48 thoughts on “How To Tell Childhood Emotional Neglect From Borderline Personality Disorder

  • April 29, 2018 at 10:46 am

    I share a lot about CEN in my blog because I believe that while not everyone with CEN has BPD, some people with BPD may have had CEN in their childhoods. I’m always looking for more information on BPD, and on the possible links between BPD and CEN. Thank you for this very informative article. I will be sharing it on my blog to help inform others.

    • April 29, 2018 at 3:13 pm

      Thank you Joyce! I do believe that CEN is present in most folks with BPD but it’s covered over by more observable symptoms.

      • February 17, 2019 at 5:01 pm

        Yes- my question too! I feel that I have both CEN and Borderline Personality Disorder. What a painful ride this life has been. Thanks for your research.

    • September 10, 2018 at 8:36 pm

      That’s a great question to ask. I wonder many people have been misdiagnosed by mental health professionals for both. Plus other disorders that were caused by CEN. Myself included here we have to do better in educating others.

  • April 29, 2018 at 11:10 am

    Dr. Webb, thank you so much for this.

  • April 29, 2018 at 8:15 pm

    Thank you for this enlightening article. It makes me wonder about toxic female friendships I have had over the years… I now think I have had some “frenemies” who exhibited the behaviors of BPN that you describe in this article.

    • April 29, 2018 at 10:15 pm

      That’s possible but please do be careful with this. Borderline is a complex diagnosis even for mental health professionals to make. Thank you for your comment!

  • April 30, 2018 at 6:12 am

    As someone with BPD, I just want to chime in that it’s so much less important the distinction of the diagnosis than the effectiveness of treatment. You need to know yourself, the therapy you’re relying on, and the therapist (if applicable). I have huge impacts from CEN in my childhood despite also having BPD. Feeling my emotions is incredibly complicated, as underneath the seeming “anger” – which is entirely inauthentic anger – is the real feelings. Secondary emotions are a real challenge in BPD that practices in CEN recovery can really help with. So don’t be afraid of a diagnosis, be concerned with the right treatment for your emotional struggles, whatever they are! DBT for BPD helped, and CEN skills have completely altered my life. Also things completely unrelated to therapy. I just wanted to share because I think BPD gets radically misunderstood when a bunch of people who don’t have it get talking, without someone borderline present, and that’s not helpful for anyone exploring it.

    • April 30, 2018 at 6:14 am

      And as someone with BPD, you can still benefit from CEN skills! It radically changed my life!

      • April 30, 2018 at 7:34 am

        That’s wonderful Regan! And remarkably, and I know you are right.

  • May 2, 2018 at 7:23 am

    What about quiet borderline?

    Officially, I’ve only been diagnosed with (treatment resistant) depression and anxiety, but the possibility of personality disorders came up a couple times a few months ago. I’d also done a lot of research a few years ago and mentioned “quiet” BPD and avoidant personality disorder to my doctor and he said that I didn’t have a personality disorder because he’d be able to tell right away. I sort of put the idea out of my mind until it was brought up by three separate mental health professionals within a few weeks of each other, but they weren’t in the position to diagnose anything new. My doctor also has a tendency to avoid labelling mental health issues because he thinks it’s unhelpful, but it’s really hard for me when I already struggle with feeling validated, and not putting a name to it makes me question whether it’s even real or not.

    When I first started reading about CEN several months ago, it made a lot of sense as well. But I’ve never felt like my emotions were walled off. I’ve always been very sensitive and extremely empathetic, but have a really hard time identifying how I actually feel, putting a name to my feelings. One of the reasons I believed my doctor when he said I don’t have BPD is that I didn’t think I had issues with abandonment, but after it came up again more recently I started really thinking about it and I realized that I do have issues with abandonment, but it doesn’t necessarily present in the “typical” BPD way. I also internalize everything as a result of always feeling invalidated growing up, but my emotions aren’t walled off. I feel them very intensely, I just don’t always understand then rarely show the negative feelings outwardly. When I do, it’s because I can’t contain it anymore and it almost always comes out as crying, but it’s not because I’m sad. It’s usually anything but sadness.

    Either way, I still only seem to be able to get treatment for my current depression and anxiety even though I think there’s a lot more behind it. No one seems to listen when I try to say that I think my issues go back to my childhood and I don’t know how to process it. They always want to focus on what’s happening in my life right now but that’s been unsuccessful and feel like I’m being ignored.

    • May 2, 2018 at 9:56 am

      Dear Keira, you may be focusing too much on labels than is helpful for yourself. It is important to find a therapist who will work on childhood issues with you. It’s a rare therapist who is unable or unwilling to do that. It’s important to start healing that little girl inside of you. Sending you all my best wishes.

    • July 10, 2018 at 9:13 pm

      Keira think about finding a child trauma therapist. After 5 years of unsuccessful therapy she is doing wonders for me. Possibly female too. There are some how will take on adults when the trauma was in childhood, focusing on your inner child. Well wishes.

  • May 2, 2018 at 7:41 am

    After reading this, it seems to me that I had BPD from my teens till my early thirties and for the last 4-5 years, I seem to have CEN. I wonder if that is possible. Most of my twenties I had intense emotions, I used to distressed and emotionally upset almost always and used to blame people close to me of abandoning me. I used to look for proof of their unconditional commitment almost all the time. I was afraid of being alone and abandoned. But lately, I have become more stable but more unfeeling and empty too. I can handle myself better, be in control, am happy being alone but need a lot of alone time which I something I absolutely hated earlier. Sometimes, when I feel some emotion deeply, I feel overwhelmed and cry because it feels that I am feeling after so long.

    • May 2, 2018 at 9:58 am

      Hi M, it sounds like you’ve matured and healed in some important ways. Now learning how to manage and use your emotions is key for you at this point. These are skills you can learn!

      • May 2, 2018 at 10:06 am

        Thanks for your encouraging words Dr. Webb. Your articles have helped me (and I am sure countless others) immensely. What you said is true – I do feel I have healed considerably. Having a partner who truly loves me has helped in ways I cannot describe. I now have inner strength and can rely on myself. I will keep working on myself as you suggested. Thank you again

      • May 2, 2018 at 10:08 am

        That’s great! And you are most welcome. Take care.

  • May 2, 2018 at 9:19 am

    I’d first heard about CEN while doing some online reading about potential diagnoses. I’d come across your articles over a year ago, while searching for answers as to why I was feeling the way I was. I’ve since been diagnosed with BPD, but even after reading this, I still tend to think I’ve got issues with CEN. I’m going to mention it to my therapist at our next appointment & explain why I still feel that way. Thank you for yet another great article!

    • May 2, 2018 at 9:59 am

      Many people with BPD have the effects of CEN underneath the more observable BPD symptoms. The CEN emerges more after the BPD symptoms have been treated. Best wishes in your continued recovery!

  • May 2, 2018 at 1:03 pm

    So what do you recommend if a person has both CEN and BPD? I took the CEN test and answered almost all with yes. I’ve also been diagnosed with PTSD. I’ve been searching for a therapist for 30 years and have seen quite a few. One of the last PhD’s I saw told me that “if she and I were regular people having coffee and discussing life issues she’d think I was crazy”. What do you do with a comment like that from a PhD? It really helped my desire to share and I burst out laughing and ask her why she thought I was there. I’m taking an online course in Existential Psychology and that has been an eye-opener on some subjects. I need someone who can actually help rather than sitting back and passively listening. Existential Psychologist don’t take insurance. How do you suggest I find someone who can help me attack these issues? THANK YOU

    • May 2, 2018 at 1:44 pm

      Hi GooberGirl, you can find a therapist who specializes in CEN by going to my website and clicking on the HELP tab. In the drop-down, you’ll see a Find A Therapist Page that lists therapists from all over the world, many of whom do skype treatment. I hope this helps!

  • May 2, 2018 at 6:08 pm

    Ah were human psychology so nice & tidy! First off, although I share Dr. Webb’s preoccupation with the infant & child’s environmental/parental interactions and their developmental effects, we must recognize that research shows that around 50% of the source of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is inheritance. Parental treatment has differing effect depending on the genome. Furthermore, an infant and child’s intrinsic disposition elicits varying behavior patterns from caretakers.

    Indeed, intrauterine, infant, & childhood stressful environments interact with genetic vulnerabilities to evoke not only the two symptom and behavior clusters Dr. Webb describes, but indeed the full range of psychological/psychiatric disorders…and environmental stressors probably play the major role.

    Only in the more extreme cases do we find the nice clean distinctions that Dr. Webb describes. Most victims of childhood emotional deprivation and abuse experience a more mixed symptom picture…

    • May 3, 2018 at 9:25 am

      Hi Tom, I totally understand what you are saying. I value research and understand genetic components of psychological disorders. The traditional medical model is not lost on me. However, I believe there is room for new discoveries in the field of psychology, and I observe and deeply believe that Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) as I am describing it has great validity and value. My goal to investigate CEN with research is a burning one for me. Thank you for your comment.

  • May 2, 2018 at 10:45 pm

    It looks like I have both, so I’m totally screwed! All relationships I try to be the helper, but get sick of always giving and getting nothing in return. I have NEVER been a priority in anyone’s life, including parents. Is there any hope?

    • May 3, 2018 at 9:17 am

      Dear Stryker, before you can be a priority in anyone else’s life, you have to first be the Number One priority in your own life. I hope you’ll make that your goal and work toward it. Best wishes to you!

  • May 4, 2018 at 1:06 am

    Its always impressive to me how so many people with a BPD diagnosis can tell you exactly how they feel, exactly who they are and why they are who they are etc.

    Am I mistaken or is this a condition that supposedly causes people to misunderstand their emotions and themselves in multiple ways?

    Yet time after time again someone with a bpd diagnosis is rattling off online exactly how they feel, why they feel it who helped create their wounds and exactly how they helped create them.

    Which leads me to believe many of those with BPD understand EXACTLY how they feel and why they feel it. Which also brings me to the very real observation that many people ,who arent even displaying the signs of emotional disorder, arent as in tune with their emotions.

    So either bpd is completely misunderstood? or these people are being misdagnosed big time? Maybe they’ve had quite a bit of therapy?

    Either way they certainly blow most everyone I know out of the water in the understanding of their emotions department lol.

    I see it time and time again online with those diagnosed with BPD. No disrespect intended its just very fascinating to me.

  • May 4, 2018 at 10:06 am

    I’m curious about what parental behaviors are common in the life of someone who struggles with CEN. I understand that it means the parents discourage their child from showing emotion in one way or another but I guess I wish I had a more clear picture of what this looks like. Would an example be that when a child feels the need to cry, his or her parents would repeatedly tell them to stop crying, they have no reason to cry, and punish them for doing so? Honestly, I’m trying to imagine how severe the treatment from parents has to be in order for someone to internalize their emotions to the extent of having CEN. My interest is due to my belief that my Husband suffers from this. In fact, this article was a real eye opener and further solidified my suspicion that it would do him a lot of good to get some help from someone familiar with CEN. Of course, I don’t know for sure, but there’s a lot of similarities there. Despite that, he has never talked about any kind of problem or emotional abuse in childhood. But, the very nature of the disorder means that if he does suffer from it, he would likely be very emotional about it and therefore internalize it rather than admit or discuss it. Thank you for the very informative article!

    • November 22, 2018 at 11:32 pm

      Dr. Webb’s book “Running on Empty” gives examples of different “types” of CEN. Good reference and insight.

  • May 6, 2018 at 2:29 am

    This is a very insightful and useful article. Thank you Jonice, and thank you for the other ones which have helped me over the last year.
    Interesting , how many issues which have been created by historic shortfall in emotional support , can be processed and allowed to stay as history in an objective sense so that we can learn to live without the little, or big subliminal nadgers creeping into our lives in the present.
    I’ve spouted enough on here about my PTSD and possible BPD issues which were a knock on from PTSD. Bit like sniper fire not knowing where the irrationalities came from, but cooled stuff enough to live pretty much Ok now. Self awareness, and modern psychological tools help.
    Tracing CEN eventually came down to my mothers mantra of “Don’t feel, don’t get involved, and don’t be sensitive”.
    Looking back, I hadn’t realised as a kid, that included me.
    Shame she hid under this hard carapace, I guess I was taking it for being my absconding father’s son.
    But grudges of any sort get you nowhere, literally. They tie you to history and thats passé.
    Still larnin, aint I?..lol

  • May 10, 2018 at 11:26 am

    Can CEN and BPD lead to epilepsy?

    • July 23, 2018 at 10:13 am

      I’d still like to get some kind of an answer. Since CEN and BPD cause lots of anxiety, can they lead to epilepsy? Is there any research available?

  • June 12, 2018 at 11:24 pm

    Thank you for this.
    In truth, I believe I have a mixture of both CEN & BPD. Being molested and sold to strangers by my same-sex biological parent, the “preacher’s wife” mind you (while being told by the person I should’ve been able to trust the most out of anyone), what I KNEW was happening and what I clearly remembered happening “wasn’t happening” and I was “mentally ill for suggesting such things about my family”, REALLY messed me up. I was loved- when I was obedient, submissive, and kept my mouth shut. I tried to “be good” because I just wanted to be loved…isn’t that all anyone wants really?
    But my dignity, conscience, and frustration would overtake my behavior and actions. The hitting, belting, and cruel, heart-breaking words that still ring through my mind 34 years later have kept me in a stagnant spot, emotionally. My relationships have suffered tremendously.
    And more than anything else, I’m tired.
    I’m literally physically exhausted from trying to cope with the injustice, bigotry, soul-crushing, spirit-breaking sadness and hopelessness.
    Confused. I hate feeling weak. They loved to use my weaknesses to hurt me. Still do.
    And I believe wholeheartedly that this and similar situations are far more common than we or society wish to acknowledge.
    Anyhow, these are the reasons I feel I have both; is this possible, in your professional opinion? Have you ever treated anyone with both? Were they able to learn to live again, even though the developmental years and stages were chock full of trauma and torment?
    Somehow, I’m still hopeful…

    Forgive my rambling on…this article just really struck a chord inside.
    Thank you for writing and all the hard work you do to help improve the quality of life for those that need it. It can not be easy in the least.

    • November 24, 2018 at 5:51 am

      You are the absolute opposite of weak! The things that were done to you as a child, both physical and mental, are horrific, and my heart goes out to you. You were a child, and the adults in your life took advantage of that and betrayed you, hurt you, used you. That isn’t because you were weak! You’re incredibly strong, because you *survived*! Many wouldn’t have.

      I had a less extreme but still traumatic and emotionally manipulative childhood, and it has taken me years to start to figure it out and disentangle me from what was done to me. It’s painful and difficult, but also beautiful when I finally understand/get past a difficult thing.

      We’ve already survived the really awful stuff; the worst is in the past. Now there’s the work of sorting out the aftermath, changing the coping mechanisms that aren’t useful anymore, setting healthy boundaries, and learning to have compassion for yourself instead of continuing the abuse. You’re a survivor, and you’re incredibly strong. You deserve to reach a point of peace. *Safe hugs*


    • March 19, 2019 at 2:27 am

      Your blog literally mirrors my situation . I’m 41 and trauma is leaking through now from my childhood. Your description is so accurate to me and fully understand you. Thank you for Sharing.

  • June 14, 2018 at 3:05 pm

    The problem with this kind of cookie cutter article is humans are not so cut and dry.
    Look at these two basic sentences:
    CEN happens when your parents fail to respond enough to your emotional needs as they raise you.
    BPD happens when your parents are very inconsistent as they raise you.

    aRe these parents robots…who can say what exactly went wrong at any particular moment let alone CONSISTENTLY THROUGHOUT ONE’S CHILDHOOD AT INFANCY.

    When people slice things like this, they are in denial. You are focusing on the problem you do not remember and no one knows about rather than teh solution which is probably more or less the same – a life that is lived as comfortable as often.

    Most parents even the best ones do what you describe. How much each is really waste of time when dealing with healing people.

    If emotions were so categorizable, we could put couples together and predict how good their marriage would be. The reason we cannot do that precisely is the reason we cannot go back and determined how a parent acted between these two particular conditions. Add PTSD and you may just pull some serious hair.

    To deduce any condition this way is playing with over determination process.

    • June 16, 2018 at 9:49 am

      Interestingly you are making things far simpler than they are. Emotions do follow certain rules, and there is a large body of neurological research that supports that. Helping people understand the basic emotional needs of children is my goal and I see it helping people every day. Thank you for your comment.

      • June 16, 2018 at 10:56 am

        Very well said.
        I’m pretty sure your extensive schooling and hands-on experience, not to mention witnessing the positive, life-changing results in yours and other’s client’s lives, is validation enough…”cookie cutter article”! How rude! This article is anything BUT.
        Please keep up the great work.

  • June 16, 2018 at 11:14 am

    I have studied both CEN and BPD intensely for several years and this is the best summary comparison I have read so far. None of us are cookie cutter people fitting into perfect definitions, but the basics of each point are right on. The more intense reaction of BPD with the love/hate tendency is a key indicator. Thank you.

  • June 20, 2018 at 10:30 am

    I read with great interest the comments on this article .Always ,searching for any clues to unlock the pain. I was raised by a narcissist mother and cold father .As an adult have suffered from childhood neglect issues .However ..I managed to marry,work and have three children.My oldest son has bpd..my other children are loving ,successful adults.I raised them all the same .How can bpd not have a genetic component??My son suffers incredibly.

  • July 22, 2018 at 6:33 pm

    I’ve been diagnosed with BPD, and I suppose I may have the quiet form, but it has never really made sense to me. It was suggested to me that I might well have C-PTSD about a year ago by a pain psychologist (I have chronic pain), and that makes SO much more sense. My life fell to pieces because of that pain in my 30s, and I’m now in my 40s. Despite counselling/therapy and meds since my early 20s, I’m still f’d up!

    I suffered from CEN from my Dad, as well as emotional and verbal abuse (he’s very likely NPD, possibly on the sociopathic spectrum). He always put work, his hobby, and his current partner before us. He still forgets our birthdays, doesn’t know the names of our long-term partners, etc. He sued my brother for access to his grandkids…

    My mother parentified me, and although she was as supportive and loving as she could be (having grown up without a Dad and with a damaged mother), taking care of her emotional needs took over my life from 10yo to…. well… 26yo? After 4.5 years of no contact, I worked hard to develop some boundaries, and we now have a relationship which is fairly supportive and equal.

    My stepfather was an alcoholic, controlling, abusive man. He abused my mother, my brother, and I. He was physically, emotionally, verbally, and sexually abusive to my mother, emotionally and verbally abusive to my brother and I, and also sexually abusive to me (I don’t think he actually touched me, but there was a lot of other very very icky stuff going on). My mother just protested weakly (e.g. “Don’t call her a whore, she’s only 14”).

    I left the country at 19, and didn’t go back. I’m now in a different country, even further away. I stopped talking to my Dad for 3 years, but have recently accepted his attempts to re-establish contact, with some very firm rules.

    I’m a pretty screwed up person. Could I be suffering from BPD, C-PTSD, and CEN, all at the same time?!

  • November 14, 2018 at 4:43 am

    Obviously (and thankfully) not everyone with CEN has BPD, but virtually everyone with BPD has symptoms of CEN, so trying to make them two different sets with no overlap sounds very artificial to me. I am diagnosed with BPD (and have no reason to doubt the diagnosis), but CEN actually explains some of my symptoms better. Also, I never identified with the identity disturbance aspect of BPD (it’s one symptom out of nine, and you only need five to qualify).

  • November 23, 2018 at 6:00 am

    I disagree re bpd. It is genetic.

  • September 5, 2019 at 8:49 am

    I shared this article with my sister yesterday because we were discussing our mother and the fact that she may have CEN or BPD. My sisters 19 year old daughter is also currently struggling with many issues and has recently entered an in-house program for intensive therapy. My sister suspects BPD for her daughter as well and when she read this article, she seemed deeply offended that she was being blamed for not being available enough to her daughter. I can attest that she was highly available to her daughter and being a very detailed person herself, asked frequent questions to try to understand her daughters point of view thru the years. Now my sister is turned off from understanding CEN, which I believe we siblings likely share from our own childhood. Is it your experience that BPD relates back to the parents as much as CEN does or is it just as possible it has another source? The article only mentions parents as the cause of both.

  • September 16, 2019 at 7:29 am

    Wow. I appreciate this. I just learned that my psychiatrist of 5 years had diagnosed me with BPD. I learned it when a new internist doctor ask for records of any previous doctors I had seen.

    I walked into the psychiatrist office five years ago with a diagnosis of major depression. She is medication management only. She usually spends 5 minutes asking me the same questions each time. “Are you having thoughts of hurting yourself? Are you having thoughts of hurting others? Are you hearing voices? Are you seeing things? How’s your depression? How are you sleeping?” That’s it. I don’t know how you can come up with a diagnosis of too much of anything except basic depression from that. I believe I have CEN (I’m very aware of my emotions, and I try to please people so they don’t reject me, I was shown and told by my mother that my emotions didn’t matter and they were fake. I wasn’t crying because I was hurt (according to my mother), but I was crying to make her feel guilty. I stopped crying when I was twelve. I find it very awkward and feel shameful about crying even at funerals. I’ve never been very open and honest in relationships with men, but I spent more time trying to read them (and I was pretty good at it) to see which type of fairy princess they needed to complete their idea of a dream come true, and I gave it too them.

    I’m not quite sure what to do about the psychiatrist, because she keeps passing on information that affects how internists, rheumatologist, and other new doctors perceive and respond to me. My psychiatrist who barely says 10 words outside of her rote questions to which I give rote answers to, has diagnosed me and has me on 4 medications for BPD and I only just found out. I’m afraid if I attempt to go to a new psychiatrist, she will taint the water there as well.


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