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Emotional invalidation: why is it important to recognise it

Emotional invalidation occurs when someone dismisses, ignores or rejects a person's feelings. It can go anywhere from dismissing the person’s experience by means of logic to minimising one’s affective experience.

It sends the message that what you feel is inappropriate or not worthy of consideration.

In reality, we can all be invalidating at times, either because we are too wrapped up in our own problems or because we do not know how to deal with the emotions whose intensity overwhelms us.

The problem is when emotional invalidation becomes a sustained pattern over time. In this case, it can become a form of emotional abuse that needs to be detected in order to end it as soon as possible.

The most common types of emotional invalidation in relationships

1. Minimising affective states

A very common form of emotional invalidation is to minimise the emotions, feelings and concerns of others. If we see a person who is sad, homesick, grieving or worried, instead of trying to put ourselves in their shoes to understand what is happening to them and how they are feeling, we simply say: 'it's nothing', 'you shouldn't worry', 'I don't see where the problem is' or 'you're making a storm in a teacup'.

These expressions convey the idea that the other person's experience is not worthy of consideration.

Generally, this kind of emotional invalidation tends to occur out of defensiveness or simple laziness - it is much easier to minimise the affective states of others than to make the mental effort necessary to put oneself in their place.

2. Emotional rejection

Emotional rejection is another common form of invalidation. In fact, it happens quite often with children.

When we tell children that 'men don't cry', for example, we are invalidating the emotions behind the crying. It also happens when we tell a person "are you crying over this nonsense?" or "you shouldn't feel that way".

The rejection of emotions is usually due to our inability to manage our own emotional states and those of others.

In fact, the suffering, pain or anguish of another might generate great discomfort when we are struggles ‘staying with’ painful emotional states ourselves.

3. Judging the person

Emotions exist. There are no 'good' or 'bad' emotional experiences.

That is why judging the other person's emotional states with phrases like 'you are too sensitive', 'don't be stupid, you mustn't react like that' or 'you are very weak' is one of the worst kinds of emotional invalidation.

4. Changing the meaning of emotions

One of the most subtle types of emotional invalidation is making the person believe that they are not feeling what they are actually experiencing.

It is common when the emotions expressed are classified as 'negative' and socially disapproved. Expressions such as 'you're not angry, you're just upset' detract from the original emotion, lowering its intensity.

Even phrases such as 'come on, don't be sad, cheer up' hide an attempt to invalidate, as the person is trying to change what they are feeling for a more acceptable emotion.

Of course, there are situations when we need to control our feelings and move on in order to function more adaptively, but when emotions overwhelm us, trying to suppress them by replacing them with others only leads to even more distress.

5. Denying the right to feel

In this case, there is no attempt to minimise the emotion, but it is directly denied.

The phrase 'you have no right to feel that way' is the epitome of this type of emotional validation because it makes it clear to the person that their reaction is completely unacceptable.

Phrases such as 'if only you knew what I went through' also imply a more veiled denial of that emotion.

The underlying message the person receives is that they should not feel a certain way because they have no right to, an idea that conveys not only contempt but also selfishness and superiority.

It conveys in no uncertain terms that that person's emotional experience is invalid because someone else has taken the authority to decide how they should feel.

Emotional invalidation, in its various forms, ends up making the other person feel invisible. When we trivialise, minimise or deny the feelings of others, we are contributing to their growth.

Those emotions will always find a way to express themselves and will usually come out in the worst way, through somatisation or emotional outbursts.

In essence, this type of expression is an attempt to redirect the person towards emotional states that are easier for us to handle.

The problem is that they usually start from the denial of the original state, invalidating what that person feels.

This is why it is important that we learn to be more comfortable with emotional expressions, especially those we classify as 'negative'.

This does not mean that we should not try to comfort others or that we can no longer say anything, but we must reflect before we speak and do so from the deepest empathy, making sure that we are moved by a genuine desire to help the other person.

When we position ourselves in empathy, we stop judging, minimising or repressing the emotions of others and, instead of giving them unsolicited advice, we offer them a friendly shoulder and simply say, "I see you are hurting, how can I help you?"

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