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Why Emotional Neglect Leaves People Feeling Flawed

... and 4 steps to begin healing.

Key points

  • Many people go through their adult lives believing they are somehow flawed or deeply different from everyone else.
  • Being raised in an emotionally neglectful family sets you up to have an estranged relationship with your own emotions, which does set you apart.
  • The "flaw" that is sensed is not a real flaw but only a feeling. Becoming aware of it enables you to get past it and heal.

Javier has trouble opening up and keeping conversations going. He wonders why social interactions are so challenging for him, and he assumes he's simply lacking some special ingredient that other people have.

Isabel is fiercely independent but knows deep down it’s because she fears that if others get too close to her, they won’t like what they see.

Despite Liz’s success and status as a surgeon, she often feels like she doesn’t belong.

What do Liz, Javier, and Isabel have in common? I call it the "fatal flaw," and it results from growing up with childhood emotional neglect.

The Fatal Flaw

The fatal flaw is the deep-seated belief that “something is wrong with me.” It feels like a dark secret, and the people who hold this belief silently struggle.

It has taken some time in my 20-year career as a psychologist to truly understand the inner workings of the fatal flaw. Folks I work with are mostly unaware of this deeply held belief. It’s like the background music playing in a store as you shop. Unless you bring your attention to it, it’s not something in the front of your mind.

As I continued to work with people just like Liz, Javier, and Isabel throughout the years, the music gradually grew louder as we uncovered integral memories and perceptions about their lives. And the closer we listened, we didn’t hear smooth jazz or tranquil melodies; what we heard were harsh tones with messages like “You're unlikeable”; “You’re so weak”; "You're different"; or even “You’re worthless.”

It’s not difficult to hold a belief that isn’t fact. The important thing here isn’t whether the message of the fatal flaw is real or not (we know these people are worthy and deserving). What’s important is that the feeling that comes from this deeply held belief is real. This feeling is powerful and can follow you around for a lifetime. Below we will explore how Liz, Javier, and Isabel developed their fatal flaws.

How the Fatal Flaw Comes to Be

Liz grew up in a family of esteemed doctors. Her parents prided themselves on their careers and wanted their children to follow in their footsteps. They made it their mission to create a legacy of successful medical practitioners, so their focus was on Liz’s accomplishments, not her feelings or emotional needs. Liz felt the pressure to perform and understood that she was not allowed to let her own feelings or needs inform her decisions. She learned early in her life that she should override and bury her emotions. Now, as an adult, out of touch with her feelings, the deepest expression of who she is, Liz doesn’t truly know herself. This leaves her wondering where she belongs and whom she belongs with. She is destined to feel out of place wherever she goes.

Javier, an only child, grew up in a quiet but loving home. He knew his parents loved him, but he couldn’t feel their love. His parents gave him a nice home, went to his soccer games, and bought him the latest toys. But they never seemed to notice or respond to his feelings. They didn’t talk about emotional things or share emotions of their own. So, Javier missed out on learning how to identify, manage, and express his feelings. He yearned for a closer connection to his parents but didn’t know how to grasp it. He felt a similar way with his friends as he grew older. He is often baffled in these social settings when he sees others emotionally connecting, not knowing how to join in.

Isabel is a child of divorced parents. She split her time between households and sometimes felt like her parents were fighting for her love. Isabel’s parents desperately tried to prove they were “the fun parent” or “the better parent” so much that they would forget to check in on how Isabel was feeling. She quickly learned that sharing her feelings of sadness about the divorce would upset her parents or make them more at odds. So, when she went through significant events like her first breakup or deciding on a college, she kept her feelings inside and made decisions for herself. In adulthood, Isabel has difficulty getting close to others and unknowingly misses the thing that makes life more meaningful: emotional connection. Deep down, she feels something is missing inside of her.

Laying the foundation for the fatal flaw to grow is something Liz, Javier, and Isabel all experienced: childhood emotional neglect. Each of them grew up without their parents responding enough to their emotional needs.

Healing From the Fatal Flaw

While the fatal flaw can feel deeply painful, understanding its origins, putting a name to it, and knowing you’re not alone can be life-changing. There is a way to heal. Here’s how you can start taking control of it:

  • Identify that this is something you are feeling. And remember that it’s a feeling, not a true fact about yourself.
  • Attempt to express in words what it feels like for you. Maybe it sounds like, “Something is wrong with me.”
  • Reflect on where this feeling may have come from. How were you emotionally neglected as a child? What messages did you learn from your parents? How did your fatal flaw come to be?
  • Begin responding to your emotions in a new way. Recognize the feeling you have, listen to what the feeling is telling you, and put the feeling into words as best you can. Most importantly, validate your emotions and don’t judge yourself for them. A therapist can be extremely helpful in walking you through this process.

Childhood emotional neglect gets easily overlooked because of its silent nature. It’s not something tangible you can see or point out from childhood, like trauma or abuse. But that doesn't mean it's not a potent force in your life today.

Unacknowledged and unaddressed, your fatal flaw silently holds you back from possibilities, experiences, and relationships. But once you see it and name it, you are now in charge. For the first time, your life can become a reflection of your true self instead of being hindered by an old, harmful belief that was never even true.

©Jonice Webb

LinkedIn/Facebook image: Max kegfire/Shutterstock


To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my Bio.