Is Emotional Invalidation a Form of Emotional Abuse?

February 15, 2023   •  Posted in: 

If you are seeking to understand what emotional invalidation is and if it’s a form of abuse, then this article will define the terms, outline the impact of emotional invalidation, and offer ways to heal from abusive experiences.

 

What is emotional abuse?

To establish whether emotional invalidation is a form of emotional abuse, it’s important to understand what emotional abuse is exactly.

The Department of Justice defines emotional abuse in the following ways:

Undermining an individual’s sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem is abusive. This may include, but is not limited to constant criticism, diminishing one’s abilities, name-calling, or damaging one’s relationship with his or her children.

While emotional abuse differs from physical abuse in that it doesn’t require abusers to make physical contact with the targets of their abuse, it is no less damaging or impactful. Many abusers use both physical and emotional tactics, however.

To understand whether emotional invalidation is a form of emotional abuse, let’s consider what happens when our emotions are invalidated and the impact of this experience.

 

What is emotional invalidation?

Emotional invalidation simply means that your thoughts, feelings, and emotions are disregarded, ignored, questioned, and/or minimized.

In healthy relationships, each person might differ in their opinions, feelings, and desires, but these differences are valid and validated by both parties. This doesn’t mean disagreements don’t happen (as they do in all relationships), it just means that any conflict is worked through with both people involved.

In emotionally abusive relationships, the abuser may try any of the following forms of emotional invalidation:

  • Saying you shouldn’t feel the way you feel
  • Trivializing your experiences
  • Countering or questioning your memories
  • Telling you how to feel instead
  • Laughing or minimizing your feelings
  • Telling you that you’re being ‘crazy,’ ‘emotional,’ ‘extreme’ ‘stupid,’ etc., when you express your feelings
  • Suggesting that everyone else agrees with them and also views you in this way
  • Ignoring or denying any suggestion they are manipulating you
  • Telling you whatever they are doing and saying, it’s ‘your fault’
  • Refusing to take responsibility for their part in arguments

 

Is “Gaslighting” a form of emotional invalidation?

The examples above are all forms of emotional invalidation and manipulation. “Gaslighting” is another term for a type of manipulation, defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as follows:

[To ‘gaslight’ is] to psychologically manipulate (a person) usually over an extended period of time so that the victim questions the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and experiences confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, and doubts concerning their own emotional or mental stability.

The purpose is to increase the victim’s dependence on the abuser through control.

 

Emotionally invalidation at the hands of parents and caregivers

Children who have their emotions invalidated by parents or caregivers are in a particularly vulnerable position as there is little opportunity to escape this treatment.

Emotional invalidation by a parent or caregiver can happen as a result of their own lack of emotional literacy as well as in more overtly abusive ways.

Parents and caregivers who are not in tune with their own feelings and emotions may lack the language to talk about their child’s experiences, and so may shut them down. Some may find the experiences of their children alarming or overwhelming, and feel they do not want to deal with something beyond their own capabilities.

Children of narcissists are at especially high risk of emotional abuse and emotional invalidation.

As well as having a grandiose sense of their own superiority, narcissists avoid interactions that challenge this sense as they are easily hurt and emotionally fragile. They don’t deal well with situations in which they are wrong, they like to hear themselves talk, and they often look down on others. All of this means invalidating other peoples’ opinions is a common way of operating for narcissists as it avoids any challenge to their own sense of self.

Similarly, those with narcissistic tendencies prioritize getting their own needs met over those of their children. In turn, the children are co-opted into taking responsibility for meeting the emotional needs of their narcissistic parent or caregiver.

Clearly, this is not quite the same as emotional invalidation within an adult romantic relationship with its overt controlling agenda, but an absence of emotional attunement can have the same effect:

When one is raised unable to trust in the stability, safety, and equity of one’s world, one is raised to distrust one’s own feelings, perceptions, and worth.
– ‘The Narcissistic Family’,  Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman & Robert M. Pressman

Regardless of what is causing the emotional invalidation, the impact is the same. Emotional invalidation results in long-term traumatic responses that can affect mental health at the time and later in life. It’s important to seek help if you feel you may have experienced emotional invalidation, and that it has had a debilitating effect on your life.

The Center • A Place of HOPE has experienced specialists who can help you to heal from the effects of trauma.

 

What is the impact of emotional invalidation?

Abusive parents or partners are often experts at invalidating emotions as a form of control. In the moment, it can cause you to second-guess your own experience of reality, which serves the abuser who is more likely to be able to manipulate you when you are thrown off track.

Over a longer term period of questioning yourself, your sense of self can become significantly disrupted. You lose track of who you are and what you think, and without a sense of how you are experiencing the world, you are no longer able to articulate your feelings or trust yourself.

The effect of repeated emotional invalidation is huge. It is a form of relational trauma, causing an internal conflict that can be difficult to recover from (for example, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD). But recovery is possible.

 

Alexithymia as a result of emotional invalidation

Alexithymia literally means “without words for emotions” and is a term that’s been used by clinicians since the 1980s as a way to describe patients who are unable to experience or describe their emotions[1]. The research tells us there is a relationship between alexithymia and a history of abuse[2], including emotional neglect.

In abusive parent-child relationships, displaying emotions may be met with punishing consequences. Children learn to avoid punishment by avoiding expressing their emotions. For example, a caregiver might respond to a child crying by telling her not to be a baby or some other form of invalidation (including physical abuse). In order to avoid the abuse the child learns to stop crying or to not attend to emotional situations.

For example, a caregiver might respond to a child crying by telling her not to be a baby or some other form of invalidation (including physical abuse). In order to avoid the abuse the child learns to stop crying or to not attend to emotional situations.

Alexithymia can also develop when caregivers do not provide appropriate positive consequences for expressing emotion, for example, through the absence of positive consequences. This type of invalidation has the effect of extinguishing our emotional range.

Living without access to emotions can make life very difficult. Those with alexithymia may be irritable and snappy with other people, which interferes significantly in their relationships. Often, suppressed feelings erupt as anger. Sufferers can feel very alone.

Becoming more emotionally literate is possible, through talking therapies as well as using tools and techniques such as the Feelings Wheel.

 

Is emotional invalidation the sign of a failing relationship?

John and Julie Gottman are founders of the Gottman Institute, where they have conducted over forty years of research on marriage and divorce.

In researching this topic, the couple identified the four most damaging communication patterns that were strong predictors of divorce (with over 90 per cent accuracy). They termed these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse because of the severity of their impact on relationships.

They are:

  1. Criticism: Verbally attacking or blaming your partner’s character
  2. Defensiveness: Victimizing yourself to ward off a perceived attack or to reverse the blame
  3. Contempt: Attacking your partner’s sense of self with insulting or abusive language that communicates superiority
  4. Stonewalling: Withdrawing from interaction to avoid conflict and convey disapproval, distance and separation

Emotional invalidation is a form of contempt that undermines the essential trust and commitment in relationships. In writing about contempt, John Gottman says:

With your words and body language, you’re lobbing insults right into the heart of your partner’s sense of self. Fueling these contemptuous actions are negative thoughts about the partner – he or she is stupid, disgusting, incompetent, a fool. In direct or subtle fashion, that message gets across.
– ‘Why Marriages Succeed or Fail’, John Gottman (1994)

If you recognize any of these patterns in your own relationships, think carefully about what choices you have.

For some, this might mean ending the relationship. For anonymous, confidential help available 24/7, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).

For others, working towards a more healthy way of relating will take hard work and commitment from both parties. It is possible for emotional abusers to change, but this requires a genuine desire to learn to relate in healthy ways which may be out of your control.

 

Healing your relationship after emotional invalidation

According to John and Julie Gottman, there are three steps to healing betrayal trauma:

Atone: Atonement means to take action to right past wrongs. Atonement isn’t a one-time gesture, but a continual cessation of all harmful behavior alongside embracing actions which repair and heal breaches.
Attune: Turn towards those we may have wronged through our invalidation. This means listening, perhaps for the very first time — getting to really know and see their realities. In the deepest attunement, we’re able to share someone else’s story and perspective. And we’ll care enough to come alongside in their pursuit of growth, healing, or change.
Attach: Make a commitment that repeats all of the above on an on-going basis. To attach is to create a deep bond where trust and commitment can flourish.

From their research, they’ve learned that it takes 20 experiences of attunement — feeling seen, heard, and valued by your partner — to heal the limbic brain from one episode of invalidation.

Neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to modify, change, and adapt both structure and function throughout life and in response to experience) is on your side in healing a relationship after emotional invalidation. ‘Small things often’ make a big difference in our relationships, and this re-wiring can happen through small words, small gestures, or small acts that create lasting change.

 

How to recover from emotional invalidation

Prolonged periods of emotional invalidation are damaging to both the brain and the nervous system. Victims often experience a breakdown in many of their other relationships with friends, family members or colleagues, as a result of loss of trust in other people. Healthy connection with others starts to feel impossible.

Healing and recovery from emotional invalidation is possible through building your self-worth and self-trust. Reconnecting with who you are, deep in your core, and what you think, feel and believe is essential as part of this process.

How does this work in practice? Therapists are trained to support you in reconnecting with your inner self, and it can be reassuring to work with someone who is trauma-informed (meaning the work you do together will not retraumatize you). Likewise, therapists can be helpful in reflecting back to you that what you went through was not okay, validating you and your experiences in a way you may have missed out on.

Also, there are many courses and workbooks available designed to help you to get in touch with your thoughts, feelings, wishes, and needs. These can be a good option if you are just beginning to explore this aspect of your experience, but do seek professional support if it feels overwhelming or traumatizing to do this work alone.

The Center • A Place of HOPE has helped thousands with PTSD & Trauma, and we are ready to help you. We specialize in helping you through these issues, and finding your way to wholeness.

It is common to experience depression or anxiety along with your trauma or PTSD. If you are, please visit our Depression Treatment page and our Anxiety Treatment page for more information. Call us today at 888.771.5166 to learn more.


[1] Darrow SM, Follette WC. A Behavior Analytic Interpretation of Alexithymia. J Contextual Behav Sci. 2014 Apr;3(2):98-108.
[2] Berenbaum H. Childhood abuse, alexithymia, and personality disorder. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 1996;41(6):585–595.

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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