In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is invalidation.
Validation conveys acceptance, along with a recognition that someone’s thoughts, feelings, or reactions are understandable. It also serves to communicate that the relationship is important. It doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing or approving, something I think is a major stumbling block for people who aren’t very familiar with the concept.
Levels of validation
The developer of dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), Marsha Linehan, identified six levels of validation that may be called for depending on the situation:
- Being fully present
- Accurate reflection from a non-judgmental stance
- Mind-reading: unlike the cognitive distortion that’s also called mind-reading, this involves trying to read the person’s behaviour and imagining what they could be feeling/thinking, and then checking for understanding
- Understand the person’s behaviour on the basis of their history and biology
- Normalizing someone’s emotional experience
- Radical genuineness, accepting the person how they are while seeing their struggles and pain
Effects of invalidation
Invalidation occurs when thoughts, feelings, or reactions are rejected or dismissed. This creates increased emotional distance in relationships.
Invalidation may also happen within the self, due to judgments of parts of the self or one’s inner experiences. This can interfere with identity construction. People are more likely to be able to acknowledge when they are self-invalidating as opposed to invalidating others.
Emotional invalidation may contribute to the development of emotional disorders. DBT creator Marsha Linehan proposed that borderline personality disorder is likely to arise when children with a biological predisposition to intense emotions have those emotional experiences invalidated by caregivers.
Taken to greater extremes, invalidation can play a role in emotional abuse, where the abused individual may be treated as if their very existence is not valid.
How invalidation occurs
One researcher described emotional invalidation as a 3-step process:
- Invalidating behaviour: consisting of minimizing, ignoring, blaming, or neglecting
- Perceived invalidation: the person interprets that their feelings are unimportant, inconsequential, incorrect, or incompetent
- Emotional invalidation
From this perspective, invalidating behaviour doesn’t automatically produce a subjective sense of being invalidated.
Invalidation can arise from a number of potential motivations. Someone may mistakenly assume that validation would require agreeing with something problematic that another person is expressing. They may have a desire to fix the other person’s problems, or they may be trying to avoid hurting their feelings.
My own experience
I was lucky in that I grew up in a very validating environment. I’ve become a lot more sensitive to invalidation after the workplace bullying I experienced a couple of years ago. The overt invalidation directly related to the bullying was bad enough, but I also struggled a great deal with the people who supposedly supported me being very invalidating, albeit in a very well-intentioned way. It probably would never have crossed their mind that “It’s not that bad” or “Everything will be ok” would be invalidating, but it was. My psychiatrist at the time was invalidating in much the same way. I ended up with a mass forced exodus of people out of my life.
What role has validation or invalidation played in your life?
- Elzy, M.B. (2013). Emotional Invalidation: An investigation into its definition, measurement, and effects. Doctoral dissertation.
- Hall, K. (2012) . Understanding validation: A way to communicate acceptance. Psychology Today.
- Salters-Pedneault, K. (2021). Emotional invalidation during childhood may cause BPD. Very Well Mind.
You may also be interested in the post Normalizing Mental Illness Symptoms: The Good & Bad Ways.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.