“You’re always upset about something, try being happy for a change.”
These statements are examples of invalidation. Dr. Marsha Linehan, the developer of DBT, broke invalidation down into two characteristics:
1. Telling a person they are wrong in how they describe their emotions and their understanding of their emotions, especially if they are trying to explain what causes their emotions
Example: “You’re not really scared of flying, you’re just trying to get out spending time with family.
2.Blames a person’s emotions on socially unacceptable characteristics or traits
Example: “You’d be so much happier if you stopped complaining so much.”
When a person is repeatedly exposed to an invalidating environment, their relationship with their emotions is disrupted. Imagine if someone kept telling you that your voice was annoying. You might not find it annoying but being repeatedly told that you sound like a peacock choking on a frog would eventually lead you to question how well you can judge how annoying your voice is. In terms of emotions, if an environment consistently teaches a person their understanding of their emotions is wrong, that person won’t learn to trust their own emotional experience and will question if they really are sad, angry, or scared. Often, those emotions are invalidated as “being too emotional” or “being crazy.” Self-invalidation carries the caustic words from the invalidating environment wherever the person goes, creating an internal bully who knows all the right buttons to push.
As a person with ADHD, I have experienced invalidation because of my neurodiversity. I remember an instance of self-invalidation when I needed to write a paper. Of course, I procrastinated until the last minute and became so overwhelmed that I was ready to give up. “There’s no way I can do this!” I thought, “I can’t focus, I’m so anxious and can’t think straight! Why am I so lazy?! I’m such a bad student!” I wish I had learned DBT skills to manage invalidation because I would be able to recognize that calling myself “lazy” was extremely invalidating and didn’t help me write my paper! If I check the facts, having ADHD means that my brain does not manage time well, so it makes sense that I would procrastinate. That being said, I was not effective when I kept avoiding this paper. Accepting my ADHD AND finding ways to effectively manage it would be much more useful than calling myself lazy! Ditching the judgmental statements and finding compassion for myself allowed me to recognize how ADHD can be a major pain sometimes and that I should do something to manage it better. I don’t remember how the paper turned out, but I definitely know that learning how to recover from invalidation has been an extremely useful skill that I have continued to practice.
So what do you do when you invalidate yourself?
First, good job identifying that you’re being self-invalidating! That’s a huge step!
Second, find a way to mindfully describe what’s happening. For example, I wasn’t being “lazy” or a “bad” student when I procrastinated on my paper. Replacing those words with nonjudgmental descriptions can ease the sting of self-invalidation and lead to problem solving. Rather than “lazy” or “bad,” I would describe my behavior as “expected for someone with ADHD” and “ineffective for reducing my stress.”
Third, if those self-invalidating thoughts are sticking around, consider conducting an experiment! Track how your activity changes when you have self-invalidating thoughts to see how it impacts your behavior. THEN! Try validating your thoughts and feelings to see how your behavior is impacted.
Facing the long-standing and painful impact of our upbringing can be extremely difficult, and yet finding the capacity to counter invalidating thoughts can lead to greater peace and connection.
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.