Linehan theorizes than an “invalidating environment” is, along with a genetic tendency to be over-emotional, one of the two major causes of borderline personality disorder (BPD). She does not really specify which environment she is talking about, but it is obviously the family in which the person grew up.
When I first read Linehan, I thought of a similar concept that I had read about in a classic book in family systems theory by Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson first published way back in 1967 called Pragmatics of Human Communication. They called this concept disqualification. I at first thought that maybe Linehan was re-discovering the wheel, but then I went back to the old book to look at how they defined disqualification. To my surprise, disqualification is something one does to oneself, not someone else. One disqualifies oneself when one is afraid to say what one really feels and means for fear that others will reject it. Hence disqualifiers say things in a way that allows them “plausible deniability.” They can claim they were misinterpreted if the other family members object.
Now why would anyone disqualify themselves? The answer has to do with something that the psychoanalysts, who got a lot of things wrong, got right. They thought problematic behavior resulted from an unresolved conflict within the individual between two opposite courses of action. Now the analysts assumed that the conflict was between biological impulses like sex and aggression and a person's internalized value system, otherwise known as his or her conscience.
While certainly one can feel conflicted over those things, the focus of the analysts was far too narrow. Experiential therapists like Fritz Perls and Carl Rogers felt that the basic conflict was over one’s need to express one’s true nature (self-actualization) and doing what was expected by everyone else. Family systems pioneer Murray Bowen framed this as a conflict between the forces of individuality and the forces of togetherness.
Those with such a conflict suppress parts of themselves that do not seem to conform to what they believe other important family members expect of them, but the suppression is never complete. Such a person will disqualify what they are trying to get across just in case it is unacceptable to others. If it is, then they can claim that they were merely misunderstood.
Unfortunately, when someone disqualifies what they are saying in this manner, the other people listening are on shaky ground when trying to determine what is being communicated to them. The communications are very confusing. In fact, just when listeners think they have a fix on it, the person may contradict themselves, leaving listeners to start to doubt their own perceptions about what was just said. In other words, when someone disqualifies themselves, they are often invalidating the person listening to them. The two concepts are not just similar to each other, they go hand in hand!
This leads to the proposition that when family members seem to be invalidating another family member, the apparent invalidators may really be disqualifying themselves. Listeners would have no way of knowing this, and would be inadvertently led to believe that they were being mistreated by the apparent invalidator. Most therapists think this as well.
In families that produce children who grow up to develop BPD, this whole process is rampant and pervasive compared to the average family, as Linehan suggests. Because the person with BPD has frequently been invalidated, they start to disqualify their own opinions. In doing so, they invalidate everyone else. In other words, they end up giving every bit as good as they get.
Because of other factors which I will not go into here, the specific needs that patients with BPD tend to disqualify in themselves are their need to find a good balance between being cared for by others and self-actualization. As a result, they end up invalidating anyone who tries to form an intimate relationships with them.
If you have to deal with people who do this, there are well-established ways to prevent them from invalidating you. In future posts, I will detail some of them. They can all be found in my book for psychotherapists, Psychotherapy With Borderline Patients: An Integrated Approach.