Have you ever confided in someone you wanted comfort from only to be told…
“It could be worse.”
“At least it wasn’t X, Y, or Z!”
“Look on the bright side…”
“I don’t know why you are making such a big deal…”
These are all examples of emotional invalidation.
Maybe you’ve even said these things to others, unintentionally invalidating them. This is common if we’re high-functioning codependents and other people’s distress causes us distress.
But even if your heart is in the right place, emotional invalidation can damage your relationships.
That’s why in today’s episode, I’m breaking down what emotional invalidation is, discussing why so many of us are emotional invalidators and offering ways to emotionally validate our loved ones so that we can strengthen our relationships.
Prefer the audio? Listen here.
What is Emotional Invalidation?
Emotional invalidation1 is when someone invalidates the way you feel.
There are two types of emotional invalidation: intentional and unintentional.
Intentional emotional invalidation is when someone has an agenda for denying your reality or judging your feelings. This is almost always emotional manipulation, which falls into the category of emotional abuse because there is a reason why someone wants to keep control over you. Gaslighting is an example of intentional emotional invalidation.
Unintentional emotional invalidation happens more often than not in healthier relationships. This can look like a friend coming to you with a problem they’re upset about and you wanting to help fix the problem so your friend is no longer upset. There is a fine line when you see yourself as a helper or a lover and always willing to be part of someone else’s solution.
What is Emotional Validation?
Emotional validation gives someone’s feelings an emotionally safe space to exist. Validating doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with the other person’s subjective reality, and it doesn’t communicate approval or disapproval.
It is incredibly important to the emotional health of our relationships to be emotionally validated. Accepting that a person is having an experience without manipulating or changing that experience can be a powerful way to connect and strengthen a relationship.
Example of Emotional Invalidation + Validation
Here is an example of what emotional invalidation and validation can look like.
In this video, I share a story about how I had an amplified negative response whenever my husband, Vic, was 30 seconds late to pick me up at the train station. (Ridiculous, I know.) In the beginning, I didn’t say anything to him about it. When he was late and I was upset, I hid behind excuses: “I’m tired, I had a long day.”
Finally, I told him the truth: “When you’re not there when my train pulls in, it bums me out. I know this makes no sense because you’re only a teeny bit late, but can you please try to be there before my train pulls in? I’m not blaming you because I know this makes zero sense, but it’s what I am experiencing.”
He emotionally validated my feelings by saying, “Okay, if me being there before you pull in is important to you I will be there.” And to this day, 25 years later, Vic is never late because he cares about how I feel.
An emotionally invalidating response might have sounded like: “Well, I agree with you, that is ridiculous. You have no reason to feel that way. I’m not even that late.” If Vic had become defensive or mean, or if he made it hard for me to share my experience, that would have invalidated my feelings.
Now, I am not saying we can blame other people for the way we feel and expect them to validate that. I am saying we are sovereign human beings who are allowed to feel the way we do, regardless of whether the other person understands why we feel that way or not.
This is why I have a rule that if someone wants to be in my life, especially in the VIP section, they do not need to always understand why I feel the way I do, but they definitely need to care about how I feel. People who don’t care about the way you feel are not emotionally safe people.
Why is Emotional Invalidation So Common in Relationships?
Let’s talk about why so many of us experience emotional invalidation at some point in our relationships.
Part of it is our lived experience as children.
Does this sound familiar? A child is crying and a parent says, “Quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
The parent is invalidating the child’s emotional experience.
If emotional invalidation in childhood happens often enough, this can potentially plant the seeds for major mental health diagnoses like a narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder.
If you have a childhood that is filled with emotional invalidation, your sense of self-trust may be weak because your parents reinforced that how you feel doesn’t matter or is inaccurate. Instead of looking inward, you look for external validation to have emotions.
Emotional invalidation can also show up in relationships because there is often one person who is more emotional or has a higher emotional IQ. A person with a lower emotional IQ might not know how to handle their own feelings, which can result in not knowing what to say, so what they do say might feel painful.
Finally, emotional invalidation is also common with high-functioning codependents and codependents. High functioning codependency is a term I coined to describe someone who is highly capable and overly invested in the feeling states, the outcomes, the situations, the circumstances, and the relationships of the other people in their life to the detriment of their internal peace, and their emotional, financial, physical, or spiritual well being.
In their desire to control the outcomes and feeling states of others, high-functioning codependents and codependents can unintentionally emotionally invalidate people. If this resonates, it can be helpful to take a step back and look at what is driving that willingness or desire to help others. Is it because their distress is too distressing to you? (That was my experience in my twenties.)
If you want to know the right things to say to emotionally validate others, check out this week’s guide where I list the top things not to say, and what to say instead.
Examples of Emotional Invalidation
If you have unintentionally emotionally invalidated someone, you can learn how to make your relationships safer. Here are common examples of emotional invalidation to watch out for.
Always looking for the silver lining. Are you a hard-core silver lining detective? Let’s say a teen tells their parent, “I am so sad Bob broke up with me,” and the parent responds, “At least you’ll have more time to spend with the family now that you won’t be in your room texting Bob all day.” That’s emotional invalidation of the kid’s feelings. They are sad, and all they want is for someone to care that they are sad.
Here’s another classic example: if someone says, “I am so sad my grandmother passed away,” you might ask, “How old was your grandmother?” (As if this matters.) “She was 93.” “At least she lived a good, long life.” This does not make the person in mourning feel better. It might make you feel better, but it’s very emotionally invalidating.
Brushing it off. Maybe you feel anxious and want to cancel plans with your friends. When you speak up, your friends say, “You said you would go out so let’s go. It will make you feel better.”
Dismissing a concern. Let’s say you’re worried about your and your partner’s debt. You tell your partner, and they say, “We’ll cut our spending a bit. It will all be fine.” You are saying you’re worried, it’s not fine, and instead of your partner simply being with that concern or being willing to actually problem solve, they say you’re making a big deal out of nothing.
How We Can Emotionally Validate Instead
Learning how to emotionally validate the people we love is so incredibly important. Here are a few methods you can use to start validating others.
Don’t become defensive. I know this is difficult when someone mentions something you did that may have hurt their feelings, but defensiveness gets in the way of emotional validation. Try to understand where the person is coming from instead. (For more tips on how to communicate during conflict, where defensiveness may arise, check out this blog.)
Use Mirroring. Harville Hendrix and his wife Helen came up with a method of creating safe conversations. It’s a process, but the important steps in this process also create emotional validation. The first step is to mirror for clarity and accuracy. You begin building trust by saying, for example, “If I heard you right, you are upset because I spent this amount of money and didn’t clear it with you, and it reminds you of when you were a child and what happened between your parents. Did I get that right?” You can’t validate someone if you don’t understand what they are saying, so mirroring what the other person said can validate their experience. In doing so, you are saying, “I can see how you feel that way. That makes sense to me.”
Offer empathy. Empathizing with others helps us understand how we can relate to each other in a healthy way. It’s important to know the difference between empathy and sympathy here. You can sympathize with someone when you’ve had similar experiences, and their experience resonates with you. Empathizing means working to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, even if you’ve never been in their shoes and their situation does not resonate with you. Think about the last time someone came to you and was in pain. Can you see yourself inadvertently invalidating their emotions because you don’t like that they’re in pain?
Let your kids have their feelings. If you are a parent, it’s also important that kids are allowed to have their feelings. This doesn’t mean they are allowed to throw a chair across the room or act it all out, but they are allowed to have feelings. As a parent, you want to create a safe space for them to honor them.
Inside this week’s guide, I give you a cheat sheet of what NOT to say and what to say instead, so you can go from unintentional emotional invalidation to emotional validation. Download it here.
Have an amazing week self-reflecting, and as always, take care of you.
1 How Emotional Invalidation Impacts Your Relationship and Finances