An invalidating environment in the social part of DBT’s biosocial theory

The Biosocial Theory in DBT: Part 2 (Social)

As a San Francisco DBT therapist, I often see clients who feel like their emotions are out of control.

These same clients tend to struggle with impulsive behaviors as well.

If you relate to feeling very emotional and impulsive, the biosocial theory of emotional dysregulation in DBT provides a framework that can shed light on why you are the way you are.

This is a 2-part series looking at DBT’s biosocial theory. The “bio” or biology part of the biosocial theory is explored in part 1.


Explaining the “social” half of the biosocial theory

The “social” part of DBT’s biosocial theory looks at the influence environment plays in shaping one’s experience of emotions.

One key factor that negatively influences people who are wired to feel things deeply is growing up in an invalidating environment.


What is an invalidating environment?

An invalidating environment is a family that regularly sent you the message – directly or indirectly – that there was something wrong with your emotions. Or your emotions were ignored and you were expected to manage them alone.

Here are some examples of what an emotionally invalidating environment looks like:

  • Little tolerance for a child’s private emotions. “You’re the only who is so upset over this, so stop crying.“
  • Inconsistently responding to extreme emotions, while at the same time communicating to the child that those emotions are inappropriate. Such as ignoring a child’s crying when they hurt themselves – until the cries bother the adult so much that the adult responds in a shaming or cold way. “Stop being such a baby!” or “What’s wrong with you? Pull yourself together.”
  • Telling a child that some emotions are wrong, bad or stupid. “What a dumb thing to get upset over!”
  • Sending the message that emotions should be dealt with alone. “Don’t come out of your room until you calm down!”
  • Acknowledging an emotion but not helping a child deal with the emotion when help is needed. “I see you are upset that your pet rabbit is missing,” but doing nothing to help the child look for the missing pet.


When your emotions are repeatedly invalidated when you’re young, you learn to mistrust your feelings and to judge them as bad or wrong.

You also learned to escalate or intensify your emotions to get help because you got the message growing up that unless you get really upset or really angry, others won’t respond to you.

The biosocial theory in DBT is not meant to blame parents and caregivers who are doing the best they can.

A parent may not know how to validate a child’s emotions because they never received validation themselves.

Parents who are under a lot of stress may be unable to respond consistently to a sensitive child’s emotions.

If a parent is mentally ill or an addict, they are experiencing out of control emotions and impulsive behavior themselves and can’t attune to their child’s emotional needs.


The effect of invalidating environment if you’re emotionally sensitive

An invalidating environment, while not ideal, doesn’t affect every person the same way.

If you’re wired to feel things intensely, though, an invalidating environment creates a toxic mix of high emotion coupled with inadequate support from parents and caregivers.

This doesn’t have to translate into a life sentence of continual struggle with your emotions and impulses.

DBT can help you learn to regulate your emotions, curb harmful impulsive behaviors and create the life you want.


Read about the biology half of the biosocial theory in Part 1


Need help with your emotions?

Call (415) 310-5142 for a free phone consultation.