The Impact of Invalidation
Nowadays, the term “invalidation” has gained a lot of popularity, for example with more and more people claiming that their feelings in a relationship are invalidated.
The overuse of the word does not necessarily mean that it is clearly understood. In fact, many may sneer when they hear the word, often regarding the person who complains about invalidation maybe as “overly sensitive”. That's exactly why I felt the need to do my part in clarifying this concept!
In psychology, opposite concepts have equal significance. The existence of one concept implies the lack of another. In this case, it is invalidation VS validation. Both concepts are quite broad and deserve to be examined separately, as the implications of both are very significant in the development of identity, self-worth, self-esteem and in relationships with others.
So this is a psychoeducation article, aiming to elucidate the concept of invalidation, that implies a lack of validation.
What is invalidation?
By definition, invalidation is the exact opposite of validation.
Validation is the act of recognition and acceptance of someone else’s thoughts, emotions and behaviours as understandable within their current life context or situation. We will focus on this concept in the future.
Invalidation is the act of rejecting, ignoring, dismissing, disregarding and criticizing another person’s emotional or cognitive experience.
Maybe now you are thinking, oh this sounds so terrible! Who would do such a thing?
Invalidation is not only blatantly criticizing or judging someone else’s thoughts or emotions.
Although it has a lot of negative outcomes and implications, it is often done with the purest of intentions.
In fact, many people can be found guilty of invalidating others, even if that was not their purpose at all.
It is nevertheless crucial to discuss it, as chronic invalidation is a form of emotional abuse.
Some examples of invalidation...
Think of all the times you tried to support a friend who was sad, and you tried to comfort them by saying “Oh come on now, you shouldn’t be sad!” – that is invalidation.
Or if you have a friend who may present some depressive symptoms, so you tell them “Don’t be so negative, you are bringing me down” – that is invalidation.
Or if a friend was angry, you may have tried to convince them that "there's no reson to be angry about this!" - that is invalidation.
Or imagine a couple having an argument, and one of them crying, because they feel the other partner did something that hurt them. Imagine the non-crying partner insisting that there is no reason to be crying about this, or that it is absolutely their fault that this happened, thereby not acknowledging that the crying person feels hurt and sad, and that they may in some way have something to do with it. That is invalidation.
Or your friend is annoyed about something, and your way of comforting them includes words such as "You are making such a big deal out of this, I am sure it wasn't that bad!" -That is invalidation.
Or comments along the lines of "Wow, if you are feeling like that then you certainly are overreacting/crazy/insane!" -are very much invalidating as well.
Or, the all-time classic, “Just think positive thoughts! Cheer up!” -aka toxic positivity, that is invalidating too.
Or if you have ever tried to comfort a crying child, by saying “You shouldn’t be sad about this, don't cry!” (if it is a little boy, this could be followed by a bonus “Be a man! Boys don’t cry”- that is utterly invalidating as well).
The underlying message in such cases is “You shouldn’t feel/think/experience what you do”- "You are wrong in what you are feeling".
This can grow into chronic feelings of self-invalidation and self-doubt.
Of course, invalidation can happen towards positive experiences, too. That is when someone shares something that brings positive emotions to them, and the listener undermines or cancels that, by insinuating that it is not a big deal- so, they shouldn’t feel good about it.
For example, a child may be happy and proud of themselves of a grade they got, and their parent scolds them saying, “There’s nothing to be proud about! You didn’t get a straight A, so this result isn’t good enough. You should only be happy if you are excellent in school”.
The underlying message in such cases is “You are not good enough”, something that can develop into chronic feelings of inadequacy.
Pretty much anything that tells another person how they should and shouldn’t feel or think, is invalidating of their own experience right at this moment.
Invalidation cancels the current emotional reality of that person.
And it most definitely does not help them change, not one bit- because first and foremost, their own experience is denied and not accepted.
What does happen instead, is that they are left feeling guilty, ashamed, and doubting themselves and their own experience.
When this happens chronically and continuously from an early age, even on a small scale, it can actually be traumatic, and can have serious implications for the development of the Self, the identity and the self-esteem of that person. Repetition creates permanence.
Let’s explore the effects of invalidating families and environments below.
The impact of invalidating environments
Dr Marsha Linehan, founder of Dialectic Behaviour Therapy, has explored the topic of invalidating environments a lot, in her work on borderline personality disorder.
Research shows that invalidating family environments may be quite common as backgrounds, in people developing personality disorders or generally struggling with mental health issues.
According to Marsha Linehan, in invalidating environments “communication and expression of private experiences is met by erratic, inappropriate and extreme responses”.
In simple words, that means that emotional expression in these family environments is not validated, thus recognized and accepted, but rather disregarded, dismissed, denied, punished, minimized and trivialized.
Invalidation signifies the underlining message that “you are wrong in what you are feeling”.
Negative emotional expression, such as the emotions of sadness and anger, can also be attributed to socially undesirable personality traits, such as overreactivity, oversensitivity and paranoia (e.g. “Don’t be so sensitive! You are overreacting again! You shouldn’t be feeling like this, why can’t you be normal?”)
Invalidating environments may be specifically intolerant of displays of negative emotions. The importance of positive emotions is maximized; being happy is of uttermost value, or at least “pulling through” with a smile, even at the face of adversity.
While these positive emotions and traits can be indeed significant at times, the problem arises when failures to live up to the high demands of a “positive mental attitude” lead to disapproval and intense criticism- then, family members may vigorously try to even force a change of attitude.
In reality, people just feel the way they do. Period. There is no right and wrong way to feel.
There can absolutely be emotions that are out of proportion, but there can be no emotions that are invalid- simply because when we feel something, it is very real for us.
Emotions are signals, or messages- and with invalidation, it is like the Other fails to understand our message.
In addition, negative emotions are an inherent part of life, and children need to be shown exactly what to do in order to regulate and control them, instead of just being scolded or told that they shouldn’t be feeling this way.
Simply put, children cannot know how to do what they have not been taught! Emotional regulation, that is glorified by psychology and society as a skill of magnificent significance, is in fact something that has to do with nurture- it needs to be modelled and shown to the child. Just like any other skill.
Types of Invalidating Family Environments
Now that the concept of invalidation has been explored, we can take a look at different kinds of invalidating families.
Chaotic families are the families in which there may be problems of domestic violence, substance abuse, financial problems or absent/abusive/neglecting parents. In such families, there is absence of clear rules and boundaries, and an overall chaotic atmosphere. That results to little attention being given to the children, who in turn may experience their needs to be disregarded or even punished.
Families with physical or mental health problems
In families that one of the members suffers from a physical or mental health problem, the attention of the family system is often focused on the family member with the ailment. That can result in children’s needs being invalidated and disregarded.
The same process may develop in families where one of the children requires more attention, because of physical, mental, or behavioural problems. The energy of the family may be primarily attuned to that child, while the needs of the more "easy/normal/functional" child may be regarded as secondary. That child may often feel invalidated, because they may often be told that they should know how to “act more maturely” than their sibling, in order to help the family survive.
Parentification may also develop in such families- children that undertake parental responsibilities to look after another family member that is more vulnerable. Parentification may also occur in cases of chaotic families. For example, when there is domestic violence, such as when the victim is the mother and the perpetrator is the father. Children are then attuned to, attached to, and even protect the victim parent, often taking on roles that resemble the parent's parent or counsellor.
Though this process is understood within a family system, it does not change the fact that the emotions and needs of the children who are deemed more resilient or more mature, may be dismissed or neglected for the sake of the family member who is regarded as the center of the family’s attention.
In “perfect” families, for whatever reason, negative emotions are not acceptable and tolerated. Everything needs to appear neat, tidy and perfect.
Perhaps there is an attitude of “everything is fine”, that does not leave space for children to express negative emotions. Maybe the family puts a lot of energy in maintaining a perfect external façade, and in that process, difficult emotions and private experiences are disregarded. Such families favor the development of perfectionsism .
Communication in perfect families may not go far beyond the surface, because the general rule is that things are fine and need not be discussed and elaborated on. What is being left out is that negative emotions are an inherent part of life.
So when the attention is directed in how everything must seem perfect, it is not directed on how to deal with life when things get nasty and tough.
With the term typical families we aim to emphasize the fact that invalidation may not necessarily be a trait of families with extraordinary characteristics, like the ones mentioned above. Very typical and usual families may be invalidating, even in the absence of problems.
There is a cultural aspect of invalidation in this respect: there is a tendency in Western societies to emphasize cognitive control of emotions and focus on achievement and mastery as criteria of success.
On a societal level, we learn that showing vulnerability is a sign of weakness, or at least that it is something not to be done in public, but rather privately. Appearing well-regulated, balanced, and resilient may be favored as an ideal, while emotional expression is often considered as a sign of imbalance or even insanity.
Individualistic, western societies are defined by sharp and clear boundaries between Self and Other. Therefore, the significance of self-control may be magnified greatly- and in the meantime, emotional experiences that do not fit this mold may be left unattended, dismissed and invalidated- even with the best of intentions.
Consequences of invalidating environments
What happens when an invalidating environment fails to validate emotional expression?
The child does not learn to recognize and label their emotions
Emotional recognition and labelling are really important mindfulness skills, and absolutely necessary for emotional regulation to be accomplished. In other words, when you do not know how to name what you are feeling, you can not take steps in order to regulate it. Change can never happen without acceptance first.
The child does not learn to modulate emotional arousal
When emotions are not recognized, little is done for problem solving and emotional regulation. As explained above, emotional recognition and validation is number-one step to emotional regulation.
To elucidate this, imagine the internal landscape of a child who is crying at the dinner table, and their parents send them away to their room, until they “calm down”- underlining that the child simply cannot participate in this family activity, if they are upset and overwhelmed. In this example, negative emotional experience is actually punished.
Yet, what happens if the child is not taught how to calm down, how to stop being sad?
How to regulate the emotional and physiological arousal that produces tears?
Can you just make them stop?
Is it that simple?
The ease of solving life’s problems is oversimplified
When a child is repeatedly told off because of the way they feel, with words such as “you shouldn’t be feeling like this” or “it is not a big deal”, families indirectly show the child that life’s adversities are actually pretty simple to resolve; the fault exists within them for not being able to see this.
Well, first of all, children’s brains are different than adults’: a problem that may seem simple to us as adults, is actually HUGE for a child. Telling a child that their problem is not as bad as they feel it is, creates an inner conflict and can actually be detrimental for them- because they do feel it is a big deal.
Invalidating a child’s emotional experience does nothing to teach them about distress tolerance (that is a necessary part of life later on).
The child is actually encouraged to express emotions in an extreme way, in order for a helpful response to be provided
When mild emotional responses are repeatedly not recognized as important, or are repeatedly ignored and dismissed, what the child understands is that only when they show extreme emotions, will their needs be met. In other occasions, they just have to suppress their emotions.
Like Marsha Linehan explains, “by erratically punishing communication of negative emotions and intermittently reinforcing displays of escalated emotions, the environment teaches the child to oscillate between emotional inhibition, and extreme emotional states”.
In that counter-productive way, the environment actually reinforces extreme emotional displays.
Children are wired to need responsive parents- parents that effectively respond to their emotions and needs.
Emotions are messages. In the absence of responsiveness, it is understandable that the child may need to send a louder, clearer message in order to be heard and attended to.
When we see a child overreacting, this is likely not only on the temperament of the child, but on the conditioning the child has received in their family environment. What the child has been explicably taught is that only when they throw a tantrum, will their needs be met.
As a result, the child is taught towards an either-or approach: emotional inhibition (“be the good and quiet child”) or extreme emotional expression.
Thus, sense of balance is lost, the golden middle path is not given the required attention.
The child does not learn how to trust their own experiences, but rather seek reassurance outwards in order to validate them
When chronically and repeatedly told that one should not be feeling how they are, the child enters a state of shame ,guilt and self-doubt when they do not feel how they are supposed to, according to the expectations of their social environment. This is the way that invalidation gradually becomes internalized, and turns into self-invalidation.
Self-invalidation leads a person to constantly seek external reassurance, to actively look in their social environment for cues about the right way to think, feel, and act, and to doubt and question themselves, locked in a system of should’s and shouldn’ts.
Last but not least, we learn to love in familiar ways. So if we have grown in an invalidating family environment, we may likely enter relationships later in adulthood, in which we may feel not understood, dismissed, neglected and judged for the way we feel.
Even then, of course, we can become aware of the background information in the Present, and can start to work in order to break this pattern, that was founded in the Past.
Perhaps now it can be more clearly conceptualized, how the family environment has a direct impact on a growing person’s self-identity, self-worth and self-esteem. Validation and invalidation are at the heart of all these concepts.
Some questions to reflect on:
Have you felt invalidated within your family environment, while growing up, or in other relationships?
How have you felt as a result of invalidation?
What memories of invalidation stand out mostly for you?
Have you invalidated others in your personal relationships?
What were the main rules about emotional expression, that you were directly and indirectly taught in your family environment?
What core beliefs have you developed about yourself, as a result of feeling invalidated?
The good news is that invalidation can be reversed- by starting to practise validation instead. Anything that we have learned, can be unlearned and replaced by a more healthy alternative.
Stay tuned for the next blog post, that will focus on exactly how to do that!
Let's close with a video from my favorite The School Of Life , that shows quite clearly what happens in a couple interaction, when the one partner stays absolutely calm, and the other exhibits more and more intense emotions. It shows how the "overreacting" partner simply wants to feel understood. Enjoy!
Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder (pp.49-59). The Guilford Press New York.