The Unique Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect on Your Happiness

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Most psychotherapists’ first question to their clients: “What do you want to accomplish in therapy?”

Most Clients’ first answer: “I just want to be happy.”

Direct, succinct and clear, this answer cuts to the chase. It makes perfect sense, and we therapists fully concur. We want you to be happy too.

But this understandable request raises a far more complex question with which the greatest minds of all time have grappled:

What is the secret formula for making people happy?

Here are the short versions of a few great thinkers’ answers from the distant past.

Aristotle: Happiness depends on ourselves.

Buddha: Happiness results from mindful thought and action.

Socrates: Happiness comes from gaining rational control over your desires, and harmonizing the different parts of your soul.

Epicurus: To gain happiness, abstain from unnecessary desires to achieve inner tranquility; be content with simple things.

These are all powerful observations, of course. But now, lets fast forward to today’s world and talk about who struggles with happiness and why.

The Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect on Your Potential For Happiness

I have found that the people who struggle with the pursuit of happiness in a most unique way are those with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). It’s because their questions about their own happiness are tainted and complicated by self-blame.

Yes, it’s true. People with CEN actually blame themselves for not being happier.

Childhood Emotional Neglect is far more common than you may think. It happens when your parents ignore or discourage your feelings too much as they are raising you. Even if you have a fine childhood in every other way, you grow up feeling ignored or discouraged on some deep and harmful level. This has a profound effect on your life.

People with Childhood Emotional Neglect, having been raised to ignore their emotions and themselves, are highly prone to self-blame. CEN folks have a tendency to feel at fault for most everything that does not go right. Their own happiness is no exception.

And what do you think happens when you blame your lack of happiness on yourself? It erects a giant barrier between you and happiness. It makes you even less able to feel happy.

Current research on happiness tells us that material wealth has a surprisingly limited effect on human happiness. Three other factors have a much more powerful impact and they are factors that you can cultivate in your life.

3 Life Factors Research Shows are Keys to People’s Overall Happiness

(Plus a #4 Especially for Childhood Emotional Neglect)

  1. Deep and meaningful relationships. Think about your spouse, your children, your supervisor, your colleagues, neighbors, and friends. Looking at your relationships is somewhat like looking into an emotional mirror. Your relationships offer a reflection of who you are. Nurture and strengthen them, and you nurture and strengthen yourself. The happier your relationships, the happier you will be.
  2. Learning and practicing mindfulness. Practicing being in the moment is a way to train your brain to be more under your control. It also makes you more self-aware and more present.  While the past and future are important to consider, learn from and plan, the most important place to live is in the moment, right now. In addition to learning meditation, try to be aware of what you’re doing and how and why you’re doing it. Be aware of what you’re feeling, and how and why you’re feeling it. Research shows that the more mindful you are, the happier you will be.
  3. Increasing your emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence has been found to contribute more to success and general well-being than intellectual intelligence. Understanding your own feelings and the feelings of others gives you the power to manage yourself and complex situations effectively. To increase your emotional intelligence learn more about emotions and how they work.
  4. Stopping the self-blame. Self-blame is a road to nowhere at all. It will actually prevent you from being happier. It will be much more helpful to accept that there have been real reasons for your lack of happiness and that you did not choose them. In many emotionally neglectful families, the CEN is no one’s fault. Parents are not able to give you emotional awareness, emotional understanding, and emotional knowledge if they did not receive it themselves from their own parents. CEN is a blind spot that gets passed down through generations. It’s not your fault that you grew up with it, but it is your choice what to do with it. 

If the four factors above seem overwhelming there is something important I want you to know. While none of them can be achieved suddenly they all can be achieved gradually. If you keep your mind on these 4 goals you can gradually make yourself happier in a deep, meaningful, and lasting way.

To learn more about achieving happiness by facing your self-blame, increasing your emotional intelligence, and using your emotions to enrich your relationships, see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

A version of this article originally appeared on It has been rewritten and reproduced here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.


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Chidinma - April 10, 2020 Reply

Thank you Dr. Jonice. Is CEN more powerful in people with highly sensitive nature?

The major challenge with me is that I find it hard to self focus. I have alot of big dreams I want to achieve but it’s all difficult but the irony is I can motivate others to fulfill theirs and then I start comparing myself with them.

I hope to overcome this and help other Nigerians/Africans deal with CEN.

    Jonice - April 10, 2020 Reply

    Dear Chidinma, yes, HSP’s are more sensitive to CEN in their childhood home. It’s a little like having your superpower ignored. Perhaps you can stop thinking about helping others with CEN and keep your focus on yourself for now. How will you heal? What can you do for yourself?

Debbie - February 25, 2020 Reply

I have a husband that has CEN although he don’t realize it! He has stated he is unhappy and I think he blames me!!!! I am not his reason we had many many many happy years n the last 3 have been emotionally upsetting! I felt my husband pulling away constantly and I didn’t know how to stop it so it turned into fighting n I now read it was the worse way to handle this! I wish I could take it all back becaise one month ago he filed for divorce! I am devastated. All I wanTed was my husband to be happy n I was trying so hard n now I blame me! Will he ever realize this. He does go to therapy n she knew we were struggling but I feel she was making him only care about himself! I am truly devastated and I am so sad cuZ exactly the opposite happened! Any advice. ??

    Jonice - February 28, 2020 Reply

    Dear Debbie, I recommend you see a therapist yourself to help you sort through all this and make sense of it. I am so sorry you are being hurt so much.

Ana - February 24, 2020 Reply

Dr. Jonice, thank you. ❤️

MtVelveteen - February 23, 2020 Reply

Excellent info, as usual!
I’m thinking that the work of Peter Levine, and some of his somatic interventions that he discovered in the 70’s would be a great compliment to your work, and that of other CEN therapists:

Olivia - February 23, 2020 Reply

I’m working hard on #3 but the others are very difficult.
I’m really feeling the lack of deep relationships in my life, I have one supportive person and that’s it. I try and try, but it’s so, so hard to make deep connections, there’s hardly anyone in my life I’ve known from childhood for example. No long term supportive people.
I really don’t want to practice mindfulness and feeling in the present moment as I feel trapped in my life and want to make changes but how? I have no job, no money, few friends, no way out tbh. I’d rather look to the future and hope I can find a way to enjoy my life.
Self blame- and that’s the big thing in my life. Why didn’t I study hard for a great career when I was young, earn a good wage and now I’d be enjoying a comfortable old age. Stupid stupid stupid, what was I thinking as a young woman? Now I have no job, no wage, no comfortable life.
I just feel like a waste of space tbh…

    Jonice - February 24, 2020 Reply

    Dear Olivia, I hope you’ll work on this self-blame. As a young woman, you did what you could with what you had. The thing to focus on instead is this: What can I do now for myself? It’s all about now.

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