The other night, I was surfing Youtube.com for videos on Borderline Personality Disorder. I came across one video which featured an intern at a mental hospital being interviewed about the characteristics, symptoms, and environment of BPD.
The young intern was obviously not quick on the draw when it came to discussing all DSM IV 9 characteristics of BPD, BUT, he was very good at describing what he did know in simple, lay term.
At one point, the interviewer asked about environmental factors that cause BPD. Among the intern’s responses was “emotional invalidation”. At first, this answer went right through me, and I had no reaction. Then, as the intern continued to discuss this topic in more detail, I realized just what he meant: Parents or guardians raising a child during his/her formative years can sometimes create an environment rich for the development of BPD if they ignore, cast off, or otherwise invalidate the emotional dialogue of their child.
When I thought about this carefully, I realized right away that my mother, among others, was guilty of invalidating my emotions on a regular basis. Although she seemed to do it less so with my younger brothers, I now realize it was particularly apparent with me, more or less because I was the first child born in the family.
Let me give a couple examples…
1) When I in the third grade, my small town sponsored a variety show. My mother had the idea that I should play the piano in the show, since I had been taking lessons for a year or so and was able to play beginner material. True to myself, I refused at first, feeling anxious about auditioning and performing in front of people.
My mother convinced me otherwise, however, and dragged me up to the town meeting house to play some songs for the show’s directors. This was when I also realized that my mother has some sort of strong fascination with performing arts and theatre, which I don’t quite always understand.
A few days after the audition, I was called and accepted to the variety show. The show was to take place in a few weeks, and I was to practice my medley of piano pieces in the meantime.
When the first night of the show arrived, I was petrified. I had never really performed in front of any sized audience before, and didn’t know what to expect. My mother put her pride first, dragging me yet again up the hill to the town meeting house for the first night of the variety show.
When it came time for me to play, I tip-toed on stage and played without any issues. I felt relieved when it was done.
The second night, however, was different. When I was preparing to step on stage to play yet again, I seized up with anxiety and vomitted twice back stage all over the floor. I was terrified and wanted to run away, but one of the show managers wiped my face up and I was escorted on stage to play.
20 some years later, my mother regards a picture of me on stage playing the piano as one of her “favorites”. When I was home over the summer, I reminded her that there was more than a little kid playing the piano behind this picture: there was an anxiety ridden child who became physically ill to the point of vomitting when faced with stepping on stage to play.
When I enunciated this emotion to my mom she said, “Oh no…..I don’t remember that….I don’t think so….” and a few other dismissive phrases.
My emotions were instantly invalidated! Instead of listening to my emotional dialogue about that night ( AND of course instead of listening to me years ago when I was a child ) she completely dismissed my anxieties and fears. As a child, this made me feel terrible, and to a degree, still makes me feel the same today.
2) In the sixth grade, I was asked by a friend, who was my neighbor and the son of a dentist, to join him on his small sailboat for the weekend.
I had never been on a small boat for an extended period of time before, so I was a little nervous. I ignored these concerns, however, because I had been on ferry boats and other larger ships before and never had any issues. After boarding the small boat, we took off to sail around the bay.
Everything was fine, until about four hours in, when I realized I was becoming horribly sea sick. While the others were up top socializing and relaxing, I stole off to the head a few times and puked my guts out. I felt horrible, embarrassed, and very upset.
The boy’s father (the Dentist) was a royal asshole, to say the least. I think he got wind of what was going on, and declared: “You know what I do to sea-sick kids?… I tie them to a rope and drag them behind my boat until they get better… I don’t deal with sea-sick kids.”
This statement terrified me, and only made my trips to the head worse as the journey continued. Luckily, we dropped anchor and eventually were in calmer waters and I was able to get some sea legs.
When I returned from the trip, and later confessed this event to my mother at another point during my trip home this summer, she again dismissed me: “Oh I don’t think that is true….That probably wouldn’t happen…”
The point was not IF I would be dragged behind a boat puking my brains out – the point was that I was in a new situation and suffered from sea-sickness, anxiety, and possibly even a panic attack. I felt trapped on that boat: I had no where to go, and simply had to suck it up for 24 hours.
My mother had the opportunity to have a dialogue with me about my anxieties and fears, but she instead passed them off as if she was swatting away an annoying gnat.
What she should have done was said: “Wow…. I’m really sorry that happened. Let’s talk about it and think of ways to deal with these situations in the future…”
And, given the fact that my anxiety and vomitting was not an isolated incident, she should have seen the writing on the wall and taken me to a counselor immediately. Instead, however, she chose the easy route and completely invalidated my feelings, making me feel as if my emotions were wrong, inappropriate, over-blown, overly dramatic, etc.
To all parents of BPD kids out there: Yes, BPD can be dramatic and very emotional, but remember, inside every sufferer of BPD is a human being that has fears, worries, and emotions that cause them pain. Don’t ignore what your child is saying if they are confessing an emotional incident that caused them great stress and panic. Listen and have an honest talk with them.
What’s more, if you don’t feel you have the ability to have such talks with your child, take them to a counselor or child psychologist who has the skills and tools necessary to provide coping mechanisms for the future.
Perhaps my mother does not understand or process emotions. Perhaps not? I’m not so certain. Either way, what she surely did was provide a toxic environment where painful emotions were ignored.
Without a doubt, the intern on the Youtube.com video was right: Invalidating emotions leads to emotional disarray for the BPD sufferer, and only makes treating the condition more difficult. Please don’t let this happen to your children.