Those of us who suffer with any mental disorder may find at times that their thoughts, symptoms, and even very existence, may be minimized by others. Even close family members may have a tendency to fall prey to this behavior. It stems from many things however, I believe mostly from dealing with the person with the disorder over a long period of time, or not understanding the symptoms of the disorder the person suffers from.
Minimization is a type of deception involving denial and rationalization in a certain situation. It is the opposite of exaggeration. Minimization serves the purpose of downplaying the significance of an event or emotion. Defined: Minimize. verb; to reduce to or estimate at the least possible degree or amount. To rank or treat at less than the true worth; belittle or to minimize someone's achievements. Minimization is a close cousin to using the tactic of denial, which often misinterprets as a defense mechanism.
I have personally watched my mother live in denial her entire life. I see many people who use denial and/or minimization when they just cannot take in abuse done to them, or a situation they cannot comprehend. If forced to face the reality of a particular situation, they may suffer a total breakdown. I have seen that happen as well. The simple fact is that neither tactic is healthy for the perpetrator nor the victim. It is all too common in the mental illness community, so we should at least discuss it!
Emotional invalidation of a person’s thoughts and feelings leaves the person feeling rejected, ignored, or judged. Invalidation is emotionally upsetting for anyone, but particularly harmful for someone who is emotionally sensitive or one who suffers a mental disorder such as Borderline Personality Disorder or Depression. When the Depressed person is called “lazy” or told to “just snap out of it”, or, the person with BPD is told they are “catastrophizing and making a mountain out of a molehill”, it devalues them at their core. The thoughts and feelings a person with a mental disorder has are very real to them. They may be very misunderstood by others who may be uneducated as to the symptoms the person suffers from however. This leaves a huge gap in trying to help forge a healthy relationship with the person with the mental disorder. We who suffer mental disorders are even guilty of minimization ourselves. We will say that “they have it harder than me and they manage to make it through”, or, “why is that person able to get out of bed and present to society, and here I lay in my bed, unable to move”. To compare symptoms of mental disorders is ludicrous as we are each individuals with very different circumstances that led to the bestowment of the disorder on our brain. I once said to my psychiatrist the fact that, because we are individuals, we each respond very differently to our psychiatric medication. To lump us into one category of “this medication will fix it” does not work. It did cause him to agree with me and change my medication. He had to admit that what is good for one is not necessarily good for another. Thank God he listened, as I finally got some relief from the new medication!
When a person with a mental or a physical disorder is invalidated it serves to disrupt the relationship and creates emotional distance between the two people. When we invalidate ourselves, we create alienation from the self (our being) and make building our identity very challenging. This is a huge symptom that people with BPD suffer. We lack a foundational identity. It is one of the factors on the “test” for having Borderline Personality Disorder. I have never fully been able to understand or explain this symptom other than to say it is a living hell. It causes those of us with BPD to question ourselves constantly as to our actions and motives. We look constantly for things to “anchor” us to belonging in this world. We use people, jobs, titles at our jobs, personality traits stolen from others, changes in our hair color, just to try to figure out WHO we are as a person. It is an unachievable quest for most Borderlines and therefore we come across as being very “flighty”, “eccentric”, or “unstable”.
Self-invalidation and invalidation by others make recovery from Borderline or severe Depression particularly difficult. Some believe that invalidation is a major contributor to emotional disorders. Those who suffer from mental disorders gain stability through hearing and taking in positive feedback from our close family and friends who love us and are able to tell us the truth about the good things we are. We certainly know all the bad things we do. It’s the good that we yearn to hear and put inside ourselves to feel as though we have a right to continue to exist. I am not exaggerating when I say this. Many with Borderline or Manic Depression feel they do not have a right to exist and this is why we have the highest suicide rate of all mental illnesses.
Most people would deny that they invalidate the feelings or ideas of others. Very few would admit to purposefully invalidating someone else. However, well-intentioned people may be uncomfortable with intense emotions (such as those that a person with BPD express) or believe that they are helping when they are actually invalidating. My husband and I have gone around and around this circle many a time in our 30 years of marriage. As he is a logical, analytical person, he feels he is helping me when he tells me the TRUTH about how illogically I am presenting. He feels he needs to try and correct my catastrophic thinking and unrealistic ideas by telling me what he sees. I do not blame him, but he’s not meeting me where I’m at. We who suffer the disorder would even agree that we invalidate ourselves and argue that we deserve it. We may feel that we do not deserve our thoughts to be validated as we know they can come from “strange places” in our minds. The truth is that validation is not agreeing with a person, it is only an acknowledgement that an internal thought or idea expressed has occurred. As to whether or not it is received by the other person is another thing all together.
There are so many different reasons and ways that people who care about you can invalidate you, we could be here all day. Mostly it stems from those around us thinking that they know just how someone else feels without having to ask. This is especially true if the person is emotionally close to the person with the disorder, as my husband is to me. It’s like saying they know you as well as you know you, so they don’t ask, they assume, and may even tell you how you think and feel. If you have ever had this happen to you, then you know how it makes you feel. Invalidated!
Being in sales with Mary Kay Cosmetics for 25 years, one of the first things we learned is to ask questions and to listen and not talk over the person to whom we are trying to make a sale. This, believe it or not, is one of the hardest things to conquer in not only sales, but also life in general. We are so eager to get our thoughts out, our opinions said, that we talk right over the other person. I used to tell the Consultants I trained that you can talk yourself right into and out of a sale!
It is so important to ask questions of the person who, for instance, is suffering a panic attack. What are they feeling right now? How can I help you? Do you need anything? I have experienced that sometimes people invalidate because they believe if they validate they are agreeing. I tell my husband all the time that, many of the things I feel and statements I make with BPD are not logical. You cannot make sense of the illogical, so what can we do? You meet the person where they are. You ask questions. Why do you feel that way? How can I help to validate your feelings? A person can state, “You think it’s wrong that you’re angry with your friend,” and not agree with you. Validation is not agreeing. However, because they want to reassure you they invalidate by saying, “You shouldn’t think that way.” There is a huge difference between those two statements.
Then there are the “Fixers” who want to help “fix” the mood of the person or current state of mind or feelings. “Come on, don’t be sad. Want some ice cream?” This is mostly because they love you and they don’t want you to hurt. This is especially true in the parent/child dynamic. If the child has the mental disorder, the parent may bend over backwards to try to “make” the child happy by doing things to cheer them up. They may invalidate the child’s thoughts or feelings in their efforts to get them to “snap out of it” and get the child to feel happier.
Then there are those who are not wanting to hurt the feelings of the person with the mental disorder. Sometimes people may even lie to you in order to not hurt your feelings. Maybe they tell you that you look great in a dress and the real truth is you are not rocking it! They may agree with your point of view in an argument when in fact they do not think you are being reasonable. I find these are the people who deplore confrontation. They just cannot cope with an argument or the thought that they are making someone feel bad, so they acquiesce to the other person’s feelings.
The truth is that those who love us do want the best for us. They just don’t know or understand how to approach us at times. They may enable us and do things for us that we are capable of doing ourselves. I have heard parents of children with mental health disorders suggest that they should get the child involved in an activity like baseball or gymnastics to “help” the child gain confidence. They are well meaning...just make sure the child is on board with the idea!
Let’s talk about the finger pointing or blame game. The family member or friend of the person with the disorder will say things like: “You always have to be the cry baby, always upset about something and blowing things out of proportion...you ruin every holiday.” “Why didn’t you put gas in the car before you got home?” “You never think before you act or speak and cause turmoil all the time because of it”. (I’ve heard that one many a time!) Blaming is always invalidating. We used another tactic in selling, by starting the sentence with: “Is there any reason why you did not put gas in the car before returning home”. Stating it this way causes the person at fault to think about their action and why they did not put the gas in the car, instead of putting them on the defensive right away. Another way to state it is “It is so unlike you to forget to put gas in the car before you come home”. This actually validates the person and yet lets them realize that they have made a mistake, again, not putting them into a defensive posture.
Hoovering is another method used in an attempt to vacuum up any feelings you are uncomfortable with or not give truthful answers because you don’t want to upset or to be vulnerable. The person with the disorder or the loved one can do this on either side of the fence. Saying, “It’s not such a big deal” when it is important to you is hoovering. Saying someone did a great job when they didn’t is hoovering. Not acknowledging how difficult something might be for you to do is hoovering. Saying, “No problem, of course I can do that,” when you are overwhelmed and know you cannot do it, is hoovering.
I’ll never forget the time that our only daughter asked if she should take singing lessons. She was currently rocking it in gymnastics and dance, but wanted to give singing a try. She “auditioned” for me with a song. With all the love in my heart, I told her, “let’s stick with the gymnastics and the dance honey”. I had to force myself to tell her that singing was not her gift. Did it hurt her? Yes, a bit, however, she recovered and we laugh about it to this day!
When we are judged by someone with their comments it can sound like, “You are so overreacting and exaggerating everything” and “That is a ridiculous thought.” These are examples of invalidation by judging. Ridicule is particularly damaging: “Here we go again, you are crying over nothing, let those big crocodile tears flow”. My family has a key sentence they use with me when my Borderline has me take an exaggerated stance on a subject. It is a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) term called taking a non-judgmental stance. They will ask me “what do you know to be the truth in this situation?” Not, “How are you are currently judging what happened”, but “what do you know is true about this situation”. This really does work and gets me to think about the truth I know instead of the “truth” I make up in my mind.
People who love you and mean well may deny your feelings as a way to minimize. They will say, “You are not angry, I know how you act when you’re angry,” and “You have eaten so much, I know you aren’t hungry and you certainly don’t need to eat another helping.” This invalidates the other person by saying they don’t feel what they are saying they feel. Or they will suggest, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing, and you’re just going to keep yourself awake tonight over nothing.” Telling a person with Borderline or OCD not to ruminate overnight about a situation is like telling a puppy not to “go” on the rug. It is what we do best! Ruminate and obsess over things! Still the message is not to feel what you are feeling.
Famous for nonverbal invalidation are teenagers! It is powerful and includes rolling of the eyes and drumming of fingers in an impatient way. It includes checking their watch while you are talking or not making eye contact with you. Or this is a big one today, the person will show up at the important event against their will and then be on their cell phone on Facebook or Instagram the whole time. This is a nonverbal invalidation of what is going on around them. What we want to do is to try to replace invalidation with validation. I’ve given several examples above as to how to approach this daunting task.
WHAT was said to YOU that has stopped you in your tracks. What have you shut down on when you know it is your destiny. Please choose not to ever let someone else take your dream away. I have an actress/comedian friend who forces herself to try out time after time and handle the rejection that comes with that lifestyle. It is her dream and she knows in her heart that one day it will come to fruition. Words are powerful things gang. We must all learn to use them wisely.
With you on the Journey,