The 5 Ways Emotional Neglect Causes Borderline Personality Disorder

-Jonice Webb, PhD


Sylvia sits with her head in her hands and tears rolling down her cheeks. “Here I am again, all alone. Why can’t I trust anyone? Why does the world hate me so much?” she cries in tearful despair.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD): A lifelong pattern of unstable moods, unstable relationships, unpredictable emotions, and impulsive actions.

To live with borderline personality is to live with special pain and extra challenges, far beyond anything that most people ever experience. When you have BPD, you may feel positive and happy one minute, and have that all change the next. You may feel wonderfully loved by someone one day and hated by that person the next. You might put a friend, relative or spouse on a pedestal, only to have them become your most reviled enemy soon after.

Life feels unpredictable. It’s difficult to like yourself, or to have or sustain positive feelings in your life.

Research has shown several major factors to be the causes of BPD, including genetics, unpredictable parenting and abuse.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A childhood characterized by the absence of enough emotional attention, emotional validation and emotional responsiveness from one’s parents.

Sylvia doesn’t know it, but she is living with Borderline Personality Disorder. Another important thing that Sylvia doesn’t know: she grew up with an extreme version of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

Typical (Non-extreme) CEN

CEN children grow up in a household that is essentially blind to emotion. Children whose emotions are not noticed or responded to enough receive the subtle but powerful message that their emotions are invisible and irrelevant. In order to cope in their childhood home, they push their feelings down, so as not to burden themselves or their parents. These children grow into adults who are out of touch with their own feelings. This causes a pattern of adult struggles, including feelings of emptiness, poor self-knowledge, lack of emotional skills, self-directed anger and shame.

The CEN child hears two messages loud and clear:

Your feelings don’t matter.

YOU don’t matter.

Extreme CEN

Those who develop BPD often (not always because genetics are also a factor) were raised with an exaggerated, more punitive version of CEN, and often in an intensely emotional family. The person with BPD’s parents not only ignored her feelings, but also actively invalidated them. Sylvia’s parents actually rejected and punished the normal feelings that she had as a child. Since her feelings are the most deeply personal, biological part of who she is, Sylvia received these messages loud and clear:

Your feelings are bad and unacceptable.

YOU are bad and unacceptable.

The 5 Effects of Extreme CEN

  1. Your learn that your feelings not only don’t matter; they are bad
  2. You learn that you not only don’t matter; you are bad
  3. You do not learn the emotion skills that other children learn naturally in their childhood home: how to identify, tolerate, manage, express, or use your emotions
  4. You actively reject your emotional self; this leaves you feeling empty, since you’ve rejected the most deeply personal part of who you are.
  5. Your identity, or your sense of self, becomes fragmented because you have rejected important parts of yourself

So Sylvia learned not only to push her emotions away; she also learned to punish herself for having feelings. She has no choice but to actively reject her true self. She feels uncomfortable in her own skin, and doesn’t like herself very much overall. She has not learned how to soothe her own emotional pain. This leaves her far more vulnerable to depression and anxiety.


Only yesterday, Sylvia felt on top of the world. People at work had seemed extra nice to her, which made her feel happy. After work she had run into an old acquaintance she’d had a falling-out with years before, and they’d had a nice chat, almost as if nothing had gone wrong between them.

But today, all of that was turned on its head. It was super busy at work, and her co-worker asked her to hurry in a way that Sylvia felt was rude. This left her feeling raw and vulnerable. Then, as she arrived at her car to drive home, she saw that her tire was flat. At that point Sylvia dissolved into tears. Feeling enraged at other people for being mean, the world for delivering her a flat tire, and herself for it all, she left her car as it was, and impulsively took a taxi home which was far outside her budget.

Now, with her head in her hands, Sylvia is overwhelmed with anger and pain.

“Here I am again, all alone. Why can’t I trust anyone? Why does the world hate me so much?” she cries in tearful despair.

Treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder

Interestingly enough, although CEN is not generally listed as a contributing factor to BPD, the most effective treatment method identified to date by research is one which specifically targets the primary symptoms of CEN. It’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT.

DBT teaches you a combination of mindfulness, interpersonal skills, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation. It is a very specific, structured method which helps you begin to intervene between your feelings and your actions so that you can become less emotionally impulsive, and learn to regulate your responses and behaviors in relationships and in your internal world.

Studies show that even though BPD is very painful and challenging, it is possible to lessen the symptoms, and to become more emotionally stable and resilient, with dedicated and persistent work and effective help over time.

So there is hope for Sylvia. She can learn that her emotions are not bad. And that in fact they will enrich and guide her, if she learns the skills she missed in childhood. She can learn that she’s not wrong or bad. She can realize that the world does not hate her.

But for Sylvia to decide to take on the work to change her life, she needs to realize a most vital truth that you and I already know:

That she is worth it.

How Can Childhood Emotional Neglect Make You a Stronger Adult?

All it takes is growing up in a household where your feelings don’t matter enough.

With their heads held high but their spirits lower than should be, they walk among us.

“I don’t need any help,” they say with a smile. But “what do you need?” they ask others with genuine interest.

Loved and respected by all who know them, they struggle to love and respect themselves. These are the people of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

EVERY Single One Of These 10 Things Is Emotional Abuse — Yes, Really

What is Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN? It’s a simple but powerful force in the life of a child. All it takes is growing up in a household where your feelings don’t matter enough.

Typically, I write about the special challenges of the emotionally abused or neglected, such as self-blame, self-directed anger, and low self-compassion. That’s because I want to help the people of CEN overcome them.

But truth be told, the emotionally neglected are some of the strongest adults I have ever met. Yes, it’s hard to believe, but there is a bright side to growing up emotionally ignored.

So now I’d like to highlight the particular strengths you likely have if you grew up this way. Here are five uncommon strengths of the emotionally neglected.

1. They Are Independent.

Growing up you knew, even though it was perhaps never said out loud, that you were essentially on your own. Problem with a teacher? You solved it. Conflict with a friend? You figured it out yourself. Your childhood was a training ground for self-sufficiency. Now, as an adult, you prefer to do things yourself. Because you’re so very competent, the great thing is that for the most part, you can.

2. They Are Compassionate.

As a child your feelings were far too often ignored. But that probably didn’t stop you from feeling for others. Research has shown that even young babies feel empathy.

I have noticed that many people who were emotionally neglected in childhood have decreased access to their own feelings, but extra sensitivity to other people’s feelings. Compassion is a powerful, healing, and bonding force. And you have it in spades.

3. They Are Extremely Giving.

Having received a scarce amount of emotional acknowledgment and validation in childhood, you learned not to ask for things. Part of being independent and compassionate is that you are more aware of others’ needs than you are of your own. So now as an adult, you don’t ask for a lot, but you do give a lot.

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4. They Are Flexible.

As a child, you were probably not often consulted. Instead of being asked what you wanted or needed, you had no choice but to adjust to the situation at hand. So now, all grown up, you’re not demanding, pushy or controlling. Instead, you’re the opposite. You can go with the flow far better than most people. And you do.

5. They Are Likeable.

The people of Childhood Emotional Neglect are some of the most likable in this world. Compassionate, giving and selfless, you are the one your friends seek out when they need help, advice or support. You are there for your family and friends, and maybe even strangers, too.

Others know that they can rely on you. Are you ever puzzled about why people like you? It’s because you have these five unmistakably lovable qualities.

Many CEN people are secretly aware of their great strength, and value it in themselves.

“I don’t need help,
I don’t need anything,
I can handle it,
I’ll take care of it,
I’ll be fine with whatever you decide,
I’m strong,
they say.”

If this is true of you, the idea of changing yourself can be frightening. You don’t want to feel dependent on anyone, including a therapist, friend or spouse. You’re afraid of appearing needy, or weak, or helpless. You have a grave fear of becoming selfish.

But here is the beauty of CEN: Your strengths are so enduring that you can make them even better by balancing them.

So you remain independent, but you lose your fear of depending on someone when you need to. You remain as competent as you’ve always been, but you’re OK with asking for help when you need it.

You stay flexible and can go with the flow, but you are also aware and mindful of your own needs. You can still handle things. You’re just as strong as ever. More balanced and more open, you’re still loved and respected by all who know you.

And the great thing is that now you also love and respect yourself.