What the Heck is the Biosocial Theory?

Oct 28, 2021

BPS Staff

What the Heck is the Biosocial Theory? 

We’re talking about the biosocial theory today, and as with the concept of dialectics, the biosocial theory is a fundamental underpinning of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Therefore, whether you’re considering DBT for yourself, or you’re interested in learning more about this treatment in general, an elementary grasp on the biosocial theory of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), and other problematic behaviors associated with emotional dysregulation, is a good starting point for all that follows in treatment. In fact, it may provide a healing and illuminating explanation for why one functions the way one does! 


Let’s start with a definition, shall we? 


Dr. Marsha Linehan posits that problematic behaviors, adapted and adopted to regulate emotions, are rooted in the evolving interaction and transaction of biological and environmental factors. 


An individual’s particular biology may predispose them to struggles with emotional vulnerability and emotional modulation. For example, research has shown “…hyperactivity in the limbic system and decreased activation of the prefrontal cortex…may contribute to affective instability in BPD” (Niedtfeld & Bohus, 2018, p. 1). Say it with me (and I know this can be very, very hard!): It is what it is. This is how your biology, how your brain, functions. There is not something wrong with you. This is just how you are! 


Likewise, an invalidating social environment occurs when figures in one’s life “…consistently and persistently fail to respond as needed to primary emotion and its expression” (Koerner, 2012, p. 6). Raise your virtual hand if any of the below applies to any interaction you’ve ever had with anyone (ever):

  • You’ve been told you’re overreacting to a situation. 

  • You’ve been told your emotions are, in some way, stupid, wrong, or manipulative. 

  • You’ve been ignored during a state of emotional distress, and then lashed out at by that same individual when your distress became too overwhelming for that individual. 


These are just some examples of invalidation, and over time, invalidation may impact an individual’s capacity to regulate emotion.


Breaking it down even further, we have the bio and we have the social, and when one pairs biological vulnerabilities with invalidating social environments, it would be reasonable (and quite natural!) to assume the development of maladaptive patterns of behavior. 


As a final and important note, if we envision a scale, one’s biological vulnerabilities may weigh more than one’s invalidating social environment, and vice versa. Regardless of the source, the fallout from managing these interactions can be unbearable, and this is something that DBT seeks to address through both individual therapy and skills groups. After all, it is a DBT Assumption that, while you may not have created your problems, you do have to solve them anyway.