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Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Fatal Flaw

Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Fatal FlawTwenty-three-year-old Andrea fears deep down that if she allows anyone to get close enough to see the real Andrea, they will not like what they see.

Jeremy watches people walking down the street laughing and talking, and wonders what they have that he doesn’t.

Christina, an accomplished businesswoman, secretly feels out of place everywhere she goes.

Although it may seem that each of these people is struggling with a different problem, all of these secret, painful struggles stem from the same common roots. Andrea, Jeremy, and Christina all deeply believe something is wrong with them. I call this belief the fatal flaw.

I have noticed the fatal flaw among many of my patients during my career. In their psychotherapy with me, almost none of them could put this deeply held belief into words. Instead, it emerged gradually. It was invisibly woven into their stories, perceptions and memories, like the subtle, unseen background of a colorful tapestry. Many of these lovely people had no awareness that this background belief was even there. It was only by listening between the lines, and by looking behind the picture they painted of their lives, that I was able to see it.

The fatal flaw doesn’t really exist. It’s not a real thing. But it is a real feeling. It’s a feeling whose power comes from being insidious, invisible, and unnameable. It’s a feeling which can dog a person throughout his lifetime, while never giving itself away. Let’s look more closely at Andrea, Jeremy and Christina’s childhoods, to illustrate how they each came to have their own personal version of the fatal flaw.

Andrea’s parents were workaholics. They were highly successful, ambitious people who loved their children. But they didn’t really have the time to get to know their children. Andrea was raised by a series of nannies who came and went. Andrea essentially grew up in an emotional vacuum, sensing that her parents didn’t truly know the real her. In the absence of parental attention and interest, her child mind processed this as: “I’m not worthy of knowing.” As an adult, she anticipated rejection in every relationship.

Jeremy was an only child of two depressed parents. His parents loved him and did their best to care for him and raise him. He had a nice house, and plenty of food and clothing. But emotionally, his childhood was impoverished. Because of their depression, Jeremy’s parents struggled for the energy to greet each day themselves. They had little left over for their child.

When Jeremy had a problem with his friends, no one noticed. When he made an A+ on a math test, no one noticed. Jeremy grew up with no one to share his pain or his joy. He grew up lacking the emotional connection to others that makes life stimulating and meaningful. As an adult, he lived his life with a shortage of this prime ingredient: emotional connection.

Christina grew up in a large working-class family, chaotic but loving. People in her family were essentially “emotion blind.” They did not share, express, notice or respond to emotion. No one in young Christina’s world was tuned in to the world of feeling. So Christina had no one to teach her how to recognize, read, tolerate, express, or manage her own feelings (or those of others). Christina succeeded in the business world because she is smart, energetic and motivated. But she lacked emotional intelligence. In social situations, she felt out of her element. She struggled to feel a part of the emotional glue that binds everyone else together.

These people’s childhoods all look very different from the outside. But they are actually quite alike. One common factor unites their stories: Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

The good news is that the fatal flaw can be fixed in adulthood. Here are four steps to fixing your fatal flaw:

  1. Recognize that you have it, and that it’s not a real flaw. It’s just a feeling.
  2. Find the words to express your own unique version of “something is wrong with me.”
  3. Identify its specific cause in your childhood. In what way were you emotionally neglected? How did it bring about your fatal flaw?
  4. Start working on accepting your emotions and on recognizing when you are having a feeling. Listen to what the feeling is telling you, and put that feeling into words. If this proves difficult, please find a skilled therapist to help you.

In today’s world, we are thankfully highly aware of the devastating effects of childhood trauma and mistreatment upon adult health and happiness. But we have overlooked emotional neglect. Andrea, Jeremy and Christina each looked back upon a trauma- and abuse-free childhood and could not see that their parents failed them emotionally.

Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Fatal Flaw

Jonice Webb, PhD

Dr. Jonice Webb has a PhD in clinical psychology, and has been licensed to practice since 1991. Dr. Webb is the author of the new self-help book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. She has been interviewed about the topic of her book on NPR and many other radio shows. Dr. Webb currently has a private psychotherapy practice in Lexington, MA, where she specializes in the treatment of couples and families. She resides in the Boston area with her husband and two teenage children. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
Webb, J. (2018). Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Fatal Flaw. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 24 Aug 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.