4 Cognitive Distortions Caused By Childhood Emotional Neglect

By Jonice Webb PhD 

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.

Source: PsychCentral

For more information on CPTSD and other issues visit our YouTube Channel

If you need support or would like to connect with like-minded people join our Private and Closed online Facebook Group for Child Abuse Survivors and those with CPTSD. Click here to join

The Memoir You Will Bear Will is available on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback


  1. Here’s a reminder I needed. Even after years of therapy and being completely aware of the distortions, I still find myself feeling unworthy. The things that happen in childhood have deep roots.

    • Thanks for commenting. I am glad it was a reminder for you as your dead right what happens in childhood has deep roots. All the best Erin

  2. Sometimes I feel like that little girl being alone and neglected all over again. It took time to figure it out. But the feelings that our brain learned to feel keeps coming back. It is a battle!!!! Some moments I win, but some days I just give in to that sadness. We have to learn to appreciate the good days. Gratitude and paciente with ourselves is the key acceptance of the life we were cheated.

    • Thanks for commenting. I appreciate it and it’s good to hear from you. I agree with you it’s acceptance and patience that are the key to dealing with the life we were cheated of if we are to heal. It is understandable that you have some horribly low days when you feel overwhelmed but you are strong and can fight to come out on top again. You sound like you understand what happened to you. Use that understanding to be kind to yourself and practice self care. We have to look after ourselves. we can do it better than anyone else. All the best Erin.

    • Hi Sussan, no I didn’t just copy and paste this from another website. It was written by a guest writer Jonice Webb. I frequently have guest bloggers submit articles on my blog. Either I approach them as I have read something they have written as in Jonice’s case or they approach me as wanting to submit an article. It works both ways. Thanks for getting in touch. Erin

  3. Overcoming CEN is hard, and can backfire because some people do NOT care what your needs or feelings are. But you have to press on to find people who DO care.

    An inspirational example: I was at a wedding with my significant other. The man sitting next to me at dinner insisted on telling me all about how wonderful my partner’s ex was. I am working through cPTSD from childhood abuse and neglect. I worked up the courage to tell him I needed him to stop telling me about her, but he countered with, “No, you really need to know this about her. No one else will tell you.” He was fond of her, and made sure to inquire about me only to compare me to her and tell me she was better than me. She is more credentialed as a doctor than I am, a better long distance runner than I am, and how she and my partner were a power couple leaders among this circle of old friends in ways that he and I are not. I had to excuse myself from the table in the middle of dinner to go to the bar just to get away.

    While I was somewhat triggered by the fact that it didnt work to express my needs with him, I pressed on instead of shut down. I met the need myself by leaving. I am an adult not a child, and I can leave now. And I pressed on by telling others I need to not be around him because he wont stop comparing me unfavorably to my partner’s ex. Everyone was very supportive. I barely could tell my partner because I was more afraid of risking the possibility of his lack of support but I pressed on even with him hours later when I saw others supporting me. Of course my partner was supportive, and actually confronted the man privately. It is too easy to shut down when you try to overcome CEN by trying again to express your needs, but you have to press on to find people who DO care. They are out there.

    • Hi Amy , well all I can say is WOW what a complete insensitive and rude idiot that man was. I am glad you told your partner and he supported you. You’re very brave and resilient and handled the situation the extremely well. Well done. CEN makes it so hard as you say to express your needs but you did brilliantly. I am sure your partner is very proud of you. Keep up the good work in the future. All the best Erin.

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin

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