Childhood Emotional Neglect: How What Didn't Happen Is Killing Your Success


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“I still don’t feel happy or fulfilled.”

“Everything feels meaningless.”

“Is there something wrong with me?”

Whether you constantly chase after new life goals or you are struggling to discover the meaning to your life, it’s possible that you suffer from Childhood Emotional Neglect.

What? Isn’t that like abuse or something? I didn’t experience that!


Okay, okay, calm down. Give me a chance to explain. As a Psychology nerd and victim of constant existential crisis, I was researching why I always felt so empty. My life consisted of the highest of highs and then suddenly the lowest of lows. At each of these lows, life had lost its luster. I was suddenly craving my next stimulating dose of inspiration. Should I watch a Tony Robbins Ted-Talk? Maybe read a book about being a BadAss? I functioned like an entrepreneurial-inspiration-driven-junkie.

Continuously seeking extrinsic motivation could not be sustainable. I needed to figure out how to overcome my emptiness, and how to stay motivated for success. At the very least, I needed to feel full in life! Suddenly, I stumbled upon Childhood Emotional Neglect  (CEN), the answer behind feelings of emptiness … and what’s possibly demotivating you from achieving success.

What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?

Abuse and trauma are not co-requisites for CEN. It’s actually more about what didn’t happen rather than what did.

According to Dr. Jonice Webb, author of Running On Empty:

“Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to respond enough to a child’s emotional needs.
Emotional Neglect is, in some ways, the opposite of mistreatment and abuse.  Whereas mistreatment and abuse are parental acts, Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to act.  It’s a failure to notice, attend to, or respond appropriately to a child’s feelings. Because it’s an act of omission, it’s not visible, noticeable or memorable.”

Perhaps your parents loved you dearly, but they failed to validate your emotions. For example, a parent can love you but be incapable of showing their love. Maybe they told you crying is for the weak - not realizing this invalidated your emotions. Or maybe they didn’t praise you when you achieved good grades in school. Or maybe your parents just didn’t know how to console you - they were emotionally awkward. These are all forms of emotional neglect. It leads to the distrust of your emotions and the inability to fully understand them. For others, their parents failed to set guidelines and discipline. Because of this, many people struggle with self-discipline beyond childhood.

The Symptoms

Goodtherapy listed the symptoms of emotional neglect:

  • Feeling like there’s something missing, but not being sure what it is

  • Feeling hollow inside

  • Being easily overwhelmed or discouraged

  • Low self-esteem

  • Perfectionism

  • Pronounced sensitivity to rejection

  • Lack of clarity regarding others’ expectations and your own expectations for yourself

[Read More: 10 Ways Emotional Neglect F*cked Up Your Life: Signs & Symptoms]

How is this affecting your achievements & success?

As Albert Gray wrote in the Common Denominator of Success:

“The secret of success of every man who has ever been successful–lies in the fact that he formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.”

If it is not obvious already, CEN makes you feel demotivated, insecure, and unsure of your goals and direction. This is the complete opposite of how a high-achieving successful person feels.

Now, I’m not saying that childhood emotional neglect is the only thing that’s demotivating you. I am saying that it’s a possible idea that is worth exploring.

Personally, I always found myself exploring different ventures. In college, I changed my major six times and I tried starting three different businesses. Each time I felt full of passion, determination, and motivation. However, after a few months, I would either begin to doubt myself or get distracted by something else. Suddenly, I would crash again. Was I just too young, and full of hope and curiosity? Was I just scatter-brained and had ADHD? Was I just a mega-genius that loved all things exciting and new? Or was I just an impostor - a wannabe business mogul that couldn’t execute? Someone that just had their head stuck in the clouds? ...This is when my emptiness would begin. As you can see, I had an extreme lack of assurance in myself and my goals. After thoroughly reading Dr. Jonice Webb’s book, Running on Empty, I was shocked to discover, that yes, childhood emotional neglect was holding me back.

First, let me state that my parents love me very much and want nothing more than for me to succeed. However, the truth is that emotional intelligence and connectivity are not generally taught. The topic, to be honest, is rarely taken seriously. My parents fell under the authoritarian parents. This parenting style is defined as: “characterized by high demands and low responsiveness. Parents with an authoritarian style have very high expectations of their children, yet provide very little in the way of feedback and nurturance.”

For example, my parents pushed me to succeed in school. They bought me books, tutored me, and gave me a lot of positive encouragement. When I got A-’s, the world was crashing. But when I received A+’s, my parents were silent. Was this good? Did I do good enough? Why doesn’t this matter? I was left to question myself and my achievements.

How does this affect me today? I place a lot of pressure on myself to succeed, but the lack of nurturance and emotional validation has put me in constant disarray. When a child doesn’t receive emotional feedback, they struggle to develop a sense of self. For me this manifested in continuously questioning my life’s direction.

There are actually 12 types of emotionally neglectful parenting styles. If you’d like to read more about them, read Dr. Jonice Webb’s book, Running on Empty. You will be surprised to find out that almost everyone has a relate-able experience to a certain degree.


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Overcoming & Thriving Beyond Childhood Emotional Neglect

If you feel childhood emotional neglect has affected you, I have good news. Although you feel feelings of emptiness and demotivation, you can still flourish. While overcoming emotional neglect takes numerous steps, I believe there are two main ways to tackle CEN.

1. Understand It

The first step is to become aware of and understand your symptoms. Like anything in life, you cannot overcome or fully heal from something until you understand it. Because I now understand where my lack of assurance in myself comes from, I have been able to begin the steps towards creating a more strong and confident me.

You can take this questionnaire to find out if you actually experience symptoms of Childhood Emotional Neglect: The CENQuestionaire

2. Change your Perspective

Second, find a new perspective. Feelings - whether they are sad feelings, demotivating feelings, empty feelings, or impulsive feelings - exist for a reason. I used to see my rapid distractions as negative and debilitating. How would I ever succeed if I was always confused, empty, or unsure? I realized that my emotions- although seemingly negative - told a story that was positive and uplifting. Yes, I do get distracted easily. Yes, sometimes I feel empty and insecure. But yes, I have the power to change my perspective on these emotions. In fact, my distractions showed my love and appreciation for new topics and ideas. My emptiness was actually the force that propelled me to seek more out of life. And my insecurity opened up the door for self-work and self-analysis.

I’ll close with one more quote from Dr. Jonice Webb:

“The reality is, that the smartest” and most successful *cough* *cough* “people are those who use their emotions to help them think and who use their thoughts to manage their emotions”.

If you feel lost in life, undisciplined, or just empty, consider looking into your past. Ask yourself how these emotions manifested. If you believe you experienced childhood emotional neglect and it’s preventing you from achieving and flourishing, do some extra digging. Understand yourself and change your perspective. We can’t change our pasts, but we can take the steps to change our futures.

Do you ever experience feelings of emptiness? How do you get over your lack of motivation? Share your ideas in the comments below!