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Emotional Invalidation: Why It Matters

Let's Start by Talking About Emotions…

Humankind can define with a fair degree of objective credibility many things, but emotion as a concrete and definable entity remains elusive. Elusive and powerful. Most would agree that emotions can be fleeting, an ever shifting mosaic with which we experience aspects of existence. One can not eradicate their influence. Awareness and skillful navigation through the ebb and flow of emotion is the best we can hope for.

One way of getting closer to a definition, is to define what something is not. This much can be unequivocally stated… Emotions are not, not real. Feelings are real and powerful and omnipresent. People must acknowledge that emotions exist whether or not they can be defined or controlled. Emotions are necessary and have important messages that we all must listen to in order to keep ourselves safe.

Emotions and the Body

The watery flowing paradigm for emotions is an apt representation. In our bodies emotion can be accompanied by liquid pouring from our eyes. The blood flows stronger, the wave of heat that flushes through the body and reddens the face. Sexual desire to which we connect many emotions is also accompanied by the flow of liquids. Our bodies are beautifully fine tuned for the flow of emotions. Our bodies will respond when in the proximity of the emotions of others. This collective response is what makes weddings and funerals or a sporting event such powerful experiences. The angry mob incites others in the mob further. Emotions range from extraordinarily pleasurable to unbelievably painful; the agony and the ecstasy of the human existence.

This implies that if we could limit emotions to sensations, they would flow through us and our physiology would be equipped to handle them. The problem is, emotions get linked in with our cognitions, and humans have a very evolved prefrontal cortex. Our cognitions are the result of what we perceive, are taught, and learn through experience. We attach ideas, judgments and stories to our emotions which impacts how personality forms. for better or for worse, based on the environment they are in.

So what is emotional invalidation?

Individual reaction and actions related to emotional states is where problems can emerge and be solidified. Cognitive behavioral psychology emphasizes the attaching of ideas to feelings as one way of solidifying or embodying an emotion. An idea can lead to a behavior deemed necessary by the idea and then a behavior to fortify or protect that behavior etc. A metaphorical fortress can be built with an army of behaviors and cognitions to defend it. This is what happens in personality disorders. Dr. Marsha Linehan (the clinical psychologist who created Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) established that Borderline Personality Disorder is the response for those who are very sensitive to their own emotions. This in and of itself is difficult. When this inherent sensitivity is paired with particular types of dysfunctional environments, such as an invalidating household, the difficulties grow (Linehan, 1993).

The term “gaslighting” is very present in modern vernacular. It is a name for a form of emotional invalidation that is manipulative, but emotional invalidation has many guises and sometimes the intention behind it is to help the person. Sometimes, parents, caretakers or friends with the benevolent intention of eliminating an unpleasant or intense emotion will say that the emotion is not real, not necessary, bad, or will simply ignore or belittle it. Children look to adults to learn cognitive constructs or ideas to explain their surges of emotion, and without appropriate validation of emotions will not grow to understand emotions effectively. Those emotions which could have been expressed, named, and affirmed become increasingly frenetic with invalidation, and a host of dysfunctional and destructive behaviors can come into being. Instead, what if emotions were greeted with vocabulary and skills to name and handle them? What if people were taught to use the body, ideas and stories to give these emotions a context, and create a landscape of emotional intelligence?

Therapy as a place to develop emotional intelligence and it begins with validation

All good therapy, and by extension all good relationships, start with validation of emotions. Therapy is a commitment, a safe place to observe, experience, and be aware of shifting emotions with the help of a validating relationship. The client feels an emotion in session and is encouraged to express it by their therapist. Validation of the emotion by the therapist does not necessarily mean agreement of the behavior the client engages in, especially if behaviors and attitudes attached to that emotion are destructive or harmful. Validation is simply acknowledging the initial emotion, without judgment. Through this process, a loop is formed in which understanding and awareness of emotional layers can be explored. If one understands the nature of emotions and has been taught to be aware of them, one knows that any pleasurable or unpleasant emotion will not be a permanent and immutable state. It will shape shift; it will ebb and flow. Therapy is a microcosm in which skillful ideas and behaviors can be practiced, perfected and applied to other settings and other relationships. including one’s very important relationship to oneself. Thus, the work of learning to live in harmony with emotions begins.

Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. Guilford Press

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