29 Apr The Power of Invalidation: 5 Things Not to Say
Validation. It says I hear you. I see you. I get it. I care about your feelings. Its importance cannot be overstated.
Validation is a critical communication tool and expression of love and acceptance in relationships. So critical in fact, that parenting experts report that it’s one of the most important things a parent can do to foster healthy psychological development in their children (Read: The Power of Validation by Karyn D. Hall, Ph.D, and Melissa H. Cook, LPC).
Conversely, invalidation is one of the most damaging forms of emotional abuse. What’s scary, it can be one of the most subtle and inadvertent abuses. Denying someone’s feelings and emotional experience can make them feel like they’re going insane! They’ll leave a conversation feeling much different than they did at the start, questioning themselves.
Some individuals very knowingly invalidate others as a form of manipulation, control, and psychological injury. Possible explanations (other than psychopathy) are a low capacity for empathy and compassion, not understanding or valuing the importance of validation, and/or not knowing how to express it effectively.
Others may invalidate unintentionally. The well-intentioned invalidators often defend that the goal is to help someone feel better or differently — to an emotion they judge as a more accurate, more valid one.
If you’re the recipient of invalidating messages, know this: YOU’RE NOT CRAZY! Your feelings are valid and real.
5 Invalidating Statements NOT to Say (to someone you want to support):
(Note: There are numerous ways to invalidate someone. Below are examples of more common invalidating statements).
- “At least it’s not…” -or- “It could be worse.”
The suffering of another can elicit strong discomfort for those who witness it. Compassionate people want to fix it or make it better. When someone cries, we offer a tissue to wipe away the tears or a tender sentiment in hopes of a smile. If those efforts don’t work, the ante is upped with stronger efforts to bring some relief. In my therapy sessions I often hear stories of how those in despair feel utterly alone and misunderstood. Take for example, a young client grieving the devastating ending of her short-lived marriage. She shared several examples of how well-meaning, sympathetic souls offered statements such as: “At least you’re young, you will re-marry.” “It could be worse, at least you didn’t have any children with him.” The attempts of solace felt as if her friends and loved ones were marginalizing her pain, regardless of the validity of those statements. It wasn’t perspective that she needed, it was empathy and understanding.
- “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
As an experiment, ask someone you know to pinch your arm. Instruct this person that no matter what you do the only response they should give you is: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Have them pinch you until it starts to hurt. Once the pain has irritated you enough, tell the person: “Ouch! That really hurts!” Await for their scripted reply. How did you feel? Did your pain dissipate after learning they were sorry you felt that way? Of course not! Telling someone “I’m sorry you feel that way” is simply a socially acceptable way of saying, “I don’t care how you feel, your reality is wrong” (or worse: your experience is stupid).
- “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
You might be thinking that the above example is very similar to #2. In some ways, yes it is, but here’s how it’s different. The message you shouldn’t feel a certain way goes beyond disregarding another’s feeling, it also communicates that a person’s emotional experience isn’t a valid one. The statement conveys contempt and superiority. What makes you think you have the authority or the ability to decide how a person should or shouldn’t feel? Only they know that! Denying a person’s perspective can — and often does — make them feel crazy, invisible and small. This example reminds me of a severely depressed adolescent patient who often complained during our sessions that her parents didn’t care about her. The examples she gave to support her belief were invalidating statements by her parents. When she was anxious about something that happened at school her parents told her that she shouldn’t let it bother her. When she was frustrated with how her parents disciplined her she was told she should get over it. After crying over a fight with a friend they suggested that she should lighten up and that her friend probably meant well. The list of examples went on and on.
- “Don’t think about it, just get on with it.”
Imagine you have spent a large amount of time training for a marathon. You’ve worked really hard to condition your body and you’re confident that you have achieved the necessary level of fitness to run in it. Just a few days before the marathon, an unfortunate accident results in a broken leg. Sadness, anger, frustration, and deflation might describe a few feelings subsequent to the situation. Assuming you’re not completely unreasonable, it’s unlikely that you will tell yourself: “Don’t think about it, just get on with it.” Your leg is broken! You can’t run a marathon with a broken leg, right?
Regarding emotions, people tell themselves and others all the time to dismiss a feeling and to just get on with it. Certainly, there are situations when we need to set our feelings aside so that we can function adaptively. I’m not writing about those situations in this example. I’m referring to the times when feelings are maladaptively encouraged to be stuffed, brushed aside, and suppressed. Paradoxically, encouraging such emotion dismissal leads to even greater psychological distress. When we trivialize, minimize or disavow feelings, we inevitably cause the emotions to grow. Believe me, these emotions will find a way to be expressed. Think aches & pains, diarrhea, panic attacks, emotional eating, drugs, alcohol, etc).
- “I’m not having this discussion!”
We’ve all been victim or the perpetrator of one of the most powerful non-verbal invalidations: The Silent Treatment. Leaving the room. Ignoring phone calls/text messages. Rolling our eyes. The urge to disallow a contrary emotional state to exist is understandable especially when we disagree with it. But we must resist this urge no matter how right we feel in the circumstance. Remember, validation does not mean we agree with another’s subjective reality. Validation is having the capacity to allow another person’s emotional state a space to exist and it can start with simply being present and listening.
How to Be Validating:
- Recognize that validating someone’s emotional experience does not necessarily convey agreement with it or that you think they’re right. You can communicate that someone’s emotion is valid without liking the emotion. *Remember an emotion is different from a behavior.
- Avoid becoming defensive or offering unsolicited advice. If you are the target of the emotion, try to accept responsibility for at least a small part of the complaint. If you have an idea on how to solve their problem, ask: “Do you want my help with this problem?” If the answer is “No,” focus on listening.
- Understanding must precede intervention. To truly listen to someone means to try to understand their position. The deeper you can understand where they’re coming from, the more validating you will be.
- Reflect the Feeling. “I can see you’re really upset.” “This must be so painful.”
- Summarize the experience. “I totally understand that you’re upset because I wasn’t on time which was rude and irresponsible.” “This must be so painful, it’s devastating to experience such a loss.”
Ready to be even better at validating others? Read this post on the different levels of validation.