Borderline Personality Disorder is theorized to be a combination of two primary factors:
When you combine those two factors, a person will end up with a lot of difficulty managing their emotions, which is the primary cause of all BPD symptoms.
Emotional sensitivity is easy to understand: someone is born with the volume on their emotions turned all the way up. They get sad more easily and feel it more intensely; they also get happier more easily and feel it more intensely.
By itself, emotional sensitivity doesn't mean someone will grow up to have BPD. It needs to be combined with the invalidating environment.
Validation: an ideal world
In an ideal world, a parent will be responsive to a child's emotional expression. The parent will be able to provide the child with a name for the feeling, connect it to what is happening in the environment, and express empathy. If needed, the parent may assist the child in regulating the emotion, by helping the child to either turn the volume up or down.
Think of that process like this: a child smiles while they play with a new toy. The caregiver sees the child smile and assumes the child is happy. The adult asks the child, "You're smiling! Are you happy with your new toy?" The child learns that the feeling they have is called happiness, and that new toys make them happy.
The adult may also offer additional validation, which is kind of like agreeing with the child, or telling them that their emotion is correct for the situation. "I like playing with new toys too," or "New toys are so much fun to play with, aren't they?"
The caregiver can offer ways to regulate that emotion by asking, "Would you like me to play with you?" which might increase the child's enjoyment. Or they might ask, "Can you please use your inside voice?" if the child's play is loud and distracting.
Adults can also validate unpleasant emotions, while teaching children socially acceptable ways to regulate them.
Imagine a toddler who does not want to go to bed. A validating parent might say, "You're upset because it's bedtime but you want to stay awake. I know - you'd like to hear another bedtime story wouldn't you? But we're all done with story time tonight. If you go to sleep, you can have good dreams!" Here, the caregiver is still naming the feeling for the child, connecting it to the circumstances, and offering understanding - even though they are still going to make the child go to bed. They are still setting limits on the behavior - there will be no more stories. They are also offering hope and reassurance: if the child goes to bed (even though they don't want to) they can have good dreams.
Of course, there is no parent who is 100% attuned to their child's emotional needs, and no caregiver who can always respond with validation.
What matters is that most of the child's interactions with adults are validating - so they will grow up knowing how to identify their emotions, how their emotions relate to the world around them, and what they can do to feel more or less of an emotion.
So what is IN-validation?
An invalidating environment occurs when a child's caregivers are incapable of recognizing, validating, or responding appropriately to a child's emotions. They will inadvertently teach the child that emotions are bad, wrong, or dangerous.
A caregiver who is not present (physically or mentally) is not able to identify when their child is having an emotional experience. The child will grow up feeling the physical sensations of their emotions, but not knowing how to make sense of them. Emotions will seem frightening, or out of control experiences.
Some adults are able to identify a child's emotions, but not validate them. They essentially tell the child that their feelings are incorrect. For example, I had a preschool teacher who used to say, "If you aren't bleeding, you shouldn't be crying." Children who hear things like this consistently might be ashamed of their emotions, and might suppress them (rather than learn to regulate them, they try not to feel them at all).
And then there are parents who cannot respond appropriately - they might believe a child's emotions are valid, but they do not teach the child how to regulate them. They might ignore, punish, or actually join in on the child's emotions. Children might grow up to feel like their emotions are dangerous, or like they are responsible for other people's emotions.
Of course, no one's experience fits neatly into any one of these three categories - most invalidating environments involve a combination of all three types.
Why do parents invalidate their children?
There are many reasons why a caregiver might be invalidating. Some are innocent, and some are not. I want to discuss some of them here - not to excuse abusive behavior - but to explain how even well-meaning parents might raise children who grow up to have BPD. This list is not exhaustive.
1: Caregivers might not be physically present. Many times parents do not have the social, economic, or physical resources to be physically present for their children. This might be because they have to work two jobs or odd hours to pay bills; they might have a medical illness that keeps them from caring for their child; they might be separated by legal or immigration issues. A caregiver who cannot be physically present cannot provide validation - but they are not intending to be abusive.
2: Generational trauma or mental illness. Adults who do not have emotion regulation skills of their own may unintentionally invalidate their children. We can't wait to be perfect before we become parents. If a caregiver doesn't have the skills to manage their own emotions, they will not be able to teach their child how to do it either.
3: Cultural rules for parenthood. Several decades ago, there was a popular American doctor who recommended that parents let their children "cry it out" when they were upset, or woke up in the middle of the night. The philosophy was that children could learn to soothe themselves, and that if adults did it for them, they would spoil the child. Unfortunately, this meant that a generation of children grew up screaming alone in their beds, with no one to comfort them.
4: Domestic violence. Caregivers who are in abusive relationships may not have the emotional resources to support a child. They may also be trying to protect their child from violence in the home by ignoring them, telling them to be quiet, or encouraging them to appease the abuser.
5: Substance use. Adults who are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs are often unable to attend to their children's needs. Even when they are not under the influence, they may be hungover or actively seeking their next fix. Although they rarely set out with the intention of abusing their children, children who grow up in households with substance abuse often experience complex trauma.
6: Lack of information or resources. Many parents simply do not have the knowledge they need to identify when their child is struggling. They were never taught what to look for. Or maybe the parent is aware their child is struggling, but does not know the cause, and does not have the information or resources to find a professional who can help.
Ways parents invalidate their children
There are many different ways adults might invalidate children. Some of the more common ones are:
1: Gaslighting. Telling a child that their experiences are factually inaccurate, with the purpose of deflecting responsibility. Statements like "I never said that," or "that didn't happen." Of course - every now and then children are incorrect! But gaslighting occurs when the person in power (in this case, the adult) purposefully re-writes the past in order to avoid responsibility for their behavior.
Example: Caregiver sends child to bed without dinner. The next day, child goes to school and tells a teacher they are hungry because they didn't get dinner. The caregiver tells the teacher, "She's lying to get your attention - of course she ate dinner." The teacher thinks that the child is the M-word (manipulative) and doesn't take the child seriously in the future.
Consequence: the child will doubt their experience of reality. They won't be sure they're remembering things correctly, and won't be sure they have a right to feel angry, sad, or any other emotion. Other people might perceive the child as the M-word.
2: Assuming motives / character flaws. When an adult tells a child that their feelings are a result of a negative motive, or a character flaw. This often happens because the adult does not understand their own part in a situation, or is not able to regulate their own emotions.
Example: a child has grown a lot recently, and their clothes are too small. They start to cry because of the physical discomfort. The adult feels shame because they don't have the money to buy new clothes that fit. But because the adult doesn't have an appropriate way to express their own shame, they say, "You're just trying to make me feel bad about myself. You're ungrateful."
Consequence: the child starts to believe that they are a bad person - that they are ungrateful, evil, or the M-word. They may feel intense shame about this. They may also feel hopeless - why try to become better, if they are bad at their core?
3: Comparison. The adult doesn't know how to cope with the child's emotions, so the adult compares the child to someone or something they think is better.
Example: the child has sensory overload and throws a tantrum in a crowded store. Instead of assisting the child in regulating the emotion, the parent says, "Your sister never threw tantrums like this," or "When I was a child my mother would've beat me for making a scene."
Consequence: the child doesn't learn how to regulate their emotions, but they do start to believe that other people are better, stronger, or more lovable than they are.
4: Moving goalposts. When a parent is inconsistent about their expectations, and the child does not know how to make them happy.
Example: the parent tells the child that grades are the most important thing to focus on. When the child brings home a report card with straight A's, the parent says, "So you have plenty of time to study but you can't clean your room?"
Consequence: the child grows up expecting everyone to treat them this way. They are suspicious of others, and always trying to over-preform to keep people happy. Or, they might give up and decide not to try to maintain relationships at all, because they think it's impossible to please others.
5: Resentment. When the caregiver resents the child for expressing needs that are outside of the child's control. Sometimes the caregiver is unable to provide and experiences shame, while other times the caregiver is merely resentful of the time and energy required to provide for the child.
Example: the child has a dirty diaper, and cries for it to be changed. The caregiver ignores them for a while. Eventually, they change the diaper, but they mutter "You're so disgusting - I can't believe I have to wipe your butt every single day" while they are doing it.
Consequences: the child experiences intense shame about their own basic needs, and thinks of themselves as weak or dirty. They may not learn how to take care of themselves, because their caregiver does a poor job of it. They may not even know how to identify their needs (like hunger, cleanliness, affection) in the first place, because they are never taught to connect the physical sensations of hunger or dirtiness to the acts of eating or cleaning.
6: Unpredictable caregiver. An adult who is sometimes responsive, but sometimes not. The child never knows what they're going to get. This is especially common in households with substance abuse or domestic violence, when adult's availability might change rapidly based on whether they are intoxicated or whether the abuser is present.
Example: a mother picks her child up from school in the afternoon. The child tells them about the bad day they had at school and the mother comforts them. Later on at home, the child cries over something insignificant and the mother tells the child to "shut up before your father hears you, you'll get us both in trouble."
Consequences: the child grows up to distrust others, and has a pathological level of self-reliance. Since others are not reliable, the child may decide that any vulnerability is unacceptable weakness. This will make it very difficult to form meaningful adult relationships.
Consequences of invalidation
Children who do not receive emotional validation become adults who cannot identify, tolerate, or regulate their emotions.
Adults who can not identify their emotions tend to have a difficult time maintaining relationships - intimate relationships, friendships, and even work or school relationships. They lack common ground to establish these relationships on - they don't understand why other people act the way they do, or how to ask for their own needs to be met.
Adults who cannot tolerate their own emotions seek out ways to numb them. They might experience depersonalization, depersonalization, or dissociation - ways that the brain "tunes out" current experiences.
They might use substances to dull emotional pain, or they might engage in risk-taking behavior to create pleasant sensations. They might also experience episodes of rage because they do not know how to express unpleasant feelings appropriately.
Another common consequence of invalidation (and abuse) is splitting. Children don't have the option of picking new parents or caregivers - they have to find ways to tolerate the ones they have.
Splitting provides children with a way to love abusive or invalidating parents. When the parents are being kind and loving, the child is able to fully engage with them by pushing aside all memories of the abuse. They think of the parent as all-good. Then, when the parents are engaging in abusive behavior, the child is able to completely forget their loving memories of the parent, and indulge in self-protective behavior. They think of the parent as all-bad.
In splitting, the brain is protecting the child by making opposing information temporarily unavailable. It would be too painful to think that a loving parent could harm you - so the brain simply locks that information away when it hurts too much. It would also be too painful to hold on to fond memories while you are being abused - so the brain puts them away until the abuse is over.
Splitting is the brain's way of keeping a child safe - but once a brain gets in the habit of splitting people into all-good or all-bad, that becomes the new default.
People with BPD also have a split sense of self. When they are getting good feedback from the people around them, they think they are all-good. When their relationships feel threatened, they think they are all-bad. They are temporarily unable to remember the other parts of themselves.
What can be done?
Treatment for BPD focuses on teaching people how to identify their emotions, regulate the intensity of their emotions, and tolerate the more difficult ones effectively. These tasks fall under the DBT skills categories of:
DBT also has a skills category of interpersonal effectiveness, where people with BPD can learn to interact with others in ways that are more likely to lead to fulfilling relationships.
There are other treatment modalities for people with BPD, but they all work by teaching people how to deal with painful emotions.