What is invalidation and how does it affect your thoughts about yourself?

Jason Brien.

     Invalidation occurs when someone, either intentionally or unintentionally, dismisses, rejects or minimizes our thoughts and feelings. Invalidation implies that our subjective experience is somehow wrong, unimportant or unacceptable. Let’s say that we fall over and hurt ourselves. When we fall, we feel an intense pain in our leg which causes us to start crying. Someone then says to us… “What are you crying for. That didn’t even hurt”. This is invalidation. The invalidating person is robbing us of our emotional experience and making us question whether what we felt along with how we responded was appropriate or not. Invalidation robs us of our authenticity. It robs us of our true selves and can force us to present a false self in its place purely to appease others. The false self in this example would be to “act tough” when we fall over and to ensure that we suppress our natural response to cry.

     Another example of invalidation might be… You are five years old and your family is asking for ideas for where to go for an activity on the weekend. You speak aloud and say “I was thinking that we could go to the museum”. Your parents reply “What’s wrong with you? Are you stupid or something? Do you think we are made of money? If you have nothing useful to say then say nothing at all”. You had a genuine thought and you had the desire to express that thought. As a five-year-old are you meant to fully understand your parents’ financial status? Do you really understand the concept of money and how much certain things cost? Of course not. However, as a result of your parents’ invalidation you have learnt three things, first your thought was ‘wrong’. Second you shouldn’t have expressed your thought aloud and third you are now ‘stupid’ for having done so. Like everything in life, invalidation has two sides – healthy and unhealthy.

What is unhealthy invalidation?

     The two previous examples were examples of unhealthy invalidation. Unhealthy invalidation is often used by innocent people who don’t know better and by manipulators and abusers who lack empathy or have a desire to control others. Unhealthy invalidation can cause crippling self-doubt with chronic invalidation eventually leading to significant mental stress and distress along with a range of other factors such as the drug and alcohol use, severe insecurity, low self-esteem and self-worth, depression, self-harm and suicide. Chronic invalidation in childhood can lead to the development of personality disorders such as Borderline Personality disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Chronic invalidation occurs when a person’s thoughts and feelings are continually invalidated on a very regular basis.

What is healthy invalidation?

     Healthy invalidation is used by mental health professionals and it is used to help challenge clients to change and grow. The core assumption underlying Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is based on the theory that a presenting client’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours are ‘wrong’, ‘inappropriate’ and ‘no longer necessary’. The role of the CBT therapist is to intentionally invalidate the clients’ thoughts, feelings or behaviours if those thoughts, feelings and behaviours are causing the client stress and distress or cause social, familial and occupational dysfunction.

     For example… A client presents to their therapist and says “last night my friend was meant to call me and they didn’t. It made me extremely angry and upset and I just kept thinking that my friend must hate me. To numb the pain and the thoughts I drank two bottles of wine and passed out”. The therapist at this point would identify to the client how their feelings (extreme anger and upset), their thoughts (my friend hates me) and their behaviours (drinking two bottles of wine) are ‘inappropriate responses given the situation’. In essence the therapist is invalidating the clients ‘natural responses to their perceived situation’.

     The CBT therapist would then assist their client to develop more appropriate coping mechanisms. CBT’s use of healthy invalidation is not as effective for people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) who were raised in extremely invalidating environments and who are now super hypersensitive to invalidation. This is why Dialectical Behaviour Therapy was designed to better treat people diagnosed with BPD.

How can I protect myself from unhealthy invalidation?

Educate yourself: Learning more about invalidation will help you to better recognise when it occurs. The more that you can identify times when you have been invalidated, either in the present moment or in the past, the more you will be able to work on healing from the invalidation.

Develop strong internal and external boundaries: Internal boundaries act as security guards to our minds. They assess what we internalize from the outside world. If we freely allow everything from the outside world to enter our minds, we quickly lose sight of our true selves. External boundaries are the assertive actions we take against others to prevent them from hurting our emotional, physical, mental and spiritual/religious health. 

Examples are… Assertive communication, limited contact and no contact.

Improve your self-worth and self-esteem: The more you love, appreciate and value yourself, the less bothered and hurt you will be when people do invalidate you.

How can I make sure that I am not invalidating other people?

Again, educate yourself about invalidation: The more you learn about invalidation the more you will begin to recognise when you and others use it.

Be willing to apologise: Nobody is perfect and there will always be times when you mistakenly invalidate someone. Our mistakes give us a chance to demonstrate our ability to admit when we are wrong and demonstrate that we have empathy and understanding by apologising.

Learn assertive communication: You are less likely to invalidate yourself or others if you learn the art of assertiveness. With passive communication you are invalidating yourself and aggressive communication invalidates others.