Traumatic invalidation can damage your self-worth and mental health. Healing is possible through therapy and support.
It feels good to receive validation from those around us. This is when others recognize and affirm our feelings, experiences, and perceptions.
On the other hand, it can hurt when you express your feelings only to be ignored or told that you’re overexaggerating or lying. When you’re invalidated by those around you, it can damage your self-worth and affect your mental health.
Traumatic invalidation is when you’re intensely or constantly invalidated by those around you. This can happen when your feelings, experiences, and memories are dismissed or treated as unacceptable. Invalidation may be intentional or not, but either way, it can cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress when it’s severe and repeated.
Although traumatic invalidation is often associated with childhood, adults can also experience it.
Trauma is an emotional or physical response to one or more harmful or life threatening events or circumstances with lasting adverse effects on your mental and physical well-being, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA). Trauma can include abuse, neglect, and accidents.
Invalidation can be traumatic when it is severe, long lasting, and negatively affects your understanding of yourself and the world. If you are frequently told your feelings or experiences are unreasonable, you may be unable to accept your own emotional experiences. This can leave you feeling perpetually insecure.
Examples of traumatic invalidation include:
- emotional abuse
- verbal abuse
- being blamed when telling someone about a traumatic event or betrayal you experienced
Although this invalidation can come from anywhere, it can be especially hurtful from people who are close to you or those in positions of power over you.
Traumatic invalidation in childhood can arise from many situations, including:
- A child tells their teacher that someone hurt or abused them. The teacher invalidates the child’s experience by saying they’re lying.
- A child tells their parents that they’re sick. Their parents accuse them of faking or exaggerating.
- A child cries or tells their family they feel sad. Family members dismiss it as “hormonal mood swings,” or punish them by saying “I’ll give you something to cry about.”
- A person comes out to their parents as gay, trans, or queer. Their parents ignore them or say they’re just going through a phase.
Examples of traumatic invalidation in adulthood include:
- A Person of Color person reports that their co-worker often makes racist comments toward them. Their colleagues and boss invalidate them by saying they’re misinterpreting or exaggerating the comments.
- A man reports that he has been physically abused by his girlfriend. The police refuse to help him and say that his experience isn’t really domestic violence.
- A woman comes out as transgender and explains that she uses she/her pronouns. Those around her ignore this and misgender her, using the incorrect pronouns or deadname.
- A person with chronic pain seeks medical help. Doctors are dismissive and accuse them of making up or exaggerating their symptoms.
Traumatic invalidation can be harmful in many ways. For one, it can teach someone to ignore or downplay their feelings or memories. They may come to believe that their feelings shouldn’t be trusted.
When experiences of hurt and abuse are invalidated, they may believe that they shouldn’t speak up when others harm them.
Feelings of invalidation can often be traced back to childhood experiences. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, those around us might make us feel like our emotions, experiences, and memories are invalid. Feelings of invalidation can also originate from experiences you had as an adult.
Discrimination can play a role in who is invalidated and why. People with a marginalized race, ethnicity, disability status, sexuality, or gender identity commonly experience discrimination. People’s experiences with prejudice are often downplayed or dismissed, and their identities invalidated.
A 2021 scholarly article noted that LGBT+ people are at risk for increased traumatic invalidation, which could partly explain why they’re more likely to experience poor mental health outcomes. This traumatic invalidation can include having one’s identity dismissed, ignored, or questioned.
Communities that experience racism or discrimination based on their sexual or gender identity are also more likely to experience other forms of trauma.
Invalidation can have numerous harmful effects on your mental health. Traumatic invalidation is linked to mental health conditions, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Research has linked parental invalidation to BPD. For example:
- A 2021 literature review found that being invalidated by your parents increases your likelihood of developing BPD.
- A 2018 study suggested that parental invalidation increases the likelihood of self-harm in teenagers.
A 2020 study looked at children who have been exposed to intimate partner violence. It found that children who had their experiences invalidated were more likely to experience PTSD and depressive symptoms.
And a small interview-based 2019 study looked at the effects of traumatic invalidation on nonbinary teenagers. It found that the invalidation of their identity led to confusion, self-doubt, and shame, often resulting in poor mental health outcomes.
Invalidation can also affect your physical health. A 2019 study found that people with chronic pain often experienced traumatic invalidation by others who disbelieve their symptoms. This could worsen symptoms and make it less likely for them to seek necessary medical help.
Being invalidated isn’t your fault. Although you did nothing to deserve it, there are things you can do to help yourself recover from the trauma of invalidation. Healing is possible.
This can include therapy, which is an effective way to learn to cope in the aftermath of trauma. Many different types of therapy can be used to address trauma, including:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- prolonged exposure (PE) therapy
- trauma-focused CBT (TF-CBT) for children
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy
- psychodynamic therapy
- somatic experiencing (SE)
In addition to therapy, you may want to consider the following:
- joining support groups that are relevant to your experience
- setting boundaries with people who invalidate or downplay your experiences
- finding healthy ways to relieve stress, such as exercise, meditation, and journaling
Traumatic invalidation occurs when your feelings or experiences are repeatedly or intensely invalidated.
It can be harmful to your mental and physical health. Fortunately, it’s possible to heal from traumatic invalidation. Consider speaking with a therapist or joining a support group.
If you’re looking for a therapist but aren’t sure where to start, consider checking out Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource.