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4 Cognitive Distortions Caused By Childhood Emotional Neglect

Cassie sits with her two friends at their favorite coffee shop. She is listening to her friends heatedly discuss their views about the political situation in the U.S.

As Cassie listens, she feels 3 things. First, she feels impressed at how much her friends seem to know about politics. Second, she feels confused about why her face is flushing; it’s making her feel self-conscious that her friends will notice. Third, she is mortified. “I need to say something, but I have nothing to say. I don’t know nearly as much about politics as they do,” she thinks.

Over the last 5 years, between my psychology practice, my blogs, and my online program, I have interacted with thousands of folks who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN. In doing so I have been able to observe the specific ways in which people who were emotionally neglected as children can, sadly, get in their own way as adults.

Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN happens when your parents fail to notice or respond enough to your feelings as they raise you.

When you grow up with your emotions unacknowledged, or even discouraged in your childhood home, you learn to think in some ways that can hold you back and hurt you throughout your adult life. You learn some powerful ways of believing and thinking that are patently wrong.

Essentially, throughout your childhood, your parents’ false beliefs, or cognitive distortions, automatically become your own. Unbeknownst to you, they become your rules to live by. But they are rules based on false assumptions, and they are rules that harm you over and over throughout your entire adult life.

Cassie, in the unremarkable, everyday situation of having coffee with friends, displays 2 of the most important cognitive distortions that many CEN people grow up with.

4 Cognitive Distortions Caused By Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)

#1 Other people’s needs matter more than mine.

I hope that as you read this one, you could clearly tell that it is a distortion of the truth. Yet many, many people live their lives guided by this “principle.”

When your parents didn’t ask you if you were OK, what you needed or what you wanted enough as they raised you, your natural takeaway was that you are not allowed to have needs. You were raised with the message that your needs do not matter. So now, as an adult, you may not even realize that you have needs.

This makes it very hard for you to say the words, “I need…” and it sets you up to automatically go along with whatever other people want and need.

#2 I’m not as… “smart/knowledgeable/attractive/interesting/capable/lovable/insert your own adjective here” … as other people.

Each CEN person has their own version of this deep-seated sense of “not good enough.” I have seen deeply thoughtful, intelligent people clam up, as Cassie did because they’re afraid they have nothing to add and perfectly attractive folks avoid dating because of their belief that they are not attractive enough.

When you grow up not receiving little feedback or attention, you automatically assume that you are not worthy of feedback or attention. This makes it difficult to believe in yourself and hard to take risks of any kind.

#3 Other people will disappoint me if I try to rely on them.

Growing up in a family that does not address or talk about feelings teaches you what not to do. It teaches you not to look to others for emotional support because you will surely be disappointed.

Nothing hurts a child more than needing emotional attention and support, as basic a human need as water, and continually going to the well for that support, and finding that it is always dry.

So you learned your lesson and you learned it well: Do not put yourself in that situation where you will be, once again, let down. This makes it hard for CEN adults to talk about difficult or meaningful things, and to ask for and accept emotional support from others.

You not only believe that you must do everything on your own, but you also believe, falsely, that you can.

#4 It’s best not to let others know when I am bothered, overwhelmed or upset.

This distorted thought is an outgrowth of the powerful, probably unspoken, subliminal message that you heard every day as a child from your parents ignoring your emotions:

Your feelings don’t matter. They are an unnecessary burden on others.

When families keep their feelings to themselves, they teach their children to do the same. They teach the children that sharing emotions in relationships will repel others and damage relationships, whereas, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Emotions are actually the life’s blood of all types of relationships. When you keep your feelings to yourself, you are robbing the other person of the opportunity to know you and care for you on a deeper, more meaningful level. You are, unknowingly, keeping your relationships from developing the richness and resilience that they can and should have and that you could and should be enjoying in your life.

3 Effective Ways To Battle Your CEN Cognitive Distortions

  1. Believe that you matter because you do. Your feelings, your needs, your wishes do matter just as much as anyone else’s. You are the only person who can let other people know what you want, feel and need, and it is not only your right to do so, it is your responsibility to do so.
  2. Choose a person in your life that you will purposely make an effort to have more meaningful conversations with. With that one trusted person, consciously share more of your feelings, worries, problems, and thoughts. Taking this risk in a thoughtful way will begin to challenge those old cognitive distortions and break them apart.
  3. Accept that you have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to intelligence, knowledge, and attractiveness, just like everyone else does. Think about how boring a perfect person would be. Thank goodness there aren’t any! Research shows that it is our weaknesses that make people like us. When you feel like holding yourself back, do the opposite. Take a chance and do the opposite of what those childhood messages are telling you. You will find that the more you override those messages, the weaker they will become.

Those old cognitive distortions are powerful, yes. But so are you. Now, as an adult, you can challenge them and change them, and essentially “un-distort” them.

Then you will be living no more in the boxed-in world set up by your emotionally neglectful childhood. You will be living in the free, connected world, filling your own shoes and walking the path you choose.

You will be living according to your own truths. The real truths. Just as it should be.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible when it happens and difficult to remember so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn much more about how Emotional Neglect happens and how to heal its effects as an adult, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

4 Cognitive Distortions Caused By Childhood Emotional Neglect

Jonice Webb PhD

Jonice Webb, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who is recognized worldwide for her groundbreaking work in defining, describing, and calling attention to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). She writes, speaks, and trains therapists on the topic, and is the bestselling author of two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. She also created and runs the Fuel Up For Life Online CEN Recovery Program. Since CEN can be difficult to see and remember, Dr. Webb created the CEN Questionnaire and other free resources to help you figure out if you have it. Take the CEN Questionnaire and learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how to heal it at her website

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APA Reference
Webb PhD, J. (2019). 4 Cognitive Distortions Caused By Childhood Emotional Neglect. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 Feb 2019
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