Why Your Questionable Habits Actually Make Sense:A quick and painless explanation of the Biosocial Theory
Written by: Lauren Barris, LCSW-C
Every day, I have the privilege of working with people who are brave enough, insightful enough, and motivated enough to walk through my door and tell me they want to work on themselves. They are often afraid that I will judge them; they are afraid that their behaviors and habits are “crazy,” unjustifiable, inexcusable. I so often find myself wishing that my clients knew just how far from the truth this fear is.
DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) is based in something called the Biosocial Theory. Simply put, it states that people’s behaviors are a function of both their environment and their biology. It posits that people who go on to develop Borderline Personality Disorder are often biologically predisposed to “higher emotional reactivity” and “slower return to baseline" (i.e. they get emotional faster, and take longer to cool off than others). It states that children with predispositions like this, who are brought up in invalidating or abusive environments are more likely to develop difficulties with emotions and relationships later in life.
Imagine you are a kid who runs a little “hot blooded.” You experience something that sets you off - maybe the death of a beloved pet, or a vehement argument between your parents. You react. Strongly. (And justifiably.) Imagine you are then told that your emotions are, perhaps, stupid. Unwarranted. An overreaction. If you are a girl, maybe you begin to earn the label of “oversensitive.” If you are a boy, maybe you’re told to “quit your blubbering,” “man up,” or that “boys don’t cry.” Or maybe, no one reacts at all. Maybe your emotion goes unnoticed, or worse, ignored. Regardless of the form it takes, the lesson learned is loud and clear: Your emotions don’t matter. They are wrong. Your normal expression of emotion does not work to get you what you need.
Any child with their wits about them, when placed in such a situation, learns very fast that in order to get by, they’d better accept that their instinctive emotional response must be wrong, that they cannot trust their gut reaction, and that they’d better figure out what kind of mask to put on to get what they need from their environment: attention, love, acceptance, validation. These are things we all need. But when a child is never taught healthy ways to get these needs met (and when sometimes their not-so-great ways are reinforced), they are likely to continue using ever more creative, and often maladaptive ways of getting what they need. They are likely to earn more hurtful labels over time and may even come to be viewed as “manipulative,” when really they are just doing what they’ve learned to do to get what they need - just like everyone else.
People who are struggling in these ways are often not the type to ask for help, at least not in the ways that inspire most people to jump to their aide. That is why, when I come across a person who has been through all of this confusion, invalidation, and sometimes abuse, who has come to realize that what they are doing is not working for them, who has figured out how to ask for help, and who has decided that they want to put in the work to learn a new way, I am nothing short of honored to be able to work alongside them on that journey.
PS: This post touches very briefly on subject matter that is complex and not fully developed on this page. If you are curious about this topic and would like to discuss it in more depth, feel free to reach out to Innovative Psychiatry. You can also stay tuned for future posts that will elaborate more on related topics.