On the Outside


 I feel like I’m on the outside, looking in

Whoever I’m with, I don’t feel I fit in

I look fine, but I don’t feel fine


The first item on the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire (ENQ) is:

– Do you sometimes feel like you don’t belong when you are with family or friends?

I put that question first in the ENQ on purpose. Because it is one of the most centrally defining qualities of a person who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect.

At first glance, it doesn’t make sense. Why would a person carry around a pervasive feeling of being out-of-place? Of not fitting in? Of being on the outside, looking in? Especially when among people who love you? It’s a difficult to identify, difficult to name feeling; yet it can hold tremendous power over a person. It can make it hard to go to a social gathering, and difficult to stay very long. Perhaps you get irritable when you’re around other people and you’re not sure why. Perhaps you’re good at putting on a show to look like you’re having fun, but only you know that actually, you are not. Perhaps you are actually looking around at other people laughing and talking and appearing comfortable, and wondering what you are missing.

In over twenty years as a psychologist, I have heard many lovely people describe this feeling. They each use different words, but they all have one common factor which links them: they all grew up in a household with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

CEN happens when parents fail to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs. When you are a child whose feelings are largely ignored, you receive an indirect, but very powerful message from your parents. That message is, “Your feelings don’t matter.” I have seen time and time again, that when children receive this message, they automatically adapt. They push their feelings down and away, so that they will not bother anyone. This may help the child survive, or even thrive, in a household that is not friendly to emotion. But in adulthood, it becomes a problem.

As adults, we need our emotions. Emotion is the glue that connects us to other people and the spice that keeps things interesting. When your emotions are pushed away, it’s hard to feel the emotional connection that binds people together at a party. It’s even harder to experience the spontaneous, happy synergy that occurs when people are truly fully present with each other. So instead, you are like a baker without yeast. You are operating without a key ingredient that everyone else has. And you feel it.

If you find yourself identifying with this, please remember that while the “On the Outside” feeling is a real feeling, it is not a real thing. The people you are with do not see you that way. They don’t see you on the outside. They don’t feel that you don’t belong. They want to connect with you and enjoy your company.

The best thing about CEN is that it can be overcome. Here are my Four Tips to overcoming, specifically, your “On the Outside” feeling:

  1. Become more aware of your “On the Outside” feeling. Notice when you feel it. Take notice of the power it has over you. Keep it in the back of your mind at all times. Remind yourself that it’s just a feeling.
  2. Once you’re more aware of the feeling, its source and its power, start to fight it. Force yourself to go to social gatherings, and constantly fight the feeling while you’re there.
  3. Tell someone (your spouse, a sibling, a good friend) about this feeling. Explain the source and your struggle. Ask that person for their support at family functions, parties and other gatherings.
  4. Address your CEN. It’s important to attack your CEN from all angles. One of the best ways to do this is to start working on accepting and feeling your own emotions more. The better you get at this, the weaker your “On the Outside” feeling will become.

Becoming more comfortable with your emotions is the hardest part of this process. If you find yourself mystified or daunted by this step, please read more about CEN throughout this website, or take a look at my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. In it, you will find information about parents and parenting, the unique struggles of people who grew up with CEN, and multiple strategies for healing from it in adulthood. 

Once you realize what’s wrong, you are on your way to recovery. You’re on the path to a more connected, more comfortable, and more fully satisfying life.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Ismail - March 17, 2021 Reply

This is so shockingly accurate.
I was hanging out with my friends today, and just all of a sudden I felt strange and awkward, I felt I don’t fit in and that I don’t belong. I literally picked up my phone and typed “feeling out of place” and the results got me here.

I’m 24 and for my entire life I’ve been living with my family who live as if humans had no feelings. We always deliberately ignore out emotions and try to suppress what we feel.
It really hurts to know the reason being your insecurities and suffering.
Thanks for sharing this article..

Jen - March 13, 2021 Reply

I’m very glad I found this explanation for what I’ve been feeling. More so in the months of lockdown. Some times I will be hugging my husband or just simply sat at the table eating as a family with our children and I’ll get an overwhelming feeling I don’t belong there, or that it’s not my life. CEN is not something I had heard of before, but makes perfect sense to me now. I grew up in a large family who were part of a fundamentalist church. Emotions were not something that were encouraged and parents had too many children to provide adequate emotional support to each of us. I’m glad I now have some tools to deal with these increased feelings of not belonging and being in the wrong life. Thank you

rose - March 3, 2021 Reply

I kinda just found out that I have CEN problems because of my doctor and ive always known, but yeah anyways i want help but I dont know how to get it, I talk with people I try to get help but im to much work so they always leave in the end, im always crying and I dont know how to stop im not an adult yet im still 16 but I dont wanna feel so broken inside forever, o one ever listens to my opinion at all they tell me to shut up necause they think I feel nothing but its not that I dont feel I just dont know what emotion im feeling whenever I feel something, my family my friends strangers dont just show me my feelings dont matter by neglecting them they literally tell me my feelings dont matter and I dont know how to respond to that, Ive already read her book done what she suggested on this website and in her book but its not working and I just dont know what to do about any of this, i just want to be normal I wanna make friends and do something but I dont know how to when I feel like my feelings dont matter I have a hard time telling anyone how I really feel because I dont know what im feeling or how to tell them so im just left always crying silently or out loud thats all I can do and I wanna be able to do more I want to get better but how?

    Jonice - March 4, 2021 Reply

    Dear Rose, I’m so sorry you’re going through this. At 16, do not worry, you have plenty of time to heal your CEN. But you could use some help, I think! I suggest to tell your parents you need someone to talk to; There’s a whole list of therapists trained in CEN work on this website and they can help you. You could also ask a counselor at school to talk with you. There is help available, but I know it’s hard to get it when you’re living in a family that doesn’t understand.

Ken - January 16, 2021 Reply

I am 59.I am aware that I am a child of emotional neglect. I am a RAF veteran and social worker. I moved to Scotland Inn 2002 with my Scots wife. However, since 2014 because of all the Referendums, I realised I do not belong here. The isolation causes by Covid is not helping. I don’t know what to do. I want to move back to England and the sooner the better. However, my wife would disagree and she down plays any discussion.

Calista - December 29, 2020 Reply

My tears keep falling when i finally knew what was happening to me. I always feel that i don’t belong to this family they always ignore what i am saying and also my opinion.

    Rahul - January 4, 2021 Reply

    I too feel same way.My family completely ignores me.I do feel excluded,ignored and isolated along with loneliness.But now i am seeing some changes as i started to ask myself what am i feeling more.It will help you too.

Gel - October 2, 2020 Reply

I am glad to find this article, its the first time I was able to understand what was I’ve been struggling about throughout my adolescents years, I just thought I cannot fit in. I’ve grown at a very emotional neglecting environment since I was a child, my mother whose favorite is my younger brother never fail to upset me. Even my grandmother never missed an opportunity to make me feel I was not good enough. My father can’t even help me and I grew up in an environment where emotions seems to be lacking. I easily get jealous of my classmates who have a nice family wishing why can’t I have those. I guess it goes to show that I lacked the warmth that a family should have, both of my parents have always been strict around me. I don’t know if it’s because I was a girl, but I never received any kind of emotional support from them even when I was doing good in school. Then it kind of hit me when I started working that it doesn’t really matter anymore. I grew introverted over time, preferring to be alone instead of joining others. I think I’ve started also to disconnect from my family around that time. I never bother. It’s so sad that it continues to affect my life. I can’t connect to anyone. What scares me too is I tend to give all emotions when a person shows a bit of warmth to me only to leave me after.
Just wanted to share my story here.

    Jonice - October 4, 2020 Reply

    Dear Gel, now that you can see the problem, I want you to know that there is help for you and you can feel better. I encourage you to contact a therapist on the Find A CEN Therapist List under the help tab of this site. You deserve support and guidance to heal what’s causing your pain.

    rose - March 3, 2021 Reply

    I understand your story I do the same I give my all when a person shows just a little but of emotion towards me and end up broken afterwards when they leave because they think im to much, i know how that feels i also feel disconnected from my family I would stay outside playing with others kids hours after I was supposed to go home but my family never noticed their always like oh rose how was your nap or how was the book you were reading i grew apart from my family I used to be so extroverted but not anymore I grew introverted over the years I also get jealous that everyone has a good family and think why cant I have that ive asked myself this over and over and never can get an answer how can my parents tell me they love me when they cant even remember what i was doing but they know exactly what my siblings were doing all day they never notice when im gone so i started running away a lot because i wanted them to notice me and see me but it never worked so i just became a loner everywhere i went because no one ever even noticed me in school or at jome everywhere i went i was invisible to them so i became inbisible and then i just stopped caring about life or anything after that cause i figured im invisible and im a nobody who would care so yeah.

Summer - June 21, 2020 Reply

I have had this feeling my entire life, and I am just now finding a legitimate description for it. It hurts so bad. I want things to change, but it may be too late now. I am trying to hold on to hope…

    Jonice - June 22, 2020 Reply

    Dear summer, it is absolutely never too late! If you feel left out, the key is to look inside rather than outside. You will likely find the answers there.

John - May 12, 2020 Reply

I am reading these comments with mixed feelings.
I have struggled with social isolation my entire life.
I just turned 69! So, what to do, keep trying therapy? My mom, who thought she was perfect,
managed to destroy all the kids she gave birth to.
Dad was an alcoholic, and she tried desperately to
hide it from anyone who would get close. From her own mom, who died not knowing they had
separated, to her sisters, brothers, kids, neighbors, friends, etc etc. It was all about image.
None of our feelings mattered, and were constantly struck down to the point of complete
and utter compliance. The result: If you know family dynamics from ACA; a lost child, killed in
auto accident, an alcoholic brother and sister, and
my own sex addiction, chronic anxiety, and the
feeling of not belonging.
I was five years old at my first day of school when
I was at the drinking fountain and there were two
children, a boy and a girl talking beside me. I had
this overwhelming feeling of despair and distance.
I didn’t know what it truly meant at the time, but
I have revisited that day in my mind many times, now realizing it was a defining moment for a lifetime of pain.
Anyone who has felt this must address it as soon
as possible. It is at your core. You didn’t cause it.
But, you are damaged goods and need a good cry and hug. Find a good therapist who specializes in addictions. It could be the best investment in your life you ever made. Be well

    Jonice - May 15, 2020 Reply

    Thank you for sharing your story with us, John. Wishing you all the best!

Rochelle - May 11, 2020 Reply

How does one fight the feeling of being invisible when you’ve never been “seen?”

I have no idea what being part of an in-group might feel like. My whole life, people have told me I’m wrong to want what I want and to like what I like.

I learned long ago that if I wanted friends, I had to give them something first. And keep giving. And if I run out of things to give, I also run out of friends.

Today, I have a dog and a husband. I don’t feel “seen” by my husband. I’ve got evidence that he isn’t seeing me, for instance, I lost a bunch of weight and he didn’t notice. He did notice I bought a bunch of new clothes since the old one didn’t fit any more, but that’s because he usually pays the bills every month, not because he noticed I was wearing new garments.

I laugh when people “occasionally” feel like outsiders. I live on the outside and always have.

For those feeling lonely, it is possible to rid yourself of this feeling. Simply stop expecting other people to fill you up. They won’t, and that is what causes loneliness.

We don’t need church, family or friends in a modern society like we did as hunter-gatherers. I stopped expecting anything from anyone unless I put in effort to earn whatever it is I needed from someone else.

Basically, I get joy out of giving my time and attention to others. I don’t expect any time or attention in return as that always leads to disappointment.

If I assume that no one is going to ever lift a finger for me without some kind of motivation. That way, when someone does do something nice and unexpected, I’m grateful.

No one owes you love. You have to earn it.

    Andrea - October 1, 2020 Reply

    Oh wow! I can completely relate to this – all the comments, I am living a shit life today! I am 43 years old, alcoholic, ptsd and several additional mental illnesses. I have been desperately searching for help- regularly for the past 3 years when all my past hardships crept up and overwhelming took over me. The ones that I’d buried for 40 years, because “I’m a survivor not a victim”, I “don’t need to deal with the trauma, I can only move forward not backwards”! Unfortunately, I’ve been defeated. I can’t find anyone to help me because I’m such a “complicated issue”, I’m in SSI disability and Medicaid and honestly, I’m too old to matter, when there are younger people that need that help! Unfortunately the worst part of the whole situation is that my poor children have suffered. Not abused or “neglected”, but due to my lack of their EMOTIONAL IMPORTANCE, my lack of affection. And this is what is truly the heartbreaking outcome.

      yoyo - January 3, 2021 Reply

      Help yourself. You could do it.

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