The Emotional Legacy of Childhood Emotional Neglect: Guilt and Shame

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions as they raise you.

Adults who were emotionally neglected in childhood can be quite perfectionistic and hard on themselves. But for many, it does not stop there.

Why? Because the messages of Childhood Emotional Neglect run deep. They go to the heart of the child and stay there for a lifetime. They not only damage your ability to understand and trust your own feelings, but they also damage your ability to understand and trust yourself.

The messages of CEN are like invisible infusions of guilt and shame that happen every day in the life of the child.

  • The First Guilt/Shame Message of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): No one wants to see your feelings.

When, because of emotional neglect, children receive the message from their parents that their feelings are a burden, excessive, or simply wrong, they take a highly effective, adaptive action. They naturally push their emotions down, under the surface so that they will trouble no one.

Believe it or not, this brilliant strategy usually works quite well. As a child, you become un-sad, un-angry, un-needy, and overall unemotional so that your parents are less bothered or burdened by you. Life becomes easier in the family, but life inside you becomes deeply lonely. 

  • The Second Guilt/Shame Message of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Your feelings are shameful.

As a child of CEN, you are set up to feel, on some deep level for your entire life, that you are a burden, excessive, or somehow wrong.

Because Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) affects your relationship with your own feelings, it sets you up to feel guilty and ashamed for the very personal, inescapable human experience of having feelings.

It feels wrong to feel your feelings, and wrong to let others see your feelings. And it feels right to hide your feelings. You may even try not to have feelings at all. Yet your feelings are the most deeply personal, biological expression of your true self. They will not be denied.

Trying to deny your feelings is like the classic little Dutch boy trying to block the hole in the dike with his finger. It may feel like it works temporarily, but those feelings just keep coming and growing and pressurizing, like the water behind the dike. Being unable to control them and stop them altogether makes you feel weak and incompetent. And ashamed.

  • The Third Guilt/Shame Message of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): There is something wrong with you.

Since many emotionally neglected adults were not actively mistreated in childhood, they may remember their childhoods as fairly happy and carefree. When they look back on their childhoods for an explanation for their issues and struggles in their adult lives, they can’t pinpoint any incidents or factors to explain their current problems. 

Between a “happy childhood” and inexplicable emotions, they are left with the assumption that some deep part of themselves is seriously amiss. “It’s my own fault. Something is wrong with me,” is a natural conclusion.

Signs and Signals of CEN-Induced Guilt and Shame – From the Book Running on Empty

  • You sometimes feel emotionally numb
  • You have a deep sense that something is wrong with you
  • You feel that you are somehow different from other people
  • You tend to push down feelings or avoid them
  • You try to hide your feelings so others won’t see them
  • You tend to feel inferior to others
  • You believe you have no excuse for not being happier in your life

The Antidote For Your Guilt & Shame

I hope that as you read the Guilt/Shame messages above, you realized one glaring fact about them: THEY ARE ALL FALSE!

Now please read the three vital and true remedies below. If you absorb them and own them and follow them, they will change how you feel about yourself and your life.

  • Feelings are not subject to the laws of right and wrong. You cannot choose your feelings because they’re literally wired into your biology. It is essential to accept what you feel because that must be done before you can manage what you feel.
  • Your feelings are a sign of your health and strength. Your emotions are the opposite of a sign of weakness. When others see what you feel, they instantly connect with you. And when others know your feelings they have an opportunity to respond to your true self. That is powerful.
  • There is nothing wrong with you. The only thing wrong with you is the message of CEN that your child self internalized. And you share those same messages with millions of other people. You are an intact, healthy person who can learn and change your beliefs, learn to manage your emotions, let go of your guilt and shame, and heal.

You can learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect leads to excess guilt and shame in adulthood in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psych central.

Jonice

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Richard - November 16, 2020 Reply

I would never give my parents a guilt trip about this and I am glad our relationship is so much better now than it was but I came from a family where feelings were not taken seriously. I have even heard my father say in a raised voice that he thinks anger is a despicable emotion. My mother would say to me as a little boy “if you’re angry, why don’t you let off steam in the garden” Who would say such a thing to an adult? This though was not what I think caused the most damage which was when I was angry and upset at the same time my emotions were mocked – both by my parents and by a grandmother who enjoyed getting in on the parenting act when there was any scolding or ticking off to do. The mocking would take the form of imitating me and when I grew up and my parents could see i was angry they would still imitate me as though I was still four years old. Children do need to learn boundaries – sometimes they need to be punished (as sometimes do adults) but mocking a child causes I think a great of damage. it teaches them that their feelings are silly and shameful and that by extension so are they. I would say to anyone who has had similar treatment to me (which may have been from otherwise loving and nurturing parents) that feelings are never silly and shameful. Although for obvious reasons we don’t have a right to behave as we please we do have a right to our feelings whether we are children or adults.

Bridget - November 16, 2020 Reply

Thank you so much, Jonice! This article and the article on “Avoidant Personality Disorder” and CEN has been REALLY helpful! There is nothing wrong with me! I have only been struggeling with high levels of anxiety, self- blame and shame. EFT tapping, acupuncture and various realising- techniques along with the CEN work- has done miracles to my mental, physical and emotional health! There is hope, everybody 🙂 !! Keep up your good work, Jonice! I look forward to the weekly email, every week!!

Anna - November 15, 2020 Reply

Hi Jonice, what do you think about Rachel’s question about CBT reframing please? (10th March). A.

    Jonice - November 16, 2020 Reply

    EMDR is very effective for removing the feelings from trauma. I am not trained in it myself and have not tried using it with CEN people so I’m afraid I do not have an answer for you. If any readers are therapists who have tried this with your clients, please weigh in!

Will - November 15, 2020 Reply

I am finding that the best thing I have done is working finding purpose in my life. There is a ‘Coursera’ course (Free) from the University of Michigan on this, it is excellent. But I believe finding a purpose, knowing your values, being open to new things. There are also excellent books on it. I really recommend having at least a think about this!

s - November 15, 2020 Reply

I’m definitely a product of CEN. I’ve also been married to someone for 30+ years, who doesn’t fill me up emotionally, as well. It’s been a lonely life on so many counts.

    Jonice - November 15, 2020 Reply

    Dear S, I hope you will consider allowing someone to help you deal with this. Check the Find A CEN Therapist List on this website. There is likely one near you and/or who will see you online. Life is too short to go through it emotionally unfulfilled.

    Will - November 15, 2020 Reply

    Hi S, sorry to hear that. I think I have made a mistake in expecting my marriage to sort this for me – or any relationship, apart from the one with myself. What I am finding is that thinking about purpose in my life is turning this round, there are great books on this and courses (Free). Hope this doesn’t sound trite, I really think this helps. Cheers and best wishes.

J - April 30, 2018 Reply

I believe that the work you are doing Jonice, is invaluable. People who have this type of thinking need to know that it is validated and has a tangible cause. My entire life I have felt that I am either totally worthless, flawed in some impossible to fix way, and now that I have had some career success, totally an impostor. Now that I work in mental health, I can tell that the feelings I have are based on childhood experiences and are not really true. Although my intelligence can prove that my shame and inadequacy is false, I must admit that nothing feels more right. I do feel terrible and that I do not deserve anything good. Taking an antidepressant at a low dose (5 gm/day) and trying to get a proper sleep each night has helped alot, but man, this is a tough thing to get over.

Kudos to you for helping bring awareness to this!

Rachel - March 10, 2018 Reply

Dr. Webb, thanks for this post and for your book. I’m struggling to deal with the idea that feelings aren’t right or wrong. What if my feelings are because I’m perceiving a situation incorrectly? Doesn’t that make the feelings somehow “wrong”? In CBT, I learned to mentally reframe events that were causing negative emotions. I guess I’m not sure which emotions to trust . . .

Dafney - February 27, 2018 Reply

I can identify with all of the messages. I am so classic CEN. I have read your book and it has helped me to understand better why I am the way that I am. I have so far to go to heal. I do keep my feelings inside because my parents raised my brother and I to not express our feelings. If we did, we were told that we were talking back to them and would be punished. They never helped us work through our feelings of frustration or anger. Especially anger. Anger was bad in our house. We were spanked if we were angry. However, my father would express his anger frequently. I remember thinking why is it okay for him to be angry, but we cannot. I learned at a very early age to just not express my feelings with my father. He was a very strict disciplinarian. Even to this day, it is difficult for me to express how I feel. I find it almost impossible to say no or convey my needs. And when I do find the courage to state my needs or express my feelings, it seems to backfire (it depends on who I am talking to.) For the most part, I feel that my family (both my immediate and in-laws) that if you have something to say it must be positive. They do not want any problems. They want them swept under the rug. Also, I know I have emotions; I feel them and they are strong; probably because I don’t express them. It is just that I don’t have the confidence in my self to express them. I feel that I am going to get in trouble or I feel guilty when I do express feelings especially if they are negative. I feel I wont be understood or accepted. Or people will talk about me and say things like what is wrong with her, etc. I could go on and on…. thank you for your book. I hope that one day I become more confident and have a stronger self esteem.

    Jonice Webb PhD - February 27, 2018 Reply

    Dear Dafney, it sounds like you understand what went wrong and the way your CEN affects you. The next step is for you to actively counter the effects. Taking risks to do the opposite of what you learned in your childhood will show you what happens when you counter those harmful childhood messages. I hope you’ll keep working on it!

    G - February 27, 2018 Reply

    You nailed it Dafney. It was okay for my brothers and my parents to lose their anger but god forbid if I got angry with them when I stood up for myself and call them out for their behavior or say no to other people let alone stand up to people. I have not talked to them nor do I want to visit them even if they cut me out of their will. It is a downright shame that people particularly boys and young men are not allowed to develop their full range of emotions. If there was such a thing as reincarnation, I would certainly do things differently even if it meant my family members put me into an early grave.

      Jonice Webb PhD - February 27, 2018 Reply

      Dear G, I do think that boys are often discouraged from showing a full range of emotion, and this does indeed set them up for CEN. It sounds like it was extreme in your family. I want you to know that you can repair yourself by beginning to stand up for yourself in other situations now. I hope you are working on it!

        G - February 27, 2018 Reply

        The problem is that the authorities in the American workplace (private and public) reinforce the CEN because of this American cultural, economic, and social attitude that the boss is the boss and he/she can do anything they want and you don’t like it too bad. There will have to be a huge cultural, social, economic shift towards this kind of attitude just like what happened in the Great Depression of 1929 where the workers finally got a say in the economy.

          Jonice Webb PhD - February 27, 2018 Reply

          Hi G I have not applied this concept to the workplace much. But I have observed that companies that attend to the needs of their workers fare the best.

        G - February 27, 2018 Reply

        If you ever read the books by E. William Deming, Mr. Deming stated that fear needed to be driven out of the workplace; otherwise, what is the point of trying to change the workplace, where fear and intimidation are the most favorite weapons of managers to keep the workers under control.

Ellen - February 25, 2018 Reply

Dr Webb,

What is the difference between a feeling and an emotion?

    Jonice Webb PhD - February 25, 2018 Reply

    Good question Ellen. I use those two words interchangeably. They mean the same.

Karen - February 25, 2018 Reply

All in your article is so true. I totally resonate with each of the 3 beliefs. Especially the bit about life being easier. Decades later to this day my mother says what a good little girl I was. ‘You never gave an ounce of trouble” is how she puts it. My recollection however was that in fact I was secretly anything but good, there was something terribly wrong with me and that I always had to tread carefully to avoid either being in trouble or being found out. (For what, I’m not sure. Being fake “good ” I guess.)

Anyway, this has prompted a couple of questions for you Dr Webb: firstly is CEN on a continuum? And secondly do you have an estimate of the percentage of the population that has CEN?

Thanks!

    Jonice Webb PhD - February 25, 2018 Reply

    Dear Karen, I’ve heard many who grew up with CEN describe childhood experiences like yours. You’re not alone! Yes, CEN is definitely on a continuum. And I’m not able to give any numbers on prevalence because I don’t have any scientific data to back it up. But I think most people have some, but it’s only if you cross a certain threshold level that it becomes a true problem of it’s own.

Unseen - February 25, 2018 Reply

I remember once when crying in my room on my bed, my mom passed on her way to the bathroom and said ” Stop feeling sorry for yourself” and I said ” If I don’t then who will ?” She went silent. Thank you for these articles they help me realize so much.

    Jonice Webb PhD - February 25, 2018 Reply

    Sounds like you put your mom in her place, although she probably didn’t really get it. I’m very glad the articles are helpful to you!

Nerd girl - February 25, 2018 Reply

It’s not that I have a SENSE that something is wrong with me. I KNOW there is something wrong with me. It’s why I’ve never gotten out of poverty. Why I only ever get dead-end temp jobs, despite my associate of applied science degree.
I really MUST BE a stupid, old, ugly, fat, cow. Useless and unwanted by all.

    Jonice Webb PhD - February 25, 2018 Reply

    Dear Nerd Girl, I am sure that you are not. I’m sorry you feel this way about yourself.

    Nebbykoo - March 3, 2018 Reply

    Nerd Girl,

    I can relate, completely. I am also underemployed, due to these feelings. I also have degree but don’t use it. I have started and stopped so many times, I’m really tired and don’t trust myself to make good decisions about anything. I have to change this, but it’s very difficult. One step forward, one step back.
    But I think it can be done! So please don’t give up.

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