The Impact of Invalidation

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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The scars you can’t see are the hardest to heal. ~ Astrid Alauda

Lately, I find myself relating to the plight of a young female therapy client who presents with complex trauma, coupled with an intermittent explosive disorder.

Perhaps it’s because the origin of her rage resonates with what I’ve grappled with throughout my life that she is in the forefront of my consciousness at the moment. Her emotional volatility highlights for me how destructive and infuriating it is to be on the receiving end of incessant feigned oblivion and disregard.

This is especially unbearable when the antagonists are one’s character-disordered parents.

Even her sparse email interactions with them incite a furious flurry of cutting and pasting text that they deliberately ignore. Working with this woman reminds me how having pleas for emotional safety and rational communication sadistically derided and discounted day after day can indeed make anyone begin to lose their mind.

Needless to say, when needs and wants are trivialized by those you rely on for your very survival, a deep festering psychological wound develops. Having one’s reality discredited results in a form of relational trauma known as psychological invalidation.

When it is repeatedly conveyed to you that your experiences, characteristics, or emotional reactions are unreasonable or unacceptable, you begin to discount your own perceptions as accurate and conclude that your emotional responses are inherently flawed.

In the worst case scenarios, there are those insidious few, like my client’s parents, that revel in perpetrating ambient abuse. They will intentionally employ gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation in which false information is manufactured and deliberately manipulated so as to make the targeted victim doubt reality, memory and perceptions, to help with this.

As this recurrent circuitous dynamic of invalidation persists and assumes greater frequency and intensity, the target is pummeled into silence and cognitive dissonance. She succumbs to believing it is her paranoia or unhealed afflictions and flaws, which cause her to behave so egregiously. She blames herself for igniting relational difficulties and begins to doubt her sanity.

Ultimately the target loses sight of who she is. She is bewildered as to what defines her reality and comes to view herself as inherently defective.

The strategic end-game to this sort of maltreatment is to ensure control. This pretty much characterized the dysfunctional dynamics I was subjected to as a child. It played a huge role in my vacillating between fawning, obsequious personae to being tenaciously willful.

To my chagrin, I quickly discovered that many of the relational dynamics I encountered in my family were fairly common in the outside world. It goes without saying that the human race is rife with folks impervious to reason, who are indifferent to others' feelings, or simply incapable of being mindful of needs and wants that conflict with their own.

Although it may not be with calculated sinister intent, the myriad ways in which we discredit and undermine one another is vast, albeit some forms of invalidation are misguided and thoughtless while other methods are far more nefarious and deliberate.

Naturally, we are challenged to differentiate what threats in life are worth grappling with and the ones that we need to simply accept or walk away from. Discerning how to expend energy may mean that the seemingly less significant forms of invalidation that are part and parcel of everyday life, may not be worth battling. On the other hand, what seems innocuous can be just as pernicious as more blatant forms of subversion.

While all of us can sometimes become consumed with our insular lives and fail to show basic decorum, when this behavior is consistent it can be injurious to those around us. Forgetting appointments, pushing self-serving agendas, placating others when they just need to be heard, and relying on cavalier digitized communication where folks hang on to text messages as if they’re seeking redemption, wreaks havoc on a person’s self-esteem.

This sort of behavior also destroys trust. Consequently, the pervasive anxiety of not knowing where one stands with someone else — along with looming threats of being cut off — lends itself to people fixating on obsessive narratives that offer a temporary locus of control.

Indeed, there are a variety of nuanced ways we invalidate each other that have become normalized in modern life. Having become so deeply buried in our computers and smartphones, we’ve lost sight of each other. To avoid conflict, awkwardness, doubts, and insecurity we succumb to cyber forms of communication.

Meaningful dialogue is becoming an antiquated craft. This has made us careless with one another. Messaging is remote (literally and figuratively) and cryptic. Emoticons are relied upon to add nuance and tone. And of course, when the going gets tough the tough get going. Hence, ghosting is routine.

Instead of humility and accountability, defensive, anecdotal retorts occur.

  • You should have told me! (when in fact you did)
  • Can’t you read cues?
  • What’s the big deal?
  • Get a grip
  • Everything happens for a reason
  • Just think positive!
  • Forgive and let go!
  • Stop living in the past
  • You’ve always been so sensitive
  • Whatever! I don’t have time for this
  • You should… (fill in the blank)

An occasional lapse into this sort of banality is excusable, but over time these relational patterns of disrespect and derision add up to emotional abuse. It adds up to betrayal that calcifies into paranoia. The humiliation of having one's vulnerability trivialized catapults one into emotional paralysis. Likewise, consistently not being heard lends itself to being muzzled. Why bother speaking when words are not heard?

The risk and the humanity necessary to cultivating intimacy are diminished by repeated invalidation and the basic absence of decency. Pervasive insecurities result, dwarfing the desire for a heartfelt connection. It’s simply not worth taking the chance. Truth be told, this particular standstill is where I currently find myself. Unlike my client I’m (no longer) explosive, just resigned to it.

My first therapist over thirty years ago summed it up when he recognized my palpable disappointment with people. Back then, although driven to procure connection I lacked basic life skills and was steeped in the dysregulation that accompanies complex trauma. Cruelty had already taught me about the dark side of human nature in its ugliest forms. Still, I believed in goodness.

I still do believe in goodness, but all the ubiquitous forms of invalidation listed above give me pause. We are simply not nice enough to each other.

The silver lining I suppose is that I now seek acceptance, not approval. After a lifetime of invalidation knowing I have the love and compassion to validate myself helps me brave my disenchantment. It also encourages me to remain mindful of validating those around me.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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