46 thoughts on “Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Enemy of Assertiveness

  • May 8, 2016 at 11:50 am

    Thank you for this article. It also seems the guy’s name is actually Manuel J. Smith.

  • May 8, 2016 at 11:54 am

    But what does “judging” emotions, thought and behaviour mean?

    • May 8, 2016 at 12:42 pm

      Good question Sam! It means judging whether your emotion, thought or behavior is OK, acceptable or right.

      • May 8, 2016 at 2:04 pm

        While I can certainly relate to trouble with assertiveness, on a larger scale I think there’s an interesting paradox here in our current culture. There’s the CEN person that has a problem voicing their needs, but there’s a whole lot of folks that have take assertiveness to an extreme. As in I matter most and I want everything my way – a form of narcissism maybe. Like most things, there’s a happy medium between having your voice heard but not having a sense of entitlement, that you have the right to have everything your way. A slippery slope.

      • May 12, 2016 at 11:00 pm

        I believe the assertive mode is not a matter of wanting things your way all the time but it is just the ability to express what you want or need. There is a big difference. Not voicing these makes you passive and too much passivity leads to depression or aggression eventually.

  • May 8, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    Thank you, Dr. Webb for your informative article. I could identify with every part of it. As I continue to read your articles, you give me insight, encouragement, validation and hope. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    Being underassertive has been the bane of my life. That’s because of all the wrong messages that I was given from my parents throughout my years of development. My needs didn’t count. My feelings were invalidated. I was told that I was useless, worthless, and that I would amount to nothing in life. I was told that I was a detestable little thing and that no one in their right mind could love me becaues, I’m unlovable. All that, at such a delicate young age… I was only a smal child and heard those words over and over again like a broken record until I absorbed the untruths as truths. I was then lost!

    I had guilt, shame and judgements heaped on me. I now understand that my parents were offloading their guilt and shame on to me, instead of accepting their issues and dealing with them accordingly. I was mocked and ridiculed for being ME because I was different to the rest of the family. Unlike my parents I was sensitive, imaginative, creative… a child who cared deeply and had a love and passion for the welfare of animals. Father was an atheist and mother was not a practising Christian. I attended Sunday school from the age of eight, and for that, I became the family joke… something for them to mock and laugh at. I did well at school academically and also in sports. I was the top female athlete at my school. Neither of my parents attended any of the ceremonies when I recieved awards for my accomplishments. Neither did I receive a single ‘Well Done’. As mother would tell me, you’re not as good as ‘so n so.’ I was always compared to someone else hence, put down.

    Being assertive isn’t easy for someone like me but I have got better at it. On the occasions when I wanted to be assertive it struck fear at the very heart of me. I would shake with anxiety inside and often I couldn’t do it. When I did I felt guilt. I honestly didn’t know that I had the right to do it. That is how I’ve lived most of my life thus, people have used me over and over again and I became the proverbial doormat. I didn’t have the self love and worth to know any better then. I did learn my lesson but late in life and after too many painful encounters. When parents treat a child in such a deplorable way, it’s soul murder, and the sorry thing is that those children grow up carrying the weight of the sorrows dumped on them from the parents. WE pay the price for immature, unloving and dysfunctional parents who, in my opinion, should never have been allowed to breed in the first place. It’s a sad state of affairs.

    However, the guidance and light at the end of the tunnel shone on me this morning, on Mother’s Day. My son sent a card which said, ‘Mother, You Have a Beautiful Heart! I know I’ve done for my son that, which wasn’t done for me. I validated him. I encouraged an open expression of all his feelings. I listened to him. I’ve loved, cared for and praised him for his efforts and successes. I’ve been there for him through thick and thin and hugged him when things went wrong. I feel that I have instilled within him a true sense of who he is. When we spoke on the phone, I spoke of the joy and pleasure of being a mother to such a wonderful son who, like me, is sensitive, creative, caring and kind. Good came out of something bad. Amen.

    • May 10, 2016 at 9:25 pm

      Hi Enlightening. Though my parents were more passively neglectful, I too shake uncontrollably when I stand up for myself. I never understood why it happened and now I’m beginning to wonder how much of it is related to cen.

      I’m doing the same with my daughter and I’m very happy to hear that it’s working well for your son.

  • May 8, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    I appreciate this blog as even after a full life of family, work and chronic pain with personal counselling background I still find myself staying on the fringes of certain conversations, hesitant to share. Then I hear someone else give a similar thought and I mentally kick myself and wonder why I hadn’t spoken up. I do know why; it is the voice and the feeling inside that still resides that says be quiet or you will embarrass yourself….not my words but words from my childhood. In reality I have never embarrassed myself; however I disappoint myself when even now at the age I am my silence is so deep- rooted. I am encouraged to find this blog. Thank you.

    • July 18, 2016 at 4:40 pm

      Hi Annie,
      I seem to be the opposite. I have always pushed myself (in the last 15-20 years) to speak up, then afterwards, I always think people see me as as know-it-all, and don’t like me for that. Most times anymore, I don’t know whether to say anything or not.
      And to cheatingdeath, I am on social security also, I’m 54, trying to raise my granddaughter, and take care of my disabled husband. I, too, feel there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. My worst fear is that I’ll end up on the street alone. Just know someone else out here feels the same. I have failed in everything I’ve ever wanted to do, and I can’t even think about myself until my 4 yr old granddaughter is safe from the mental abuse her mother got as a child from her birth mother and stepfather. I’m sorry we’re mostly in the same boat, but there may be hope for the future children.

  • May 9, 2016 at 10:08 pm

    My problem with assertiveness is I can’t think on my feet. Socially awkward I never think of what to say until hours after. I don’t know how to fix it.

    • May 11, 2016 at 10:56 am


      I don’t think not thinking on your feet is a sign of social awkwardness. It’s very common for people to admit that they don’t think very well on their feet. I see it as more of a discipline, like exercise :). It takes time and practice. Not that I am any grw as t shakes at it, but I am also discovering it takes self-trust.

      Best to you,


      • May 11, 2016 at 11:19 am

        Thank you, I sincerely appreciate any help. I am 56 years old though, and more than a little tired and annoyed with myself for being this way. I’ll keep trying.

      • May 11, 2016 at 8:58 pm

        I’m with you Nancy – want to be more assertive but it requires effort – have this need to have people like me – & I hate me for it

      • May 12, 2016 at 2:19 am

        I’m the same way and when no one likes me or when I think no one likes me, I get mad. I’m weary of being like this.

    • May 12, 2016 at 4:17 pm

      I’m the same way. When I’m treated poorly it usually comes out of the blue (as in something below the belt that my S/O says to me) and I freeze. Later I think of how I should’ve said I didn’t deserve that, etc. I have all these memories off all of those times and those have built resentment. One time I did calmly say “when you said that to me like that it hurt my feelings” and received, “once again you turn it around and make it all about you”…which taught me that even when I know I’m not in the wrong he can easily twist it around to where he believes that I am, blames me and so I learn that speaking up only makes it worse. What have I learned? To give up. Trust….it means more than knowing he or she won’t cheat. I know my S/O doesn’t cheat on me, but I don’t trust that I can open up to him about anything and after 20plus years a part of me is dying inside. I can feel it way down in there while I write this….I thought it was already dead but I guess it’s just buried.

      • May 12, 2016 at 8:11 pm

        I think the important thing I’ve learned about being assertive is it’s most important to say what you need to say to the person you need to stand up to, regardless of what he or she will say in response. My partner always tells me, it’s not about coming out on top or ‘winning’. It’s only about making yourself heard. If the other person decides to express his/her feelings about their words/actions, it can be a beneficial exchange. If they decide to turn it around and make it about you, to me it means they’re losing ground and are playing to ‘win’. At that point, you should just walk away.

        BTW, don’t ever get into an argument with my partner. *lol*

      • June 5, 2016 at 6:21 am


        I have been practicing assertiveness for years, and my husband is a nice person, but he was the same way with me for many years during the beginning of our marriage. Just keep up the good work, and eventually he will get used to the new assertive you! Don’t back down. Don’t apologize. Don’t allow him to make you feel like you’re actually in the wrong. He just needs to get used to this new you who has a backbone. It will take some adjusting on his part, and on yours.

        I remember the first time I got a reply of “I’m sorry, you’re right. I was being insensitive. Will you forgive me?” Instead of one like you described. It was wonderful and magical! And I realized that I had been deserving them for many years prior, but had allowed myself to be the one to apologize for things that weren’t my fault for years before that.

        Hold your head up high, Mare. Keep asserting yourself, stand your ground, and I promise you that eventually he will come around and realize that you a strong woman now. And you will demand respect! And he will give it to you. And he’ll feel good about doing so.

  • May 10, 2016 at 9:20 am

    This is highly informative for me and I need tools to practice how to do better for myself.

  • May 11, 2016 at 11:18 am

    I was shown this article by someone who was neglected. It has some good points but I think it should have been written with a caveat: That caveat being: Yes, it;s good to stand up for yourself, but you also need to do some self reflection first. Such as: Was this person really doing something that was hurting me? Did they mean to do this and was it pre-meditated? or were they human and could they have their own issues that are coming out in not the best way?
    I have found that people who are encouraged to be assertive and that their feelings are the only ones that matter tend to take things too far in the other direction.
    I truly think people who have this thought constantly floating around in their heads should consider Hypnotism, because 99% of the time they are too lazy or unaware to do the work necessary to really get over this and move on healthily in their lives.
    Good luck to you all, but remember not to judge everyone based on how you were treated as a child, because in many instances, your perspective is clouded and needs some reflection before you unlease your assertive new self.

    • May 11, 2016 at 11:49 am

      Thanks for your comment. It expresses the perspective that most people have when they don’t have CEN themselves: “Don’t be lazy, just fix it and move on.” CEN folks often self-reflect too much, and don’t feel they have the right to speak up. They are the last ones likely to become too aggressive. Even when they have learned the skills of assertiveness (one of which is the reflection you’re suggesting), they don’t feel they have the right to use them. This is the one issue I’m trying to address in this article.

    • May 12, 2016 at 2:22 am

      It would be nice to ‘move on’ as easily as you think. Thank you Dr. Webb, you rock!

    • July 19, 2016 at 2:01 am

      Before you ask those questions, you might educate yourself on the subject of CEN. In most cases, the hurt is NOT intended. There are extenuating circumstances of having a severely disabled person in the home, and the other parent trying to work and take care of their family financially, and the “good” kid just gets lost in the shuffle. Other kinds ARE intentional, from verbal abuse,to physical abuse, sexual abuse, etc. CEN is found in successful people, who just commits suicide “all of a sudden”.
      I’m sure you’ve known people who you can see clearly that they try very hard, but nothing works out. They used to call them “hard luck” people. My mother loved me very much, but couldn’t express it. At the end of her life, she told me that “Stoicism” is not the way to go. I finally understood why she was in her late 60s before she could tell me “I love you” when I started telling her. (At the advice of my husband). The bottom line, is that children need to know we love them, are interested in them, and are proud of them. They also need to know that when they do wrong, we need to discuss the problem, show that you consider their side, and explain why they need to take responsibility for their actions. The hard part for some parents is just listening. Yes, I’ve a bit over explained, but my son refuses to see also. I know he was emotionally neglected, but he covers it with alcohol and overachieving. You sound exactly like he does. Learn some empathy, please.

  • May 11, 2016 at 11:34 am

    I have spent my whole life dealing with my own issues of assertiveness and working with others with the same issue. I have never read an article that spelled out the cause so clearly. Childhood Emotional Neglect:The Enemy of Assertiveness crystallizes the depth of the issue.

  • May 11, 2016 at 1:22 pm

    Great article! Interestingly, my parents tended to be emotionally distant, and the girls where looked upon as a lower class. Because of this disparity, it actually had the opposite effect on me. From on early age, I was determined to be heard (much to my parent’s chagrin). I had a very contentious relationship with my mother in my teens and 20’s. Now, my parent’s admire my strength.

  • May 11, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    Excellent article, thank you! As a psychotherapist who sees what you write about often in my clients, I’m grateful for how well you conceptualize CEN as the cause of difficulties around self-assertion. I do agree, however, that in some cases, people come across as narcissistic (seeming to feel entitled to unlimited self-expression without regard to feelings of others. But they are in the minority compared to those who hold back on self-assertion because of CEN.

  • May 11, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    Thanks for the very informative article Doctor! This seems to fit me. At the same time, I have trouble reconciling this solution (the 10 rights) with recovery from alcoholism. Granted, I’m new to sobriety and I have a lot to learn. In the past, I’ve not been assertive, until I explode inappropriately and disproportionately.

  • May 11, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    Found the article interesting. I certainly suffered from CEN for a portion of this life. I’m now more assertive and have been for many years. However I’m also still guilty of being too understanding of others at times to the detriment of my own well being.

    I’m quick to correct this these days and that’s a good thing.

    I’ve unfortunately found that even so called decent people will often take advantage in some way, shape or form of a person who possesses low self esteem or lacks assertion.

    Seems to me its the responsibility of others to NOT take advantage of people or judge them negatively based upon their so called weaknesses or what previous/current abuse has created within them. Correct?

    I personally don’t want to take advantage of anyone! Nor do I want to be taken advantage of. I feel it is the responsibility of absolutely everyone to ,at the very least, attempt self awareness, mindfulness and empathy toward their fellow man or woman.

    I completely understand that some people wont or refuse to do this however why would you even want those types of people in your life?

    In other words the very best people DON’T take advantage of, look down upon, use nor abuse those who are hurting from CEN. They empathize, support and treat them like a human being!

    If I have to assert myself constantly with other people… I don’t want those people in my life and justifiably so!

    CEN is only a part of the problem. The vast majority of the problem lies with living in a culture that lacks sincere empathy, support, maturity and the ability to NOT take advantage of those it views as weak.

    Yes it is in fact the responsibility of those of us who suffer from CEN to assert ourselves absolutely. However it is also just as equally the responsibility of others to act like mature human beings for Gods sake.

    Again ,and I apologize for sounding like a broken record, mature adult human beings support, empathize with and DO NOT take advantage of those who are hurting or seem different in any way. Mature adult human beings are NOT a threat to those who suffer from CEN. As they take responsibility for themselves and keep themselves in check when it comes to dealing with other human beings.

    No one is perfect yes. However in my mind a mature adult doesn’t feel any desire whatsoever to take advantage of, use or abuse anyone in any fashion. You can call that mentality the results of CEN. However I simply call it common courtesy, self awareness and respect for other living beings.

    So my question is whats more important: CEN suffers asserting themselves or adults who don’t suffer from CEN finally growing up, maturing and acting like respectable adults?

    I don’t feel that anyone should have to assert themselves regularly with anyone else. I feel in a mature, adult like culture asserting yourself is done on occasion. Sort of like getting extremely angry shouldn’t be an everyday ordeal in your life its an occasional ordeal.

    That is if you’re leading a somewhat emotionally healthy life and those around you are as well.

  • May 11, 2016 at 5:40 pm

    I felt some of those things growing up but I really felt them in my marriage. I was married at 19, divorced at 41. I’m just beginning to feel worthy.

  • May 11, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    I read this article and I now understand. When I was younger I had to wash dishes, take out the trashes and go the supermarket otherwise I would get abused by my dad. While the rest of my family would watch TV I had to clean the house. I’m still in the same sitaution. I feel deeply neglected and abused. I also feel that suicide is the only way out. Please help me!!!

    • May 11, 2016 at 9:54 pm

      Please don’t suffer in silence. Talk to your school counselor, they are trained to listen. Also, call a crisis hot line, they will listen and direct you to the appropriate resources. Suicide is not answer–it’s permanent.

    • May 14, 2016 at 12:30 am

      I understand. I feel the same way!

  • May 11, 2016 at 7:17 pm

    Dear Abused Teenager, my heart goes out to you. I am so sorry that you are forced to live this way and that you feel suicide is a viable option for you. I too had to live with sick parents, and I have thought about suicide many, many times as well. At 48 I have survived and have found some happiness and know that peace exists and I will keep trying to find it. I can’t offer any easy answers to you, but it’s my sincerest wish that you remember you are a worthy person, not by virtue of what you do or what others think of you, but by virtue of who you are, just as you are. Please find someone you trust who you can talk to. There are people out there who care, and they will help you. My heart goes with you on your journey. My deepest wishes for your peace.

  • May 11, 2016 at 9:46 pm

    This article has my childhood and subsequent life intertwined in it… I wish I knew this then when I was just trying to stick up for myself and not be abused emotionally…I think things would have been a whole lot better and positive, and in spite of it all, I might have even grown up to be happy successful and lead a normal fulfilling life! But it seems I screwed up bad and did something really terrible in a previous life and now I’m paying for it…. What other excuse could it possibly be? And how the hell do I get out of this mess?

  • May 11, 2016 at 10:17 pm

    I, too have trouble asserting myself, because of CEN. My mother was a great person, but didn’t show much emotion. I was the youngest of 7, so I didn’t get much attention. Also, I had a different father than the rest, so I was pretty much on the outside. My father was verbally abusive, and made comments to me that were very cruel.
    I married at 16, and was verbally and physically abused. I had a son at 18, and always did my best with him, making sure not to be like my parents. When my son was 6 months old, his father died from me defending myself from more abuse.
    My son is going to be 36 this year. He has never asked me about my childhood, or what happened with his father. My second marriage has been a journey. Alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and chronic illness from my husband made things hard, and I haven’t recovered from it yet. I also have social phobia, from the time I was very young. In the last 5 years, I found myself in a depression, and the social phobia has gone out of control. My son has never asked about my side of the situation, either.
    This mother’s day, my son brought me a gift, then proceeded to tell me I wasted a lot of my life. I tried to explain that if he knew the whole story, he may not think that way, but he interrupted me saying he knew enough about me. It broke my heart. My stepdaughter and daughter know my story, and understand. My first born, my only son, won’t even hear me out.
    I guess I didn’t do as well as I thought. I don’t know what to say to him anymore, but I have 4 granddaughters from him, and don’t want to be taken out of their lives. So, I guess I’ll have to just ignore his contempt for me.

  • May 11, 2016 at 10:17 pm

    I grew up with/under the axioms “If you don’t have it, you don’t need it” if I asked for something: “Don’t talk back”, and “I’ll give you something to cry about” if I attempted to express my feelings. After, first, a 10 year, abusive live-in relationship then, a 20 year abusive marriage, something in my mind and spirit clicked when the ex-husband said his final, “Don’t talk back!” I said, “I can’t possibly ‘talk back’, I’m an adult” and my life has gotten better bit by bit since the divorce 5 years ago. A while back, when being put down for a decision I’d made, I actually spoke up for myself with someone I had called friend: they did not like it…I was uncomfortable and shaking but I am getting more comfortable speaking up with family, as well. There were issues, as they were not used to hearing my truth but, it has gotten much better and there is no turning back. I was unable to put my finger on the problem until I found this website and, I am grateful for the insight and the improvement in my quality of life!

  • May 13, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    The idea of my way, and even to want things my way has been intricately wound around selfishness as in eradicate them. On reflection, the attitude of selflessness leaves one without a self. Recently, I realized that many women are raised to nurture others, and this results in nurturing being the only source of identity acceptable, and the only action I can feel good about. Everything that I once took pleasure in, now brings guilt, because of expectations, judgement, and leveraged guilt makes me last priority for others and myself. This is a source of torture now.
    I cannot discern how I can formulate wants, let alone raise my inner child who was given the cen version of how insignificant I am compared to the wants of people to have doormats and automatons who smile at the abuse and continue to try and make these people happy. They never will be satisfied, and I cannot make them hear over, “you need to do this, this and this. (For them) “No complaining, because life is not fair.” I think humans use these lines to justify being unfair and abusive, and not responsible for their own actions, laziness and manipulations. Co dependant is a term to make us feel further at fault for the programming that is condoned to provide caretaker/scapegoats for the truly selfishly unaware. I think my new attitude is to do for me, and not for the wants of those who demand service without reciprocal service from people who deplete themselves hoping for some sense of validation as worthy beings.

  • May 14, 2016 at 12:28 am

    You forgot the eleventh CEN rule: You MUST be able to read your parent’s mind and behave accordingly.

    • May 23, 2016 at 5:20 pm

      lol Good one! That is a funny response yet it is the truth for so many. When the other person is one making the mistake they say “you know what I meant” and there the cycle continues as the blame is again placed on the listener. So many times when this occurred to me I thought to myself “that’s what I get for listening, actually listening to this person”.

    • October 25, 2016 at 2:49 pm

      Or your husband’s mind. I’ve recently recognized the emotional abuse and controlling behavior in my 25 year marriage.

      I’m amazed at how blind I was to it. I’m very good, habituated really, to *not cause waves. This dynamic was in full force prior to our wedding.

      I never considered myself stupid, but I’m sure feeling like a fool now.

      Heart broken as well.

  • June 5, 2016 at 6:39 am

    Thank you, Dr. Webb, for addressing an issue that isn’t really addressed very often. It’s not very glamorous or exciting. It’s hard to come to terms with the source of ones inability to be assertive, and realize that one has been a “victim”. Most people don’t want to see themselves that way. After spending many years underachieving at jobs, unable to assert myself in interpersonal relationships, and seeing people who were much less accomplished and intelligent than I am surpass me by leaps and bounds in career and every aspect of life, it finally came to my attention that I should address the issues which have haunted me for my entire life.

    Recent events in my adulthood have made my childhood neglect impossible to ignore. The family matriarch became ill, and siblings and extended family imploded. The loosely held together structure of our family burst at the seems. Those of us hanging on at the fringes began to desperately trade family secrets we’d been holding in the darkest recesses of our hearts for decades. Stories were eerily similar, and sad. But it was nice to finally get some validation from another that it wasn’t just in our heads, that these things did happen (or didn’t happen, as so much of it was about denial and neglect). And so much of the inevitable result was also the same. Lack of self esteem, lack of achievement, abusive relationships, poor job outcomes, low income.

    This is what happens when a family has too many kids and the parents don’t have the emotional capacity to care for all of them. There was also some sexual abuse among the siblings at the hands of one of the older kids. And denial from the parental figure. And the denial continues to this day. So does the abuse.

    Some of my siblings continue to allow these abusers to wreak havoc on their lives. I’ve cut them out. But I can only save myself.

    Validation is important. And being able to read books such as yours helps. Thank you again.

  • July 17, 2016 at 7:25 pm

    Severe childhood neglect from infancy onward on the part of my mother has left me with BPD and severe Clinical Depression amd as I rely on SS Disability, after rent and utilities there is no money for the therapy I desperately need. I have a wonderful therapist but she does require pmt and I haven’t even been able to see her for almost a year adding to my severe abandonment issues. I am now 60 yrs old, I’ve finally given up on an impossible dream, “to live before I die.” I rarely get out of bed anymore…. I’m just waiting to die. What use is life when there is no quality to it and no help on the horizon?

    • July 18, 2016 at 9:12 pm

      Are you on Medicaid? If so, it should pay for your sessions. If not, apply for it. My sessions are covered through a Medicaid managed healthcare program.

  • December 2, 2018 at 10:36 pm

    IMO the published works of Dr. Manuel Smith are among the greatest self help books ever written: “When I Say No I feel Guilty” (for adults) and “Yes, I Can Say No” (for children). The recognition and revival of his writings are long overdue, and I recommend them highly. His books might not be able to help those who have severe psychological problems, but they can help those of us who are relatively “normal” to cope with the ‘garden variety’ problems we experience in daily life. As Dr Smith says, in being human we all experience psychological problems at times, as no one is immune from them.

    However, emotional manipulation is NOT exclusively or entirely due to childhood emotional neglect. Emotional manipulation is endemic throughout society, including the effect it had upon our parents and how they raised us. That is not necessarily “neglect”, it is one of lack of awareness, or a lack of instilling and acquiring adequate coping skills.

    The lack of assertiveness stems from neglect of actively teaching assertiveness skills, and that is promulgated or discouraged by society. This serves the ability of a societal hierarchy to continually exploit everyone, and thereby control anyone who is less than assertive. In other words, it does not benefit the world at large that you discover how to become assertive, or to be assertive. Your becoming assertive will only benefit YOU. (Of course if everyone were to become assertive, that would ultimately benefit society. But don’t expect that to happen any time soon…)

  • April 5, 2020 at 7:48 pm

    Some assertions seem to come close to giving permission to bully, unless there is empathy and regard for others’ rights. Am I missing something?


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