There are few things worse than emotional invalidation, especially when it comes from the closest people, those who are supposed to understand and support us in the worst moments. However, sometimes empathy is conspicuous by its absence and in its place we find a wall of misunderstanding.
Emotional invalidation is the act of dismissing, ignoring, or rejecting a person’s emotions, feelings, and affective states. Many times it is done with the best of intentions, to try to cheer us up or take away our worries, but the truth is that this attitude ends up transmitting the message that what we feel does not matter, is inappropriate or out of place. That obviously doesn’t help us heal.
Common phrases that hide an emotional invalidation
1. “It’s not that bad”
All of us, at some point in our lives, have heard a “it’s not that bad” or some of its variants, such as “don’t worry, it’s not a big deal” or “you’re exaggerating”. Often, these expressions are intended to play down the issue so that we stop worrying or feel better. But they generally achieve the opposite effect.
When someone tells us it’s no big deal, it’s as if they’re telling us that we’re not capable of dealing with life’s difficulties or, worse yet, that we’re making a storm out of a teapot or creating dramas where none exist. That phrase minimizes our emotional reactions, to try to inhibit them, arguing that they are excessive with respect to the event that triggers them.
Instead, we should keep in mind that we don’t all have the same values and priorities in life, so we care about different things. What may be a big problem for one person, may be a minor annoyance for another. Each experience is lived in a unique way and it is important to respect the emotions it generates.
2. “You have to be strong”
There are situations in life in which, no matter how resilient we are, it is difficult not to fall apart. When we are on a streak chaining one problem after another or adversity hits us without warning, being told that we have to be strong is not very helpful.
Feeling despondent, sad or nostalgic does not imply being weak. It means to be human. It means that we are hurt or feel hurt. It means that a situation has overwhelmed us. And there is nothing wrong with that. As there is nothing wrong with expressing that inner discomfort.
In fact, the phrase “you have to be strong” can also convey a sense of superiority or even contempt. It is as if that person were looking over our shoulder, so that instead of empowering us, they can make us feel even smaller, helpless and unable to manage what happens to us.
3. Cheer up/Relax
There are two words that feel particularly bad: “cheer up” for those who are depressed and “relax” for those who are anxious. Since depression and anxiety are not voluntarily chosen states and are not exactly enjoyed by the person, exhortations to change his mood are not only trivial but often harmful because they involve emotional invalidation.
Deep down, asking someone to cheer up or relax is usually born from the idea that mental disorders can only be combated with willpower, so that, in a certain way, it also implies blaming them. Obviously, willpower is important to deal with conditions such as anxiety and depression, but it is usually not enough.
Furthermore, attempting to follow such advice is often unsuccessful and leads to additional frustration. Depressed people who dare to go to a party, for example, often feel worse when they compare their mood with that of others. People with a panic attack who try to take deep breaths to relax may end up hyperventilating. Everyone has a healing rhythm that should not be violated.
4. “Don’t cry over that nonsense”
“Don’t cry about it, it’s not worth it” or “Are you crying about that again?!” They are common phrases that we heard a lot in our childhood, but it is likely that we will continue to hear them in adulthood. These are invalidating statements that are supposedly meant to cheer us up but actually just express an emotional disconnection.
Crying is usually an expression of sadness, pain, frustration, longing or disappointment. Tears appear when what we feel overwhelms us. In fact, they have enormous cathartic power and help us calm down. Someone telling us that we are crying uselessly will not make us feel better.
That phrase completely dismisses our perspective and encourages us to hide our emotions because we perceive that their expression is not acceptable. In the end, it pushes us to isolate ourselves and keep our problems secret because we perceive that there is no empathetic ear or shoulder to lean on.
5. “I’ve been through it, could be worse”
In life, everything can get worse. It’s true. But immersing ourselves in Dantesque images and giving free rein to catastrophic thinking is not usually the best way to feel better. If we add to that the narcissistic ingredient of someone who says he has already been through something similar, the recipe for emotional invalidation is ready.
In reality, no one experiences the same situations because, although the external circumstances are similar, the affective reality of each person is unique. When someone has to deal with an emotionally complex situation, the last thing he expect is for the person he asks for support to resort to self-centeredness with phrases that suggest that his problem is not that big or important.
While encouraging someone to see the darker side of a situation can help him gain perspective and calm down, often such statements just show a disinterest in putting himself in someone else’s shoes and imply comparative judgment. After all, the fact that life can bring us greater doses of problems does not mean that the current adversity hurts less.
How to validate emotions assertively and respectfully?
Many of the invalidating statements are actually intended to help the person assume a psychological distance from his problem so that he can see it with different eyes or with greater serenity. In fact, they are usually phrases that we have heard over the years and that we reproduce without thinking too much about their implications and meanings.
However, if we really want to help a person, we must be aware that the way things are said is as important as what is said. To avoid backfiring, it’s important to respect and validate his emotions. Phrases like “I understand what you feel”, “I am very sorry that you feel this way” or “I understand your situation” facilitate the emotional connection.
It is also important to avoid the tendency to give unsolicited advice. Feeling bad does not necessarily mean not knowing what to do. Sometimes we just need a little time to collect ourselves. Mourn the loss. Rest. Regain strength… In those cases we don’t need someone to tell us what we should do or how we should deal with the situation. We don’t need someone to rush us to heal or tell us we’re overreacting, just a friendly shoulder and an empathetic ear.
If we are concerned about the person’s condition, it is best to ask what we can do to help. Saying “I care about you, how can I help you?” it is much more respectful than unwanted advice that ends up being iatrogenic.
In general, we need to start feeling more comfortable talking about and expressing our emotions, instead of trying to invalidate them by pushing others to hide them simply because we don’t feel like making the effort that means putting ourselves in their shoes or we feel uncomfortable with sadness, crying or rage.
Assuming a more empathetic and receptive attitude is a very important first step towards emotional validation of others and oneself. Sharing our affective universe is an incredible experience, but we need it to resonate with others. If our emotions bounce off the wall of indifference, we will withdraw more and more into ourselves.