Tag Archives: invalidation

Invalidation at the Multiplex

... and invalidation won't actually toughen up your kid.

… and invalidation won’t actually toughen up your kid.

This week, I spotted ads for the upcoming After Earth at the local movie theater. Between the tensed faces of Will and Jaden Smith, the poster blurbs, “Danger is Real. Fear is a Choice.

Oh, Hollywood. So much sex. So much violence. So little psychological accuracy. Any $275-per-hour L.A. psychologist could have told you: emotions aren’t a rational choice, any more than logic is an emotional impulse. To tell people otherwise is invalidating.

Invalidation happens any time clients get the message their emotions or beliefs are flawed, wrong or unimportant. It is more than just negativity: “You failed the test,” states a fact. “Don’t tell me you studied when you bring home an F,” invalidates all of the student’s effort.

Everyone can handle a little. What kid has never heard, “You can’t be hungry, you just ate”? Repeated invalidation leaves people in doubt about their emotions and themselves. It’s associated with poor social skills in childrenself-harm in teen-agers, psychological distress in adulthood and worsened rheumatoid arthritis in sufferers of all ages.  In cognitive-behavioral therapy, it takes a delicate touch to challenge clients’ beliefs without invalidating them as people. When people hear enough repetitions of, “You put the pressure on yourself,” “Let’s hold a pity party,” or “Stop being so dramatic,” they’ll start invalidating themselves.

New, hesitant clients often say, “Maybe I should just get over it.”  They’ve absorbed the idea they can fix their emotional issues by choosing not to have them. The trouble is, emotions are like pets and children. We’re each responsible for our own, but we control them indirectly at best.  If you start by believing anxiety means you are weak and self-indulgent, you can wind up certain you are a failure when it doesn’t go away.

C’mon, Tinseltown! How about a tag line like,

“Danger is real.

Fear is a normal, healthy emotion everyone experiences.

You can manage it effectively with  mindful acceptance and self-validation.”

That would be much more accurate, and only cut ticket sales by half.

n.b.: . Steve Hein, of EQI.org has a .pdf on invalidation for parents of teen-agers here. Worth a read.

@ 2013 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved

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“It’s All in Your Head”

LicensedMentalHealthCounselor has a thoughtful post on parents’ denial of their children’s mental health problems. It reminded me of a pet peeve: family members who ask clients, “What wrong with you?” then dismiss the answer with, “That’s all in your head.”

What does “It’s all in your head” mean? “You’re incorrect”? “You’re making excuses”? “You’re lying”?  It might mean, “Please don’t talk about this.” Talk about mental health problems can trigger others many ways. For example,

1. Not everyone with problems is in treatment. If a client admits they are vulnerable to emotion, others remember they’re vulnerable,  too.

2. “I can’t,” isn’t in our vocabulary. Our culture values hard work, personal responsibility and triumph over adversity.  Only the most severe mental health issues are visible to others.  Most skeptics have long experience with The Jitters and The Blahs. They can have a hard time understanding what separates those from Panic Disorder or Major Depressive Disorder.

3. As a culture, we don’t talk about emotional problems. If we talk about them at all, we do so in an understated, hesitating way. When someone explains they have mental health issues, the other person is left to guess how much understatement just occurred. Does, “My nerves make it hard to go outside,” mean they have a moderate case of agoraphobia? Or does it mean the entire family will be murdered in their sleep? Much easier to sweep the entire topic aside by saying, “That’s all in your head.”

In fairness, “It’s all in your head,” often means, “You can do it.” It can come from the same well-meaning and wholly-useless intentions as, “Don’t worry about it,” “Relax,” and, “Just cheer up.” It can also channel condemnation those other tips don’t. Clients say this disregard is worse than insensitive – it’s invalidating. Even when their family hopes they’ll feel empowered, the client is often to wonder, “Do I actually have problems, or am I just a lazy coward?”

Different clients have handled dismissive relatives differently.  Shrill didactic lectures haven’t always been the answer. When a pithy conversation-ender seems appropriate, I’ve suggested, “Sure it’s all in my head. And your diabetes is all in your pancreas.”

@ 2012 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved

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