Unintentionally Using the Language of Invalidation

When people speak vulnerably to others, the intention of this very normal, deeply human behavior is to receive acknowledgement of the truth and value of their reality. Specifically, they seek:

  1. to feel empathized with; to have feelings acknowledged even if those feelings are not as the listener wishes them to be;
  2. to feel understood; to have their thinking process validated, even if the listener disagrees with their conclusions;
  3. to connect.

For the speaker, expressing feelings and thoughts requires vulnerability. The speaker feels safe and trusting enough to open up to the listener.

Mutual, lateral, reciprocal negotiation

During an interaction which can be termed “invalidating,” one party expresses feelings and thoughts and the other party communicates, in some way, that those feelings and thoughts are wrong.

When invalidation is intentional, its purpose is to hurt and control.

The reality may be that the listener truly doesn’t appreciate the other person’s feelings or thoughts. The content of this post is based on the premise that the people involved do appreciate each other, have regard for each other, and do wish each other the best.

When invalidation is unintentional, a lot of factors are at play, within and between the speaker and the listener.

If the speaker vulnerably opens the door to their inner reality and the listener, metaphorically, enters the door – often with the best of intentions – to advise or correct, the speaker does not receive what was sought. Further, the speaker experiences this unexpected entry as violating and painful. The speaker’s sense of safety, trust, selfhood, and connection with the listener is harmed.

For an example of how invalidation works unintentionally, we’ll use versions of an invalidating statement in frequent use in the U.S. and in Chinese T.V. shows.

U.S. versions: “You think too much” and “You’re overthinking this.”

Chinese T.V. versions: “不要想太多/Bùyào xiǎng tài duō” and “你想多了/Nǐ xiǎng duōle.”


To start, statements using or implying “you” can set up an unconscious hierarchical relationship between the speaker and the listener. By using “you,” a person implies they know more than the other party about the situation and, in the case of “You think too much,” about the very inner workings of the other person’s brain!

Although the intention may be to help, use of “you,” and its uninvited assumption of authority and expertise in the interaction does not achieve the communication’s desired end in mind: empathy, understanding, and connection.

Why invalidate?

Why do people make invalidating statements? In this case, why would someone say, “You’re overthinking this?”

When a listener has good intentions, inwardly, without awareness, a narrative such as this may be occurring:

“I don’t like what you are feeling and thinking. I don’t like what I am feeling and thinking as a result of hearing what you are feeling and thinking. I think I should help you feel better and that would certainly make me feel better. I don’t know what to say or how to do that for either of us. If I try to fix and change your feelings and thoughts with advice and correction, that will make this all go away.”

The listener says to the speaker, “You think too much.”

The unspoken, implied meanings include, “If you didn’t think the way you’re thinking, you wouldn’t have these problems. And, actually, it’s not the situation that’s the real problem. It’s your feelings and thoughts that are the problem. I’m going to fix them.”

The listener may come off as insensitive, arrogant, condescending, or patronizing. They may simply be feeling uncertain, weary, or distressed.

Forms of unintentional invalidation

In addition to problem-solving, fixing, advising, and correcting, invalidation can show up as instructing, judging, disapproving, minimizing (“It could be worse!”), ignoring, withdrawing, ghosting, or indicating in some way that the other person’s reality isn’t real or isn’t valued. (When people engage in self-judgment or other self-dismissive or self-discounting methods, they can be engaging in self-invalidation!)

There are two other factors.


When two people are connected, and one person expresses distress, there’s an inherent disconnection that occurs. Feeling distress tends to dominate one individual’s consciousness, thus distancing them from the other person. The distance can activate the longing for attachment. It feels lonely! One party may try to “fix” the other party’s feelings and thoughts to regain connection.

Beliefs about responsibility for emotions

American and Chinese cultures tend to teach their children that people cause feelings. Our languages convey this implication:

  • “You made me feel _____.”
  • “你我感觉_____. /Nǐ ràng wǒ gǎnjué _____.”

In reality, feelings occur for complex reasons. However, the simplistic “you made me” theorem sets up a dynamic of control and responsibility that leads to unintentional invalidation.

  • “You made me feel this. I don’t like it! If I can control you, I can control my feelings.”
  • “I made you feel that. I am responsible and need to atone by making you feel ‘better’ feelings.”


What’s to be done to decrease unintentional invalidation?

As a speaker and a listener:

  1. Become aware of one’s use of “you-statements.” (A lot of you-statements follow!)
  2. Become aware of your own level of distress, try to manage it on your own the best you can, ask for help if you need it, and try to reestablish connection as soon as you can.
  3. Become aware of your beliefs about feelings and causality.
  4. Keep things mutual, lateral, and reciprocal rather than allowing a one-up vs. one-down positioning to develop.

As a speaker:

  1. Let the listener know what you need before you begin.
  2. To honor the listener’s time, energy, and good intentions, try to be as succinct as possible.

As a listener:

  1. Stay aware of the intentions of most communication – to receive empathy, understanding, and connection – and try to provide these from the outset.
  2. Become aware of what you are feeling during an interaction and handle as much of it within as possible.
  3. Communicate with the other person if you are having trouble feeling empathic, understanding the person’s thinking, or feeling connected.

Instead of saying, “You think too much,” an alternative might be:

“Wow, I hear your feelings! How you’re thinking makes sense to me.  What are you thinking are your next steps? Would you like suggestions or help from me? If so, what kind?”

Above all, for both speaker and listener, continuously negotiating terms of engagement before, during, and after interactions can be extremely helpful.

Humans are complex, interactions are complex, and we break each other’s hearts over and over again. As Blacksburg, Virginia pastor Woody Leach is reported to have said at a wedding, “It’s not whether or not we break each other’s hearts that determines the quality of a relationship. It’s how we handle the breaking.”

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I’ve written a clinical description of invalidation here. I’ve written about negotiation within effective relationships here.

Potentially helpful readings from other sources:

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.