March 5, 2016

What Emotional Neglect Really Looks Like.

Hernán Piñera/Flickr

What if there was a reason why we have moments where we feel utterly alone and like nobody understands us?

What if there was a reason why we have a hard time expressing and understanding our emotions?

What if there was a reason why we feel empty at times and feel the need to fill our lives up with relationships, people, sex, drugs and alcohol.

There might be a reason.

The book that opened my eyes was Dr. Jonice Webb’s Running on Empty in which she explores emotional neglect in childhood and how this neglect eventually leads to feelings of inner emptiness in adulthood. This article addresses aspects of her book and explains how the way in which we were taught to experience and express our emotions has everything to do with the sorts of relationships we will have with others and with ourselves.

Emotional neglect is an invisible force from your childhood which you can’t see, but which may be affecting you profoundly to this day. It is about what didn’t happen in your childhood, what wasn’t said, and what cannot be remembered.

Whilst the term neglect suggests physical, psychological and emotional abuse, the truth is that we don’t have to be abused to be neglected.

Being an emotionally neglected individual is not a personality disorder, nor is it a taboo topic that we should feel guilty or ashamed of. It is not even something that we should blame our parents for (unless our parents deliberately inflicted harm upon us). Emotional neglect is common and is mostly invisible.

We are all born into a family template where old behaviours and patterns lurk. They are often invisible and some of them are not necessarily harmful, but they are there affecting us as children and adults. There is no such thing as a perfect family.

I grew up in a fairly normal family environment with hard working parents, responsible older siblings in an average suburban home. I went to a good school and had plenty of friends, participated in sports and hobbies, went on family vacations.

I have so many memories of my childhood—some good, some bad, some just average.

As a teenager I was fairly average, with a few tendencies to withdraw from people on occasion. I had my first relationship, then a few more, each time ending in either heartbreak or feelings of emptiness and loss. I accepted that being a teenager was hard. But the next decade was a little harder, with losses being more profound, sometimes not just emotional but spiritual too.

The emptiness lingered longer the older I got.

So I embarked on some thorough self-analysis. It was obvious I was attracting people into my life for the wrong reasons. And it was mostly because I felt empty and I expected the other person to fill my state of emptiness and loneliness. So I tried to fill that emptiness with things that offered instant gratification; like food, alcohol, socializing, transient encounters and materialistic things in order to mask my insecurity, lack of self-esteem and low self-confidence.

But why did I have these issues in the first place? Why did I constantly feel lonely, confused, in need of something—in need of emotional nourishment? Why did I attract the wrong people into my life; not just relationships but friendships too? I mean, I grew up in a nice home with loving parents, I always had friends and family around me, a roof over my head and a warm meal on the table.

There is nothing in my childhood that I could recollect that would have contributed to these feelings of self-questioning and emptiness. But obviously there was something and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. There was something I was feeling but I couldn’t understand it.

And then I found what was not there, heard what made no sound, and saw what was never in front of me: A completely invisible emotion.

One of the most important things about growing up is one’s relationship to their own feelings. If we grew up in a home where our feelings were heard and encouraged, then we are likely to develop a good relationship with ourselves so that when a feeling surfaces inside us, we don’t just push it away or ignore it, we listen to it and we act on it, no matter how unwelcome or painful it is. But if we grew up in a home where our feelings were not heard, were repressed, overlooked —or if we were made to feel ashamed and guilty for having feelings, then this is the primary basis for feeling emotional neglect.

Sometimes being neglected is unavoidable and inescapable.

We might have been emotionally neglected as a result of our parents working too much, or maybe our parents did not have a good relationship with one another, or one parent abandoned the home, or was widowed or divorced. Maybe our parents had to take care of an ill child or family member. We may also have suffered emotional neglect if our parents didn’t understand their own emotions or how to vocalize them in a positive way. Or maybe they were too young or were not ready to have us.

Maybe we grew up in a house that was over authoritarian or not authoritarian enough. Maybe our parents hated conflict so when a fight broke out between siblings, they would send everyone to their rooms without addressing what started the fight in the first place. Or maybe mum was the child of a narcissistic parent herself and dad had depression or a mood disorder and he didn’t even know it. We might have even had to grow up too fast because our parents were not around as much and we had to take care of our younger brother and sister, or maybe we had to take care of our own parents for whatever reason.

All these factors are the foundation for our emotions and they will determine how we will grow up.
Some factors to consider which mean that you could have experienced emotional neglect.

  • We have a hard time understanding our emotions or lack of them
  • We feel empty often
  • We abuse substances or overeat
  • We tend to end up in co-dependent relationships or relationships which hurt us constantly
  • We feel like an outsider looking in
  • We feel detached from our surroundings
  • We feel like nobody understands us and have a hard time vocalizing our wants and needs
  • We can’t relate to our child or spouse on an emotional level
  • We feel out of place

(These are just a few examples; if you would like to do the questionnaire, I suggest you visit Dr. Jonice Webb’s website.)

We may not feel all of these things, but it is important to see which ones we actually do feel and address them.

When the neglected child grows up, he/she feels confused and responsible for not being happier—and he/she blames themselves for this invisible emptiness.

None of us want to name and shame our parents, especially if they gave us all they could give us considering their circumstances, which is why acknowledging emotional neglect is so difficult. And you may not have been in any of the situations I describe above, but there is a reason why you feel what you feel—and it all stems from the relationship you were taught to have with your own emotions.

No feeling or emotion is wrong, even if it is a nasty one—but what we have to understand is that it is coming from somewhere inside us—and there is a reason why it is erupting inside us.

What we need to learn is to identify and name it, self-monitor, accept and trust in our feelings and then express them effectively. This does not mean that if you are feeling angry that you should commit a violent act. It means that you should listen to your feeling and channel it in an assertive way which involves both empathy and understanding.




Author’s note: Dr. Jonice Webb who I mention in this article has given me permission to write this article and use quotes and links to her website.





Author: Barbara Conrad

Editor: Renée Picard

Image: Hernán Piñera/Flickr 


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Lesli M Jul 5, 2019 6:17am

I also recently discovered and read this book and have found it very helpful and insightful. I identify with so much of what she writes about CEN and also, recognize how I passed this CEN onto my own adult children without even knowing it until now.
Both my husband and myself vowed to do a better job than our parents & without a doubt we did our best BUT, we don’t know what we don’t know. i have since tried to explain this to my kids, but I don’t know that they still really understand and think that I don’t owe them an apology.
I haven’t read the 2nd book yet, although I intend to. I really enjoyed your article and concise interpretation of the book. Would look forward to reading your views on book 2.

Barbara Conrad Mar 12, 2016 12:45pm

Dear Paul,
Your response to my article has inspired me to do more research into this area and to explore so much more about the topic of emotional neglect; the causes and the cures (so to speak). I agree with you on so many levels. I agree that it is very much 'inherited' and that it can be genetic and I am so glad that research is being broadened on this topic. I am also interested in the area of metacognition as I think that it is something that cannot be solely dealt with within in a therapy room – it goes much deeper than that. You mentioned mindfulness and meditation which I firmly believe in – however I also believe in energy work and how we are able to clear negative energies and rise out of low vibration into a high vibration from doing the necessary inner work. Whilst psychology offers us an understanding of the mind, the practice of shifting our energy from low to high is very much a practical experience and takes much more than the 'talking cure'. I completely agree with you in that most emotionally neglected people are empathetic and in some ways it can be viewed as a gift which (if directed appropriately) can actually prove to be of benefit to others as long as the empath doesn't forget themselves in the process of helping others. I would love to know more of your thoughts as I am very inspired by your response.

Paul Mar 11, 2016 3:27pm

Barbara, thanks for writing about this issue. I think this is one of the prevalent sources of ennui in society today.

One of the potential sources of the neglect you talk about comes directly from a parent, especially a mother. I don’t intend to be critical of mothers who might have neglected children, but there is abundant research into the effects of maternal neglect, so it’s an issue. My own mother was orphaned at a tender age, 8, and was put into the care of an aunt who treated my mother as an unwelcome burden. As a result, I suspect that my mom had a personality disorder; borderline personality disorder. She didn’t ask for it, she just had to deal with it as best she could.

Recent research has also recently shown that parental (maternal) neglect has epigenetic results that are ‘genetically’ passed from parent to child. The mechanisms are not understood, but the experimental data is conclusive. What this means is that a parent who has experienced trauma or neglect will have children predisposed to mood disorders, whether or not the child is raised by their parent. I don’t know of any therapies that are proven to deal with this sort of ‘genetic’ inheritance.

What this implies is that a person can experience neglect directly, but also ‘inherit’ the effects of past generations of neglect, abuse and trauma. A double-whammy. And therapists are neither equipped to diagnose these inherited effects, nor treat them.

The best therapies for the results of neglect are hardly better than placebos. Meditation and mindfulness seems to be at the top of the list of effective therapies. Also at the top of the list is ‘metacognition’, or the awareness of how you are thinking and feeling.

An example of a metacognition is being aware of having depression. Usually if a person becomes aware they are depressed, they might have feelings of frustration or hopelessness about being depressed. But this reaction doesn’t need to happen.

A person can choose to accept that they are depressed and yet choose not to let that make them upset. It is especially useful to recognize that how you feel about being depressed is not the same as actually being depressed. This is a distinction that many fail to make.

Other examples of metacognition include being aware that a person might have a personality disorder such as borderline, narcissistic, or histrionic personality disorder (DSM V ‘cluster B’). If a person refuses to accept their condition, the prognosis is poor. Only after a person is willing to accept this sort of characteristic will they have a chance at mitigation of the effects of their condition. (For fans of 12-step programs, this would be Step One).

So, if you suspect that your mood or personality have been effected by neglect, choose to acknowledge it, be aware that it probably make you more empathetic (which I think is usually a good thing), and choose not to abandon or neglect that aspect of who you are. Instead, embrace it and treat it with sympathy. Know that many others are experiencing the same feelings, and be grateful for the blessings in your life.


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Barbara Conrad

Barbara Conrad is an Australian editor and writer. After living in Sydney for most of her life, she has recently moved to Europe. She has a thorough interest in psychology, spirituality and philosophy and is fascinated by all things relating to soul-growth and personal progress.