I had a recent conversation with my mom on the phone. It was emotional. We argued. At the end I was in tears. I was distressed because she has this very pessimistic way about her (as the result of being let down too many times in her own life, naturally) and this pessimism affects me in a very negative way. In this instance it made me feel as though something that I told her about, something harmless that I personally wanted to do, was wrong in some way. It created an extremely intense level of guilt within me, to the point where I felt sick to my stomach by the mere thought of doing that thing. I simply became so distressed that I was lost for words and all I could do was cry. Then, she said something shocking, reckless, and disturbingly familiar.
“Stop giving me those crocodile tears” she said.
I went silent.
She said a few final egoistic words. I told her to take care and that I hoped she felt better (she told me that she felt ill earlier that day).
She hung up the phone and I sat there to think about the significance of this statement and what it meant to me personally, while I let out a few more “crocodile tears.”
When I was a kid I reacted to this kind of treatment as any kid naturally would. I accepted the fact that I had done something wrong and I made it a point to avoid doing that wrong thing again in the future.
I didn’t realize just how serious of a problem this was until earlier this summer when I had just graduated from university and received my degree in psychology. I moved back in with my mom and now we make frequent road trips to go visit my grandma who is currently in the hospital. On the road we rant about different things, sometimes personal and sometimes random. It’s the personal stuff that always feels uncomfortable for some reason. I noticed that whenever I feel like sharing something with my mom, something just a little bit personal about myself, something that I would openly tell any one of my friends, I feel a bit apprehensive, anxious… and guilty.
On this particular day I found that feeling very curious. “Let’s do a test,” I thought. I told my mom something that I was honestly thinking about at the time. I told her that I was thinking of eating more raw vegan foods because I noticed that a lot of people were having very positive health outcomes from going raw vegan, and that I thought i’d try having one raw smoothie every day and see how it feels. Normal, benign, and healthy, right? Well, my mom immediately reacted with disapproval and negativity. She interpreted it as something that I wanted to do because I had “low self esteem” and that I should just be happy with myself without dabbling into “extreme” ways of living in order to improve myself.
“Hm” I said. And I sat to think on this for the rest of the ride as I tuned out everything else she was saying.
It really bothered me. Not because I needed her approval, but because it didn’t make any sense. There was absolutely nothing wrong with my idea of having one smoothie a day. If anything, it would be a really healthy thing to do. It wouldn’t hurt me or impose on my mom in any way. It was a simple, random, curious, and harmless idea that I got. Why did it really offend my mom so much then? The only thing that I could think of is that it’s simply not something that she would do – it’s different from HER norm.
I then wondered how often this had happened when I was a kid and what it was that I was doing when she reacted with disapproval (side note: I was an extremely curious and adventurous kid. I did some pretty questionable things :)). I recalled things like not going to bed when it was my bedtime and playing in the dirt when I was wearing nice clothes because we were about to go out to dinner. One time I attempted to resuscitate a dead squirrel from the road that got ran over by a car. A lot of things that any reasonable parent would get a bit upset or worried over (even though I would personally find it hilarious if my kid did the squirrel thing).
But there were also some really innocent things that I did which weren’t abnormal or wrong. When I recalled these events it scared me. There were things like… not getting into the car fast enough, leaving a bit of food on my plate after a meal, wanting to have steak for dinner instead of hot dogs, needing to go to the bathroom at an “inconvenient” time, accidentally tripping and falling for christ sake. Little, menial, NORMAL, and HEALTHY things that I did which my parents got EXTREMELY upset over. They would huff and puff and yell and scream over these things.
No, my dad was not exempt from doing this. I remember one time I had accidentally spilled some milk and his reaction was as though I did something reprehensible. If I asked him for a piece of cheese when he was cutting it for his lunch for work he got upset. When I told him about something I did that I thought was interesting and exciting he would always ask “oh, who told you to do/say that?” …as if I did not have a mind of my own and was not capable of doing interesting and valuable things by virtue of my own natural talents. He made me rush to hug my relatives upon meeting them and I was scolded if I did not run to meet them fast enough. Eventually (obviously!) I became shy and I was scolded for being that way too.
Holy shit, I thought. There are so many things here which weren’t even wrong. I just felt like they were wrong at the time because my parents had a meltdown when I did them. And who were they to know right from wrong? As a pretty wise kid, it was obvious to me that some of the things which they themselves did weren’t well regarded.
Well, it turns out that most of those things that I did which they got upset over were things that simply inconvenienced them in some way. When I was little I couldn’t have realized this, but now, with my educated adult brain, I understand that they got mad at me for doing certain things because those things imposed on them or whatever they were doing at the time. It was because they were stressed, they were self-absorbed, and that I wasn’t necessarily doing something wrong. Basically, if it wasn’t something that they would do and/or if it inconvenienced them, it was wrong. I bet, to some degree, they even controlled my behaviour like this in order to cope with a lack of control that they were personally feeling in other areas of their life, but I digress…
As a kid, it was as though by merely existing I was doing something wrong. There was something wrong with me and I, as a person, was not intrinsically capable of doing anything right or meaningful. At least that’s probably how I internalized it. It only makes sense then that I would often feel anxious, second questioning and doubting of myself, wondering whether or not whatever I was doing or saying was acceptable. But the question now is: how did this eventually affect me in the long run?
Late last year I met an individual with severe bipolar disorder. When this person was triggered, he would go into isolation for extended periods of time because he was so overcome with feelings of guilt and shame. He felt as though he was not good enough for anyone and he did not want to be seen in such an “unworthy” and “unlovable” state. He was an academic perfectionist and a competitive athlete. As an adult, his triggers came from no one other than himself and his own fears of inadequacy. He told me that he discovered the root cause of this behaviour through therapy and that root cause was the frequent, unpredictable, and irrational disapproval of his parents during his childhood. Although to a lesser extent, I could relate to him.
It made me think a lot about how the constant disapproval and invalidation from my parents affected me. Is it restricted to how I feel and behave around my parents? Or does it leak into other areas of my life? I don’t lock myself away in isolation, overcome with shame, but is there something else that I do, or some unhealthy behaviour that I can heal with this new insight? I recalled past relationships, friendships, hobbies, events, school – any and all types of situations in which a person does things.
Here are some facts: I struggle with perfectionism. I often doubt myself. I am easily confused and manipulated. I am obsessed with understanding the inner workings of things. When I can’t understand the inner workings of things I feel inadequate and sometimes crazy. I can’t stand it when things are incorrect or untruthful. I absolutely hate being lied to. Being told (explicitly or implicitly) that I am not smart hurts. I abhor unsolicited advice (it assumes that I don’t already know something). I’ve been in multiple relationships with people who did not respect my needs or feelings. And finally (in terms of what is relevant), I cannot stand being invalidated.
No, it’s not that I NEED validation from other people. I don’t need people to tell me whether I did something “good” or “bad.” I am an adult who is capable and self-aware enough to know the difference between when I did something awesome and when I did something shitty. In fact (not that this happens very often, but) I am smart and strong enough that I usually just laugh when someone tells me that they didn’t like something that I did or said. I also don’t give the slightest care whether or not someone likes me.
It’s being INVALIDATED that gets to me. When I tell someone how I feel, when I am sad or upset, when I tell them that I am worried about something, or that I have some genuine concern …and they essentially tell me that I’m just giving them crocodile tears. It makes me sick to my stomach. And it is the absolute worst when it’s coming from someone that I care about, who claims to care about me too. I am overcome with anger and frustration when people say things like:
- “You’ll get over it.”
- “Oh come on it’s not that big of a deal.”
- “It’s not hurting me so there’s nothing wrong with it.”
- “I’m not going to have this discussion. It’s your problem. You deal with it.”
- “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
- “It could be worse.”
- “You don’t really mean that.”
- “You’re just tired.”
- “It’s PMS.”
And it can also be done covertly: sometimes people will listen to the things that you tell them and then, in their mind, they will change the story to better fit their own perception of reality. You won’t realize that they did this, usually, until a few days later in a different conversation when they bring up what you said. Ever felt like someone “twisted” your words? Usually it’s because what you said was inconvenient for them on some level. It provoked them to step outside of their ego and actually take action to address whatever you were telling them or to at least acknowledge it. Emotionally immature people are uncomfortable doing that. Sometimes they’ll get defensive instead and gaslight the situation, saying that an event itself happened differently than the way it actually did. Usually that’s because the way it happened looks bad on them. This is also a very common reason why people lie.
Invalidation is, by it’s very nature, a form of emotional abuse. It is wrong, period. Nobody should ever question the validity of another person’s reality or emotions, and they especially shouldn’t use manipulative tactics to cope with it. The only purpose this serves is to help the person avoid taking responsibility for their own shitty behaviour or avoid addressing something.
But for me, invalidation stabs at a very deep wound. I find it infuriating. Obviously my childhood played a huge role in that but I think that most of this anger really stems from simply knowing the meaning behind it: when you invalidate someone, it is because you are assuming that their feelings are irrelevant, inferior to your own, unimportant, or incorrect. You are telling them that their reality is wrong and yours is right. The problem with that is: it can NEVER be the case that one person’s feelings are more valid than another’s. We’ve all had different life experiences which have shaped our unique brains and thus perspectives. Who are you to say that yours is the only right one? Invalidating others is a behaviour that operates on an incorrect premise and only serves to silence a person when their feelings are inconvenient for you. It’s this principle that makes invalidation bother me more than anything. It’s simply wrong.
And even if you disagree with a person’s logic you should never invalidate their emotional experiences. Validation has absolutely nothing to do with agreeing. Let me repeat that:
Validation ≠ Agreeing
For the sake of this article I am using “validation” and “emotional validation” synonymously but we are talking about EMOTIONAL VALIDATION here. Obviously I’m not saying that we should accept EVERYTHING that others tell us as the truth! To save us all some time and make sure we’re on the same page, here is an excellent definition:
Unfortunately men invalidate women a lot. An evolutionary theory suggests that this is related to being “nagged” at by their mothers and now they naturally tune out the voices of women. Other theories look how men are socialized, essentially positing that men have learned to invalidate the feelings and realities of others because they were repeatedly taught to do so as children. Invalidating phrases like “it’s not such a big deal,” “man up,” and “men aren’t supposed to cry” are indeed linked to a dampening of the development of empathy in men (Lawrence et al., 2004). It’s why men are more likely than women to have narcissistic personality traits and be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (Grijalva et al., 2015). Some refer to this gender difference as “toxic masculinity.” Whatever you want to call it, it sucks. I personally remember being in relationships where my partners didn’t listen to the things that I had to say, who told me that my feelings were exaggerated or wrong or in some way, and who even laughed at me when I cried.
So should I release my need for validation because it gives others power to influence how I feel? Should validation only come from within? Is this an issue that I need to heal within myself?
The answer I’ve come to is no. Absolutely not – quite the contrary in fact. It’s the people with narcissistic tendencies who need to accept the fact that everyone should be validated emotionally, otherwise it’s abuse. And you can’t just “release” or “get over” a fundamental need. I’ll say this a million times: all human beings have a need for belonging so we do need other people. That means we need to learn how to live with each other rather than pretending that we are completely “strong and independent” and then wondering why we have relationship problems. That means we need validation. And for our own good we need to relearn empathy if our socialization has taught us to forget it.
This is a core reason why many people spend hundreds and thousands of dollars at therapy, whether or not they realize it. They are seeking emotional validation. Why? Because we live in a narcissistic society where our friends, family, and lovers think that we shouldn’t need it. Because thinking that way makes their lives easier. But we do need it. And they need it too, whether or not they are mature enough to admit it. This is why therapists and counsellors are professionally trained to validate. It’s also a major factor in the efficacy of psychological therapy as a general practice. Being asked “and how did that make you feel?” followed by a nonjudgemental response is actually HUGE.
And the extent to which being invalidated bothers us ultimately does not matter. Because, again, it should never happen in the first place. Personally, I have simply made the decision not to get close with anyone who hasn’t evolved far enough outside of their ego to validate the feelings and needs of other people. It’s the ultimate sign of weakness and immaturity. It’s cowardice. I used to think that validating was something that I could teach to others in my personal life who weren’t very good at it but I’ve since decided that I do not have the time nor desire to do that. Because if they can’t validate me then there couldn’t possibly be anything good enough about them that makes them worthwhile of spending time with. Even if they are intelligent or interesting they simply aren’t a good person in my book. And yes, it’s most likely because they have their own internal issues going on, but I won’t sacrifice my wellbeing in order to appease them with my care and presence anymore. I am more interested in meeting people who want to grow and evolve rather than do the more comfortable thing and hide from their relational problems. Such people are only capable of love so long as the needs and feelings of their “loved” ones are convenient for THEM. I am proud to be a grown ass woman who considers herself quite “strong and independent” but I also recognize that the people who I appreciate the most are the ones who are emotionally nurturing, the people who aren’t too scared or self-absorbed to say things like “that must feel awful,” “aww, are you okay?” and “can I do something to make you feel better?” Anyone with a fair amount of self-awareness and maturity will recognize that about themselves too.
I also want to encourage anyone reading this to implement the same way of thinking in their own life. Know that your need to be validated for your feelings is normal and healthy. Anyone who disagrees on this does not understand what emotional validation actually is and for that reason I will probably dedicate a nice long blog post to explaining it to them soon.
This is what us emotionally healthy people need to do instead of trying to “overcome” our need for validation: we need to set boundaries with people who invalidate us. And, if need be, we should cut them out of our lives completely. If someone is not listening to you, or telling you that your feelings are wrong, they simply don’t respect you. And we don’t need people like that in our lives.
Here’s another comment that I would like to make: I have spent a fair amount of time working with children and let me tell you that this phenomenon is not rare. In fact it is the NORM. As a part of my career I have been responsible for telling kids not to do a plethora of things which were not, in fact, really wrong. I had to tell kids they could only play with certain toys, that they had to sit at certain times and play at other times. If they felt like sitting during play time or playing during sitting time they were scolded. Their behaviour was constantly questioned and if they did anything outside of the “norm” then they were told that they were doing something wrong. They were systematically invalidated nearly every minute of every day. I saw this in schools, homes, and various other settings. Eventually I realized that most of these rules and “norms” were not even there to help the children develop into healthy individuals but rather to manage the stress and maintain the ego of their caretakers. I am so glad that I no longer work with kids for this reason alone.
I am no longer a child. I have to take my past experiences, learn from them, and cope with whatever repercussions they come with. I just hope that the parents of today truly give this some thought. It is incredibly easy for a child to suffer permanent and debilitating consequences from seemingly harmless childhood experiences. Parents, please ask yourself: are your kids learning right from wrong? Or are they learning what YOU think is right and wrong based on your own troubled past, upbringing, and education? Please think of your own mental health struggles and ask yourself: am I preventing my child from turning out like this, or am I encouraging it? When you scold them, did they ACTUALLY do something wrong? Or were you just stressed out and inconvenienced by their existence? The more things you disapprove of them doing, the more you are showing them that WHO THEY ARE is wrong. Choose what you disapprove of wisely.
I love my parents. They are flawed humans, just like the rest of us, who were probably doing their best to raise me in the midst of their own struggles and they also love(d) me in their own ways. They didn’t have the most ideal childhood themselves. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m complaining. I am using this as an example, to learn from it and to share what I’ve learned with others. Because my story is not unique at all – invalidation affects everyone, especially children. It fucks us up in both subtle and detrimental ways and it’s a pattern that continues to repeat itself over generations because of our failure to stop it.
The only solution is to acknowledge the problem, set healthy boundaries with others, and learn how to transcend our ego through empathy. By doing this, we will not only heal ourselves but we can also help to heal those who have suffered emotional trauma and prevent it from happening to others in the future. Because no one deserves to have their emotions invalidated. It’s disrespectful and abusive.
There is no such thing as crocodile tears.
Grijalva, E., Newman, D. A., Tay, L., Donnellan, M. B., Harms, P. D., Robins, R. W., & Yan, T. (2015). Gender differences in narcissism: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 141(2), 261-310. doi:10.1037/a0038231
Lawrence, E. J., Shaw, P., Baker, D., Baron-cohen, S., & David, A. S. (2004). Measuring empathy: Reliability and validity of the empathy quotient. Psychological Medicine, 34(5), 911-920. doi:10.1017/S0033291703001624