Emotional invalidation

Why do people invalidate?
Some stories of invalidation
Gaslighting - invalidation in the extreme
What are flying monkeys?
Trusting yourself when someone is trying to invalidate
Defending against invalidation
Chronic invalidators
References

A definition

Emotional invalidation consists of verbal and non-verbal communications intended to deny another person’s perceptions or memory with the goal of undermining the legitimacy of that person’s emotions.

OK, but what does it look like?

Here are some verbal examples of being invalidating:

What is said What is implied or suggested
You’re exaggerating you distort facts
Lighten up commanding you to feel different
I was just trying to help guilt inducing
You are not being rational question yourself
That didn't happen I know the facts, you don't
OK, but whats on TV? ignoring you, indifferent to you
well, it’s your own fault victim blaming

For an exhaustive list of emotional invalidations, go here.

Here are some non-verbal examples of being invalidating:

  • Patronizing tone or body language, usually coupled with patronizing words like "oh, is that what you think, dear?"
  • Mockery masked as false concern "it worries me that you think like that"
  • Obvious insincerity "I just want you to be happy" while the person behaves in a hurtful, harmful manner
  • False smiles that conceal judgment and at times, contempt

Why do people invalidate?

One common reason is that the invalidator is uncomfortable hearing emotional expression. To prevent this discomfort, they try to talk the other person out of their feelings. Another reason is the attempt to control another person. By making someone doubt their perceptions and feelings, they will become more dependent and easier to manipulate. Finally, some people feel very little emotion and can view the emotions of others as a bother that they would just rather not deal with.


Stories of invalidation


  • One client reported that his mother attempted to stab him with the family’s 8 inch carving knife. Years later, when he finally disclosed this event to his sister, he mistakenly referred to the knife as a butcher knife. His sister seized upon this and said "Do you see how you exaggerate? It wasn’t a butcher knife, it was a carving knife." [minimizing]
  • In another case, a client went to a therapist, detailing a long history of child abuse. The therapist responded "it couldn’t have been that bad." [question yourself]
  • In the movie "Ordinary People" the son had cut his wrists in a failed suicide attempt. The mother’s ignores the emotional pain and attempted suicide of her son and instead bemoans the fact that his blood can’t be removed from the grout in her bathroom tiles. [ignoring and indifference]

Gaslighting - invalidation in the extreme


Gaslighting (a term derived from the 1944 movie "Gaslight") is the use of invalidation with the conscious or unconscious goal of destabilizing or even inducing psychosis in another person. This is not a single incident invalidation but rather a campaign of sustained invalidation. It can be all the more effective if the invalidator finds allies (see flying monkeys section) in their invalidation.

What are flying monkeys?


In the movie "The Wizard of Oz," the wicked witch sent flying monkeys to harass Dorothy. Since then, the term "flying monkeys" was used to refer to those who are manipulated into carrying out abuse for someone with narcissistic personality disorder (Wikipedia). In terms of invalidation, a flying monkey would be someone who joins in with the original invalidator. This can be especially harmful to the person being invalidated, as the increased numbers will almost certainly create additional self doubt.

A common example of this is when one person in a family starts to recover from family dysfunction. The family members who remain in denial will feel anxiety as this member starts to point out the issues in the family. Often times, the family will invalidate the recovering member as a group (rather than begin to confront the family issues).

Trusting yourself when someone is trying to invalidate


It is important, crucial, that we trust our own perceptions. Confidence in those perceptions begin at an early age (according to Erik Erikson, by age 4). He describes this early learning experience as "autonomy vs shame and doubt." A good synopsis is here:

quote marks

Children who successfully complete this stage feel secure and confident, while those who do not are left with a sense of inadequacy and self-doubt. (Cherry, 2017)


If you find yourself frequently doubting your perceptions and emotions, you have likely already sustained injury (Krause E, Mendelson T, Lynch T, 2003),(Westphal M, Leahy R, Pala A, Wupperman P, 2016). This will make you especially vulnerable to an invalidator for two reasons. First, it means that you were likely exposed to emotional invalidation in your past. This means that the invalidation will probably be invisible to you, in the same way that white color set against a white background can be hard to see. Second, you might be inclined to agree with the invalidation because you lack of faith in your own perceptions and emotions. Think of it this way. Someone who stands solidly is hard to knock over, while someone who is already off balance is much easier to knock over. Someone with significant self doubt is already off balance.

Generally, if you were raised in a way that fosters self doubt, therapy can be an effective remedy. A qualified therapist will

  • validate you and thereby strengthen your trust in yourself
  • help you to use reality testing to prevent erosion of that trust

Defending against invalidation

Things to consider first

Before considering your response to an invalidation, you should first assess the person. Most people invalidate innocently, not knowing that their words are harmful. In this case, educating them about the harmful effects of invalidation is the best approach. But there are some people who have a motivation and this needs to be handled differently. In these circumstances, consider if you need to interact with this person. If you don’t, your best approach may be to limit or end contact. If you do, you can try some of the communications below. Important note: always prioritize your personal safety and do not use these communications if the person is volatile or potentially violent.

The "you are too sensitive" invalidation

Remember, insensitive people call others "too sensitive" because they are unaware of their own impaired sensitivity. It is the equivalent of someone with eyeglasses criticizing someone with 20/20 eyesight, saying that they "focus too hard." There are many valid responses to ward off this type of invalidation. Here are a few "you’re entitled to your opinion" or "you’re too insensitive" or "what is your expertise in this area?" or simply walking away.

The "it’s your own fault" invalidation

People blame others for their predicament for a variety of psychological reasons. Sometimes it is to judge and thus feel "better than," other times it is a way to avoid feeling any responsibility. Sometimes it is to avoid feeling appropriate anger. Let’s use an example of a family where a father used to beat his son with a belt. One brother says to another "it was your own fault, you used to talk back." By blaming his brother, he gets to avoid feeling angry at his father (with whom he wishes to maintain a relationship).
Rebuttals can be "I am not to blame when other people act badly" or "what qualifies you to make that judgment?" "why are you defending bad behavior?" or again, just walking away.

The "I was just trying to help" invalidation

When someone invalidates and it is pointed out, sometimes they will try to invalidate the reaction. For example, someone broke their arm and someone chimes in "well, it could have been worse. You could have broken both arms." When confronted with the unhelpful nature of their remark, they reply "I was just trying to help." Some responses might be "It would be more helpful if you showed sympathy for the arm that I did break" or "I'm sure you were but that is not helpful."

Chronic invalidators

If you have a relationship with someone who invalidates habitually, it may be sign of deeper issues, such as narcissism. If you tried the approaches above and the issue persists, you should consider consulting with a therapist about the signs and symptoms of narcissism.

References

  • Cherry, Kendra (2017, Oct 7). Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt: Psychosocial Stage 2. Retrieved Oct 7, 2017 from https://www.verywell.com/autonomy-versus-shame-and-doubt-2795733
  • Flying Monkeys. In Wikipedia[Web]. Retrieved Oct 7, 2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_monkeys_(psychology)
  • Krause E, Mendelson T, Lynch T (2003). Childhood emotional invalidation and adult psychological distress: the mediating role of emotional inhibition. Child Abuse and Neglect 27(2) pp. 199-213.
  • Westphal M, Leahy R, Pala A, Wupperman P (2016). Self-compassion and emotional invalidation mediate the effects of parental indifference on psychopathology. Psychiatry Research. 242(30) pp. 186-191