The concept of validation and the dangers of an “invalidating environment” are things that pop up in mental health treatment over and over. From what I’ve picked up over about four years of therapy, being invalidated is really bad for your mental health. In fact, in DBT the theory is that a predisposition to mental illness requires an invalidating environment to development into a full-fledged problem. Invalidation in that framework is actually one of the precipitating causes for mental illness.
What is so negative about invalidation? Invalidation tells you that your emotions are wrong or fake, and thus undermines your identity and your confidence. It can lead you to distrust your emotions, feel ashamed or guilty, or even begin to think that you’re not in touch with reality. It asks you to ignore the very real messages your emotions send you, and tells you that your emotions are inappropriate. Unfortunately, emotions are always real and valid: the actions they cause may not be. The emotion may not fit the facts appropriately, but it is always real.
In my personal life, I have always found this a bit confusing. I haven’t seen my life as something that involves a great deal of invalidation. My parents never told me my feelings were wrong, my teachers have generally been intensely supportive of me, and I’ve had some fairly fantastic friends. There have been a few negative relationships in my life where I was told repeatedly that I had no right to feel the way I did, but overall other people have just let me feel how I feel. So how was it that I had ended up with mental illness without any invalidation at all? How did this apply to me?
I have recently come to realize that there are some incredibly insidious ways of invalidating another person that don’t look like invalidation right off the bat.
Imagine this: you are having the worst day of your life. Your depression is on high, your anxiety is through the roof, and you’re panicking every other minute. You feel overwhelmed, you feel sad, you feel lonely. You just want someone to give you a hug or listen for a minute, someone to tell you that you aren’t losing it completely. You’re sitting at school, and friends and acquaintances walk past. Some of them glance at you and smile, but keep walking. Some pay you no attention. No one notices that you look like you’re on the verge of tears, or if they do they say nothing. You begin to wonder if you really are crazy, if everything is just fine. Finally, someone stops and says hi, and you bravely smile back at them. You have a pleasant, brief conversation. Nothing of importance is said. They mention that a class is stressful and you agree that you’re really stressed out right now. They brush over what you said and say they have to run to class. Nothing has been said of the dark circles under your eyes or the fact that you can’t quite get your mouth to turn up properly. Now you’re convinced that you’re crazy. Your emotions can’t be right or real if no one else even notices them.
This is its own kind of invalidation. When people simply ignore your problems, they by default tell you that what you’re feeling isn’t real: it seems as if you’re hallucinating whatever is wrong because no one else will react to it, or even react to your reaction. It’s confusing. It leaves you less and less certain that you can even mention your problems, more trapped inside your own mind. There’s a reason that giving someone the silent treatment is considered mean.
Another example of this is one that happens with kids all the time. One technique that parents use fairly often if their kids are throwing a temper tantrum is to ignore them. When kids throw a tantrum what they’re looking for is attention, so don’t reward the negative behavior, right? Well this method works up to a point. It works to get the child to calm down. What it doesn’t do is then tell the child that their desire for attention is real and important, or that whatever was bothering them deserves attention and care. This kind of method for child-rearing may not seem invalidating, but it tells a child that even if they are bawling, their emotions aren’t worth anyone’s time. It’s important if we don’t want to reward someone’s negative attention seeking behaviors that we find a way to go back and invalidate their feelings, talk it out, or recognize their feelings. This can happen after the fact.
Being silent to someone who is in pain or who has strong emotions of any kind is really the fastest way to tell them that what they’re feeling or doing is wrong. Imagine when you’re extremely excited about something and you bounce up to a friend, eager to tell them all about it and they just stare at you. Nothing bursts your bubble faster.
It’s a terrifying and horrible feeling when you’re invalidated in that way, but it is understandable why many of us ignore others’ problems. It’s overwhelming and tiring to always be checking in with people, and listening to everyone. Unfortunately, this is part of being a friend or family member: you should be willing to validate the people you care about and you should expect validation in return. We rarely hear about ways to potentially prevent mental illness, but if all of us spends more time listening and validating the emotions of those around us, we could really do some good in the world.