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4 Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Makes You Vulnerable to Workplace Bullies

Almost every workplace has a bully. And every bully automatically seeks a target.

Just as many bullies learned the art of bullying in their childhoods, most targets also learned how to be a target as as children.

How can a child be taught how to be a bully or a victim? I do realize that this notion may sound strange to some.

But a study by researchers from the University of Washington and Indiana University has found that most bullies were exposed to bullying as children. They were either abused or bullied by their parents or witnessed one parent bullying the other.

Exposing a child to emotionally or physically abusive behavior is a way to push that child toward becoming a bully himself.

So exactly how do parents teach their child to become a good target for bullies? Amazingly, it does not require abuse or active mistreatment. All that’s required is Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.

Childhood Emotional Neglect: Happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your feelings and emotional needs as they raise you.

People who go through their childhoods with their emotions ignored or un-validated by their parents (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN) are indeed affected in some very important ways.

Since many parents, even loving, caring parents who are trying their best do not understand how emotions work they are not able to well enough identify when or what their child is feeling.

A lack of understanding and knowledge about feelings, what they are, what they mean, how to identify, tolerate, manage and express them is far from rare in today’s world. So, unfortunately, CEN happens far more often than one would think.

Growing up with CEN literally teaches you to ignore your feelings. And since your feelings are the deepest, most personal, biological expression of who you are, it ultimately has a profound effect on how you treat yourself. Specifically, CEN sets you up to ignore your deepest self.

Your deepest self — your feelings — offers incredibly useful information to you each and every day. Your feelings are valuable messages from your body. So ignoring them leaves you at a disadvantage in many important areas of your life.

Your Emotions: Messages From Your Deepest Self

Our emotions are built into us at birth for a reason. They are designed to help us survive and thrive.

Every emotion you experience contains a message from your deepest self.

Table of Emotions & Their Messages

Taken from the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

      The Emotion

                          The Message


  Tells you to escape / self-preservation


  Pushes us to fight back / self-protection


  Drives us to care for spouse, children, others


  Drives us to procreate, create, and invent


  Pushes us to correct a situation


  Tells us we are losing something important


  Pushes us to help others


  Tells us to avoid something


  Drives us to explore and learn

This is only a small sample of the many different feelings you can have. And now imagine what happens when your body is telling you to escape, protect yourself, fight back or avoid.

And you are not listening.

4 Ways CEN Makes You Vulnerable to Workplace Bullies

  1. Bullies are people who take up a lot of space. They have a special radar for people who take up little. They look for those who they sense will be most likely to tolerate mistreatment.
  2. Being disconnected from your deepest self means that you may be unaware when your body is calling out to you, “Watch out!” “Avoid this person!” or “Fight back!”
  3. Bullies often “float some test balloons” on someone to see how they will react. This means they do some small acts of mistreatment to feel out the situation. If you under-react to this then they will go a little more; then more, and more, and more. When you continue to under-react, the bullying will escalate.
  4. Having gone through your entire life without full access to these messages has had another effect on you. It has prevented you from learning assertiveness skills, like how to speak up for yourself. So even once you realize you are being mistreated or targeted, it’s hard to know what to do about it.

How to Make Yourself Less Vulnerable to Bullies at Work

  • Start on the path to healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Learn everything you can about how CEN happened in your life and how it affects you now. You can find much more information about this in the book Running On Empty.
  • Start trying to think about your emotions in a different way. View them as your helpers and work on noticing what you are feeling and the messages your body is sending you.
  • Work on learning the assertiveness skills, which involve knowing what you feel, managing that feeling while you size up the situation and the person involved, and then expressing yourself to them in a way that they can hear. I know it sounds difficult but these skills are learnable. And it is never too late to learn them.

Anyone can at any time become the target of a bully. But as soon as it happens it is how you respond that may set you up for more or less similar treatment in the future.

So now that you know, it is time to begin. Stop ignoring those messages from your deepest self and pay attention instead.

By treating yourself as if you matter, you are sending that same message to others.

I know that I matter.

And I will protect myself.

You bullies are wasting your time on me.

Find much more information about CEN, how it happens and how you can heal it at and in the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. Find links to all of these resources below in my Bio.

4 Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Makes You Vulnerable to Workplace Bullies

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 Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Makes You Vulnerable to Workplace Bullies. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 6 Oct 2019
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