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: