You are having an emotional moment. Your best friend is with you and, in response to your feelings, says one of these things:
“Don’t be so dramatic.”
“Deal with it.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“But it doesn’t make any sense to feel that way.”
“Why are you making such a big deal over it?”
“You shouldn’t let it bother you.”
If you have led a normal life, this has happened to you thousands of times. You have been emotionally invalidated. It happens all of the time to everyone. It is, in my subjective opinion, one of the root causes of relationship conflicts, trauma-induced mental illness and violence.
Emotional invalidation occurs whenever:
- We are told we shouldn’t feel the way we feel.
- We are dictated not to feel the way we feel.
- We are told we are too sensitive, too “dramatic,” or we are “high maintenance.”
- We are ignored.
- We are judged.
- We are led to believe there is something wrong with us for feeling how we feel.
In essence, those who think they are trying to help us are actually causing us deep psychic damage.
As human beings, we are 98% emotional and 2% rational. Every decision, every behavior and every motivation we experience is driven by our emotions. And yet, our culture says that raw emotions are bad. Worse, if we are in a deeply emotional experience, we are called irrational, crazy, menstrual, bitchy and worse. The effect is to deny us that which makes us human.
Emotional invalidation is everywhere. Once you become aware of it, you will see it between parents and even very small children, between friends, at the dinner table, at parties and at work. If you watch closely, you will see the person being invalidated flinch, withdraw, or become defensive. It is not pleasant. It is abusive, and it occurs outside of most people’s consciousness. Most individuals don’t know that they are causing harm.
Consider this exchange as a common example. A 3-year old boy is crying because he skinned his elbow falling off his tricycle. Dad says sternly, “Hey, be a man. Stop crying and don’t be a sissy!” What is the lesson to the 3-year old? First, emotions are bad. Second, if he has emotions, he has to stuff them if he wants to be loved. Third, if he wants to be tough and strong like Dad, he can’t allow himself to feel anything.
Fast-forward 14 years. Assuming the lesson has been repeated over and over, what kind of relationship training does that young man have for dealing with emotionality of his first relationships with a girl None, of course. He will feel emotions, be afraid of them, and repress them. The girl that was interested in him will find him cold, aloof and emotionally unavailable. End of relationship. This pattern repeats itself in adulthood, leading to Dad, the three-year-old 20 years ago, now telling his boy to man up and stop being a sissy.
I’ve been focusing on men. The same is true for women. Everyone is emotionally abused this way. The good news is that you can stop the cycle. Here’s how:
Step One: Learn to recognize emotional invalidation in all of its insidious forms. Any time someone around you is emotional, watch the reactions and responses of others. Any response that diminishes, puts people down, is judgmental, gives unwanted advice, tells people how to feel or not to feel, or passes off the situation with a trivializing cliché is engaging in emotional invalidation.
Step Two: Watch your own responses when you are around emotional people. Do you become anxious? Are you uncomfortable? Nervous? These are normal reactions to strong emotions so don’t deny them.
Step Three: Accept your own anxieties as natural and normal.
Step Four: Resist soothing yourself by emotionally invalidating others.
Step Five: Learn how to listen and affirm the emotional experiences of others. This is the single most powerful skill you can develop.
As you break the cycle of emotional invalidation, you will find that you will be more self-aware, less critical and more compassionate. These are good things that will change your life in many, many positive ways.
Photo credit: iStock