Running on Empty: Overcoming my Childhood Emotional Neglect

Dana Pham (pronouns: who/cares)
7 min readJun 6, 2019

I caught up with an old friend recently, and I yarned to her about why I wasn’t doing well emotionally and mentally, for a long time in my life. In her infinite wisdom (I don’t mean this ironically), she handed me a copy of Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect by Jonice Webb PhD, with Christine Musello PsyD. That was one of the best things someone has done for me in my life. It was life-changing.

And the irony? My friend is no psychologist. She’s a laywoman who happens to have read a lot on psychology to help her understand her emotional and mental struggles in life. I feel like asking all of my previous psychologists for a refund. But that’s pretty harsh on my part. The blurb on the back reads as follows:

Do you feel dissatisfied or disconnected in your life? This surprising new book can help you finally understand why, and fix it.

This book is not about what happened to you as a child; it’s about what failed to happen for you as a child. It’s an extremely subtle, almost invisible factor called Emotional Neglect, and it disrupts one’s life in untold ways. [The author] shows how Emotional Neglect in childhood has an insidious effect on us as adults, causing us to struggle with self-discipline and self-care, or to feel unworthy, disconnected and unfulfilled. This groundbreaking book helps readers:

  • Discover how parents, even well-intentioned ones, can leave our emotional tank empty.
  • Identify symptoms of Emotional Neglect and their impact on health, work, and relationships.
  • Repair the damage of Emotional Neglect and learn life-changing self-care behaviours.
  • Be more emotionally supportive and connected in our own parenting.
  • Gain strategies for helping a patient or loved one overcome Emotional Neglect.

People experience Childhood Emotional Neglect to varying degrees — from a few subtle but important events to an entire childhood that’s defined by it. This is the first book to give it a name, and delve into the profound and often perplexing ways it influences our adult satisfaction and happiness.

Having read the book, I strongly recommend that every human being on this planet reads it. If you think you don’t have Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), don’t be surprised if after having read the book, it becomes apparent that you do have CEN, or someone close to you appears to have CEN. If you want to know the root cause of negativity littered throughout human history, it’s CEN, and I’m convinced that CEN is everywhere.

For those interested in psychology, think attachment theory falling like dominos, from infancy to adulthood. The book is driven by clinical vignettes, clients’ stories of CEN, scattered methodically throughout the book, and explored. One of the testimonies in the book, by Stephanie M Kriesberg PsyD, reads as follows:

Reading [the book] immediately impacted my work as a child and adolescent psychologist. Her conceptualization of emotional neglect and its myriad effects on the developing child is crystal clear, and one that I have not seen elsewhere. Dr Webb provides tools so clinicians can identify patterns of emotional neglect that may be occuring in the families with whom they are working. More importantly, [the book] offers the clinician practical guidelines to help parents of children and adolescents stop emotional neglect in its tracks.

If the psychological fraternity isn’t really having a conversation about CEN by now, then that’s concerning. Either way, I now want to have a conversation about my CEN, in the hope that others will read this blog post, buy the book (or similar), and do their bit in breaking down the evil that is CEN that’s around us. I’m breaking the chains of my CEN, and I wish I knew about it years ago, but now, the buck stops with me.

Parents are highly capable of being guilty of (intergenerational) CEN, even if they are well-meaning, and love their children. Love however, is no the same as emotional attunement. Many children grow up to become ‘successful’ adults, secretly feeling unfulfilled or disconnected, and blame themselves for it. If you tell yourself, “I had such a great childhood, I have no excuse for not having achieved more in life”, you probably do have an excuse: you’re unaware you have CEN.

But to be clear, it’s not necessarily their CEN parents’ fault for what didn’t happen during their children’s childhood. Put simply, CEN is invisible, moreso in situations where physical neglect is absent. If you’re debilitated by CEN, or guilty of it, and are unaware of that, don’t blame yourself, it’s nobody’s fault. On that note, I take back my jab in asking all of my previous psychologists for a refund.

As a CEN adult, I definitely knew how to give others what they want or need. I generally knew what is expected from others, incapable of comprehending the personal cost, which sometimes hurts others unintentionally. There are a few exceptions though: my gender dysphoria was so debilitating that it eventually pushed me to not be a CEN and transition. It was an exceptional decision that led to a deteriorating relationship between my parents and I, whilst trying to appease them with say, a new female name that I thought they might find more palatable, not one that I liked. And I temporarily detransitioned once — I buckled to social pressure, then failed quickly.

The book more or less describes twelve overlapping ways to end up running on empty. I received some narcissistic parenting, but that was largely drive by the ‘saving face’ requirement of Asian culture. I definitely received authoritarian parenting, which would explain my rebellious political behaviour in the past decade, some of which hurt others. My parents were also workaholics, forced by circumstances, which would explain why I haven’t cared about my self-esteem for years, why I unhealthily feel immune to transphobia, and why my style of politics was at times Machiavellian, in a moral injury sort of way.

My parents were achievement/perfection-focused parents. Similar to narcissistic parenting, and controversial Asian parenting, this parenting style took away opportunities for me to develop self-knowledge, emotional awareness, and self-love. These parenting styles would explain why I’ve been incapable of putting myself first many times in life, and experienced depression easily. I’ve attempted suicide, experienced suicidal ideation, and have played out thoughts about my funeral and other personal affairs post-death.

What’s also scary is that in the past, I’ve imagined myself taking on these parenting styles (if and when I have children) because I didn’t know any better — don’t do this. So how am I changing for the better? How can you change for the better? Out of respect for the author, you’ll have to buy the book for the full details. But I promise you, it’s worth it.

Self-care seemed foreign, but I think I now have a good grasp of it. Sometimes I would struggle with self-conceptualising my needs and wants. But now I’ve accepted that putting myself first is not selfish, that not putting myself first can be selfish because that has hurt others by not getting my priorities right to begin with. If the priorities are wrong, that’s how friendships and relationships break down. Self-care as treatment for CEN comes in four parts, but it doesn’t happen overnight:

  1. Learning to nurture yourself, say no, and ask for help
  2. Improving self-discipline
  3. Self-soothing
  4. Having compassion for yourself.

I’m a good listener, I know that. And I thought that most times I’m good at talking about myself. Admittedly, sometimes I was not good at talking about my political views that I thought would be perceived as controversial. I’m using my Medium blog to rectify that. Fortunately I learnt to say ‘no’ early on in my career, but still somewhat had trouble saying no outside of work. It’s not easy, but I’m now saying ‘no’ (when necessary) more often than I used.

Chapter 8, the second last chapter, is titled, “Ending the cycle: giving your child what you never got”. It’s aimed at (potential) parents, with a focus on feeling an emotional connection with their child, and paying attention to their child to respond competently. Chapter 9 is titled, “For the therapist”, which includes exploring the interaction between CEN and emotional intelligence. Humans use their emotions to help them think, and use their thoughts to manage their emotions.

On a side note, I used to be cautiously supportive of same-sex parenting. In the author’s word’s “today we recognize that fathers are of equal importance in the development of a child”, and there are studies to suggest that fatherlessness is less than ideal, on average. It goes without saying that single parenting or same-sex parenting can work well, maybe even better than many opposite-sex parenting situations out there. Perhaps fatherlessness and motherlessness is less of an issue than whether children have well-rounded access to good gender role models. It now seems to me that debate on parenting types, such as same-sex parenting, is a distraction to the biggest issue facing parents: are you, as a parent, emotionally attuned to, or emotionally neglecting, your children?

Further, and following up on my blog post The Human Magnet Syndrome: a refreshing study of narcissistic abuse and codependency, it is not written in stone that pathological narcissists always create mentally unhealthy children. There may be mitigating circumstances that offset the child’s early traumatic experiences. For example, if the pathological narcissist parent relied on childcare from a consistently loving and nurturing adult caregiver, then the child’s early-life experiences may have been sufficiently equalised. Such a substitute parent could include a close relative, a nanny, or a long-term babysitter. Even an involved and caring coach or teacher could sufficiently buffer the damage caused by a pathologically narcissistic parent. An older sibling who took on the role of a protective, encouraging and affirming parental surrogate may have similarly counterbalanced the possibility of codependency or pathological narcissism.

The book gets a 5/5 rating from me — highly recommended is an understatement. Best. Book. Ever.



Dana Pham (pronouns: who/cares)

Trans-inclusionary radical feminist (TIRF) | Liberal Arts phenomenologist from @notredameaus | Anglo-catholic | all opinions expressed here are my own