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Gabrielle Ilagan



Spotlight on a Researcher
Gabrielle Ilagan

Bronx Personality Lab at Fordham University

Winner of the 2022 Graduate Student Research Grant for her project “Invalidation, Identity-Related Minority Stressors, and Borderline Personality Disorder.”


Tell us about the project the GSRG is funding.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy’s (DBT) transactional model of emotion dysregulation proposes that invalidating experiences play a causal role in the development of borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptoms, including self-injurious thoughts and behaviors. However, prior research has focused on retrospective reports of childhood invalidation from parents, limiting our understanding of how current, day-to-day invalidation from peers in adulthood may contribute to the maintenance of BPD symptoms. It is also unclear whether the same link exists for minoritized and under-researched populations at high risk for BPD, for whom experiences of identity-based discrimination may function as additional forms of invalidation.

The present study uses ecological momentary assessment (EMA) to examine (1) whether daily fluctuations in invalidation are associated with fluctuations in BPD symptoms at a within-person level, and (2) whether identity-related invalidation and self-validation may serve as a risk and protective factors, respectively, for Black and Latinx people with BPD symptoms. This may be a first step in identifying viable culturally relevant treatment targets that can contribute to building racially affirmative clinical models of BPD.


What does getting this award mean to you?

To me, the award is an affirmation that studying this topic is important and that this study can contribute to our understanding of the effects of emotional invalidation and identity-related invalidation in the lives of people with BPD symptoms, especially people who have been underrepresented in the literature. I have long been interested in how social interactions influence emotion regulation problems, and how experiences specific to people with minoritized identities affect their mental health, so it is exciting that my project combining these interests can come to fruition thanks to this grant. I am so grateful that this award will allow me to pursue a research project I’m passionate about, one that I conceptualized in my very first semester of graduate school.


How has ABCT contributed to your development as a researcher and clinician?

Even before I began my PhD program, ABCT members and resources helped me navigate the process of applying to graduate school. Since then, not only has the ABCT Graduate Student Research Grant funded a research project I’m passionate about, but the clinical resources and mentorship offered by ABCT have been helping me prepare for my first externship, at a CBT-based clinic.

My first ABCT convention is this November, and I have no doubt that I will be exposed to novel ideas and meet professionals and peers who will inspire me to further develop my skills as a researcher and as a clinician. I am looking forward to the opportunity to share my own research and learn as much as I can from everyone else.


How did you first become involved in research? What was this first research experience like?

I first became involved in research thanks to my undergraduate professors at Williams College who encouraged me to ask questions and go hunting for the answers. Mentored by Dr. Laurie Heatherington, I designed an honors thesis about client preferences for a racial or gender match with their psychotherapist. It was an exciting adventure learning how to use Qualtrics and Amazon Mechanical Turk to collect quantitative and qualitative data, another adventure figuring out how to analyze the data appropriately, and yet another adventure writing it up for publication.

This series of adventures taught me the benefits of multimethod designs, and of both nomothetic and idiographic perspectives. I will always be thankful that I learned early on that being science-centered does not preclude being person-centered, and that I had wonderful role models who showed me what kind of researcher, clinician, mentor, and person I wanted to be.


What drew you to this particular research question?

My overarching interest in how identity and interpersonal relationships affect emotion regulation has aligned well with studying borderline personality disorder (BPD), a diagnosis that is often stigmatized, commonly misunderstood, under-researched, and even poorly named. Because our social interactions and our ability to regulate our emotions can fluctuate from moment to moment, and this might ring even more true for people with BPD symptoms, I thought that traditional assessment methods using retrospective reports and drawing between-person conclusions might be limiting our knowledge of how daily invalidation might maintain BPD symptoms over time.

I hoped that a study using EMA could help us capture the within-person associations between these variables. However, I also read about and reflected on how identity-based discriminatory experiences can also act as group-specific forms of invalidation. Given the lack of empirical studies on the psychopathology and treatment of BPD in racially minoritized communities, I felt passionate about pursuing a research question that might help urge clinicians to incorporate addressing identity-based invalidation and self-validation in treatment.


What is an example of a set-back you’ve experienced in your work, and how did you handle it?

I’ve always been interested in making mental healthcare more accessible, whether that’s by studying potential treatment targets for cultural adaptations of psychotherapies, attending to client preferences, exploring lower-intensity treatments that could be incorporated into stepped care systems, or digitizing interventions. This led me to undertake a project assessing the effectiveness of smartphone apps in addressing BPD-related symptoms. However, one setback my team and I experienced was four rounds of revising and resubmitting our manuscript. Since it was my first first-authored paper, I was initially discouraged by the seemingly never-ending list of changes to be made, and it was often challenging to respond to the reviewers’ suggestions. One round of edits even resulted in us changing our data analytic plan and finding completely different results.

My mentor and our collaborators were all incredibly supportive throughout every round, encouraging me to delve deeper into the statistical analysis and helping me hone my writing skills. When it was finally accepted for publication, the manuscript was much stronger and I could appreciate how each of the reviewers had helped us improve the manuscript’s quality and its contribution to the literature. The months of back-and-forth taught me not only perseverance, but also the utmost importance of well-designed studies, rigorous statistical tests, inviting feedback, and changing course if need be.


If you weren’t pursuing a career in psychology, what would you be doing?

In another life, I might have been a historian. In my undergraduate years, I majored in Psychology and History, both rooted in my love of listening to stories. The stories we have – about ourselves, and about the world – are powerful, and so is the analysis of what forces and whose voices shape these narratives. Conducting oral history interviews, preserving the perspectives of people who lived through different moments in time, hearing an individual’s story and placing it in the context of broader historical events, and capturing what life was like then and how it affects life in the present, are all tasks I would thoroughly enjoy.

I’m particularly passionate about immigration history, and love learning the stories of individuals who upended their lives to move to another country, the circumstances that shaped their decisions to leave the life they knew, and the joys and challenges they faced as they explored where they fit in a completely new community.

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