How Childhood Emotional Neglect Undermines the Highly Sensitive Person’s 3 Greatest Strengths

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Lucy — The Highly Sensitive Person

Lucy sits on the edge of her bed, relieved to be behind the closed doors of her bedroom. Slowly, she climbs under the covers, pulling them over her head. In complete darkness, she finally is able to relax.

Lucy — The Highly Sensitive Person With Childhood Emotional Neglect

With her covers over her head, finally, in complete darkness, Lucy wonders why she still does not feel better. Being alone feels better in one way but worse in another. The dark, safe quiet soothes her, but it also unsettles her. Somehow, it seems to intensify that uncomfortable feeling she always has somewhere in her belly: the feeling of being deeply and thoroughly alone in the world. “What is wrong with me?” she wonders.

The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

In the late 1990s, it was discovered that some people are born with much greater sensitivity to sound, sight, texture, and other forms of external stimulation than others. Aron & Aron (1997) named people who are “wired” in this special way the Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP.

If you are an HSP, you tend to be a deep thinker who develops meaningful relationships. You may be more easily rattled or stressed than most people, but it’s only because you feel things deeply. You may seem shy, but you have a rich and complex inner life, and you are probably creative.

HSP children like Lucy are far more affected by events in their family than their parents and siblings might be. Yelling seems louder, anger seems scarier, and transitions loom larger. And because the HSP tends to feel others’ feelings, everyone else’s sadness, pain or anxiety becomes her own.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when you grow up in a family that does not address the feelings of its members. The emotionally neglected child may feel sad, distressed, hurt, angry or anxious. And when no one notices, names, inquires about, or helps him manage those feelings, he receives a message that, though unspoken, rings loudly in his ears: your emotions do not matter.

As an adult, the CEN person, following the belief that her feelings are irrelevant, continually tries not to deal with them. She pushes them down, hides and minimizes them, and may view them as a weakness.

This is why the emotionally neglected child grows up to feel that something vital is missing. He may appear perfectly fine on the outside, but inside, without full access to his emotions, which should be stimulating, motivating, energizing and connecting him, he goes through his life with a sense of being different, flawed, empty and disconnected for which he has no words to explain.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Undermines the Highly Sensitive Person’s 3 Greatest Strengths

  • Strength #1: You feel things deeply and powerfully. If you have ever doubted that this is a strength, I want to assure you that it is. Our feelings are built into us for a reason. When we allow ourselves to feel them, they guide us. They tell us what we need and what we want. They motivate us, and they connect us to others. But when you grow up emotionally neglected, you learn that your emotions are useless and should be ignored and hidden. This takes your powerful force from within, disempowers it, and perhaps even shames you for having it.
  • Strength #2: You are a deep thinker who needs to have meaning and purpose in your life. You are not one to skim across the surface of life. You need to feel that what you are doing matters. This important strength helps you invest more deeply in your own decisions and helps you to live your life in a more real way. But when you grow up with the CEN message that your feelings don’t matter, you internalize an even more painful message. Since your emotions are the most deeply personal expression of who you are, it’s natural for you as a child to internalize the message as “I don’t matter,” and to take it forward with you as a deeply held, unconscious “truth.” Going through your adult life, you tend to feel less important than other people, and this undermines your ability to experience yourself, and your life, as meaningful and important.
  • Strength #3: Your intense feelings and your need to have meaning and purpose in your life both make your relationships heartfelt and genuine. But when you grow up with your feelings ignored (CEN), you miss out on the opportunity to learn how to understand and manage your emotions and the emotions of others. This can leave you somewhat at sea when it comes to handling your most important relationships: for example, your marriage, your children, and your closest friends. You are held back from your tremendous capacity to enjoy wonderful, whole-hearted relationships by your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Many HSPs question their 3 greatest strengths or do not even recognize them until they read about them. Even then, it can be difficult to believe or own them.

Since Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up to question your essential validity as a person, you are uprooted from your inalienable strengths, dragged away from what should be grounding you driving you, and connecting you.

Minus enough emotion skills, you are not sure what to do with the powerful force from within, your feelings. Sadly, instead of harnessing it and using it, Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up for a lifelong battle with your greatest resource.

How To Reclaim Your Greatest Strengths

  1. Once you see that Childhood Emotional Neglect is at work in your life, you are immediately on a new path. Seize the moment by learning everything you can about CEN. How it happens, why it’s so invisible and unmemorable, how it affects your relationships, and the steps to healing.
  2. Start treating your emotions differently. Instead of trying to escape, avoid, or minimize your feelings, begin to pay attention to them. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, and think about each emotion and what it’s telling you.
  3. Walk through the steps of CEN healing. They are clearly outlined, and thousands of people have walked the walk before you. Take one step after another, and you will begin to heal and change.

You will see how beginning to treat your most valuable resource with the regard and significance it deserves, you will be moving forward to a much more empowered future.

The future you were born to have.

You’ll find lots of great information about how CEN affects all areas of your life in my Free CEN Breakthrough Video Series.

To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens and how to heal it in yourself and your relationships, see the books Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More.

Emotional Neglect can be subtle so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
CT - April 12, 2024 Reply

I’m surprised that you all are so down on being HSP with CEN. I mean, yes it does suck that our childhood was less than perfect. I was abused in every way: mentally, physically, I was sacrificial, but I survived. I found that I don’t have good manners. I don’t know how to express myself with out tears. I think I don’t know how to process all that it wrong with me, so I’m super grateful that those who tolerate me do so at all. I withdraw from all family events to the point I’m no longer invited. I do research
on all that to try and see if I can gain what I need. if I can.
But! I wouldn’t give up my HSP cen status. I love that music moves me to tears, I love my connection to love and peace.
we as hsps are here for a greater purpose and are justly here to exhibit strength of character, promote peace and spread positivity across a negative landscape. Naturally, any thing worth a damn is going to be hard. To the hsps of the world I say “Never let the neg-nays suck you into their absolute soul thinng theory’s.
Know that it’s a more evolved DNA that hsps are entrusted with. Good luck with all that negativity. I know now that I had to endure what I went through in order to become the amazing person I have become. Sometimes you have to suffer to be enlightened to your true potential.


“There are as many ways to look at things as there are things to look at”

-Carolyn Toliver

Pieter - February 25, 2019 Reply

At my final session with my therapist a few weeks ago, I suggested that I might be an HSP. Although this has not been officially diagnosed, based on what he knows about me, he does consider it very plausible. Turns out he is also one himself (officially diagnosed).

He then confirmed part of a theory I had developed myself, which is that all children start as HSP but eventually grow out of it as they become more stable thanks to growing up in a steady environment.

It is only when children get stunted in growing up that they keep HSP into adulthood. Since apparently 1 out of 5 people is an HSP and this makes it sound like HSP=CEN (at least to some extent), that does indicate how wide-spread this problem really is. 20% of the world population is quite a lot!

I know I have definitely had a hard time dealing with my excessively strong (as far as I’m concerned) emotions. And so I hid them and tried to act as coldly and logically as the Vulcans from Star Trek would do.
(It was explained in later series that they too have strong emotions that they suppress equally strongly. Remind you of anything…?)

    Else Marie - July 3, 2020 Reply

    Hello Pieter, if you are an HSP you are born such and have also inherited it from someone – HS is a temperament trait (in your genes) and you will never grow out of it. You cannot be diagnosed! It’s not an illness! HS is probably a survival strategy contrary to that of non-HS individuals and is also found in at least 100 species. The basis for HS is depth of processing. If you have CEN and HSP I would say it’s extra difficult because everything goes under our skin – we are particularly sensitive to the environment. Learn as much as you can about HS – read Elaine Aron’s books and listen to her videos.

Marsha - February 15, 2019 Reply

Read the book twice. Just visiting here now. Lots of helpful insights. It is however very distressing to see no response from the host/author to the heartfelt comments and questions here. It’s like a lost teachable moment for sure I just cannot wrap my mind around this. It’s one reason I stopped therapy. We have to do this inner work of self love ourselves.

    Jonice - February 20, 2019 Reply

    Dear Marsha, I wish I could respond to every single comment. But I don’t have a staff and it’s just me doing this work. I feel it’s better to provide this forum (my website) for people to connect with each other than to stop all comments due to feeling guilty that I can’t respond to them. It’s a dilemma I struggle with.

Christina Clayton - February 13, 2019 Reply

I have imagined through reading and observation, what appears to be the possibility that a deep, meaningful human relationship is like the solid circle inside a bull’s-eye surrounded by concentric rings. The solid circle of the bull’s-eye represents allowing a level of what I term, molecular-trust, toward another person; sometimes, more than one person, if that is within the display of human relationship possibility. The first set of outer concentric rings are where family members and close friends are allowed. The further out a concentric ring is, the more casual the interaction of trust is with the acquaintance. The HSP learns through life experience that there is absolutely no other human being who is genuinely interested to be in the inner solid circle. Peacefully it is accepted and resolved to be O.K. Additionally, it is too risky to entrust another person with the meaningful asset of molecular-trust, a sacredness belonging to the soul. The safest place is to relate to others from one of the outer concentric rings, learning it is all right to protect yourself from the savagery of other’s unkempt emotions oblivious to the HSP … as though the HSP is invisible … The unfailing hope for this HSP’er has been Jesus Christ, the Maker of the bull’s-eye of my soul and the only One Who knows the deep, rich meaning of honor, trust, hope and love.

Julie - February 11, 2019 Reply

I have been receiving Dr. Webbs daily emails when I first heard of cen.
I also, on my journey of self parenting found a 12 step group called ACoA.. Adult Children of Alcoholics or other Dysfunctional families. I was amazed at the similarities we all have. People I met in these groups come from a lot of different backgrounds. Some never have had alchohol in their families, but grew up with the facade of the “perfect” family image. Varying from young adult to 80 somethings, it’s a safe place to meet others, share out childhood issues and work on recognizing triggers. Dr. Webb is the only person out there who seems to be able to put a REAL name on these issues. CEN is very real. I go to a rehab on e a week to introduce the ACoA group. Some of these kids are in there because they never were really able to be a child.
So to escape the trauma they turned to drugs/alchohol. They seem so surprised to find out most of their issues had started long before substances came in to their lives. There are 14 traits of an Adult Child. I relate to most, as do others. has more info. Thank you for allowing me to share this additional resource. Dr.. Webb is spot on. Thank you Dr. Webb for allowing me to share this and help others. There IS power in numbers. Hearing others, having a support group & reading materials that CEN & the Adult Child has to offer let’s people know,,,WE ARE NOT ALONE! Julie S

Deb - February 11, 2019 Reply

Thank you for revealing so much positivity. I’m wondering how someone with CEN finds their voice in boundary setting. As I learn about CEN and the importance of sharing my feelings, I still want to feel protected. I don’t trust myself yet with people, so my voice is still. I have just now managed to communicate my feelings in letter format to my family. I feel like a bull in a China store. In an attempt to protect myself and set boundaries, I pushed them away entirely, as I do just about everyone, even those who don’t conjure up the pain within me. So, after learning about CEN, is there a helpful first step to trying out your voice again? Thank you for your time.

Alisha - February 11, 2019 Reply

This makes a lot of sense to me. I believe I am a HSP with CEN complications, and perhaps high functioning anxiety as well, although I was never officially diagnosed..
Are there therapists that specialize in both CEN and HSPs?

mieke - February 10, 2019 Reply

random people come up to me and blurt out whatever they think i am (partial facial paralysis) and get angry at me if i tell them how that affects me, even when i say so gently and thoughtfully. it’s truly bizarre. it’s like i’m just a “What” not a person with feelings and a mind. i’ve had to conclude they care more about their own impressions than a simple technical explanation (good enough to me) and sort of ‘get a rise’ of out talking to me, so i am learning to set a boundary on this subject. it’s not about a equal relationship to them.

Kathleen - February 10, 2019 Reply

Thank you for the article which seems to address a person that’s born with the highly sensitive trait yet who also experiences childhood emotional neglect. If so, are the effects the same for a Highly Sensitive Person involved with a CEN person? In other words, does the CEN person undermine an HSPperson? Eg. Ignoring the HSP’s emotions because they should be hidden

Richard - February 10, 2019 Reply

I seem to fit the designation except for the “meaningful relationships”. I don’t have any deep friendships, even my wife, although that relationship is immensely strained, with her haven given up. I don’t think either of us had a meaningful relationship, so many things just pointed to superficial existence. It changed a bit when children became part of the equation but now with the results of that experiment it is obvious to me that our shallow relationship made some child rearing issued become hot points. We are both stubborn german, well ancestorially, but her approach of non-discussion, internalize is so very frustrating. I long for a “do over”…. but I am pragmatic and realize our influence on our young adult children is minimal, I still see how we, if we could be united, can help them… This clashes with her family’s technique of giving your kids everything. Her father famously states “It will be all yours someday”, this irks me as she at 50 will go to her father for an expected hand out. Thanks for listening, I hope to learn more every day and improve going forward. Have a great day.

Jayne Charlton Henson - February 10, 2019 Reply

Having read the books on CEN I realise I fit the criteria – have spent many years in the mental health system, have been diagnosed with BPD! To me, this has always felt an unfair judgement to be labelled due to what was lacking in my formative years? I’m also in a 12-step programme for various addictions, and have been sober for 2.5 years, even so, I still have pangs of guilt, mistrust& am finding it hard to forgive myself! My question is, is it possible that CEN can manifest itself through ‘unfair and mis-diagnoses’, rendering the survivor at the mercy of a very discompassionate mental health officialdom and the stigmatising that comes with being labelled a misfit by society, I would welcome any response to this perturbing dilemma I find myself in, many thanks, Jayne

Rachel Clare - February 10, 2019 Reply

Many thanks again-yes, this is ongoing, and difficulties come with understanding, thank goodness I’m an optimist and believe that it is worth it,that good things ARE happening!

April Witkin - February 10, 2019 Reply

I agree that I am a highly sensitive person. However, I really don’t feel like this sensitivity is beneficial to me at all. Being an HSP causes me to feel rejection easily, which in turn prompts my insecure brain to obsessively ruminate and withdraw. For all the trouble this pattern causes me and the people in my life, I would rather be insensitive. In the past, I have been suddenly dumped by people who I thought were my close friends. These friends have never given me an explanation, and I wonder what it is about my personality that is so off-putting. I have a feeling that my unfiltered self is just too negative.

April Witkin - February 10, 2019 Reply

I agree that I am a highly sensitive person. However, I really don’t feel like this sensitivity is beneficial to me at all. Being an HSP causes me to feel rejection easily, which in turn prompts my insecure brain to obsessively ruminate and withdraw. For all the trouble this pattern causes me and the people in my life, I would rather be insensitive. In the past, I have been suddenly dumped by people who I thought were my close friends. These friends have never given me an explanation, and I wonder what it is about my personality that is so off-putting. I have a feeling that my unfiltered self is just too negative. Just to clarify, I am a 55 year old mother and wife who was raised by an alcoholic father, who died 30 years ago, and an emotionally absent mother who is still alive, lives 4 minutes away from me, but never calls me, never remembers my birthday or wants to spend anytime with me or her grandchildren. When I have spoken to her by phone, I can tell she is anxious to get the call over with. I have asked her why she has treated me this way my whole life, and I believe she was honest when she said “I know what I do, I just don’t know why.” No apology. There is never an apology or a desire to change.

    Sue - February 10, 2019 Reply

    Oh April, can I ever relate to what you say about rejection and the not knowing why. I’m a HSP as well, and have only ever put everyone else’s needs first- and yet somehow, the second I stand up for myself and stand my ground, I’m the bad guy and am alienated/rejected/ignored. Maybe I’m just surrounded by others with CEN who cannot see or manage emotion at all – who are even less equipped than me? No one is interested in my emotional take on things, it seems, and boy does this serve to perpetuate “I don’t matter” (I identified this as a core belief of mine a few years ago- interesting how Dr. Webb names it as especially relevant in HSPs with CEN). I’ve just begun her online course- here’s hoping. Sending you a big hug of understanding, my friend.

    Coco - February 10, 2019 Reply

    Hi, April. (Put right hand onto left shoulder, then left hand onto right shoulder. Squeeze. This is a hug from me to you.) I get it. I look at myself objectively and see the person I really am. “Brillant,” college professors said. Multi talented. Funny. A great friend, good parent, lover of God. I have been blessed by many people who love me but, so often, there’s this hurting core. Confusing childhood: Mother, how could you simultaneously criticize me relentlessly and pressure me to be perfect in your eyes — she told me she actually believed she could make me “perfect” if she was hard enough on me — yet convince me I was worthless? Illogical! But she was a narcissist.
    Recently, after months of analysis, I finally concluded the world IS a better place with me in it! This is HUGE. Awards, accolades, successes and praises came my way from others throughout my life but they all tumbled into the black hole inside and vanished. I’m discovering who I actually AM, one step at a time. (I’m 70.) Much of the time I believe I have worth.
    Through my faith I can believe I’ve been forgiven for my mistakes and my stupid decisions, marrying men who, or their families who persecuted me as worthless. I married my mother over and over! I’m working to steer my thoughts away from past failures and focus on the present.
    April, your mother is handicapped in serious, invisible ways. Her emotional self is sitting in a wheelchair, in a catatonic state. I’m not a trained counselor, but with my own CEN mother, who fortunately had a long term care policy, I got her into an assisted living facility where she was able to be physically active, creative and interact with others. She had a charming personality; she reserved the vitriol for me. The stimulation to her brain aided her functioning. I honored her as my mother but kept my shields up around her. I hope you can find a way to stop yearning for the mother you’ll never have. This just deepens the hole inside.
    Friendships seem to be in concentric circles around us. I have friends in various orbits but yearn for a deep, intimate, trusting friendship. I had such a friend who died in 2017. I had a growing friendship in 2018 but that one also passed. I pray for you to find one or two people you can connect with. I recommend starting with “open” AA meetings or other venues where people discuss feelings. I VALUE YOU FOR YOUR DEEP AND ABIDING HUMANITY AND YOUR HONESTY.

ivy eisen - February 10, 2019 Reply

THANK YOU! What insight I am getting through the books, etc. Love you, Ivy Eisen

Kimberly - February 10, 2019 Reply

I am 33 with 3 kids and a marriage of 14 years. I have CEN and depression. My for my middle child (9yrs old) who is a HSP…. And I’m afraid that I am going to cause CEN in my children’s lives. How can I make sure that their feelings are noticed, heard, and matter? I just don’t want them to feel what I feel daily. They have no idea that they are the reason I wake up, they are my strength to keep going.

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