Emotional Invalidation and Anxiety

Emotional Invalidation and Anxiety

“You’re over-reacting.”

“That’s totally irrational.”

“There’s no reason to be upset.”

If you have anxiety, chances are you’ve been hearing these kinds of statements for as long as you’ve struggled with the disorder. It’s called emotional invalidation, and for most of us, it starts in childhood, with parents and other adults.

This is true for me – growing up, I was a sensitive kid and I cried easily. But instead of feeling supported in those moments, I was told that I was too sensitive, that I needed to stop crying, that I shouldn’t be upset. These types of responses to children’s emotions are common, and usually not ill-intentioned, but they can be very damaging.

Emotional invalidation doesn’t just happen to children, either. It’s everywhere – and sometimes so subtle you don’t even realize it’s happening. Invalidation is so common in our society that you’ve probably inadvertently done it to others – and to yourself.

The Consequences of Emotional Invalidation

Emotional invalidation wears you down, and in the long term has an extremely negative effect on self-confidence and well-being. Studies have shown that it increases the likelihood of problems such as anxiety, depression, and borderline personality disorder in adulthood, and is sometimes labeled as a form of emotional abuse.

Invalidation can cause you to be ashamed of your emotions, or to believe that what you’re feeling is wrong. (For children this is particularly confusing.) It can also send the signal that your emotions don’t matter, or that no one cares about what you’re feeling. Eventually, many people who’ve dealt with frequent invalidation begin to block out their emotions. This can lead to destructive behavior such as self-harm and substance abuse, used in place of feeling and expressing difficult emotions.

Examples of emotional invalidation:

  • “Don’t be so upset about this.”
  • “Come on, cheer up.”
  • “You’re really overreacting!”
  • “It’s no big deal, you need to get over it.”
  • “That’s totally irrational!”
  • “It’s can’t be that bad — think of how bad other people have it.”
  • “Calm down, there’s no reason to worry.”
  • “You’re just too sensitive, lighten up.”

Examples of validating responses:

  • “Sounds like you’re really upset right now. Is there anything I can do to help?”
  • “I understand why you feel that way; that seems like a tough situation.”
  • “I’m here to listen if you want to talk more about it.”
  • “That does sound difficult – I think anyone would be struggling if that happened!”
  • “I didn’t intend it that way, but I can see why you thought my comment was hurtful. I’m sorry.”
  • “I’ve experienced something similar and I know how hard it is to go through that.”

Support without Judgment

Keep in mind that emotional validation isn’t about agreement, necessarily. For example, one day a friend called me panicking that her house was on fire, because she saw a fire truck heading in the direction of her home as she drove to work. Of course, in that situation, it wouldn’t have been a good idea to say, “You’re right, I can definitely see how you think your house might be on fire.” Emotional validation does not mean agreeing with an irrational emotion – it means acknowledging a person’s feelings without judgment.

A common (but invalidating) response to my friend’s panic would have been something like: “You’re crazy; your house is not on fire. You’re being irrational. Calm down and stop thinking that way!”  That kind of response would’ve made my friend feel even worse. On some level, she knew that her anxiety disorder was at the root of her panic, but it wouldn’t have helped her to feel judged for it.

I wanted to validate my friend’s emotions, even though I knew her house was probably not on fire. “I know how much you worry about things like this, and it seems like that fire truck really triggered your anxiety. But I don’t think your house is on fire – I think in this instance your anxiety is getting the best of you. Let’s take a few deep breaths together.” A few minutes later, she was calm again.

Helpful Reminders for Confronting Invalidation

Whether you have a habit of invalidating yourself or others, or if you feel invalidated by the people in your life, keep these things in mind:

  • We each deserve to acknowledge our own feelings, and to have our feelings acknowledged. Feelings themselves are not wrong or right, they simply are.
  • No two people experience emotions in the exact same way. Comparisons – “No one else would react like this,” or “Other people have it worse” – are inherently invalidating. Your emotions are legitimate, and you are allowed to feel the way you do regardless of what’s going on with any other person.
  • You’re always entitled to your own emotions, and should not try to bury them out of shame or guilt. Of course, you don’t want to lash out and hurt others because of the way you feel, so try to find a healthy outlet for your emotions, such as exercise, art, or journaling. If someone frequently invalidates you, you may want to consider speaking to them about it, or even removing them from your life if possible/necessary.

Embracing Emotional Validation

You may not be able to erase invalidation from your past, but you don’t have to continue to be a victim of it. Pay attention to the things you tell yourself and try to identify self-invalidation. You have a right to feel the way you do.

If someone tells you that what you’re feeling is wrong, remember that is their problem, not yours.  A lot of times, people feel uncomfortable when faced with someone’s strong emotions; this isn’t your fault, but the way many of us are brought up.

Finally, be mindful of your reactions to others. Are you really listening without judgment, or are you being dismissive of their feelings? Our society has a big problem with emotional invalidation, and it’s a cycle that need to be broken, for the benefit of everyone’s mental health.

Learning to validate your own emotions and those of others leads to much healthier and closer relationships with friends, family, and yourself. Emotionally validated people feel free to share their feelings and reach out for support. The better you’re able to identify and accept your emotions and those of others, the better you will able to react to them.