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April 25, 2023

11 Signs of Emotional Invalidation—& How to Break the Cycle.


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We validate another emotionally if we are attuned to them through acknowledgment and acceptance of their feelings.

We don’t ignore, belittle, judge, or reject them, even if we can’t make sense of their emotional response from our perception of the world.

If we validate emotionally, we encourage honesty and build trust. We create a safe zone for openness, and security builds in the relationship. If someone feels heard and seen, they feel cared for and loved.

So how does invalidation look in practice? Let’s imagine the following scenario: One person in a relationship comes home from work and says, “I’ve had the most awful day, no letup between meetings, no one recognised how hard I’m working. I’m exhausted and starving, but I can’t be bothered to cook.”

Their partner says, “Don’t tell me about an awful day, I’ve had the most stressful meeting and the train was late.”

The response is then, “So you won’t cook then either?”

The retaliation being: “Why are you doing this again, you chose your job, if you don’t like it, do something else. It’s not my job to cook for you.”

In this interaction, each person is egocentric; they stay self-focused within their own issues. The barrier between is mountainous and intimacy has left the building. 

If we are exposed to consistent emotional invalidation as children, we build patterns of insecure attachment. We learn that others cannot be trusted and will not be there to meet our needs. This can encourage a pattern of ongoing emotional invalidation through generations, as we have not internalised the capacity to validate another and are still trying to make sense of our own feelings. If we can’t feel, name, and make sense of our own emotions, we will struggle to stay present for and contain the emotions of others.

Long-term exposure to emotional invalidation as a child or adult negatively impacts our mental health. We start to favour self-doubt over self-belief. We can suppress feelings for fear that others will react negatively, rather than respond to us. Having our feelings dismissed, ignored, minimised, or made fun of is painful. Often, in these dynamics we have to escalate our own reactiveness, entering the arena of anger, busking for the payoff in order to be seen. This then reinforces the chances someone will reject us and we then believe we are right in our belief that no one offers us support or nurturing. If we really thought it through, I’m sure the majority of people would not want to leave those they care about feeling that way.

So how do we know if we are at risk of invalidating someone? We can look for the signs below:

>> We are already pre-preparing a response before the other person has stopped talking. This indicates we are stuck in a dynamic of needing to be right and proving a point. Ego is the driver, not compassion.

>> If we find we are saying to someone that they are wrong, in our perspective, to feel something in response to an event. Our perspective doesn’t matter in that moment and has not been asked for.

>> If we find ourselves telling others what they should feel in response to something. That’s our experience and each person has their own biographical and emotional filters.

>> If we find ourselves telling someone they’ve misperceived an event so they end up doubting themselves. We are making assumptions here; we were not directly perceiving through their eyes and their filters.

>> If we find ourselves instantly replying with something that happened to us that we perceive to be far worse. We are being self-focused. The person is struggling to process their own experiences, so we will simply be overloading their system here.

>> If we tell someone not to take something personally—although personalising can be a thinking error. As a first port of call, when someone is sharing feelings, it is not helpful to focus on thought processes. Neurologically the frontal lobe of the brain is less active in a state of heightened emotion. So thinking is offline.

>> If we tell someone we were joking and they shouldn’t be upset or so over-sensitive. We are discounting the impact we have had on them. We usually do this if we are ashamed of hurting someone, so we deny it ever happened, rather than owning the mistake and being accountable.

>> If we belittle by facial expressions of raised eyebrows, eye rolls, or smirks when someone is sharing feelings. This will feel unsafe and judgmental and will close someone down.

>> If we minimise feelings just because it wouldn’t impact us that way. We are showing someone we cannot take or see the world empathically through their eyes.

>> If we ignore someone entirely (not simply a case of mishearing but ignoring with intent) and completely don’t respond to something they’ve said. We communicate they are not important to us and have little impact.

>> If we try to fix things by offering unsolicited advice. Again, this is thinking but also behaviour. We need to sit with the feelings. We are also sending an implicit message that we can’t tolerate what we see as their negative feelings and we wish to make them go away as soon as possible. The quick fix is really for us here. 

So on the flip side, how does emotional validation look?

Let’s imagine the following scenario:

One person in a relationship comes home from work and says, “I’ve had the most awful day, no letup between meetings, no one recognised how hard I’m working. I’m exhausted and starving but I can’t be bothered to cook.”

Their partner says, “That sounds draining. Sit down I will get you a drink and we can talk about it. Then I can put the dinner on.”

There is a presence that is made available for the partner to share their bad day. There is acknowledgment of impact, space given to talk, and physical needs of sustenance are met. Of course, sometimes bad days are had by both and there can be space made once one person is calmer to address the needs of the other. If emotional validation happens from both sides, a move to greater problem-solving skills from each person can be made when neither felt they had the energy for this before.

So how do we navigate the voyage to validation? We can do the following things: 

>> Validation begins with active listening. Giving brief verbal responses to show you are alongside them and still engaged. For example, “okay,” “yes,” “mmm.” That lets them know they are being heard. We can repeat their words back to them. It can feel a bit awkward when we first get used to doing this, but it’s something that really leaves people feeling listened to. You might say, “So you feel disappointed that no one appears to have recognised all the hard work you’ve put in.” Overall, listen more and talk less.

>> Show nonverbal cues in body language to indicate we are present and hearing them. For example, look at them, turn your head and body toward them. If you are doing something when they begin to talk, either stop doing it or stop periodically to look at them. Also, be transparent and say something like, “I am listening, but I have to get this done by a certain time but I’m here for you.” We stay present, even if their feelings are difficult for us.

>> We show curiosity in order to understand what someone is saying to us. We do this by asking clarifying questions. This is not so many questions that we adopt a Gestapo approach but enough to show interest. Wait for them to finish talking and then say something like, “What did you feel when that happened?” Or “What did you think about that?” This opens up more dialogue and allows them to reflect, feel safe and heard.

>> We offer unconditional positive regard by not judging, even if we can’t understand their response. Normalise having feelings and tell them they have the right to feel however they do about a situation. If you know their personal history, you can contextualise this experience within it by saying something like, “After the last time they let you down, it’s no surprise you feel worried they won’t do what they say.”

>> Offer full attention when they speak. Not being distracted by phones, people, or pets. We take measures to ensure we talk at a time without these distractions and manage the environment appropriately. If not possible, we can be transparent about how the interruptions must feel frustrating to them.

>> Remember we do not have to agree in order to show love and acceptance. So don’t become involved in correcting their thoughts and feelings with phrases such as “That’s not worth getting upset about,” even if you feel they are being irrational. They will not be able to access more balanced feelings if they feel further emotional dysregulation from feeling unheard.

>> Avoid being defensive and needing to have any one-upmanship with a narrative about your own feelings and experiences.

>> Don’t offer advice. They don’t need fixing; emotions are natural and healthy. They need you to sit alongside what they are feeling; this is how we learn to self-soothe and regulate emotions when others stay with what we feel. If you are unsure, ask what they need from you. Say, “Would you like advice or do you need to vent?”

>> If someone wants advice then avoid delivering this as if you are telling them what to do. Instead of saying “Just leave the job,” try telling them how you usually navigate these situations (it’s okay to do this here, as they have asked for advice). They then have a choice on how to be. You could say, “I know for me when I’ve had experiences where I don’t feel valued, it might take me some time to realise it, but eventually I know I have to walk away.”

>> Respond to their energy levels and general mood. If someone is really happy about something, don’t come all guns blazing with the problems that might arise. Yes, we want to protect loved ones but let them feel what they feel and have their own process before offering opinions. Give space. Mirroring energy helps people feel understood. It is in a place of understanding we make the most rational decisions, not when we are challenged. If a person is sad, don’t start suggesting lots of fun things to do and tell them to go and have a great time. They will simply feel like we can’t tolerate them unless they are happy and will learn to suppress sadness around us. This closes people down.

If you find yourselves unable to validate others and stuck within loops of defensiveness, an intense need to be right, needing the last word, or competing for the most sympathy, consider some personal therapy to reflect on what remains unprocessed within you.

At the very least, journal this and reflect on what being right or worse-off protects you from feeling. When we can’t sit with the feelings of another, it’s because we are avoiding sitting with a feeling within ourselves. Emotional validation is not only external; we have to self-validate and be self-compassionate too.


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