The 3 Most Tragic Childhood Emotional Neglect Symptoms In Adults

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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Amanda - January 24, 2019 Reply

I suffered multiple traumas in my early childhood which made it difficult to see that CEN has also very much affected my life. It explains my constant feelings of being different, choosing singleness, and general sense of being lost. I’m hoping to be a Mom myself in the next year and I really want to give my child the safety, validation, and nurturing that I lacked. I look forward to learning more.

Nobody - December 12, 2018 Reply

I must be the odd one out yet again; how are these people who suffered CEN finding love and getting married? You lucky bastards…

I’m 40, never married, horribly emotionally abused and neglected by my adoptive mother from practically the night my adoptive father died when I was 11 (nobody even looked at me, hugged me, or acknowledged my existence that night or honestly ever again) until 2010. I’ve pretty much been destroyed by the abuse: I have no family whatsoever, I only have acquaintances (that is, nobody’s going to drop everything to rush to my side to help me if I get sick or otherwise can’t function), I’ve been single for 18 mos (and that was abusive, too), haven’t experienced any affectionate touch in almost a year, and now my cats have started to hate me because I moved into a one room studio and can’t afford to buy them wet food anymore.
Stupid, that last bit, but it still weighs on me, as they’re all I have for emotional support.

I have one goal for the next year: marriage or death. Either I find a partner, safety and love, or I’m out of here. This life has been far too painful and lonesome to warrant forty more years of misery.

Yes, I’ve sought out therapy, and no, it won’t change my mind. At this point in life, those are my only options and let’s be honest: I’m not loveable (unmarried 40yr old female with two cats on disability…. No actually decent, successful guy wants that trainwreck in his life.) or even valuable, so I’m kind of wasting my therapist’s time.
I mean…. I’d need at least two decades of therapy (at one day per week, because that’s all my insurance deems necessary) to even start feeling like I had something to offer, but I’d be 60 by then, and there’s no one to date at that age who isn’t gross. Worse, I’ll have definitely lost whatever looks I had by then; nobody wants a sexual relationship with an ugly old person aside from Richard Ramirez. And he’s dead!

So yeah, great that I can put a name to what happened to me, but that won’t change the fact that my life is worthless.

    Jonice - December 16, 2018 Reply

    Your life is not worthless! You are somebody. When you believe this about yourself, others will change how they treat you. Please keep trying.

Roger - November 14, 2018 Reply

Ugh, encouraging people to “take the quiz” which automatically puts them on a mailing list. How manipulative!

    Jonice - November 15, 2018 Reply

    Hi Roger, there is nothing sinister about the quiz or newsletter. I don’t want people to take the quiz and then be left on their own to grapple with the results. As a member of my newsletter they receive lots of free information to help them address the problem. If they don’t want to be on it they can simply unsubscribe immediately. I’m sorry you feel it’s manipulative. I am a psychologist and I think like a psychologist in wanting to help people.

Marilena - November 9, 2018 Reply

All that I have discovered in the last couple of years, of coming across your book on CEN, has been the most amazing thing that could have ever happened to me. Whilst having discovered that I had been married to a deceitful, narcissistic/sociopath for the past 17 years,(prior not even knowing the meaning of those words) the dark hole I was in, only forced me to start relying on myself and my loving family and friends, to discover and answer so much about myself. What I have achieved in this time makes me so proud of not only who I am becoming, but also loving and accepting of myself for the first time. The journey is difficult, long, but good. And most importantly, a working progress. thank you, lots of Love, Marilena

Steve - October 16, 2018 Reply

After three plus years in counseling with a gifted therapist she introduced me to Running On Empty. I can reduce a myriad of complex personal issues and subsequent relationship challenges into my struggles with addiction, intimacy disorder and childhood emotional neglect. Ultimately I betrayed my partner of 40 years with a prostitute and have struggled since to make amends, regain trust and help her heal. I finally have looked at myself but because of the harm I inflicted and my wife’s emotional needs I find I struggle to identify and express my needs and wants. She appreciates the effort I’ve put into therapy and believes I have grown and changed. However, she has little patience for my attempts to be a strong independent man who is entitled to like what he likes and express those wants and desires. I keep waiting for her to accept that we both need to feel chosen and that we should want to freely express our preferences without judgement. She acknowledges she has blamed and shamed me regularly since my infidelity. I also am fully responsible for the trauma I inflicted on her. I am embracing your book and have listened to it twice on Audible. I also subscribe to your emails and videos. At this point I will continue to do the work and embrace counseling. I have finally forgiven myself but at times struggle with self loathing. When I read your book I felt like you described me perfectly. Ironically no one would ever believe I harbor the fatal flaw.. thanks.

BTW. I just sawRyan Gosling’s portrayal of Neil Armstrong. Your book immediately made me see terrifying example after example of CEN. It was a really sad film.

Leigh - July 22, 2018 Reply

I would just like to say that living a lifetime mostly without emotions has left me feeling detached from them. But as you pointed out I’ve become very self sufficient in many ways. However I am now realizing that many opportunities for “help” have been missed. It is hard to even ask for help to do the simplest of things which then get left undone.

That then leads, to in my case,a feeling I didn’t need to keep educating myself and could always “figure” things out instead of actually learning and recording them. Hence I let my life turn to being a workaholic while I fallowed others emotionally instead blazing my own trail which I thought was so important in the “working” world. Kind of a mismatch when it comes to independence. Therefore I became in many ways very dependent on others to scratch at MY emotions to try and wake them up. I was also left at times to fake or fallow other’s emotional path as if it were mine. Confusing myself even further I’m sure looking back.

In the end I think this was an important part of loosing my family due to divorce. I’m not taking all the blame but am left wondering how to connect emotionally to my two teenage girls who at one time loved me anyway. However my ex has now exploited me for not “listening” to their feelings and used it to turn them against me. How do I go from that “strong” loveable dad to reconnecting with my girls emotionally as I HEAL myself in your program. At times I now want to cry in front of them and then get called a victim when all I want is some signs of empathy. The hard part is their mother is a narcissistic and shows no empathy at all to my situation. On top of that she is fostering and creating a very horrible sense of money entitlement in my girls that in hindsight is her to a tee.

Any words of direction and encouragement would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

I’m going on to part five of your program for myself but am unclear how to bridge the gap or reconnect with my girls. With an evil adversary and her having physical custody I’m senseing I may just have to wait. But that denies my right and my girls right to have the good and caring relationship we once had. The word HELP comes to mind.

Leigh Summer

    Jonice - July 22, 2018 Reply

    Dear Leigh, I am very sorry you are going through all this! My answer to your question would be far too long to type, and I need to ask you some questions to give you a good answer. Can you call into our next Fuel Up For Life Q&A Call so I can talk with you about this?

    Elizabeth - July 26, 2018 Reply

    Dear Leigh,
    May I suggest that you create a Journal and a Memory Box for each of your daughters. The Journal, will enable you to keep your memories of their childhood, as children often forget. It will be a testament of your thoughts, hopes and dreams for each of your girls and in time it will be a ‘loving record’ for them of how their Dad truly loved them. The Memory Box can hold tokens that remind you of each of them, their likes such as rings, bracelets, jigsaws, or other items that when you see them remind you of them etc. and date the times of Journal and Memory Box entries . . .
    take care, elizabeth.

      Jonice - July 26, 2018 Reply

      What a beautiful idea Elizabeth. Thank you for your helpful idea for Leigh.

Linda - July 22, 2018 Reply

These writings have been enormously helpful as I learn to deal with my emotions. Only recently in my senior years, have i been able to trust Gid and feel safe so He can help me heal these deep wounds

    Jonice - July 22, 2018 Reply

    Dear Linda, please also work on trusting yourself and paying attention to yourself. That is the road to healing.

Allison - July 22, 2018 Reply

Dear Dr. Jonice,
FIRST, Thank u for sharing all of this information. I’m the youngest of 7 children and have spent my entire adult life trying to figure out what is “wrong” with me, why am I so “different” from my whole family?”
Years of therapy and no answers, until now. I gave your info to my latest therapist and she is going to read your book so we can work through this together. I only wish it didn’t take until I was in my forties to discover this. On August 23, 2018, it will be 2 years since I have spoken to my parents. We have gone months without speaking before, but never this long. In the past, I have tried to explain what happens when I feel depressed and have anxiety, but it just seems as if I am speaking another language and my words are falling upon deaf ears. I had once told them that if they don’t hear from me , please pick up the phone and check in with me. I don’t want to keep calling when something is bothering me, if they don’t want to hear it, they look so uncomfortable, like they don’t know what to do with the information I’m giving them. My mother IS a narcissist. If you don’t fit “her” mold she believes there is something wrong with you. So, almost 2 years ago, I stopped calling because of something that had happened (that I knew she wouldn’t understand) and I have not heard from them since. I did have my son, who was 11 at the time, call to say, Happy Anniversary ,Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas etc., no response, he had to leave messages. After, Christmas of 2016, my sister had stopped by to drop off presents from other family members. There was no gift from my parents for me and my husband , which I expected. But, this time my mother crossed a line, there was no gift for my son! He is my only son, by the way, the youngest of 24 grandchildren. All 23 got gifts, except for him. 11 years old, the next grandchild is 6 years older, so she was 17 at the time. ALL 23, the majority ADULTS, got presents except for my CHILD. I was speechless. But, not wanting my son to be hurt or even get him involved in this immature, VINDICTIVE behavior, I went out and bought presents for him and said they were from my parents. As much as I wanted to pick up the phone and say why would you do that to a child? I covered for them. I didn’t want my son to feel he did anything to be excluded or feel unloved in any way.
I don’t know what to do anymore , its been too long. I just had a hysterectomy in April and she (my mother) couldn’t even break the silence to see how I was? I want to explain my feelings, but I know I won’t be heard or understood. I don’t think this can be repaired. My son, now 13, has been accepted to a High School of Technology for the gifted and talented. He will start in one year, when he will be going into 9th grade. We live in NY, but the high school is in Arizona. I think leaving here and starting over, far away, will be the best thing for me and MY family. But I still have guilt about leaving! Any thoughts? Is cutting ties completely my best option? Really, the ties have been cut long ago!
Thanks for listening.

    Jonice - July 22, 2018 Reply

    Dear Allison, I encourage you to manage your guilt instead of giving into it. It is misplaced. You have nothing to feel guilty about, and every reason to do whatever it takes to preserve yourself and your son. I hope you will put all your love and energy into yourself and your son and the people who really do care about you. I know it hurts but it will be healthier for you overall. Best wishes in your healing process!

      Sue F - November 8, 2018 Reply

      Such a great answer Dr Jonice. I still struggle with the guilt sometimes and the need for approval from my parents but I am working on it as I know where it comes from. Self care and self compassion and just being with others who love and appreciate you is definitely the way to go.

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