It is generally recognized that validation is a good thing to have, and we each look for validation within our families, in our wider relations and in our working lives. For those of us in happy circumstances, validation is openly given and received; it is a fellowship of belonging and is highly valued by those who receive it and those who give it. Sadly, many of us live, or have lived, in circumstances which are not like this.
In the famous novel by Charles Dickens, Great Expectations,the character of Miss Haversham lives with an emotional pain which has overcome her. She was jilted at the altar, and her life seems to have ended on that day. Her home reflects this, with everything left exactly as it was on the fateful wedding day--the wedding table covered in cobwebs, the guests chairs empty.
Miss Haversham also is guardian to a beautiful young child, Estella. In her bitterness Miss Haversham sets about ruining Estellas young life, feeding her own sadness into the child as she grows. Estella is brought up to be a beautiful 'ice maiden' with the purpose, for her embittered guardian, of extracting revenge upon men as a whole. Miss Haversham has been invalidated by her own experience of rejection, and in turn she invalidates the innocent child in her care. For Miss Haversham, Estella exists only as a tool for an agenda of revenge; Estella does not have a place in her guardians heart.
Some of us know about this kind of situation through our own experiences, and we should not be afraid to look at it. Estella is in no way to blame for her guardians emotional state.
The behavior of invalidating parents stems from their own issues, but of course a child will not know this. A child is never to blame for parental manipulation.
In Dickens' story, Estella plays out Miss Haversham's agenda, in a painful acquaintance with the young boy Pip. But Dickens shows us nothing of Estellas personality in these exchanges. Miss Haversham only wants to see the game being played, to see Pip being tantalized and tormented, just as she torments herself by clinging to the pain of her own rejection at the altar. Estella is no more to her than a piece in a game of chess, as all Miss Haversham's attention is focused on Pip's suffering.
Children of invalidating parents find it extremely difficult to gain a sense of self. Our selfhood needs to be validated in our formative years. Estella is, in a very clear sense, a nobody. She does not know herself, her own ideas, her own desires--all this has been crushed at the hands of a bitter, invalidating guardian. We never get to know what Estella wants.
To change this dynamic, an invalidating parent needs to make radical changes in his or her own psychology, something which rarely happens. He or she would need to put their own agenda to one side completely, to look at the child as a separate entity from him- or herself, to listen to the child's needs, to support the child in moving away from them into the world. How is a damaged psychology (which the invalidator surely is) going to achieve this huge task? I believe that we can't expect it.
In Dickens' novel, Miss Haversham never changes. In the last pages we see Estella again. She meets Pip, and she is described as being different in appearance, the beauty lost. However, Dickens leaves us with some hope; Estella says to Pip, "I have changed." The ending is ambivalent, but not tragic. They part, but as friends. Estella has changed, and the victims of invalidating parents can change.
Alex Williams (aka Myzen) has a BA Hons in Philosophy and an Mphil in Moral Philosophy. He is an early retired teacher living in the UK, and writes regularly for an online philosophy journal.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 2 Nov 2005
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