An Invalidating Environment

Emotion dysregulation is posited as a central component of many human troubles, including those that evolve into mental disorders. The primary, evidence-based therapy protocol for helping people learn skills to regulate emotions is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), invented by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D.

An invalidating environment

Having experienced “an invalidating environment” as a child is considered a precursor to having difficulty regulating emotions as an adult.

Why care about “an invalidating environment?”

Consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, partnerships, families, schools, companies, workplaces, communities – even entire nations – can create invalidating environments.

In essence, an invalidating environment is one in which people are told what they feel, think, and perceive about themselves, others, and what’s going on isn’t right, true, reasonable, or adequate, especially if they are feeling distressed or having trouble solving a problem.

The subtext is: “You shouldn’t feel the way you feel, you shouldn’t think the way you think, and you shouldn’t see things the way you do.”

Definitions and examples of “an invalidating environment” follow.

Excerpted from Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., 1993:

“An invalidating environment is one in which communication of private experiences is met by erratic, inappropriate, and extreme responses. In other words, the expression of private experiences is not validated; instead, it is often punished and/or trivialized. The experience of painful emotions, as well as the factors that to the emotional person seem causally related to the emotional distress, are disregarded. The individual’s interpretations of her own behavior, including the experience of the intents and motivations associated with the behavior, are dismissed.”

“Invalidation has two primary characteristics. First, it tells the individual that she is wrong in both her description and her analyses of her own experiences, particularly in her views of what is causing her own emotions, beliefs, and actions. Second, it attributes her experiences to socially unacceptable characteristics of personality traits. The environment may insist that the individual feels what she says she does not (‘You are angry, but you just won’t admit it;), likes or prefers what she says she does not (the proverbial ‘When she says no, she means yes;), or has done what she said she did not. Negative emotional expressions may be attributed to traits such as overreactivity, oversensitivity, paranoia, a distorted view of events, or failure to adopt a positive attitude. Behaviors that have unintended negative consequences for others may be attributed to hostile or manipulative motives. Failure, or any deviation from socially defined success, is labeled as resulting from lack of motivation, lack of discipline, not trying hard enough, or the like. Positive emotional expressions, beliefs, and action plans may be similarly invalidated by being attributed to lack of discrimination, naivete, overidealization, or immaturity. In any case, the individual’s private experiences and emotional expressions are not viewed as valid responses to events.”

The American Heritage Dictionary defines invalidate as “to make invalid; nullify.” Here are links to definitions of valid and invalid.

In a 2018 systematic review, Musser et al. identified specific traits of an invalidating environment.

“Across measures, the most highly represented aspect of the invalidating environment was misattribution of the child’s emotional experience or expressions to negative characteristics of the child. Misattribution was embodied in items such as blaming one’s child for their being sexually abused, or asserting that their feelings or behavior is the result of negative attitudes or ulterior motives.”

“Discouraging of negative emotions was the second most represented aspect of the invalidating environment. Items which measured this aspect included instructing one’s child to stop crying, or warning them that discussion of their negative emotions will make them feel worse.”

“Parental communication of the child’s emotional inaccuracy to the child was the third most represented aspect. An example of an item which measured this aspect is a parent responding to their child’s expression of pride by telling them not to be so confident. Communications of inaccuracy as well as misattribution could be found in reference to the child’s expression of both negative and positive emotions.”

“Oversimplification of problem solving or minimizing of difficulties was the least represented aspect of the invalidating environment. Items such as telling the child that their problem is easily solvable or that they are overreacting were found to align with this construct.”

Here are some subtle examples of invalidating and validating statements in each of the above categories.

1. Misattribution of the child’s emotional experience or expressions to negative characteristics of the child.

Invalidating: “Why are you upset? You’re being too emotional.”

Validating: “You seem upset. What’s up?”

2. Discouraging of negative emotions.

Invalidating: “Why are you so upset? There’s nothing to cry about.”

Validating: “It makes sense that you would feel upset about this. Shall we talk about it now or a little later?”

3. Parental communication of the child’s emotional inaccuracy to the child.

Invalidating: “Feel proud of your hard work?! You’re just lucky!”

Validating: “You worked so hard for this. I appreciate and respect your courage, effort, and tenacity.”

(The above example is a paraphrase of an exchange actor Will Smith describes in his memoir Will about his father’s response to his artistic and financial successes.)

4. Oversimplification of problem solving or minimizing of difficulties.

Invalidating: “If you just did it right, you wouldn’t have these problems.”

Validating: “I see how much you care and how hard you are trying. Let’s see if we can work out other ways to do this.”

How does emotion dysregulation result from an invalidating environment?

Children look to their caregivers to help them make sense of their feelings, thoughts, words, and actions. If caregivers consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, communicate that what children are feeling, thinking, and perceiving isn’t correct, disorientation results. Children learn they can’t trust the reality of their own inner experiences or the accuracy of their perceptions of what’s happening. Paired with other traumas and attachment wounds, children are denied learning the skill of “mentalisation,” defined by Campbell and Lakeman in 2021 as the ability to “accurately reflect on and think about the thoughts, feelings, motivations and behaviour of oneself or others.” Missing this sense of order, the inner sensation is an alarming, terrifying sense of spinning in chaos. Distress is constant, although many learn to mask or suppress distress, or distract themselves from it.

As adults, freed from caregivers, people with emotion regulation challenges can seek what offers a sense of safety and control. Some methods work well in society – excellence in academics, sports, arts, or work – and some are problematic: use and overuse of substances, over- or undereating, bingeing and purging, shopping, gambling, and having multiple sexual partners, for example.

(Verywell Mind also offers a helpful exploration of “an invalidating environment.)

How does dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) help people regulate their emotions?

At essence, DBT pairs what we know about enjoying and enduring the human condition with brain science. As an I-statement, it looks like this:

“If I can ask myself what I’m feeling and thinking, that simple act eases the emotion centers in my brain and activates the cognitive centers. Using my own cognitive functioning, I can look at the facts and use logic and reason to decide what would be most helpful for me to say or do next – or not say or not do.”

Here’s the inner dialogue a person might use while regulating emotions.

This bears repeating:

Consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, partnerships, families, schools, companies, workplaces, communities – even entire nations – can create invalidating environments.

Examples:

  • “Don’t be so sensitive.”
  • “You’re overreacting.”
  • “You misunderstood me.”
  • “Look on the bright side.” (From Medical News Today: “Toxic positivity imposes positive thinking as the only solution to problems, demanding that a person avoid negative thinking or expressing negative emotions.”)
  • “You’re getting yourself worked up about nothing.”
  • “That’s not the way we do things here.”
  • “You’re just not working hard enough/doing it right/________.”
  • “If you hadn’t _________, if wouldn’t have happened. You were asking for it.” (False attribution of causality is a form of gaslighting and results in victim blaming.)
  • ”You’re misperceiving the situation.”
  • “You need to change your thinking.”
  • “You’re just in a slump/phase.”
  • “If I were you, I would __________.” (Here’s an excellent post from Tiny Buddha on what a person really hears when given unsolicited advice.)
  • “See? You didn’t need to get so upset about that.”
  • Silence. Giving people the silent treatment – termed “stonewalling” by the Gottmans – or cutting off all contact  – often termed “ghosting” – communicates that the person isn’t valid or important enough to even merit contact.

The inner narrative of a person who makes an invalidating statement may be:

“I feel uncomfortable with what you are feeling, thinking, saying, and/or doing, or with what happened to you, so I’m going to try to make you change or make you responsible so I can feel better.”

What can adults do to possibly begin to transform an invalidating environment into a validating one?

1. Take courageous responsibility for what they are feeling and thinking.

Denying, resisting, avoiding, suppressing, and misidentifying feelings can be a cultural norm. Protest this! The human brain has evolved to feel emotions. Feelings provide crucial data about what’s going on and can offer guidance about helpful, useful, effective next steps.

2. See reality as it is, neither less nor more, neither positive nor negative.

Although we might wish it were otherwise, feel terrible about what’s happening, and long to spin it differently, acknowledge reality as it is and attempt to see and discern its complexity.

3. Use I-statements rather than you-statements.

People who share who they are and what they see – rather than tell others who they should be and how they should think and do things – powerfully communicate that other people matter and are worth talking with about what’s really important.

4. Co-create solutions.

When people share their genuine, inner experiences, that’s usually paired with expressions of inner wisdom. This occurrence is the essence of relational effectiveness. Genuinely spoken words in a validating environment can catalyze synergistic problem-solving of surprising effectiveness and beauty.

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Of possible additional interest:

Image: iStock

This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.