Emotional invalidation can be hurtful, but learning to recognize it might help prevent its effects.
Validation is the acceptance of a person’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Invalidation, then, is just the opposite — when a person’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and behaviors are rejected, judged, or ignored.
Invalidation can affect anyone at any age, and whether you’re a child or adult, invalidation can be upsetting and painful.
Emotional invalidation from yourself or from others can often lead to feelings of worthlessness and self-isolation. These feelings can then impact your day-to-day life — at work, at home, and in your relationships.
In some cases, emotional invalidation can lead to other negative emotions and even mental health conditions. But it doesn’t have to.
Understanding invalidation and knowing how to recognize it can help you learn to better deal with it when it arises.
Emotional invalidation is the act of dismissing or rejecting someone’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. It says to someone: “Your feelings don’t matter. Your feelings are wrong.”
Emotional invalidation can make you feel unimportant or irrational. It can take many forms and happen at any time.
Some people use it intentionally as a tool to manipulate you by making you question your feelings. They might say something like: “I’m sure it wasn’t really that bad.”
Others might do it unintentionally by trying to cheer you up in a stressful situation. This might sound like: “Everything happens for a reason” or “It could be worse.” Though this type of emotional invalidation is done by accident with well-meaning intentions, it doesn’t make it hurt any less.
Emotional invalidation doesn’t just have to be verbal, either.
It can also involve nonverbal actions such as rolling your eyes, ignoring the person, or playing on your phone while someone is talking.
No matter how it happens, emotional invalidation can create confusion and distrust.
Emotional invalidation often happens when you’re expressing your feelings or talking about an experience.
People often invalidate someone because they’re unable to process that person’s emotions. They might be preoccupied with their own problems or not know how to respond in the moment.
Invalidation can also be used as an argument strategy. It gives the appearance of supporting the way someone feels, while distancing or avoiding taking responsibility for their role in those emotions.
Emotional invalidation can look like blaming, name calling, and problem-solving before understanding the other person’s experience. Playing down another person’s experience is another way to invalidate.
Emotional invalidation can cause a number of consequences:
- Problems managing emotions: Emotional invalidation can lead to confusion, self-doubt, and distrust in your own emotions. It communicates that your inner thoughts and feelings are “wrong.” With repeated exposure, you might begin to distrust the validity of your own personal experiences.
- Issues with personal identity: People who feel their emotions are invalidated often hide their emotions and develop low self-esteem.
- Mental health issues: Emotional invalidation can contribute to someone developing a mental health condition, such as depression and anxiety. If you already have a mental health condition, it might make your symptoms worse.
While emotional invalidation can happen at any point in your life, if it happens in childhood, it can have long-lasting effects that can last into adulthood. This is particularly true for individuals that experience emotions more intensely than others.
There’s some thought that emotional invalidation might contribute to the development of borderline personality disorder (BPD) — a condition associated with instability in emotions, relationships, and self-image.
People affected by BPD often have:
- difficulty managing emotions
- chronic feelings of emptiness
- problems with self-image or sense of self
- rapidly changing emotions
Marsha Linehan, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of the book “Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder,” established that BPD develops when a person that experiences emotions more intensely is exposed to particular dysfunctional environments. One such dysfunctional environment is an invalidating one.
According to her theory, children who have a tendency to be more emotionally sensitive have a higher chance of developing BPD if exposed to emotional invalidation in childhood.
As a child, you begin to learn and understand how the world works. These lessons can shape the way you view the world, how you behave, the way you react, and your thoughts and feelings.
Children who are more “sensitive” might react more strongly to certain situations or events than other children.
If a child grows up in an invalidating environment, they may not learn how to handle stress or manage their emotions. Instead, they might learn how to distrust their emotional responses and hide their feelings.
Validation tells someone that their emotions are respected. It makes space for another person’s emotions to exist.
Through validation, we can confirm that others have their own emotional experiences and that those experiences are real, valued, and important.
So, how can you practice emotional validation?
The first step is to listen. Fully tune in to the conversation. Put all distractions aside and give your attention to the speaker.
It might also be helpful to get acquainted with words that are affirming, gentle, and that make room for all emotions during the conversation.
Other ways you can avoid emotional invalidation is to:
- avoid becoming defensive
- not offer unsolicited advice
- accept responsibility for the emotion when appropriate
Some validating phrases to try:
|Instead of:||Consider this:|
|“It could have been worse”||“I’m so sorry that happened”|
|“That doesn’t sound so bad”||“That must have been really hard”|
|“You’ll get over it”||“I care about you. What can I do to help?”|
|“I don’t want to hear it”||“I’m here for you”|
|“You’re overreacting”||“That sounds frustrating”|
|“Don’t be such a crybaby”||“I can see you’re really upset”|
|“What’s the big deal?”||“This must be so painful”|
Navigating relationships is far from straightforward. But being more aware of the language you use in conversations can make a real difference.
Learning to recognize invalidating behaviors and statements can help you develop a healthier relationship with others and yourself.