People with borderline personality disorder (BPD) have a set of symptoms that include an unstable sense of self or identity, an inability to regulate their emotions, and a history of impulsive behaviors. Believed to have its roots in early childhood, this disorder can become the source of a lifetime of relationship problems for those who are unable to access or benefit from treatment.
As noted in a new paper by the National University of Singapore’s Stephanie Lee and colleagues (2022), this disorder is best understood from a biosocial model in which both individual and social influences interact to cause and maintain its symptoms. In their words, “BPD develops as a result of ongoing, reciprocal transactions between an individual’s biological vulnerabilities (early impulsivity and emotional vulnerability) and an invalidating childhood environment” (p. 572).
Translating this model into concrete terms, think about someone you know who either is diagnosed with or who has some of the symptoms of BPD. Your relationship with them can feel like a constant set of tests in which they push your patience to the limits with their extreme emotional reactions. You watch them make poor decisions after poor decisions, such as leaving a perfectly good job for seemingly no reason. Try as you might, it seems impossible to help them steer the course of their life in a more positive direction. These are the “reciprocal transactions” that Lee et al. notes are such a key feature of the biosocial model.
It's always tempting to blame the parent for psychological difficulties encountered by adults, and, indeed, many of the early theories of BPD did exactly that. Lee and her colleagues also focus on early parenting, but with evidence to back up their approach, the issue doesn’t become a blame game.
Early Invalidation and BPD
The specific aspect of parenting that the National University researchers focus on is the process of emotional invalidation, a pattern in which parents (or caregivers) “constantly delegitimize” the child’s expressed emotions. These are the four components of emotional invalidation:
- Stating that the child’s emotions are wrong.
- Misattributing the child’s emotions to a deficiency in the child, such as oversensitivity.
- Making light of difficulties or problems that the child expresses.
- Discouraging the child from expressing any negative emotions.
As you can see, a child exposed to this invalidating environment may easily feel that they’re being punished for what is “an admissible and reasonable response” (p. 572). Even worse, in severe cases, a child may be abused either sexually or physically.
Imagine now how this invalidation process might operate. A small child becomes angry when another child at the playground grabs their stuffed animal. An invalidating parent would tell the child that there’s no reason to be angry, even though the child is upset. Although every parent may engage in this type of attempt to soothe their child from time to time, a constant drumbeat of invalidation of feelings can eventually lead to serious difficulties in the child when it comes to identifying and managing their emotions.
Testing the Invalidation Hypothesis
Previous research supports the general theoretical model linking invalidation to BPD symptoms, but, to put it to a more rigorous test, Lee et al. conducted a meta-analysis, an approach that allows them to attach statistical estimates to the model’s components. Starting with a set of 1,179 published and unpublished data sources, and after eliminating studies that failed to include sufficient information or data, they emerged with a set of 21 studies with 25 independent samples on almost 7,200 participants.
In addition to scores on the key variables of BPD symptoms and parental invalidation, the research team took into account the potential contributions of a child's gender, culture (i.e., extent of individualism), and age.
Teasing apart the roles of maternal, paternal, and parental invalidation combined, the authors found support for all three as contributors to BPD symptoms. Maternal invalidation was slightly more likely to predict BPD symptoms, but invalidation by both parents predicted BPD symptoms in samples with a higher percentage of men. As the authors concluded, “the current study…contributes to the growing literature that parenting behaviors, in general, are moderately related to child psychopathology” (p. 578).
This conclusion may make sense to you, and it also seems to be in keeping with the view that parents, especially mothers, are indeed an important influence on a child’s development of BPD symptoms. However, in keeping with the biosocial model, parent-child relationships do not exist in a vacuum. The invalidating parent may be repeating behavior from their own childhood experiences. Additionally, parents affect each other, and one invalidating parent may lead the other, over time, to minimize or otherwise negate the child’s expression of emotions.
There is one significant caveat, however, which is that the parental invalidation measures were based on self-report. The fact that the individuals are experiencing BPD symptoms could color their recall of past parenting experiences. Longitudinal studies in which individuals are tracked over time could help to correct this problem, as could observational studies in which parental behavior is objectively measured.
What the Findings Mean for People With BPD
Even if it is only the perception of parental invalidation that is associated with BPD symptoms, the Lee et al. findings nevertheless provide support for the idea that feeling invalidated early in life can have long-lasting effects on an individual’s tendencies toward behaving impulsively, being unable to regulate emotions, and having an unstable sense of self.
Thinking more about the biosocial model, you might ask yourself whether such experiences occurred in your own early life. What if you were that child whose stuffed animal was snatched? Did your parent (or parental figure) comfort you appropriately? What about later in your childhood? Think about a time when you weren’t invited to a friend’s birthday party. A parent who validated your feelings of being left out could help you understand that it’s normal to feel hurt and help you work through those emotions. In contrast, an invalidating parent would say not to worry about it or even say that you’re being too touchy. Your recall may not be 100 percent accurate, but the fact that you remember the situation this way could be significant.
To sum up, people with BPD appear to have developed at least some of their emotional and behavioral difficulties as a result of being part of an invalidating environment. Understanding how important the process is for parents to guide their children through emotional challenges can help you gain insight into your childhood, insight that can help you gain perspective on your emotions as an adult.
The article is prepared as a draft and the source of the article is Psychology Today.