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Child Development

The Role of Childhood Emotional Neglect in Borderline Personality

Pushing feelings down, then punishing oneself when they return.

Key points

  • People with borderline personality disorder have dysregulated emotions and unstable relationships.
  • Childhood emotional neglect is one of the factors that may contribute to the development of borderline personality.
  • Most people with borderline personality may have grown up with an extreme version of emotional neglect that taught them to reject their feelings.
Paolese/Adobe Stock Images
Source: Paolese/Adobe Stock Images

Miranda sobs into her hands after another fight with her partner, Mark. She feels empty, abandoned, and angry. “I hate him. How could he treat me so horribly? I need to let him know I won’t be able to live if he leaves me.” She repeatedly texts Mark in desperation.

A Look Inside Borderline Personality Disorder

A person with borderline personality disorder (BPD) has a lifelong pattern of unstable, unpredictable, and intense moods and relationships while being highly impulsive. If you have BPD, your self-esteem and happiness are highly dependent on the people in your life.

To live with BPD is to live with intense pain and turmoil on a daily basis. You have love-hate relationships with just about everyone in your life at different times. One moment you’re happy and enthusiastic; the next moment you’re upset and feel wronged or betrayed. You have a tendency to idealize your relationships only to devalue them soon after.

There are a few possible explanations for how BPD develops. Some of these factors include genetics, the biochemistry in your brain, and environmental factors like a traumatic upbringing with abusive or unpredictable parenting. Research has shown that childhood emotional neglect also plays an important role (Kors et al., 2020). That emotional neglect does, however, need to be of the more extreme variety.

A Look Inside Childhood Emotional Neglect

As a psychologist who specializes in childhood emotional neglect, I know that it plays a part in undermining children’s ability to feel, trust, and regulate their feelings. It can play a part in the development of some personality disorders.

Childhood emotional neglect happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs. You don’t receive the emotional knowledge and awareness, emotional responsiveness, and emotional validation that you greatly need as a child.

Classic Emotional Neglect

When you grow up in an emotionally blind household, you learn that your emotions are insignificant and burdensome. You essentially wall off your feelings in an attempt to cope with your emotionless environment. Then, as an adult, you are out of touch with your feelings. Since your feelings are the deepest and most personal expression of who you are, you also end up out of touch with what makes you, you. You may struggle with low self-awareness and self-expression, difficulty with social and emotional skills, and feelings of emptiness, shame, and guilt.

You have learned that your feelings don’t matter, that you don’t matter.

Extreme Emotional Neglect

In this version of emotional neglect, your parents actively invalidate your feelings. Perhaps you are punished or scolded for having feelings. This is the type of environment Miranda grew up in—her emotions were ignored but also exploited. It was confusing and distressing to be punished for feeling as a little child, especially since emotions are a normal part of being human. It was then easy for Miranda to falsely learn that she is flawed, that she is doing something wrong, simply by feeling. Extreme emotional neglect is a form of emotional abuse.

You learn: Your feelings are bad. You are bad.

The Impact of Extreme Emotional Neglect

  • You learn that your emotions are irrelevant and wrong and that you are unacceptable and unlovable.
  • Your feelings become so extremely shamed and squelched that they become even more intense and unruly.
  • You don’t get to learn the fundamental emotional skills, like how to identify a feeling, express the feeling in a healthy way, manage and tolerate feelings, and use your feelings for decision-making and direction.
  • You feel empty, unimportant, and flawed. When you reject your emotions, you are rejecting the most personal and meaningful part of who you are.
  • Your identity is unclear. When you reject your emotions (and ultimately yourself), you become fragmented. Important parts of yourself are walled off.

Miranda has tumultuous relationships because she has a tumultuous relationship with her emotions. She has learned to push her feelings away and punish herself when they rise to the surface. She has never been taught the tools to soothe her emotional pain or to accept and embrace her emotional world. These are the effects of extreme emotional neglect.

Miranda

Yesterday Miranda and her boyfriend, Mark, had a wonderful day together. They decided to take an impromptu trip to the zoo and spent their afternoon laughing and taking pictures of their favorite animals. They had a pleasant conversation about their relationship and even talked about moving in together. Miranda was excited.

Today things took a turn for the worse. Mark had to stay late at work and Miranda felt angry and betrayed. They had a dinner planned and she wanted to talk more about their plans of moving in together. She couldn’t believe Mark’s boss would make him stay late again, that Mark had agreed, and that she got her hopes up for such a special evening. She ended up screaming at Mark on the phone, demanding he leave work. Mark told her she was being unreasonable and hung up the phone.

Miranda sobs into her hands after yet another fight with Mark. She feels empty, abandoned, and angry. “I hate him. How could he treat me so horribly? I need to let him know I won’t be able to live if he leaves me.” She repeatedly texts Mark in desperation.

How to Heal

Two of the most effective treatments for childhood emotional neglect, the "identifying and naming," and the IAAA (identify, accept, attribute, and act), teach emotionally neglected people how to become mindful of their emotions, and to identify, understand, and use their feelings. The most effective treatment for BPD is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which involves mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance, and emotional regulation. Both approaches teach emotional awareness and regulation.

Whether you experience classic emotional neglect or the extreme type, it is absolutely possible to grow emotionally aware, learn how to understand and regulate emotions, and ultimately lessen the intensity of feelings to become better able to develop and sustain healthy relationships. Childhood emotional neglect can be remedied. BPD can be managed and mitigated (Alba et al., 2022).

Miranda needs to rebuild and heal her relationship with her emotions. It would be helpful for her to understand the harmful messages she learned about her emotions in her childhood and realize that neither she nor her emotions are bad or invalid. Once Miranda discovers that her feelings are there to enhance her life rather than to destroy it, she is on her way to recovery.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Halfpoint/Shutterstock

References

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.

Kors, Stephanie, Macfie, Jenny, Mahan, Rebecca , & Kurdziel-Adams, Gretchen. The borderline feature of negative relationships and the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment between mothers and adolescents. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, Vol 11(5), Sep 2020, 321-327. https://doi.org/10.1037/per0000397

Alba, Maria C., Bailey, Katharine T., Coniglio, Kathryn A., Finkelstein, Jesse, & Rizvi, Shireen L. Risk management in dialectical behavior therapy: Treating life-threatening behaviors as problems to be solved. Psychotherapy, Vol 59(2), Jun 2022, 163-167. https://doi.org/10.1037/pst0000376

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