Have you ever had someone crying to you? Maybe your girlfriend had a difficult day at work and broke down when she came and met you. Or your mom had an emotional outpour while reminiscing about her deceased brother.
Or your close friend vented out to you over coffee about the difficulties she was facing in her marriage. Interacting with someone who's sad and hurting can be awkward, you want to be there for them, show your empathy, and strengthen your relationship, but it's hard to know how to act and what to say. A lot of us end up sitting there uncomfortably, offering some awkward back pats. And a lot of us end up saying something that infact make them feel worse despite our good intentions.
Personally each one of us have also encountered situations where someone says something to us or does something to us that makes us feel dismissed, denigrated, and judged. In short, we end up feeling invalidated. In order to understand this, let's understand the term - Invalidation. Invalidation in psychology is defined as the act of rejecting, diminishing, ignoring, judging someone’s feelings. It is considered one of the most damaging forms of emotional abuse. What’s scary, it can be one of the most subtle and unintentional abuses. Denying someone’s feelings and emotional experience can make them feel like they’re going crazy! They leave the conversation feeling much different than at the start, questioning themselves.
Invalidation is so pervasive and insidious that we may not even know it is happening. We know that something doesn’t feel right, but we can’t point a finger on it. One reason could be we have learnt that invalidation is normal since it is so common.
Even the most well-intentioned persons can be invalidating by ignoring, ridiculing, denying, or judging a person’s feelings. Making someone believe their thoughts or feelings are just plain wrong without being understanding of them is invalidating.
People invalidate others for a variety of reasons, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Others may be short on empathy. Some may feel uncomfortable with your pain or some may feel powerless to do anything to help you. Either ways invalidation can be very unhealthy.
According to Linehan’s Biosocial theory, people who grow up in an invalidating environment learn to believe that their actions, thoughts, and feelings don’t matter. This can hinder their ability to recognize and label their emotions, and cause them to distrust their emotions. It can also cause them to later turn to substance abuse or self-harm as a way to better cope with and control their emotions.
5 common phrases/ways we invalidate feelings of others:
1. 'Others have it worse' analogy:
How many times have you been down in the dumps and been told something along the lines of, “some people have it so much worse than you do, you should be happy”?
It’s somehow become something of an automatic response when someone’s feeling low and shitty. It’s time to emphasise how hurtful and wrong it really is because we really need to stop saying it.
First of all, the very idea of telling someone that others have it a lot worse than them is probably the best way to create an emotionally blocked person. We’re going around indirectly telling each other that what we feel isn’t valid and that we should get up, dust off and get on with it because there are others in worse situations.
While it is a good habit to be grateful for what we have, it is always healthier to be acknowledging how we feel. If two people suffer from a car accident and one has to amputate a leg and the other a hand; does the second person have no right to complain? Of course not. There will always be someone suffering more than us and on the flip side, there will always be someone happier than us; it’s no reason to put our feelings to the side. We’re not supposed to feel guilty about being unhappy with our circumstance. It’s a natural human feeling and we need to understand our sadness before we can overcome it.
If we all went along with this idea of “there are people who have it worse than you,” then logic suggests there is only one person on this whole planet who is entitled to feel rubbish about their situation. There is only one person who doesn’t have anyone else stealing the “worse off” crown from them. What sense does that make?
2. 'It’s not that bad':
If things are bad for you right now, they are bad for you, whether other people agree or not. There is no hierarchy to feeling depressed, no hierarchy to trauma, no hierarchy to feeling fed up with things or to going through a bad patch in life. There is no ranking for everyone’s individual situations and circumstances, or for which are “better” or “worse.” Why do we feel the need to tell someone whether they’re entitled to feel a certain way, or to compare their own or another person’s situation to it?
What if we were able to say to ourselves or a loved one, “Today was a tough day” and not have to hear a barrage of ‘think positive’ or ‘it could be worse’ or ‘it’s not that bad’. Rather to hear, “I am sorry you had a tough day” or “tell me about it” or “let me know if I can help”.
Emotions are like a bad penny, we can’t get rid of them unless we acknowledge them, share them and shower them with compassion.
3. 'Don’t worry, it will be fine':
Is it, though? Is it going to be fine? How do you know? Can you prove it? No? Then we must not say it. While this may be a genuinely well intentioned and comforting phrase to say, it may be highly dismissive of the other person’s emotions. It may also make the other person spiral further into that hole in which they begin to try to figure out whether it will or won’t be fine.
Also, this phrase implies that things will fix themselves or that someone else will sort things out. It takes away the responsibility from the person who is told, it even takes away the responsibility to act, which may not be healthy in the long term.
4. Becoming mr. fix-it:
Communication scientists have elaborated on our understandable desire to problem-solve when faced with a close person in pain. Nobody wants to see their loved one suffering. As communication researcher, Susanne Jones explains, we frequently worry that “merely validating or acknowledging emotions” will be less useful than “actually helping the distressed person resolve the problem.” Consequently, we often jump to “solve behaviours,” such as giving advice. Solutions make us feel good.
The problem is we often solve the wrong problems. Because often we prefer to leap over messy feelings entirely and go straight to helpful solutions. In most cases, we end up doing this prematurely, neglecting more emotion-focused responses. Maybe it’s counterintuitive, but “validating the difficult experiences of the distressed person by explicitly acknowledging them in talk” and “encouraging them to elaborate on what led to the upset” can be a much more constructive means of helping a partner. People report feeling better after this type of interaction, and studies show that advice is not always what the distressed person is looking for.
That’s not to say we can never offer any practical support to a person in need. Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Arthur Nielsen reframes emotion-focused listening as a crucial first step that helps us problem-solve more productively. To reach the problem-solving stage, however, we need a more detailed understanding of the issues our partner is facing.
Thus to be a good problem solver, we first have to be good listeners. And believe it or not, sometimes that is the all the solution one needs – to be felt heard and validated.
A form of intimidation or psychological abuse, sometimes also called Ambient Abuse where false information is presented to the other person, making them doubt their own memory, perception and quite often, their sanity.
Countering: this is when we make the other person question what happened with statements like,
“huh? that’s not how it happened!”
“your memory is so crappy!"
Oh come on, I never said that.
Withholding: when we pretend we don’t understand or just won’t listen by saying things like,
“why do you keep saying things like this?!”
“I don’t want to hear this again”
“you are making stuff up!”
Diverting: the person's thoughts are questioned. It can go like this:
“you are imagining things”
“oh great, this is what you got from (friend/family member)”
Trivializing: the other person is made to feel like their needs or feelings are out of line. we says things like,
“you are just being overly sensitive!"
“you are going to get all upset over something so small?”
“I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal out of this…”
“It’s all in your head.”
Gaslighting may not always be done intentionally to cause harm. Sometimes it is done with good intentions to make the person see the problem at hand a different way or as a defence against their own behaviour/actions. However, irrespective of the intention and degree of gaslighting, it can cause serious damage to self esteem and emotional health of the person at the receiving end of it.
What, then, is the most helpful way to respond when someone approaches you in a state of emotional distress?
Psychologists have found that supportive listening is linked to emotional health in the listener as well as in the troubled talker. One study in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships indicated that “listeners who gave advice or joked were significantly more depressed and more rejecting of their distressed partners” compared to “listeners who acknowledged the distressed confederate’s mood.”
It’s important that we allow our loved ones the freedom to be upset without retreating into psychological avoidance because of our own emotional response. This is what communication scientists call an “escape” reaction.
If you don’t allow your loved ones the space to express the way they feel, you risk dismissing their emotions or pressuring them to resume a happy facade for your sake. The sense of loneliness this generates can severely damage relationships.
Supplementing empathetic listening with nonverbal support can be especially helpful. Research suggests that increasing supportive warm touch among couples leads to a multitude of physiological benefits, including blood pressure regulation and an increase in bonding hormones like oxytocin.
Ultimately, it is advised for us to be wary of interpreting our partner’s self-expression as a sign that we need to immediately fix something so their negative feelings go away. Simply creating space and allowing the other person to express whatever they express is sometimes more than enough.
In contrast to burdening ourselves with the need to do something quickly, carefully listening to and acknowledging the negative feelings can prove a more effective route toward alleviating them in the long term. Learning to listen better is relationship-enhancing all-round.
In the words of Nielsen:
"Detailed, empathic listening is not just for difficult conversations. Applied to one’s partner’s reporting of the events of the day—from stresses to triumphs—it is the stuff of intimacy and closeness."