Sunday September 18, 1966. I remember that day so well. I was 12 years old. It was the day after my sister’s 19th birthday. It was a warm, sunny day. I listened to Wagner’s opera, The Flying Dutchman on the radio that afternoon. My mother made roast chicken for dinner. When I tell my sister these things she says, “How do you know you’re right?” That’s not the question I ask myself. I ask myself, “Why do I remember this day so well?”
My aunt and uncle stopped over that evening. My mother had given me money to allow me to buy a birthday gift for my sister. I purchased for her a book about the French artist Toulouse-Lautrec. My aunt said to me, “Oh, you bought that for yourself. You didn’t buy that for your sister. You bought that for yourself.” Notice the constant invalidation. It was a pervasive atmosphere, like breathing. That’s the childhood of a borderline patient. My aunt was projecting onto me the quality of buying selfish gifts for people. Eight years earlier my aunt had purchased (or should I say “purchased”) a piano for my sister. But that’s an entirely different story . . .
The invalidating family environment suggested by Linehan (1993) is a factor in the genesis of borderline personality disorder and further developed by Fruzzetti and colleagues. Fruzzetti and colleagues report that parental invalidation, in part defined as the undermining of self-perceptions of internal states and therefore anti-mentalising, is not only associated with the young person’s reports of family distress, and their own distress and psychological problems, but also with aspects of social cognition, namely the ability to identify and label emotion in themselves and others. Along with other aspects contributing to the complex interaction described as invalidating, there is a systematic undermining of a person’s experience of their own mind by that of another. There is a failure to encourage the person to discriminate between their feelings and experiences and those of the caregiver, thereby undermining the development of a robust mentalising capacity.