Gwen Stefani describes it well in her song, the common experience of being unseen or minimized as a ‘girl’. And it doesn’t just happen for women, it’s an everyone thing, but there’s no denying when you look back in history it disproportionately has affected women which is why I focus on that in my work. You see it in all media: what you should look like, how should you act, what you should wear. No wonder it’s hard to be truly comfortable with yourself as you are.
Millennials get made fun of for ‘thinking they’re so special’, mocked for being the generation to receive ‘blue ribbons for everything’. There’s a shift happening however and in my opinion it’s a good one. Authentic living is a popular topic – living in alignment with yourself – and it highlights the transition society is making in the balance between individuality and collective norms. But more on this balance later.
I want you to think back to when you were a kid. What were some things that you remember being made fun of for? Or things you were shamed for by parents, teachers or peers? It’s a part of life for everyone in some way, but I want to talk about the impact of invalidation on how we develop our identities and sense of self-worth. Before we can learn how to live authentically, that is being fully comfortable with ourselves and the way we choose to live life, we have to understand what makes it so hard.
I got taunted for my crooked teeth (pre-headgear that is, which is a whole OTHER story), my parents told me I had a temper, and that I was ‘messy’. OK, pretty common for many kids. Parents often tell their children ‘not to cry’ or ‘don’t be mad’, and of course there are the efforts to counter any other character trait or preference a child has that does not align with their values or ideals.
Invalidation is defined as someone’s internal experiences or external traits, being deemed ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, ‘weird’ etc. A child gets angry, it’s only natural. So if a parent reacts to this repeatedly by simply telling the child to ‘stop’, or that it’s ‘bad’ to be angry, without actually acknowledging ‘why’ the child may be angry and then teaching them how to more effectively manage that anger, a child begins to develop a sense of self defined as something being ‘wrong’ with them for their natural internal experience. And more, they start looking externally for a sense of approval and knowledge on ‘how/who/what’ they should be.
In its greatest form, invalidation comes as physical, sexual, emotional abuse, or neglect of a child’s needs. We can experience invalidation in family units, classroom settings (who’s the odd-ball, or who doesn’t fit into the standardized system), peer groups and then branching out to society at large and what is deemed ‘appropriate’ or ‘normal’. Local regional cultures and religion can also both play as an ‘invalidating environment’. Teaching people to never trust their inner desires or thoughts, and to seek something ‘outside’ of themselves for the answers.
You can start to see that invalidation is all around us, it just is what it is. Mindfulness practice takes a non-judgmental stance, so we can acknowledge something’s harm or ineffectiveness, but judging something as ‘horrible’ or ‘bad’ only adds to our emotional suffering. So when we look at invalidating factors (whether it be a parent or a culture) it helps to view it in the context of how it developed. People who invalidate are often doing the best they can, given how they were raised and what they know. Cultures and religions have developed over hundreds, thousands of years and just ARE what they ARE in this point in time.
Western, individualistic societies are inherently invalidating because they emphasize the need to ‘figure it out on your own’ … ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’. If you just ‘TRY HARDER’ you’ll be able to do it. This affects women more adversely because studies show women are inherently more collaborative, so if the core society labels a request for help or collaboration as ‘weakness’ you see where this is going.
Individualistic societies OVERSIMPLIFY the ease of problem solving, and completely ignore our tribal needs as a communal species. We NEED help from others, at times we MUST rely on others. So within an individualistic society, when someone is struggling to do something on their own society tells them they’re ‘weak’, ‘incapable’ and shames them for seeking help from others.
As mentioned at the beginning, sexism is another form of chronic invalidation (for both genders in different ways). Women especially have been ‘assigned’ their roles and expectations, which when you fall outside those norms in any way, can leave you the target of criticisms or even ostracized.
Any societal norm that’s out there (finish high school, college, get married, have a career, have children, get the golden retriever and the white picket fence), is an opportunity for invalidation of a person’s sense of self.
Over time, the collection of invalidating experiences is subconsciously internalized and starts to create a lack of trust in oneself. If one cannot trust their own inner experiences as being ‘OK’ the natural tendency will be to seek validation externally from others, which to an extent is a normal aspect of tribal species. The downside to this, in its extreme form, is that self-trust goes out the window or doesn’t even have time to develop.
NO WONDER learning to live an authentic life is SUCH a journey with all these factors at play. NO WONDER perfectionism develops, or low self-worth, anxiety, depression, you name it!
Here comes the good news (and where I think millennials and following generations are starting to make a positive shift in culture): Once we come to understand how the invalidating environment works, we receive permission to explore self-trust and get to know ourselves AS WE ARE so that we can live in alignment with ourselves. We can find the ‘tribes’ of people who we vibe with, and realize that all along we may just have been a ‘tulip in a rose garden’ as Marsha Linehan describes it. There’s nothing wrong with the tulip, it just thought there was because it was surrounded by roses.
And I’m not talking about developing an ‘ego’ or feeling ‘more special’ than anyone else. Authenticity is not related to competition or comparison at all. That’s where I think older generations may not understand this shift that’s happening, because whenever we start moving in a different direction to balance something out… it feels extreme. So self-love and self-trust may feel like ‘conceit’ and ‘selfishness’ to someone who is still stuck in extreme conformity or rigid judgments.
So how do we do it? How do we unlearn all the ‘expectations’ and outer criticisms that have been embedded in our identities? Much of it starts with SELF-validation. While we absolutely need validation from each other (we are a tribal, social species after all), it may not always be available and this is where self-validation comes in.
Your experiences are YOUR OWN. In many ways, nobody else will ever fully understand them because they aren’t living in your skin. What you feel, you feel. What you prefer, you prefer. Acknowledge your experiences, and that they make sense given who you are.
Validation is defined as ‘recognition or affirmation that a person (including thoughts/opinions/behaviors) is valid’. It is providing a sense of understanding someone, given the numerous factors at play that created their circumstances. Many people confuse validation with approval, and so withdraw validation from others. But validation is not approval, it’s a simple, ‘That makes sense, given who you are and what you’ve been through.’
We can validate someone and not agree with them. And let me tell you, validation is a BALM in all circumstances. It’s a therapist’s number one tool, and it should be everyones! It’s a first step to finding common ground in a disagreement, in helping someone de-escalate from painful emotions, in helping someone feel supported. It’s meeting someone right where they are without trying to change them.
Validation is NOT ‘toxic positivity’ which is actually highly invalidating.
This sounds something like:
Ways to validate each other (and yourself) can include things like:
Validation requires thinking dialectically, and acknowledging truth on all sides. Viewing opposing perspectives with openness and compassion. Sometimes we have to teach loved ones what we need in terms of validation, and it may take some time, gentle coaching and reinforcement (gratitude, genuine praise) to see changes in that area.
Validation is the starting point for so much. When it comes to a supportive and thriving community, validation can lead the way towards positive changes. When we see people who are different than us who are struggling, we can validate their experiences. Listening and acknowledging, without trying to force our perception of what’s ‘right’ or ‘better’ onto anyone else. From validation comes empathy, and then learning and growth.
This can start with you, learning to validate yourself. Trusting your inner experiences and intuition, living fully as you are in a way that makes you feel self-actualized. In doing this we can also balance respect for others, so that we don’t fall into either extreme. I encourage you to think about how you can weave validation into your relationships and interactions, whether it be your relationship with yourself or others. I promise you, you will start to see the magic happen.
(This blog post is describing the ‘Invalidating Environment’ taken from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which was developed by Marsha Linehan in 1993).