The Sad Connection Between Childhood Emotional Neglect and Narcissism

Believe it or not, there is a sad connection between Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) and narcissism. If you know very much about either, you probably find that difficult to believe.

After all, people who grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect have a strong tendency to view themselves and their own needs as unimportant and secondary to others whereas, in contrast, those with narcissism are known for putting themselves and their own needs first.

How, then, could these two opposite personality styles be related? Actually, in quite a few very important ways.

But before we talk about how these two are linked, let’s first define them both.

Childhood Emotional Neglect

Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions and emotional needs as they raise you. This sends you, a child, a subtle message, “Your feelings don’t matter.” Children who receive this message automatically push their feelings down, basically walling them off, so that they will not be troubled by them.

This may allow you to cope in your childhood home, but in adulthood, having your feelings blocked causes all kinds of problems in your life. Having your feelings walled off is basically a recipe for feeling disconnected and unfulfilled in your adult life. It makes emotions puzzling, keeps your relationships lacking, and makes you feel less important, less valuable, and less valid than other people.

Narcissistic Personality

Narcissism exists on a continuum, all the way from having some narcissistic traits all the way to the other end, the more extreme narcissistic personality disorder which is an official clinical diagnosis.

A person with narcissistic traits is likely seen as self-centered and somewhat grandiose. For example, they may tout their own accomplishments often, be willing to step on others to get to the top, and thrive in the limelight.

A person with narcissistic personality disorder takes all of those a few steps further. But some other likely qualities of the personality disorder include a desperate need to be admired, inability to feel empathy for others, arrogance, plus a willingness to exploit others to achieve their own needs for power and control.

5 Sad Connections Between Childhood Emotional Neglect and Narcissism

  1. One of the causes of CEN is being raised by a narcissistic parent. Narcissistic parents are a major source of Childhood Emotional Neglect. Narcissistic parents are unable to see the true nature of their children or respond to them emotionally. They are taken up trying to get their own needs met, and are not capable of giving emotionally to anyone, and that includes their child. So children of narcissistic parents often have their emotional needs ignored or discouraged, the very root cause of CEN.
  2. Most narcissists grew up with an extreme variety of Emotional Neglect. The extreme type of CEN that contributes to narcissism happens when your parents not only ignore your emotions, they actively squelch your feelings and your true self.  Narcissism may be partly determined by genetics, but to become a narcissist, you generally must grow up with a complex mix of being emotionally squelched (CEN) in some ways, and overly indulged or excessively praised in some kind of superficial or inaccurate way. CEN is at the core of every narcissist.
  3. People with pure Childhood Emotional Neglect are drawn to narcissists and vice-versa. When you have CEN, you tend to take up little space. Deep down you feel unimportant and invalid, so you don’t ask for much, and you don’t allow yourself to want or need much. On the other hand, those with narcissism are the opposite. Narcissists put their own feelings and needs first, and feel most comfortable when taking up lots of space. This predisposes people with CEN and narcissists to feel comfortable with each other. They often fall in love with each other, but it seldom works out well.
  4. Many Emotionally Neglected people have a narcissistic sibling. This is because when the parents are emotionally neglectful, the various levels of sensitivity of the children combine with the differing ways the emotional neglect comes across to each child. One may grow up with the struggles of pure CEN and another sibling may end up with narcissism.
  5. The hidden inner cores of narcissistic people and those with Childhood Emotional Neglect are very much the same. Since CEN is a contributing part of the development of narcissism, this is not surprising. The shared inner core of these two very different styles is a shared inner feeling of being empty, alone, and insignificant. This is how adults end up feeling when they grow up with the most deeply personal, biological expression of who they are (their feelings) squelched or ignored.

Yes, There is a Sad Connection Between Childhood Emotional Neglect and Narcissism

If you were to meet a CEN person and a narcissistic person on the same day, you would see how truly opposite they are. Yet these two disorders, though so very different, in a strange and paradoxical way, cause and perpetuate each other.

Both narcissism and Childhood Emotional Neglect could be wiped off the planet if all of the parents in the world did one crucial thing: noticed, validated, and responded to their children’s emotional needs.

Then the sad connection between CEN and Narcissism would not matter at all. Because every child would know, deep down, and without a doubt, that he matters.

To learn much more about the relationship between CEN and narcissism plus how to raise your children with awareness and validation of their emotional needs, see the books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More.


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Anon - October 13, 2019 Reply

Can I establish a distinction between people who become narcissistic and inflict their selfishness on others and those who (through no fault of their own) are forced to grow up with that?

My experience is that people who were affected by the chaos of narcissism have trouble shedding that influence for some period of time until they sort out what is and is not healthy.

I did. I was raised by a “queen” style narcissistic mother. A lot of my siblings got with her program, but I was the worm in the ointment. I was a dispensable child. After a dozen years of therapy I have a pretty good grasp on where I fit in the family system. And, very importantly, I don’t hate my mother. I understand her much better now. Warts and all. I get it.

I was never going to be one of her playmates. She claimed her children were the interesting people she created because everybody else bored her. Those are her own words. Scary.

Of course she groomed us to take on roles. You can’t build a little society of playmates without grooming them to act against their own sense of self. She groomed us daily with a little comment here. A little comment there. Reminding us who had status with her.

I was completely oblivious. I was just a kid being a kid. And she didn’t like me.

As an adult I am a visual, possibility thinker. An introvert who quietly interprets the world around me. I had had a keen sense of right and wrong. Except where she short circuited my natural thinking patterns. And boy did she. Especially about trusting my own instincts. When I left home I was a confused young adult. It took me years of therapy to rebuild those instincts. No doubt I experienced CEN. I personalized the negative messages.

I have a wish to please not judge people with CEN. Please, please, please be patient with them. Be patient with your parent who was raised by a narcissist. Be patient with your friends or even a sibling. Be patient with coworkers you may figure out were hurt in childhood.

Just because you suffer from CEN does not mean you are a narcissist. Of course it can happen that way. But it is not a given, in my humble opinion. The people I have talked to who were raised by narcs do not want to repeat those values and habits.

On the other hand we need to identify what is dangerous to us and protect ourselves. We have always needed that from the dawn of time. We will keep needing that.

But we do have a societal dilemma with no purely perfect answer. Not when the average person lacks skills to see deeper into people’s personalities and lives like professionals can.

We do not want to be victimized. But we also need to be careful not hurt others.

Because of the internet we have access to more information than we know how to handle. Google is our oracle. But Google does not have a wise mind.

Google will return whatever results works for you in any given situation.

I don’t know how we can close this gap. Sadly some people cannot afford therapy. And a good therapist is really helpful if you have been subject to narc abuse.

Narcs create chaos for innocent people. And they often get away with it. That’s why we as a society are so motivated to root them out of our lives.

lars - June 23, 2019 Reply

I have thought about this too… some reaction to a big trauma but then the “protective shell” remained in adulthood.

I know someone who had a very difficult childhood for reasons that were beyond her responsibility and to some extent the responsibility of her parents either. Nation-wide conflict and a series of events shook the family when she was a small child. She has been emotionally neglected by both her parents, possibly bullied as school, and she has difficulties spending more than a couple of days visiting her family. She told me a few things, but never in much detail. I see this causes pain in her and I have the impression she has put up a massive wall to keep feelings away, initially as a child, but now 45 years later the wall is still there and it seems to have damaged her ability to connect overall. I can see she longs for connection, but somehow cannot let go off the pain she suffered as a child.

I have CEN but I don’t consider it a severe case of CEN. Where I see there are roots in CEN, is my behaviour in relationships. In my youth I either prefer not to have a relationship or was too ‘people pleasing’. It took a few years to find the middle ground and learn to protect myself from being drawn into other people’s turmoil too. Still remain connected, but in a much healthier way.
Then I got to know about CEN and it all made sense: I suddenly saw where all that inner turmoil and self-directed anger was coming from.

I have read the article on how CEN is affecting men and women in a different way. My friend and I seem to be the exception, as she exhibits traits usually found in men and viceversa in my case. Could this be possible?

Also, is it possible that some CEN-related behavioural reactions do overlap with narcissistic behaviour? I ask because sometimes behaviours do seem to have a narcissistic root… the denial, anger, projection, stonewalling etc. So I’m a bit puzzled sometimes. These disorders seem to be often presenting themselves together with a bunch of other issues, such as depression, anxiety, social withdrawal… They all seem to originate from some kind of childhood trauma, but develop into slightly different adult behaviours. This can be confusing. Thanks for shedding some much needed light!

    Jonice - June 23, 2019 Reply

    Narcissistic people seek the limelight and need to be adored, whereas CEN people are uncomfortable in the limelight (mostly) and do not seek to be on a pedestal. These two issues are very different.

      lars - June 25, 2019 Reply

      ah true… “limelight and pedestal avoidance” fits with both of us.
      Thank you very much for taking the time to respond to my comment. Much appreciated!

      Rosie - September 11, 2019 Reply

      I feel I have the need for the limelight and the cen traits too. Mainly cen but used drama and music and performance to help me to develop confidence and skills. I was always told by strangers mainly I was good at these things. I feel like a strange mix of low self esteem and grandiose self belief. Also I was praised for being good at performing so this is part of the people pleasing. Does this make any sense? Thank you so much for your helpful books x

        Jonice - September 12, 2019 Reply

        People are complicated indeed. Perhaps you have some aspects of both CEN and narcissism. I suggest you just keep working on your CEN and look for self-love based on things other than musical talent.

Sad - May 5, 2019 Reply


I have CEN and had 2 relationships that gradually became obvious the other person was a narcissist.
This makes so much sense . I’m sad, but I know I can recover. Thank you.

KBull-1 - November 24, 2018 Reply

This is the first time a relationship between CEN and narcissistic parents being subject to CEN themselves….which was something I suspected relating to my parents….from those depression years and the descriptions of what they had to go thru….apparently, some people went without alot of things….including attention to matters at hand like children….tough to do when you are a adult and have to have the kids work too for the family to survive without starving. Some people simply never recovered from those times(Great Depression Years of the 1930s)….and when one is down and out like those times….some never, ever forget what they went thru as a child….such that, now as an adult, they can buy whatever they want….and some do just that, don’t they? (And, as always….some do in excess, isn’t that also true?)…

    Anon - October 13, 2019 Reply

    My mother was affected by the great depression too. I have a girlfriend whose mother was also affected. And another girlfriend who recently passed away. Her father was hard as nails. A great man. A brave man in WWII.

    Both of our mothers cannot stand to hear children complain about things. Neither one of them was protective mothers. They expected their children to bootstrap themselves through problems.

    I believe children who grew up in the great depression were subject to so much uncertainty and danger that they became like little adults. They had to. A lot of people were homeless. Not just individuals, but whole families.

    Try to imagine how hard it was for parents to travel all the time with children and no home. Living in cars. A mother would need to keep some kind of schedule, like potty stops, meals, etc. If a meal was missed, everybody went hungry. No matter what, you had to keep on going to the next job. That’s not a childhood. That’s not even something an adult could handle year after year.

    So, they had to buck up and not complain. Stuff their emotions down so far they were no longer afraid. That generation became the soldiers in WWII, and they knew how to do without. They were the greatest generation, but not without their own scars.

Ella - November 21, 2018 Reply

Which of your books is more geared toward parenting? I have a young child and I am doing my best to raise her in a thoughtful way. Thank you!

AL - November 20, 2018 Reply

How much validations / responses does one narcissistic mom needs from their child in order to come out or be healed from it? Or is it ever possible to expect real emotional connection from a extreme narcissistic parent.

– CEN daughter in recovery

P.D. Reader - October 23, 2018 Reply

I have wondered for years what makes people like this and what the connection is between the two. This makes such wonderful intuitive sense. I love this website (and am learning a lot)! I also have your first book and loved that.

You are performing an important public service. Keep it up!

Bre - October 6, 2018 Reply

So glad to have read this article, and to see narcissism in a new light. This CEN work is good medicine. Thanks

James Lindsay - August 28, 2018 Reply

I’m so grateful for this article.I was diagnosed with ND, and I knew it was wrong, now,after reading your column, it makes sense .My ex fits the self indulgence, I always sacrificed, even riding a bike to work for 45 years..thank you….feeling relieved of much confusion. Jim.

    Jonice - August 28, 2018 Reply

    Dear James, I’m glad to be helpful to you! Take care.

Frank Troy - August 23, 2018 Reply

I’m really grateful for your insights into the ties between CEN and narcissism. I had a narcissistic parent and as a child experienced exactly the family dynamic you describe.

    Jonice - August 23, 2018 Reply

    Dear Frank, that surely makes for a tough childhood. It helps to realize that it’s not your fault. All my best to you.

Alberto Rodriguez - August 23, 2018 Reply


Maybe there narcissism is a response to become strong internally vs. a difficult environment? If you think you are on your own, then you have to take care of yourself. But, eventually, in order to mature, we have to come to that conclusion. Maturing earlier is probably part of the problem.

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