What do you like? What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Begin right now to pay more attention to your needs. Have you earned a raise? Do you deserve a promotion? Are you due a vacation? If so, ask for it.

Begin right now to change how you relate to others. Talk more, take on more interpersonal challenges. Watch how others discuss difficult topics, learn from it, and practice.

Others have seen your strong points for years, and have benefited from your competence, and your giving, independent nature. Now it is time for you to recognize what you have to offer, and ask for what you deserve.

You are worth it. 

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), how it happens and how to learn the skills you missed, visit and Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free!

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty. 


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
jind - January 7, 2020 Reply

Hi there,
I suffered from CEN. I am struggling to choose my career because i don’t like to communicate with anyone and bonding with people.
could you please help me with it?

lazyeye - March 17, 2018 Reply

I have tried to click on the link to take the CEM test and keep getting an error.
As a neglected child, I was allowed to skip school because I was constantly teased for having a crossed eye AND primarily, I was allowed to skip school because I was afraid my mom would burn the house down when she was “doped up” and would sleep for days, often nodding off with a lit cigarette.
Is absenteeism also a symptom of CEN?

MES - September 13, 2017 Reply

I grew up in a household with a CEN dad (he is the “sensitive one” in a very old fashioned and very hardened German family) and a mentally ill mother. She has bipolar, PTSD, and a dissociative disorder from an abusive childhood (physical, emotional, verbal–all forms).

My childhood was extremely stressful/chaotic. It was spent with my brother, dad and I simply trying to SURVIVE. We never really knew what state of being my mom was going to be in when we got home from school. She might have taken a load of sedatives and be out of it, she might be superman, or she could be raging over something/anything. Or, as was often the case, she might not even be there, and had gone to a stress center/inpatient facility while we were at school. She has cancer now, and is in hospice, and I’m having a hard time knowing how to feel about the whole situation.

My dad, who I’m really close to now as an adult, not knowing what to do or how to cope himself, worked constantly so that he was able to get away from the situation, and pay the always growing heap of medical bills that she accrued from all of the appointments, inpatient stays, and expensive medications that insurance barely covered, as well as feed and clothe 2 very small kids.

We spent a lot of time with his parents, who were old farmers and as stated above, very “hard”. We did not discuss the situation with my mom, rather, they (with good intentions) tried to distract us from it. They were not great at supervising us, and from 3 & 4yrs old and up, we were gone for hours during the day, playing in their 26 acres of forest, learning to fend for ourselves. This made us extremely self sufficient, and in many ways I am so thankful for it, but as a result of that, and from our home life being so chaotic/stressful, my brother and I both have developed CEN.

I did the questionairre, and answered yes to every single question.

I guess my question is, now as an adult, along with not having much access to my emotions (actively doing the exercises to work on this) especially during this stressful time, I am also having a hard time because I will be going back to work full time after this is over, and I don’t know what I WANT to do. How do I go about discovering this? I don’t have the money to commit to counseling, and our insurance barely covers it, so I’ve been trying to read all the books that I can, and do all the exercises within, but with regard to work, the books come up short.

College was never discussed in our house, as we were all just trying to SURVIVE the chaos, and I never got a chance to really think about what I want to do with my life. No one ever asked me as a serious question about what I wanted to do “when I grew up”.. I don’t really know what types of things interest me, and have spent the last 15 yrs bouncing around different careers and hobbies.

My adult life has been spent taking care of the needs of my mom with her mental illness and now with her cancer, although this sounds morbid, now that she’s coming to the end of her life, I will now have a chance to pursue a real career, and my husband wants me to do so, but it’s terrifying to commit to spending all that money on college with no real plan in place.

    Jonice Webb PhD - September 13, 2017 Reply

    Dear MES, the main suggestion I would make is that you begin to pay more attention to yourself, and how you feel about things. What do you like? Dislike? Want? Need? Enjoy? Start writing down everything you can notice. The answer to your future career lies nowhere but in you, and you can find it by paying attention to your own feelings. I hope this suggestion helps. You deserve to be happy, and I believe you can be.

Nisey - August 2, 2017 Reply

I was raised in an environment where my needs were ignored. I wasn’t allowed to have needs. It was a very dysfunctional upbringing and I cannot find a job which is sustainable. I also end up getting bullied and mistreated on the jobs I have had. I treat everyone with respect but don’t get respect. I notice everybody takes off time where I work without asking for a day off. When I ask for a day off someone objects but they don’t with the others. If I ask for something respectfully someone yells at me but they don’t yell at the others. This is a pattern that I cannot break out of. It has taken me years to stand up for myself but when I speak up others don’t want to hear it. I feel like everything has backfired upon me and I am a target.

Keith - August 2, 2017 Reply


Everything I read on your web page helps me so much. I grew up with 2 alcoholic abusive parents. Neglect was just one of the many things my siblings and I dealt with.

I never turned out like my parents. I have raised 2 wonderful children into adult hood and I am so proud of them. However, the pain of childhood revisits me often. This web page, along with a wonderful therapist has truly been a life saver for me.


DogMom! - August 1, 2017 Reply

It’s been almost 20 years since I walked into my manager’s office. He had 5 things to review with me — #3 was to get my letter of resignation. I took a job that was a terrible fit for me. My peer and co-manager didn’t get along. Since then, I have been employed in jobs where I’ve done very well but were well below my background and experience level. As a result, I’ve set aside thoughts of bettering myself. Offering opinions or suggestions at work is a challenge for me because of what I now know is CEN. My parents gave me & my siblings a roof over our heads, meals & the required clothing. The rest was up to us. I told my boss last week that I was under utilized and needed more work. We were scheduled to meet on Monday but he had to cancel. Our meeting was rescheduled for tomorrow. I’m ready. But so is my shadow — my CEN.

    Jonice Webb PhD - August 1, 2017 Reply

    Good for you for speaking up! Every time you override that CEN voice it gets weaker. You will do great tomorrow.

rosebud - July 31, 2017 Reply

The three categories of ways CEN affected my work life are spot on. I was forced out of a job I truly loved and had a promotion almost waiting. That was the problem; a narcissistic peer gained the trust of other colleagues unbeknownst to me for about two years also getting the ‘powers that were’ involved so that a rigged scheme of bullying was unable to be fought by myself, or my ‘union’. Long story short, he seized power over the then current boss and was found a year later to be taking/dealing illegal drugs. Perhaps if CEN was not part of my persona the outcome may have been very different. All told, this was a very damaging part of my 35 years in my profession and I will never be the same, either positively or negatively. But it was a learning experience in which I’ve always asked myself what I could have done to change the outcome; now that CEN is a definite part of my past, I’ve become more able to put the whole mess in perspective making it easier to ‘let go’. Thank you Dr. Jonice for peace and recovery in my life.

    Jonice Webb PhD - July 31, 2017 Reply

    That sounds like a terrible experience, Rosebud. It is true that CEN makes you more vulnerable to people who want to take. I’m so glad you are taking on your CEN and healing. All my best wishes to you!

    Sue F - July 31, 2017 Reply

    I can certainly relate to this experience. I had a supervisor who was cruel and abusive. She had her favs but I was certainly not one of them. When promotion came up for me I applied but was refused, as were a few of the other non-favs. I could have just walked away as I was just not into confrontation. I knew I was good at my job and I felt that a terrible injustice had taken place at the hands of this woman. So the non-favs got together and went to management. I will never forget on the way to the meeting how my heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to burst. I’d been brought up to be the “good girl”, “don’t make waves”, “keep the peace” etc. But I thought if I don’t face up to this here and now I will always walk away without saying something. This was the beginning of the “journey” for me. It takes courage to stand up and say something, it really does.

      Nisey - August 2, 2017 Reply

      It was great you had company and were able to stand up for yourselves. I can relate because I have never been a favorite and if the boss did like me to start with someone managed to falsely turn them against me. I have had some horrific experiences in my jobs where narcissist, bully-type people have made my life hell. I had to resign. I stuck it out as long as I could but my health was failing. I am a CEN but have learned a lot of skills but nothing seems to be reliable. I treat people well, I am quiet, respectful but people walk all over me. Others get away with murder. Calling off sick, being careless, constantly using cellphone etc. I don’t do any of these things but still find myself in trouble. If there is nothing they can find fault with then I take the blame for others’ problems. I am totally anguished over it. Sometimes, I try to speak up. Sometimes I bottle it up but in the end the whole thing turns into a meltdown because I can no longer deal with it. I either sneak away which is becoming the norm for me now or I find a way to resign because in the past they ended up discharging me. I don’t want that to happen again because I was doing my job above and beyond which I will not do any more.

Jenn - July 31, 2017 Reply

My therapist had dropped the ‘neglect’ bomb a couple of times over the course of several months, mostly in a canyon while I refused to actually hear it and allow it to resonate – until recently when it clung to me like velcro and I had so many questions. She suggested that despite my insistence that I was loved plenty, my emotional needs weren’t met – that I experienced a form of neglect that is not super apparent. I asked the internet to show me more and your book was top search hit so I ordered it immediately and actually devoured it the next day when it arrived. It’s changing a lot for me and I’m grateful. I’m also exhausted – it’s hard work! But what really strikes a resounding chord the most in this moment after reading this most recent post? I spent a lot of time earlier today with feelings all over the map about ‘who even am I?’ Thank you for this extremely well timed, siren-like call to get to know myself.

    Jonice Webb PhD - July 31, 2017 Reply

    Dear Jenn, I am so glad that you’re working to learn who you are. It is so very important! I’s amazing what you can do once you accept your CEN and take it on. I applaud you! Keep it up!

Sue F - July 30, 2017 Reply

Hi Jonice, the more I learn about CEN the more I learn about myself. I look back over my life and I see a pattern. It’s illuminating to say the least! Keep up the good work.

    Jonice Webb PhD - July 30, 2017 Reply

    I’m glad you are seeing the pattern, Sue. That’s an important part of recovery! I’ll keep up the good work, as long as you do too! 🙂

    Keith - August 2, 2017 Reply

    I absolutely see myself in this article. I never use up my vacation days, have received numerous awards at work, never ask for anything and always receive great performance reviews. However, I have always been convinced that they are going to fire me at any moment. It is sad what a dysfunctional childhood can do to someones confidence.

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