Emotional invalidation occurs when our thoughts, feelings, or behaviours are either judged, dismissed, minimised, or rejected. Being told that “it could be worse”, “just let it go”, or “you shouldn’t feel that way” are all examples of emotionally invalidating statements. Invalidation can also involve non-verbal actions such as ignoring the person or playing on the phone while someone is talking. No matter how it happens, and whether it is intentional or not, anything that conveys to the person the message that their feelings and thoughts are not important, wrong, or inappropriate, is invalidating their own experience right at that moment.
Emotional invalidation can have many negative effects. It can cause the person to mistrust their own emotions and feel like there is something wrong with them, which can lead to a chronic sense of low self-worth, and feelings of shame and anger. People who experience repeated emotional invalidation from those close to them, may start seeking out care and attention from other people, or even place themselves in abusive situations, hoping that someone will accept and love them for who they are and not what others want them to be. Emotional invalidation can also be particularly damaging for emotionally sensitive people. It has been, in fact, suggested that emotionally sensitive children who grow up in an invalidating environment are at greater risk of developing mental health difficulties, including Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) – a condition associated with instability in emotions, relationships, and self-image or sense of self. In adolescents, emotional invalidation has been linked to an increased risk of self-harm.
Here are 3 tips on how to recover from emotional invalidation:
- Give yourself time to stop and think – Remember judgments are judgments, not facts, no matter who makes them. You do not have to get sucked into them (Linehan, 2015). It is, therefore, important to stop and think before you respond. Ask yourself whether it would be worthwhile to get the person to understand your feelings, particularly if they have a habit of invalidating your feelings and have not responded positively in the past when this was pointed out to them. Conversely, if you think it is worthwhile, you can respond by being direct and assertive, expressing clearly what you feel (e.g., “I feel like you’re invalidating the way I feel”) and need from them (e.g., “I just need you to listen to me right now”).
- Practice self-validation – While it is normal to want validation from others, relying on external validation to make us feel good and worthy is likely to maintain feelings of low self-worth, anxiety and depression. Instead, we can learn how to validate ourselves, so that external validation becomes an addition to it, rather than a substitute. When we validate ourselves, we notice and accept our feelings, treat ourselves with compassion, and accept our limitations. Self-validation statements you may wish to offer yourself at times of difficulty include: “It’s normal to feel this way”, “It really hurts to be invalidated”, and “This is hard. What do I need to cope with or feel better?”
- Safe and supportive environment – It can be helpful to focus on surrounding yourself with people who are kind, accepting, encouraging and validating, and share your experiences of invalidation in a supportive environment. This may or may not include people in your current social circle. Talking to a mental health professional, such as a therapist, may also offer you an opportunity to improve your coping skills and boundaries to help you manage emotional invalidation, develop self-validation, and facilitate your personal growth.
Dr. Ronald Zammit holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Southampton, has completed Master’s level psychotherapy training in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at the New Buckinghamshire University in the UK, as well as received training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). He has a special interest in mood and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related difficulties, personality disorders, and compassion-based approaches to treating difficulties related to high self-criticism and shame.
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