The Number 1 Way to Become Less Vulnerable to Narcissists and Sociopaths

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For centuries people have been baffled about why particular people in their lives continually hurt or manipulate them. For centuries they have searched for answers.

After years of being concerned about labeling people and causing harm, we mental health professionals finally realized that we were failing to educate people about how to manage these challenging and damaging relationships. By not talking openly about narcissism and sociopathy, we were failing to validate and protect the people who needed it the most.

Today, fortunately, you can find plentiful articles about narcissism and sociopathy throughout this entire psychcentral site as well as in many other sources on the internet.

But one thing you will not find much information about is the question of what makes some people more vulnerable to narcissistic and sociopathic people in their lives. What makes you unintentionally gravitate toward people who will manipulate you and use you strictly to fulfill their own needs? Why is it so hard to see how they are harming you or to say, “No more,
to them? Or why do you seem to attract them?

Childhood Emotional Neglect: The childhood experience of growing up with your emotions ignored or discouraged by your parents.

Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN is far more common than most people would think. It happens in homes that seem caring and supportive, but where the parents are simply emotionally unaware. It also happens in homes with addicted, self-absorbed, depressed, or personality disordered parents.

But no matter why it happens, its effects on the child are the same. It leaves behind a child who grows into an adult disconnected from her own emotions and her own emotional needs. It creates an adult who asks for little, and who unconsciously continues the pattern of neglecting himself.

This is a perfect draw for a narcissist.

4 Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Makes You Vulnerable to Narcissists & Sociopaths

  1. Your feelings, which should be informing and guiding you, are not accessible to you. We are born with emotions wired into our biology for a reason. They are meant to help us survive and thrive. Our feelings warn us when we are in danger, and tell us when we need to protect ourselves. When your feelings are blocked, you are not able to properly access and use this resource, you may not feel angry when you should feel angry. You may not believe or trust that your pain is real, or you may not even feel entitled to have it. This makes you easy to manipulate and keeps you in damaging relationships much longer than you should be.
  2. Being unaware of your own wants and needs makes you susceptible to theirs. Narcissists and sociopaths are drastically UN-self-aware. But there is one way in which they are excessively so: they are overly concerned with, and immersed in, their own wants and needs. And they will do pretty much anything required to fulfill them. Narcissistic and sociopathic people do not mind harming others, and some of them, mainly sociopaths, actually enjoy it. People with these personality disorders are equipped with a special sonar. They can pick out of the crowd the person who will not say, “I want,” “I feel,” or “I need” very often. They can see that with you, there will be plenty of room for their own wants, feelings, and needs. So sociopaths and narcissists will be attracted to you. They will befriend you or approach you or ask you for a date. You will probably say yes or befriend them back because, thanks to your Childhood Emotional Neglect, you are vulnerable to them.
  3. Living in an emotionless world can make you feel empty and drab. Those who grew up with CEN often express a deep sense that they are not like everyone else. They say they feel emotionally numb, or empty. They say that they feel they are living in a black and white world, where everyone else seems filled with color and life. Being disconnected from your emotions can make life seem somewhat dull. In contrast, narcissistic and sociopathic folks tend to live large. Because they indulge their own feelings and are not burdened by any feelings of conscience or guilt, they can seem to shine brightly with charisma. They may seem to have what you do not have, and this makes you naturally drawn to them.
  4. There is no way to grow up with your feelings ignored without feeling deeply unimportant. Having CEN as an adult you tend to take up little space. In a way, you may feel most at home when you are on the sidelines, but also at the same time feel sad about the lack of acknowledgment from others. In contrast, narcissistic and sociopathic folks seek and require constant admiration, applause, and acclaim. Everywhere they go they seek the limelight. Because of your unfulfilled (but completely healthy and normal) need to feel that you matter, you may be naturally drawn to the “limelight feeling” of specialness that you never got in childhood. This makes you vulnerable to the narcissist.

How To Become Less Vulnerable

If you saw yourself in the description above, then I have one thing to say to you: it’s time. It is time to make yourself less vulnerable.

And the good news is, you can! You can heal the Emotional Neglect from your childhood and this will help you stop attracting emotionally harmful people into your life.

You can start by beginning to pay attention to yourself in all the ways that did not happen when you were a child. To do this, pause for a moment twice each day and ask yourself some very important questions that you were not asked enough as a child:

What do I want?

What do I feel?

What do I need?

Your next step will be to start saying those words, “I want, I feel, and I need,” out loud to others, finally expressing your wants, feelings and needs more.

Through all of these steps, you will be creating your own limelight. A limelight of your own making. A reflection of your inner self that you are finally allowing to shine. A limelight that is healthy and real, and that has been there all along.

The more you pay attention to yourself, the less attention you will get from narcissists or sociopaths.

The more you like and care about yourself, the less you will feel drawn to narcissists.

The more you learn to express yourself, the easier it will be for you to say, “No more” to a narcissist or sociopath in your life.

Starting down the path of recovery from your Childhood Emotional Neglect is the start to your new life. A life free of manipulation and emotional harm. A life in which you are finally protected in exactly the way you were always meant to be.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is often subtle and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn how to set limits with a narcissistic parent without feeling guilty, and also why CEN makes you more likely to enter relationships with narcissists see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty. 


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Danielle - March 27, 2019 Reply

Thank you for this article on CEN. I took the test and said YES to all but 3! I needed so desperately to put a name to my “condition”. I never understood it and my family never has either. I felt I never had the right to feel sad, lonely or depressed because I didn’t have a hard life, I just didn’t have the emotional connections to my parents that are so necessary. I’ve been a victim to a few narcissistic men. I’m in the process of divorcing one now. I feel a little stronger now and want to begin the process of self healing. This was earth shattering for me. I feel like I’m amongst my people now when I’ve always felt alone and that I was lacking so I never enjoyed being around my peers.

Thank you and God bless you.

Mavis Johnson - December 16, 2018 Reply

Psychologists not only perpetuated this kind of behavior they endorsed it. They labeled the victims of psychopaths and sociopaths as the problem. Now we have one running our country. Psychologists covered for decades of sexual, emotional and physical abuse, re-framing it as the victims fault. Not one of these self described experts ever recognized the signs in childhood or the dynamics of these dysfunctional families. They created a culture of silence, denigrating the victims, and elevating Psychopathology to a place of admiration.

TD Baker - November 12, 2018 Reply

dr. webb, thank you, thank you, i needed this so much, for yrs i ran in circles w seemingly no way out of people just like my parents. needless to say it seemed like it was a vicious cycle w no way out. i got therapy but still didn’t hit nail on head until now … i stumbled upon CEN the best stumble ever. i now have both of ur books and its been leaps and bounds im beginning to feel like a real person. its a tough hill, but i want/need/have to conquer it. ur books are a must and a guide to get out of the cycle. with great appreciation.

Richard Kram - November 11, 2018 Reply

So I set alarms in my phone to ask myself what I am feeling, what I want, what I need… and I always say, anxious, nervous, scared to the first question, and draw a blank on the other two… I seem to want to put physical activities into the answers, like make my bed, or exercise. Is there an example of how these questions should be answered or are my feeling so dominated by my situation that I am shell shocked?

    Jonice - November 11, 2018 Reply

    Dear Richard, I think you are so unaware of your wants and needs that you have no idea. The point of this exercise is not to answer a certain way except the way that is true to you. I hope you’ll keep searching for those answers because they are very, very important.

Rmds - November 10, 2018 Reply

I was married for 22 years to a sociopath. I was finally forced to accept that I needed to change and address all the CEN I went through. I drew the line to triangulation and I have become myself Thank you for your information as it will help others

    Jonice - November 10, 2018 Reply

    Good for you Rmds. I love to hear that. Keep up the good work!

Janis - November 9, 2018 Reply

This may be the most useful thing I’ve ever read in my life. I feel like a door just opened. I hope that feeling persists, and that I can follow it through to find out what’s on the other side.

I’m not exaggerating. This article really, really has made what I hope is a long-lived difference to me.

    Jonice - November 10, 2018 Reply

    I’m so glad Janis. You only need to dedicate perseverance and persistence, and you’ll end up in a new place, I am sure.

      Janis - November 11, 2018 Reply

      The thing it really made me realize is why, if you’re in the position I’m in, “chemistry” with someone is unbelievably dangerous. I think that, if you are still buried under CEN, that’s a huge part of why that feeling of weak-kneed chemistry is probably a sign that you should spin in place like a top and run as fast as you can in the other direction. Because it’s a sign that what you want — what I want, sometimes — is something that I shouldn’t be so starved for in other people. I should be generating that sort of positive energy and excitement within myself so that I don’t feel like a fainting, starving person when I lay eyes on it in others.

        Jonice - November 11, 2018 Reply

        Well said Janis.

Natasha - November 9, 2018 Reply

I’ve just ordered your book!!
I left my narsisistic husband of 23 years just over a year ago.. he’s alienated my children and I have little or no contact with them, nasty mostly blaming me for something again.
But your article made sense to me, I didn’t have the term to describe it but now I can see my (divorced) mother just wasn’t there for me as she was struggling with her own mental issues.
I’ve come a long way in the past year but I do recognise emotionally I am a long way behind. I look forward to the read and am on a continuing path of self discovery and self improvement.

    Jonice - November 10, 2018 Reply

    Excellent Natasha! You are on a good path, for sure. Best wishes to you in your recovery.

Patrick Blais - November 7, 2018 Reply

Jonice Webb very good articles I see myself in evrething you write always putting others before myself never setting boundaries an echoist for sure, trying to break out of it is very hard

    Jonice - November 7, 2018 Reply

    Yes Patrick, it is hard. But the work will move you forward, step by step. Do not give up and get some help if you need it. It will pay off!

      Patrick Blais - November 7, 2018 Reply

      Ya I’ve been doing Coucelling for awhile waiting to see a therapist dr too bad ur not in town 🙂 thanks for your reply and support

Helena - November 7, 2018 Reply

This is truly the most helpful article I have ever read. I am saving it forever. Thank you.

    Jonice - November 7, 2018 Reply

    That is wonderful Helena. I’m glad you find it helpful!

Lynneee Smith - November 5, 2018 Reply

This is so so right. I’d like to email it to myself. I don’t have the right software.
Please write more. A great good deed you have done!!

    Jonice - November 5, 2018 Reply

    I’m glad you find it helpful Lynneee!

Leo - November 5, 2018 Reply

Well, this describes my life pretty accurately. My mother was a narcissist and my father worshipped her. She couldn’t bear to share the attention, and seemedunable to accept the fact her daughters would become women. I feel like I half-killed myself trying to make them proud of me, but never felt my mother liked me, let alone loved me. I now realise I’ve spent my adult life trying to find a partner who’s a replacement for my mother – not easy as I’m female myself, and mostly physically attracted to younger men! I will try to focus on meeting my own emotional needs. I’ve given up trying to find a romantic partner, but maybe I can make sense of my own life.

    Jonice - November 5, 2018 Reply

    Dear Leo, I like the direction you are going: focusing on yourself before looking for a romantic partner. You can give yourself what your mother could not/did not.

Eilleen Alldritt - November 5, 2018 Reply

I cannot begin to thank you, for your insight fullness into what I always believed was my “defective ness”, for your website which continues to help me gain insight into what happened to me (and why I felt “defective”) and for your many, many articles, all of which I read and save. You have literally saved my life!! I cannot state that firmly enough. Sadly a narcissist got a hold of me in 2012 and I’ve spent all this time trying to get myself back to a place where I didn’t feel I was taking up space on this planet and that what I went through was valid and how I felt was valid. Without you I’d be dead. Simple as that. So thank you from the bottom of my heart. Now I’m living alone and loving it and spending time on myself and my own wants, needs and feelings. Every day is a new opportunity for my growth and healing. But you have gotten me here. Thank you again. Sincerely, Eilleen Alldritt Victoria BC

    Jonice - November 5, 2018 Reply

    Dear Eilleen, your message made my day! I am so very happy that my work has helped you so much. But the credit actually goes to you, as you are the one who did the work to change your life. Warm wishes for your future happiness.

Ryder - November 5, 2018 Reply

I am taken aback because yesterday I read another article which was eye opening to the fact that I have CEN. Then just now i was reading this article in my efforts learn more about narcissists and sociopaths (since I have to co-parent with one) and discover that my CEN is what has laid out my history in relationships! These type people are all I have attracted over the years! Now I’m 46 and the changes you advise to make seem like mountains because it’s so unnatural to me. Its wonderful to have this information but a daunting task to undertake in my efforts to perhaps finally “live.”

    Jonice - November 5, 2018 Reply

    Dear Ryder, now that you know what is wrong, everything can change. I hope you will start taking the steps to heal your CEN. It can make a real difference for you!

AngieK - November 4, 2018 Reply

That second paragraph is quite the admission. “After years of being concerned about labeling people and causing harm…” “by not talking openly about narcissism and sociopathy, we were failing to validate and protect the people who needed it the most”. In my own words I have said it to my current skilled trauma therapist that ‘therapy for the 20 years of my adult life could be so invalidating’. The confusion over liking the therapist and thinking it was helpful, yet always having this feeling of being superficially supported and angry at something that I couldn’t put my finger on was eventually too much, so after trying therapy again for several months, I’d put it off again for years sometimes. At least someone now is admitting what that something was, behind the scenes, that was always that brick wall to healing. It hurt because it was from the very people and profession I had fought hard to believe in. The covert cluster B mother I was trapped with as a child made it a point to poison my mind against therapy when I was 11 and she was supposed to take me to a counselor as part of her divorce she was getting. Everyone believed the harm was caused solely by the father, no one was even looking at her. Now I know why it makes sense that she was so threatened. Her psychological, verbal, emotional, and mental abuse, not to mention severe neglect and earlier physical abuse, would have been discovered and she would have lost her carefully crafted narrative about being the victim. My point being… as an adult I chose to believe therapy would be healthy and a way to take responsibility for childhood damage even tho it wasn’t my fault. Only to face this vague gut punched feeling that didn’t make sense against all this psychology I agreed with and a feeling that I was genuinely cared about. Your admission is the exact same conclusion I came to on my own about 8 years ago, it was part of my collapse. I gave up. I saw well meaning therapy as part of abusive society, which is ironic. I was powerless to be seen and validated. The abusers will always get the benefit of the doubt and a free pass to continue hurting the soft, the kind, the weak, the abused and broken, the young, and the vulnerable. I was pushed into the dark when it came to getting help from professionals. I cried when I read that second paragraph. My body has been shaking all day. I’m feeling what seems like everything all at once. Excitement the admission is forthcoming. Grief over reliving the heartbreak. Fear from remembering the despair. Anger knowing no one will listen to the problem still. Cynicism. Continued suffering in silence from clutching my experience to me tightly after so many unfortunate burns. Powerless against forces that mischaracterize my suffering as an attack or as too uncomfortable to look into. Sadly I knew I would always be the outsider no one was willing to risk supporting more than just superficially. Thankfully, thankfully!, right around this same time in 2010, I found Peg Streep’s book, Mean Mothers. Which eventually led me to find her on PsychCentral. Where I also found a host of voices speaking the truth of the real victims and the layers upon layers of abuse wrought in their lives by sociopaths and narcissist and how society also contributes to the gaslighting and suffering. This year I found a new kind of therapist informed about c-ptsd, and the EMDR is working after just a few sessions. I think a lot of credit goes to Bessel von der Kolk. I feel like knowledge is spreading but if people really want to help narcissistic abuse victims they would get the victim and perpetrator roles straight then start protecting the victims from cluster B’s instead of shutting their eyes in favor of not offending them. There’s no excuse for the real abusers.

    Jonice - November 4, 2018 Reply

    Dear AngieK, I’m sorry you experienced this and I totally understand it. I also think many therapists have a hard time truly grasping the pain of being in the clutches of a Cluster B parent/person if they haven’t experienced it themselves. I’m glad you’re in good treatment and healing. All the best to you!

    Diane Kahl - November 5, 2018 Reply

    Well said, Angie. There are now so many books out for victims of character-disordered abusers on the continuum from malignant narcissist through sociopath/psychopath. The abusers were misdiagnosed by the mental health community and the criminal justice system because they are so cunning and manipulative. I was a victim of my father’s covert malignant narcissism and also had abusive boyfriends, one who almost murdered me, the other caused an auto accident in which my spine was fractured speeding in anger. They always manage to be surrounded with enablers and/or walk away unscathed because they manipulate. They target vulnerable, kind, soft-spoken people (including their most vulnerable offspring) and they manipulate. There are plenty of excellent books available on Kindle about narcissism as supplemental to CEN therapy. As Dr. Webb states, narcissistic abuse and CEN dovetail. Often, neglected children are emotionally and/or physically abused by a narcissistic parent, overtly or covertly.

Karen - November 4, 2018 Reply

Dear Dr Webb thanks for explaining why I’ve always been a magnet for users.

I’ve had 3 significant other relationships over my life. The first found someone else after I needed him when I suffered post natal depression. The second was a control freak. I found the courage to leave him only after a long struggle once I realised how much of myself I’d lost to him.

The third recently passed. It’s in the work I’ve done to come to terms with his death that I can see the reality of that relationship.

Having done this work I still couldn’t quite understand how I ended up in such relationships. Thanks to your article I can now see how it happens. All 4 of the causes you describe are applicable to each of these relationships.

My resolve now is to ask your 3 questions 2x a day. I just did this and realised I’m overwhelmed at what I have going on in my life right now. That’s something I would never have previously admitted to anyone, not even myself.

I was raised to be self sufficient, competent and not asking for or needing anything, definitely not overwhelmed, not sure where to start or needing assistance. It’s strange to put a name to a feeling I’ve had many times throughout my life.

My self talk at these times (because of my lack of ability to accurately name my feelings) has been that I’m lazy, disorganised and just procrastinating.

As a result, the prospect of the task itself plus the burden of negative self talk have left me tired and discouraged. No wonder I’ve had a few nervous breakdowns.

I very much appreciate your insights and explanations on my journey of understanding who I really am and learning to be kind to myself.

    Jonice - November 4, 2018 Reply

    Dear Karen, realizing this is monumental, as are the 3 questions. What seems like a small thing – asking yourself 3 questions regularly – can shift your very way of being in the world and treating yourself. It will make all the difference for you, I am sure.

Mattie - November 4, 2018 Reply

This is a good article, thank you Jonice for connecting some dots for me. I was raised by a narcissistic father and submissive mother. By the time I was an adult I hated my dad and resented my mom and thought I could avoid “their type” in life. But I could only (sort of) avoid those who behaved like them. Other narcissists were often invisible to me. With one woman in particular, I was involved in a long-term project with her. She was soooo nice and many people loved her. I thought we might be good friends as we worked on this project. But as we started getting closer red flags began showing and it took me awhile to figure out why: she preyed on others’ neediness to give herself rushes of admiration! She was addicted to the admiration of others. She would find someone who was especially emotionally frail and give them whatever they were craving. She would either give them financial assistance (bragging about it to others to bask in the glory), gifts, or outlandish compliments until they followed her around like a puppy waiting for the next pat on the head. It never worked with me as I didn’t need her money, gifts just felt awkward, and I didn’t need her approval. When she would try her tricks and they didn’t work she would get sullen and even angry. Me, I just wanted her friendship and she was completely unable to give that. The day all the pieces fell into place was a huge “aha!” moment for me.

    Jonice - November 4, 2018 Reply

    Thank you for sharing your story Mattie. Narcissists and sociopaths come in many different varieties, and it can take some time to spot someone who might ultimately be manipulating you, especially when you’re someone raised by a narcissist who is ignoring yourself too much.

Shyra Clifford - November 4, 2018 Reply

My father was narcissistic and my mother submissive. I was reared mostly by her when father wasn’t around. He would demand all her attention when together. My boyfriend is narcissistic and I find myself copying my mother habits most of the time especially when alone. I will study your suggestions to better handle my emotions.

    Jonice - November 4, 2018 Reply

    Dear Shyra, your story describes exactly how these patterns travel from one generation to the next. I’m glad you are going to try to stop it from continuing on in your life.

Richard Kram - November 4, 2018 Reply

A very interesting article, I enjoyed it immensely. I see myself in it as the person suffering from CEN. I also see glimpses of my wife, although to label her a narcissist seems extreme and would be met with great resistance from her and everyone that knows her. She is very kind and generous, to a fault even. I suppose the case could be made that she is getting self gratification from these activities but seems like an issue that many including her would not have a problem with. My concern is how to I deal with this relationship of CEN & Narcissist without destroying the relationship?

    Jonice - November 4, 2018 Reply

    Dear Richard, I think the answer is to focus on yourself, taking care of yourself and making sure your needs are met.

      Richard Kram - November 6, 2018 Reply

      Thanks for the reply, I have been working on myself. Unfortunately many issue keep formal therapist conducted help out of my reach at this time. I am basically stuck with what I can do over the internet and alone. I often reach the conclusion that she is a toxic person to me and I need to to distance myself. The problem with that is she lives without fear of “karma” in that she doesn’t think twice about taking from others to satisfy herself. She thinks nothing of living in the dwelling that I provide, of obtain funds from her parents, who don’t appear to be able to afford it. My great fear in leaving her is that she will turn to our children to support her existence. My son current has decent employment but supporting her lifestyle would put a significant strain on that, and my daughter is soon to graduate HS with very expensive college aspirations. By leaving their mom, I fear they will be irreversibly harmed.

        Jonice - November 6, 2018 Reply

        That’s a tough situation. One thing you can always do is support your children, no matter what happens with you and your wife.

VK Ryther - November 4, 2018 Reply

I’m in my 60s now and I spent my 20s, (literally 10 yrs) in a relationship with what I describe as a sociopath. For that relationship I lost family and friends, I have responsibility for breaking marriages, laws and breaking my own moral code. I didn’t have the emotional strength to end it but with the help of a therapist and a new friend in my life I got free.
I had a lot of panic/anxiety and depression thru out my life. I thought it was all my fault and didn’t seek therapy again until the last 8 yrs. Cognitive behavioral therapy didn’t help but now I’m in intensive 3x/wk therapy with a therapist who has helped me get back to the roots of my being. This is a long road but my hope is for a more relaxed and contented last years.

    Jonice - November 4, 2018 Reply

    Dear VK, congratulations for getting out of that relationship, finding a good therapist and moving forward. Keep up the good work!

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