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Child Development

Narcissism and Emotional Neglect: The Surprising Connection

Childhood emotional neglect can cause narcissism or excessive selflessness.

Key points

  • Those who grow up with the purest form of emotional neglect tend to end up overly selfless and accommodating.
  • There is a form of emotional neglect that feeds the development of the narcissistic character.
  • People who experienced either form of childhood emotional neglect can heal.
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Clint is described by many as somewhat arrogant. He tends to put himself first, seemingly without noticing how it affects those around him. He makes it known that he’s the CEO of his company and makes a lot of money. Clint has very few close friends, and would never admit, even to himself, that deep down he questions his worth and feels inferior to others.

Millie is known for being selfless and compassionate toward everyone she meets. She’s an ESL teacher, highly involved in her school, and beloved by students and staff because she “goes with the flow” and “never causes a fuss.” While it appears that Millie has it all together, inside she’s suffering. She feels empty and alone.

Clint and Millie are quite the opposites. Clint is dominant, apathetic, and likes attention and praise. Mille is selfless, highly empathetic, and has trouble speaking up for herself.

Both, however, have been touched by childhood emotional neglect. Those who experienced childhood emotional neglect grew up in households with their feelings ignored, minimized, or invalidated.

For Millie, growing up in an environment without emotional awareness or acknowledgement has set her up to lack emotion skills in adulthood. She knew she was cared for by her parents, but she felt strangely disconnected because of the emotional void that is childhood emotional neglect. She isn’t aware enough of her feelings, needs, wants, or preferences. In turn, she’s highly adaptable and overly accommodating to others. She has difficulty saying no and putting herself first.

For Clint, growing up in an environment with little compassion, with his emotions actively invalidated and punished has set him up to lack compassion in adulthood. He only felt loved by his parents when he was accomplishing something. He fought his way to get his parents’ attention, seeking the limelight to feel some sort of connection and worthiness. He is greatly aware of his needs, wants, and preferences because he felt he had to fight to get them seen by his parents, who actively discounted them.

Both Millie and Clint experienced versions of childhood emotional neglect. Millie’s emotional neglect involved an absence of emotional acknowledgment and awareness in her childhood home, while Clint’s emotional neglect manifested as negative consequences for having emotions in his childhood home.

Childhood Emotional Neglect in Action

Millie was 10 years old when her best friend Delia passed away from cancer. She was confused, sad, and lonely, but didn’t know how to express these emotions. Her parents didn’t talk about feelings, and didn’t provide much emotional support for Millie during this devastating time of loss. She had the enormous undertaking of handling this tragedy largely by herself.

Growing up in an emotional vacuum, Millie learned that her feelings were simply unimportant. Because they weren’t acknowledged by her parents, she pushed them down. She lost access to her feelings and needs, and became quite good at focusing on the feelings and needs of others. She felt an emptiness inside of her, but could never pinpoint why.

Clint was bullied by his older brothers often as a kid. He would cry to his parents, but they wouldn’t show any sympathy. They’d say things like “Toughen up!” or “You’re such a crybaby!” He wanted his parents to understand and validate him, (as all children need from their parents) but no matter how hard he tried to get their attention or approval, he consistently was left unnoticed or even actively shut down.

In attempts to feel loved by his parents, Clint became a high achiever. He would get praise when he got straight As, dated the prom queen, or won trophies. If his team was on a losing streak, his dad would refuse to attend games for the rest of the season. If he got a bad grade, his parents would call him “lazy” and tell him he “better start looking for fast food restaurant jobs.”

Clint lived to prove that he mattered. He discovered that he would feel important when he was in the spotlight, doing something big and impressive to others. He felt incredibly low when he wasn’t paid attention to.

Millie and Clint are two very different people with two very different personality types. Underneath, though, they share similar beliefs about themselves:

I don’t matter.

I am flawed.

I am unlovable.

Childhood Emotional Neglect Recovery

The road to recovery is very possible for both Millie, and even for Clint if he becomes motivated. It might be challenging or uncomfortable, but it’s well worth it.

Millie needs to understand how childhood emotional neglect has impacted the relationship she has with her emotions today. She must go through the process of bringing her feelings to the surface after years of pushing them down. Then, she’ll be able to learn how to identify them, accept them, and use them to live her life authentically. She’ll be able to identify her wants and needs more easily, and focus less on the wants and needs of others. Once she realizes how important her feelings are, and how much they matter, she’ll realize that she matters, too.

Clint will need to go through the same process as Millie, but he has an extra step to take. He needs to understand that he won’t find love and worthiness in the spotlight. Instead, he’ll find it in the feelings and needs that were so regularly chastised and neglected by his parents. Having access to his feelings can allow him to understand the true value of the feelings and needs of others, not just himself. With motivation and willingness to change, Clint can begin to realize that being praised is not the same as being loved.

Millie and Clint have an inherent worthiness inside of them. Childhood emotional neglect makes this sense of worthiness incredibly difficult for them to see and feel. By getting in touch with their feelings that have been squelched for so long, they can finally begin to realize the real truth that can change their lives: the realization that they matter.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.


To determine if 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.

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