Emotional Invalidation During Childhood May Cause BPD

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Many people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) have had experiences of emotional invalidation. In fact, some experts believe that emotional invalidation may be one factor that increases a child’s risk of developing BPD in adolescence or adulthood.

What Is Emotional Invalidation?

Emotional invalidation is when someone communicates to you that your emotions are not valid, are unreasonable or irrational, or should be hidden or concealed.

For example, when a child is fearful, their parent might tell them, “Stop being such a baby, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” This is an emotionally invalidating response; it not only communicates to the child that their emotions are invalid but also that they are weak for having emotions.

Alternatively, a parent might respond with, “I understand you’re feeling afraid. Tell me what’s happening to make you scared.” This is a validating response; it tells the child that their emotions are respected (even if the parent may not agree that there is an objective reason to be scared).

Emotional Invalidation and Borderline Personality Disorder

Many experts believe that emotional invalidation, particularly in childhood and adolescence, may be one factor that leads to the development of BPD.

Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., the clinical psychologist who developed dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), has proposed that an “emotionally invalidating environment,” or an environment in which one’s emotional responses are consistently invalidated or punished, may interact with other factors to cause BPD.

In Dr. Linehan’s model, children at risk of developing BPD later in life are born with a biological predisposition toward strong emotional responses. Unfortunately, these strong emotional responses can be met with invalidation (which may, but does not necessarily, take the form of abuse or neglect).

It is important to note that in this model, there is an interaction between the child's emotions and the environment. Because the child has such strong emotional responses to situations that others might not react to, their emotions are more likely to be invalidated. If a parent or caregiver interprets the child's responses as overreactions, they are likely to respond with behaviors that discourage the emotional response.

Discouraging a child’s emotional responses, particularly if that child is temperamentally predisposed to have strong emotions, probably does not work to calm the child. Instead, it likely has the opposite effect—the child’s emotional response is heightened, leading to an intensification of the emotion.

Further, the child who feels invalidated may miss the opportunity to learn how to manage their emotions effectively, which may lead to more emotion dysregulation down the road.

Does Emotional Invalidation Cause BPD?

Dr. Linehan’s model of BPD includes emotional invalidation as one risk factor, and there is some strong evidence of a connection between childhood maltreatment and BPD (various forms of maltreatment, such as emotional neglect and physical abuse, are inherently invalidating of emotions). Further, research has demonstrated that BPD symptoms are associated with reports of perceived childhood emotional invalidation.

But there is no way to know whether emotional invalidation is, in fact, a cause of BPD. This is because most of the research on this topic is retrospective (meaning that the researcher asks the person to report about experiences that happened earlier in their life; these reports can be subject to bias) and correlational (meaning it demonstrates a relationship between emotional invalidation and BPD but cannot conclude that emotional invalidation is a cause of BPD).

How Loved Ones Can Provide Emotional Validation

If you love someone with BPD and are reading this, you may have noticed that some of your own reactions to your loved one’s emotions have been invalidating. Because a person with BPD has such intense reactions to seemingly minor events, it can be very hard to remain validating. However, learning some skills to increase emotionally validating responses can actually help reduce your loved one’s reactivity.

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Article Sources

  • Linehan MM. Cognitive-behavioral Treatment of Borderline ​Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford, 1993.
  • Selby EA, Braithwaite SR, Joiner TE, Fincham FD. "Features of Borderline Personality Disorder, Perceived Childhood Emotional Invalidation, and Dysfunction Within Current Romantic Relationships." Journal of Family Psychology, 22(6):885-893, 2008.