Why an Invalidating Environment May Be a Cause of BPD

Mother pointing finger at and scolding young girl

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Growing up in an environment perceived as invalidating is one factor commonly discussed as contributing to the development of borderline personality disorder (BPD). Coupled with a genetic tendency to be over-emotional, an invalidating environment is theorized to be one of the two major causes of BPD.

What an Invalidating Environment Looks Like

In this sense, to invalidate means to attack or question the foundation or reality of a person’s feelings. This can be done by denying, ridiculing, ignoring, or judging another’s feelings. Regardless of the means, the effect is clear: the person's feelings are “wrong.”

An environment perceived as invalidating generally means that the child grows up feeling that his emotional responses are not correct or considered in the regular course of things. Over time, this can result in confusion and a general distrust of a person’s own emotions.

Invalidation Can Be Subtle

An invalidating environment is not the same thing as an abusive environment, although abusive relationships are certainly invalidating. Invalidation can be quite subtle and may reflect a general way of interacting. It is generally characterized by intolerance of the expression of emotional experiences, which often leads to extreme displays of emotion.

Marsha M. Linehan, a borderline personality disorder clinician, and researcher proposed the idea that the development of BPD happens during the developmental years, where the child receives the message that he or she should learn to cope with emotions internally and without support from his or her parents.

As a result, the child never learns how to regulate or tolerate her own emotions, and fails to learn how to solve the problems that are inciting these emotions.

Some Forms of Praise May Also Be Invalidating

Validation is not the same thing as praise; it is more an acknowledgment of the person, whereas praise is just a compliment. To validate someone is to acknowledge the feelings involved, regardless of whether you agree with how the other person is feeling or not.

Praise addresses the action or behavior without addressing the emotion behind it. Praise can also be invalidated because although a child’s behavior is acknowledged and reinforced, the effort or negative feeling they have is not addressed. This can cause the child to feel that his total experience is not accepted, or even dismissed.

An Example of Invalidation Disguised as Praise

A few examples can help explain much better how validation differs from praise and how invalidation can actually be disguised as praise.

A young child goes into the classroom by herself on the first day of school, although she is scared. Praising her would be a simple, “Good job!” On the other hand, “You were so brave to go in even though you were scared. It couldn't have been easy. What a good job you did,” validates the troubling feelings, remarks on the effort overcoming those feelings took, and praises the effort.

However, it is possible to praise while being invalidating at the same time: “Good job. Now, don’t you see how silly you were being?” This response invalidates the feelings the child was having by calling them “silly,” despite the praising of the behavior.

"Hidden" Invalidation

Those who grow up with invalidating comments, especially those that are disguised as praise and support, can find it difficult to see the difference between these comments and validating comments. Not only does the child feel the discomfort that comes from invalidation disguised as praise, but those not directly involved in the dynamics may not recognize this either.

Other adults, instead of recognizing the impact these invalidating comments disguised as praise may have on a child, might dismiss the resultant insecurity or sadness of the child as "over-sensitivity" on the part of the child rather than lack of thoughtfulness on the part of the parent.

Perception Is Also a Factor 

It is important to remember that people tend to experience relationships and interactions differently. This means that what one person experiences as an invalidating environment is not necessarily experienced as such by another. It is possible that individual temperaments affect a person’s general sensitivity to invalidation, but everyone has times when they are more vulnerable or sensitive.

It is important to note, however, that invalidation—as it relates to the development of borderline personality disorder—is not a periodic experience, but a pervasive one. It is not one invalidating experience that leads to BPD but rather a complex and repeated exposure to situations in which feelings and thoughts are simply considered unimportant.

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By Erin Johnston, LCSW
Erin Johnston, LCSW is a therapist, counselor, coach, and mediator with a private practice in Chicago, Illinois.