“I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show and they had one thing in common: they all wanted validation” – Oprah
So what exactly is invalidation, and why is it so important? Marsha Linehan, Phd., founder of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, defines invalidation as trivializing, punishing, judging, or ignoring a person’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and identity (Linehan, 1997). In order to understand the importance of this concept it helps to know how its definition in the field of psychology is unique. A quick review of Merriam Webster’s online dictionary yields the following definition:
Invalid: “being without foundation or force in fact, truth, or law…logically inconsequent.” (invalid, n.d.)
In laymen terms, when we call something valid, we are pointing out its logical and factually-based nature (invalid, n.d.). In contrast, when used in the field of psychology, validation means acknowledging and accepting another someone’s thoughts and feelings. It is a way of communicating to someone else that you understand them, it’s okay to feel the way they do, and you respect their viewpoint. While this may seem fairly straightforward, it is often easily overlooked. Especially, for those who have never experienced it before. In fact, attempting to explain this issue as a critical need in past relationships, has been a source of great frustration. Before discussing this concept further, I’d like to delve into the nature of emotions a bit…
What Are Emotions?
Emotions are mental states, experienced as physical sensations in response to our perceptions. These perceptions are byproducts of the brain’s ongoing mental efforts to interpret sensory information. It is through this ongoing effort that a mind-body connection is created. Our body responds to the quality of our thoughts by producing symptoms that provide feedback on the nature of these thoughts. In this respect, emotions are signals from the body that tell us how it is affected by our thought processes. Beliefs and past experiences play an interesting role here, by instilling emotional schemas: internal templates for how we regulate and respond to emotional experiences. For example, a parent’s emotional philosophy determines how they handle their child’s expression of feeling. This in turn has a tremendous long-term impact on a child’s overall emotional intelligence.
“Some parents view the child’s experience and expression of emotions…as an event that must be avoided…[others see] these ‘unpleasant events’ as an opportunity for intimacy and support” (Gilbert, 2005, p185).
Consequences of Invalidation
Problematic emotional schemas develop as a result of chronic invalidation in childhood. A belief that one’s feelings are incomprehensible and flawed produce an array of negative responses to an initial feeling including shame, avoidance, and rumination. In his book Compassion, Gilbert (2005) describes an emotionally feral child in the following quote:
“Let us imagine the following: a child grows up and never experienced any validation of thoughts or feelings. He is an emotionally feral child, but lives within a community of other people who ignore validation. His parents have a radical behaviorist approach…adhering to the strictly behavioral position that emotions and cognitions are meaningless constructs” (Gilbert, 2005, page 199).
The long-term consequences of emotional invalidation like this are a pervasive distrust of your emotions, thoughts, and belief that you are inherently flawed. From within this preconceived vantage point, it is nearly impossible to develop any sense of personal agency or worth. The predefined lens through which you enter adulthood is shame and self-invalidation. A quick preventative remedy to this is validation: experienced as an acceptance of one’s feelings that excludes attempts to change them. This response allows you to openly share what you feel and facilitates emotional regulation. When you communicate that someone’s emotions make sense in light of their own life situation, you respect the legitimacy of their perspective. On the basis of this shared understanding, emotions can be processed.
According to R.D. Laing, “When we invalidate or deny people’s experiences, or how they see things, we make mental invalids out of them.” (Steiner, 2003, pxxvi)
Self-invalidation – reliving others’ worst opinions of you…
The consequences of receiving very little validation in childhood are a pervasive distrust of your own emotions and belief that you are inherently flawed. From this vantage point, self-worth is an impossibility. Instead, life is viewed through a lens of self-invalidation and feelings of shame: “an intensely painful feeling that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of accepting and belonging” (Brown, 2006, p45). It’s taken me a while to overcome this issue. Until I acknowledged my own shame-based orientation, it ran my life like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’m ashamed to admit that this tarnished self-image has haunted me well into adulthood. It wasn’t until I entered counseling in my late thirties that I began to understand why I felt like a “walking sh*t magnet”. The seeds of my own destruction came as I decided to put too much stock in others opinions. With no sense if inherent value in my being, the only feelings of worth I experienced were based on the scraps of approval I garnered from others. This measuring stick of self-worth became a conglomeration of any negative messages my childhood bullies beat into me. I failed to measure up, and I had to pay.
As a bullied child I had few, if any, friends. I was the girl with cooties that nobody wanted to sit next to. I struggled to understand why I was unworthy. Why did my sister have such an easy time making friends? Was she really better? Watching her enjoy the acceptance and belonging I desired, made my loneliness unbearable. I spent middle school and high school alone, depressed, and suicidal. I walked thru life with a deep well of pain and anger. At times, it was almost enough to make me go postal…That is, until I came to understand that the only acceptable person to take these feelings out on was myself. I consider myself very lucky to have survived this.
My family, in the meantime, was blissfully ignorant of my struggles and unknowingly contributed to matters. As an INFP, Myers Briggs type, I was always very sensitive and lived in my own rich and imaginative inner world. My parents had a hard time understanding me. As college professors, they lead with their intellect. The Jungian thinking function defined our home and objective pragmatism was preferred over the chaotic nonsense brought about by emotions.
You see, as fate would have it, my ESTJ mother also grew up in the Philippines. The cultural, temperamental, and generational gaps produced by this, left an ongoing miscommunication that took a while to resolve itself. We couldn’t effectively express what needed to be said or hear what the other was telling us. My father, the INTP, was immersed in his latest intellectual pursuit. Preferring to let my mother be the “bad guy”, he adopted a laid back and hands-off approach. Aware of his inability to handle my problems, I kept them to myself. I hated to cause distress.
looking beyond self-invalidation
When I reflect on these memories as a mother, I have an appreciation for the my parents’ humanity. You see, children do not come with instruction manuals and we are left to make things up as we go along. Your imperfections and shortcomings end up spilling into all efforts to raise your kids. There’s definitely a grain of truth to the notion that we give to others on the basis of who we are.
Through the eyes of 20/20 hindsight I have gained some perspective on these childhood experiences. When I recall all the significant individuals throughout my life, multiple perspectives from which I am able to view myself, unfold. Each is a window into others’ interpretations of “me” and contains a unique set of divergent distortions….liked an “f’d up hall of mirrors…
I’ve since learned to recognize this self-invalidation as a tendency to hold myself up to a measuring stick of preconceived worth. This self-judgment has been a sadomasochistic form of control. Underlying this judgmentality, is a desire transform myself into what I believe “good enough” means.
Turning things around…
As a self-help junkie, this information has been lurking in my mind for quite some time. When I decided to start a blog, I ran across a few old journal pages on this subject matter. My thinking at the time was: what am I doing now to invalidate myself and how can I stop? What follows is a expounded version of these journal pages with insights on how to stop invalidating yourself.
Step one – Pay attention to how often you judge yourself & the quality of your own self-talk
“Validation – finding the truth in what we think and feel – stands as the fulcrum between empathy…and compassion…Finding the ‘truth’ even if the truth is in a distorted thought….allows us to bear ‘witness’ to the fact that the other person’s suffering means something to us.” (Leahy, 2005)
All too often, I find myself running on mental auto-pilot. I focus on the tasks of the day and all the responsibilities I am left to juggle. The first step to cutting this bad habit of shame-addiction was to pay attention to my own self-talk and the sorts of things I’d say to myself. I decided to record videos of myself just before a nap like a mini-confessional/brain dump. I thought it would be best to do so after a long night shift when the kids are at school and I would be alone to record my thoughts. Any ability to edit my thoughts would also be worn down.
What I discovered was my self-talk is laden with negative messages from an array of sources that are largely untrue based on the current state of affairs in my life. It appears my mind has chosen to fill itself with negative self-talk, set at auto rewind.
Step two: Seeking the grain of truth & your distortions of them.
After several weeks, when the fog of exhaustion had dissipated, I decided to watch these videos. I then asked myself the following questions: (1) What sort of shame-based messages are contained in your self talk? (2) Are these judgments based on a desire to win or gain approval? (3) Where is the grain of truth and how are you distorting it?
After taking time to reflect upon these questions I came upon the realization that I had a real “hot-air [problem]” (Wiley, 2003, p507). I allowed valuable self-knowledge to fall to the way-side as I made others’ opinions a priority. In reality, my problem wasn’t what I saw about myself, but how I was choosing to view myself. This perpetual stuck-ness was a byproduct of a new kind of rose-colored lenses with huge sh*t stains on them. A parting question to chew over as you consider these thoughts: “who has the right to tell you who you are supposed to feel about yourself?”
Step three: Create a new truth.
As I stop and reflect upon the insights from this exercise, I find the experience to be reminiscent of the Hans Christian Andersen’s fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The truth of who I am, has been foresaken for a lifetime of shame-inducing messages based on complete bullsh*t. What I love about this fable is it effectively showcases the notion of pluralistic ignorance. Everybody assumes the group is correct in failing to recognize the king is naked. Nobody wants to be the first to point this fact out and be the oddball out. Therefore, everyone pretends not to notice. As a result, in the context of the social situation at hand, truth becomes bullsh*t and bullsh*t becomes truth. As that boy who yells to the king: “put some f*cking clothes on you retard!”, this is a truly crazy-making experience.
A big lesson I learned learned the hard way, pertains to how one might begin wading through all this perceptual baggage:
You can change an opinion with the mind but facts exist independent of what your thoughts are on the matter.
In other words, truths and facts must be sifted through and put into proper perspective. Facts require radical acceptance, since to ignore them is willful ignorance. The serenity prayer is very pertinent here. In contrast, for an opinion to hold truth it must first be believed in. They exist in the realm subjectivity and reflect the meanings we imbue our experiences with. An opinion without basis in fact is bullsh*t. What’s truly pathetic is I chose baseless opinions over undeniable fact as key reference point in the building of my self-esteem. It’s like my husband recently noted: “if self-esteem is a ‘self’ issue why do we blame others for it?” My bullies have called me mean names but I believed them. The same goes for a severely dysfunctional relationship in college. He did what he did, but I stayed and put up with it.