The 3 Most Tragic Childhood Emotional Neglect Symptoms In Adults

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Why does it matter if you grew up with your feelings ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect)? To you, it may not seem to be all that important. So let’s talk about the 3 most tragic Childhood Emotional Neglect symptoms in adults.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A subtle, often invisible childhood experience that happens when your parents fail to notice or respond to your feelings enough.

In all of my years as a psychologist, I have never seen anything so seemingly innocuous, yet so powerfully damaging as the simple failure of your parents to notice or respond to what you are feeling as they are raising you. It’s a “simple failure” that becomes a part of your everyday life forever.

Growing up with your emotions disregarded automatically communicates a silent, but powerfully effective, message to your deepest self: as a child, you accept, on a very deep level, that in your childhood home, your feelings do not matter. As a child, you must wall off your own feelings so that you will never appear sad, hurt, needy or emotional to your parents.

Going through life ignoring and undervaluing your emotions has some very predictable effects on your life as an adult. I have seen the pattern play out in the lives of countless lovely, otherwise healthy people. Always the same silent struggles, the same unanswered questions, the same deep sense of being different from everyone else.

When you grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, you end up experiencing the worst of two worlds. First, you are disconnected from your feelings, which should be stimulating and guiding you. You are living without enough access to this marvelous, powerful, energizing feedback system: your emotions.

Second, your walled off emotions remain unaddressed and unmanaged. Those blocked emotions just sit there, unattended, roiling and waiting, perhaps emerging at times which seem to make little sense to you. Or maybe seldom emerging at all, but instead causing you to make poor decisions or develop health problems, like headaches or back pains, or worse.

In the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect I identified 10 struggles of the emotionally neglected adult. They are feelings of emptiness, counter-dependence, unrealistic self-appraisal, poor self-compassion, guilt and shame, self-directed anger/self-blame, the Fatal Flaw, difficulty nurturing self and others, poor self-discipline and alexithymia.

If left unaddressed, all these silent struggles work together to cause some powerful effects on your life.

The 3 Most Tragic Childhood Emotional Neglect Symptoms In Adults

1. You will never get what you want unless it’s by chance

Not knowing what you feel makes it hard to know what you want. That’s because “want” is a feeling, not a thought. I have watched scores of talented, capable people drift in their lives, making decisions that are not quite right for them, or going where the tide takes them. Sometimes they get what they want, but it’s often a matter of chance, not choice.

2. You never get to know yourself

When you are disconnected from your own feelings, you are blocked from the most deeply personal part of who you are. You are probably good at noticing and attending to other people, but you are not paying attention to yourself.

In fact, you continue to squelch your true self in exactly the way your parents, maybe unintentionally, squelched you as a child. You have hurts and triumphs, loss and accomplishment, pains and love, anger and pleasure, sadness and joy, all inside you. If you would listen, you would learn who you really are.

3. You hide your light

Of the 3 most tragic Childhood Emotional Neglect symptoms, this is the one that makes me the most sad.

Other people catch glimpses of your light, although you probably have no idea that you have it. You have caught glances of it in the past, when you have surprised yourself by doing something you thought impossible for you to do, faced a fear, felt a warm glow of connection from someone important to you, or been vulnerable in a brave way. If you think deeply about this you will remember.

Your light is special because it is uniquely you. It is a product of your genes, your emotions, and your life experiences. Other people see it, even though you hide it. Putting yourself on the sidelines or trying to stay invisible; avoiding conflict and being afraid to “rock the boat” are all ways to hide your light.

Sadly, as you continue to squelch your light, you are holding yourself back from being your best and true self. What feels “safe” is actually “dark.”

You deserve better. And you can allow yourself to have it.

The Good News — The Answer To The 3 Most Tragic Childhood Emotional Neglect Symptoms

Just as the cause of all of these struggles seems simple — your parents didn’t respond enough to your emotions as they raised you — so also seems the solution.

You grew up with your feelings ignored, and now you must do the exact opposite. You can start right away simply paying attention to your feelings.

Take the time to notice when you are feeling something, learn how to name what you are feeling, and begin to learn how to use your feelings to inform, direct, motivate and guide you.

When you do the work, you get to reap the rewards. You will gradually start to know yourself, get what you want, and let your light shine.

And all that’s actually happening is that you are becoming more authentically your true self, and that is everything.

To find out if you grew up with Emotional Neglect, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn much more about how Emotional Neglect happens and how to heal it, see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

To find out how Childhood Emotional Neglect holds your relationships back and how you can solve it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.


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Tony A. - August 14, 2021 Reply

I first realized my problem in 1980 when I was 21. We really didn’t have language for it but I knew something wasn’t right. Over the years I’ve seen many a therapist. Attended a multitude of twelve-step programs, even helped create one. All the self-help books I’ve read could fill a library. Nothing has change the basic Self Doubt that returns by the end of the day, month , or year. Sure have learnt to use the muscles in my face create a smile and I see myself a little clearer each day in the mirror. But none of these rote practices have addressed the root conditioning. I cannot imagine your book or any other ” friends for sale” will create a level of trust Within Me that other “normal” people take for granted. I had hoped I was wrong about the bleek relational future i had. The truth is my mother was molested as a child, and my father died serving our country when I was ten.
No I do not see a way possible do you even consider trusting a profession that has intentionally or not continued the string of abuses starting with my primary caregiver (my mother), and left me vulnerable to the abuses of the state, employers, and counselors, any perceived Authority. So it is true I will not trust I cannot conceive of how that might be done.
Truly intervention at the youngest possible age is ideal. However the sexual agenda proposed by most in the helping fields, create an antagonistic environment for those that don’t agree the agenda and no help forthcoming until agreement is made about the sexual deviation of others. This also is a form of emotional abuse. As they say money and agendas outweigh any recovery in a system driven by short term profits/results.

VT - April 22, 2021 Reply

Dear Dr Webb,

Just picked up your book again Running on Empty as I bought and read it about 4 years ago but never forgot your core message. I’ve literally gone through the wringer and back for years trying to figure out what’s wrong with me and why I feel like an alien or robot living amongst humans. But all I keep coming back to is this emptiness that wont go away and it’s had devastating consequences on me both personally and professionally my whole life. Most days and most moments, it’s just blank not really feeling anything (possible ALEXITHYMIA) unless I really force myself but even then it’s just so hard and takes up so much mental energy trying to “feel” that it doesn’t seem worth the time and effort. It seems like other people feel so naturally and can function in life rich with color, feelings and emotions (both good and bad). Maybe my brick walls are so thick now that it might be impossible to crack at this point but I will keep trying. I sometimes even get bothered and irritated by my own children who cry or try to express their feelings to me and while I do my best trying to pull from an empty reservoir, I know I’m simply not doing enough and they know it. It’s sad, it’s awful and truly one of the most torturous things (I think) any person should go through in life – constant sadness and darkness but the worst part is just not really knowing what’s going on, not having any answers while the suffering is real and the causes are so non-obvious but devastatingly painful. That’s the trouble with things like CEN – the initial silent years of neglect lead to more neglect for the next generation and it makes you neglectful of yourself your whole life so that you’re not “aware” and you can’t pinpoint the root cause and symptoms to fix the problems – it’s like having a perpetual blind spot so you just feel bad, blah or apathetic most of the time. But the saddest part is you just don’t even know who you are as a person – it’s true you can’t identify your strengths and weaknesses so no wonder you have no direction, no proud accomplishments and definitely no genuine self esteem. All true.

Someone (maybe you) said that childhood neglect in people is like owning a rocket ship with no rocket fuel and I think that’s a very accurate metaphor for CEN.

Anyway appreciate you for continuing to bring to light something so painfully powerful to so many peoples’ lives for years now. Poor parenting should not be overlooked for many of society’s problems today and I think as parents if we can at least identify and acknowledge that there is a problem then at least we can find some answers online, find your book perhaps and get the appropriate help to fix such a core and fundamental human right. Thinking I might need some myself to untangle or unearth some of those awful memories or repressed feelings. Things need to improve for the next generation and every parent needs to discover where their blind spots might be and CEN is definitely a huge gaping hole for many many people who might not even be aware of it.

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