How to Handle Invalidation

Validation communicates that a person’s beliefs, feelings, and/or actions make sense.  It is vital in safe relationships because it helps us feel respected and heard.  Having someone express that feelings make sense brings immense feelings of relief, melts away defensiveness, and boosts effectiveness.  On the flip side, being invalidated leads to strong feelings of anger and shame, questioning feelings/perceptions/actions/beliefs/self, and sometimes withdrawing to protect from future invalidation.  Consider if you would make a second appointment with this therapist! 

 

Invalidation: What is it?

Invalidation occurs when someone receives the message that their way of being does not fit or make sense.  For example, I am frequently anxious and work hard to use skills to manage my anxiety.  Someone telling me to “calm down” minimizes how distressed I am and how hard it is for me to calm down.  If it were that easy, I would have done it already! This is invalidation.

In true dialectical fashion, Dr. Marsha Linehan, the creator of DBT, describes how invalidation can be helpful.  At first, I balked at the idea of invalidation being useful in any way because I know how painful it can be.  And yet, as I read and considered what she said, I came to agree with her.

 

Invalidation can be helpful when: 
  • It corrects critical mistakes such as when our facts are wrong.  For example, if I’m crying because I incorrectly believe I failed a test, telling me I actually passed the test would be invalidating that belief AND very helpful.
  • It helps us grow by listening to others’ perspectives.  For example, imagine my great-aunt Sally and I respectfully disagree about a hot button topic over Thanksgiving dinner and she says, “Samantha, I love you, and I don’t agree with you.” Because of the mutual respect, having that conversation in which she is invalidating my belief allows me to hold space for her perspective and deepen my understanding of the topic. 

 

Corrosive Invalidation

Invalidation can really hurt! Among other things, corrosive invalidation can include:

  • Being ignored- “That isn’t a big deal.”
  • Not being understood- “I don’t get why this is so hard.”
  • Being misinterpreted- “You’re just doing this to get attention.”
  • Having current facts ignored or denied- “That never happened.”
  • Receiving unfair treatment- “Life is unfair, get used to it.”

Being exposed to invalidation over long periods of time can lead people to believe that they are unimportant, unable to communicate their emotions, and/or accurately determine how they are feeling.  

 

Traumatic Invalidation

At times, invalidation goes beyond corrosive and becomes traumatic invalidation.  Traumatic invalidation is extreme and/or chronic rejection of a person’s experiences or identity.  Some examples of traumatic invalidation are being repeatedly told that your memories are incorrect, having someone deny a traumatic experience, or being rejected by family, friends, or church.  Sometimes, our culture can be a traumatically invalidating environment.  This is especially true for people who experience stigma and have one or more marginalized identities.  

 

How to Manage Invalidation

Everyone experiences invalidation at some point in their lives.  In no particular order, here are ways to manage and recover from invalidation:

  • Check the facts
    • This is extremely important! You have the ability to determine if your behavior fits the facts, even when people are invalidating! Figuring out what the facts say and validating the valid (possibly with a trusted individual) will allow you to avoid self-invalidating.  
  • Recognize and change any invalid response
    • If you did something that was ineffective or inaccurate, admit it and change that behavior. 
  • Avoid judgmental statements
    • Everyone makes mistakes.  There are valid reasons for ineffective behavior and criticizing yourself only makes things worse.
  • Be compassionate towards yourself
    • Being invalidated hurts!  Allowing yourself to be hurt and providing comfort (possibly through self-soothing skill) will allow you to recover more quickly and reduce self-invalidation.
  • Validate yourself
    • Regardless of how effective your behavior was, find a way to validate the reason you acted in that way.
  • Reach out for support
    • mindfully and nonjudgmentally describing what happened in a supportive environment will help reduce your experience of shame and foster validation and connection.

 

Doing any and all of these will help reduce the painful sting of invalidation.  Because everyone experiences invalidation, practicing these skills can help you face adversity and build confidence in who you are and what you stand for.

About the Author

Samantha Mathews, PsyD (she/her) is a licensed psychologist who specializes in dialectical behavior therapy.  Samantha works with her clients to develop close relationships with themselves and others.  Samantha believes compassionately connecting with emotions is central to building a life worth living.  Click here to learn more about Samantha’s experience and therapeutic style.