What’s wrong with me? The impact of childhood emotional neglect

Whatever heights you scale or accomplishments you make, it feels like there is an emptiness inside. There’s that lingering question - what’s wrong with me? With it, come feelings of guilt or shame that are difficult to locate the source of. Or you feel so angry with yourself for the smallest things. Taking care of yourself can be a struggle. You might push and push to exhaustion, or neglect the small things that could make a difference. A life lived like this sounds (and feels) tough.

So, why do you feel this way? Of course, there could be a whole host of reasons including trauma, abuse, neglect, violence or loss that have shaped how you respond to life. The link between those experiences and adult struggle is well understood in the world of therapy.

But nothing really bad happened to me…

If that really bad stuff didn’t happen to you and you still struggle with life, why would that be? One powerful explanation has its roots in how you were parented.

In her book Running on empty, Dr Jonice Webb brings together valuable insights into the harmful effects of parenting which isn’t necessarily in the spectrum of violence or abuse, but is still traumatic and does immense damage. Identifying 12 types of parent that can impact significantly on how you cope in adulthood, Dr Webb has coined the idea of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). 

A mother and two children look out over the sea, leaning over wooden railings

12 types of parents who help create the emptiness inside

You might recognise some of these parent-types from your own experience:

  • Narcissistic parent – absorbed in creating a positive self-image above all else
  • Authoritarian parent – demanding and controlling
  • Permissive parent – struggles to impose any boundaries
  • Bereaved parent – lost in their own grief
  • Addicted parent – caught up in numbing their own pain
  • Depressed parent – disconnected from their feelings and those of others
  • Workaholic parent – avoiding intimacy and connection through excessive work
  • The parent caring for someone with a special need – focused deeply on the welfare of another
  • Achievement focused parent – always expecting more
  • Sociopathic parent – unable to empathise and connect with others’ feelings
  • Child as parent – needing inappropriate levels of emotional support
  • Well-meaning but neglected parent – very harmed by their own experience of neglect

In my experience, many of these traits are blended and some parents exhibit several of them at once. However, as a broad categorisation, thinking of who your parents were within these 12 types can help you make sense of how you were parented and the impact it had on you growing up and into adulthood.

What childhood emotional neglect does to you

In a revealing chapter entitled "Out of fuel", Dr Webb identifies the impact of neglectful parenting on adult children of these parents. If this is you, typically, you may:

  • Feel emptiness inside
  • Avoid dependence on others in any form
  • Either over or under-estimate yourself in relation to others
  • Have a lack of empathy for yourself, but abundant empathy for others
  • Feel there’s something wrong with you and having feelings of guilt or shame alongside
  • Blame yourself and get angry with yourself for what happens in your life
  • Feel as though, if people really knew you, they’d run a mile
  • Find it hard to nurture yourself or others
  • Find it hard with self-discipline
  • Not be able to get in touch with your feelings very easily.

The framework set out in "Running on empty" gives a very accessible way to make sense of why life might not feel ok at the moment. If nothing else, it might help you validate that you're not flawed or misremembering, that what was painful in your childhood could well have created the blueprint for how you are in your life now.

A young man looks across a riverSo, what can you do to reset yourself?

Sadly there are no short cuts when you’ve experienced neglect. The road to reconnection with yourself can be painstaking. The start is to acknowledge that things aren’t ok as they are right now. This can be the catalyst for change. Then, you can begin a process of reclaiming your life story for you.

You may need to relearn a language for your feelings and experiences on your own terms rather than others’. You might also need to rediscover how to like and love yourself for who you really are, taking care of your feelings and needs with equal value alongside those you care for. A trusted therapist can really help with this process.

Reading Running on empty is also a great start. It may help you make sense of what has been a background feeling, a hint of something not being right - or it might shout out at you: "this is me".

Whatever your next step, perhaps the kindest thing you can do is to acknowledge that your experience of neglect was real for you. And that’s when the healing can begin.


Running on empty: Overcome your childhood emotional neglect by Dr Jonnice Webb, published by Morgan James Publishing.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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