“Stop being so sensitive” is probably your least favorite phrase — but is it part of a much bigger problem?
In times you are hurting or feeling insecure, it can feel so healing to receive comfort and understanding from those you care about. Having your experiences and feelings validated is a crucial piece in healthy relationships, as it helps with trust and feeling safe in being vulnerable.
However, not all relationships provide emotional validation. Sometimes, quite the opposite happens and your thoughts and feelings are judged or dismissed instead. This shows up in all sorts of relationships, but the most impactful ones tend to be when it happens in parent-child relationships and romantic relationships.
Some examples of invalidating statements include:
- “Stop being so sensitive.”
- “Ugh, stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”
- “Oh geez, there you go again…”
- “You’re overreacting.”
- “You’re just looking for attention.”
- “You’re so dramatic.”
- “Can’t you just get over it?”
- “You have it good — what is there to be upset about?”
In my work as a psychotherapist, I have worked with several clients who are either currently in invalidating relationships or who continue to suffer from the aftereffects of this and need help with the recovery process. I also teach couples I work with how essential and important validating statements are, and teach them skills on implementing them more frequently. As often, people unconsciously exhibit behaviors that are familiar to them. So if they were invalidated as a child — and told something from above, like “You’re just looking for attention” — they may end up invalidating their partners or children, too.
Invalidation is painful for everyone, but can feel especially hurtful for highly sensitive people (HSPs). And HSPs may be suffering from invalidation — and may not even know it.
Understanding the Link Between Invalidation and HSPs
Invalidation feels like criticism of your character, which deeply impacts HSPs and increases feelings of anxiety and depression, which HSPs are more susceptible to experience. Invalidation can also feel like gaslighting, a form of manipulation and emotional abuse, where one really starts to question which is true: their emotional experience or the invalidation.
For example, let’s say you tell your partner you had a bad day and tearfully ask for a hug. A validating response would be, “Of course! I’m sorry you had a bad day. Do you want to tell me about it?” Whereas an invalidating response would be, “You seem to keep having problems with Sally. Are you sure you’re not doing something to upset her?”
For many, invalidation starts in childhood. A highly sensitive child growing up in a family where chronic invalidation occurs may begin to believe their feelings are “too much,” that something is wrong with them for feeling deeply, or that expressing their feelings is burdensome and unwanted. These then have the potential to become beliefs they carry about themselves into adulthood.
Maybe young Joey is having anxiety about school. He isn’t sure how to handle it and so it manifests through stomachaches and a refusal to go. A validating parent may ask Joey, “Has something happened at school? I’m here to listen, tell me what’s going on.” However, an invalidating parent may say, “Why are you making my life so difficult? Just go to school. I’m tired of your attention-seeking behavior.”
Invalidating statements from your childhood can certainly continue as an adult. An invalidating parental voice turns into an invalidating inner critic. For example, have you ever told yourself to “stop being so emotional,” “get it together,” or “stop being such a baby”? This is now you invalidating your own emotions.
As you can see, invalidation is something that really sticks with you. For HSPs who feel emotions and rejections so deeply, this actually has the potential of having long-term effects. But, not to worry, you can recover from this, so make sure to keep reading to the end!
What Are the Effects of Chronic Invalidation?
PsychCentral cited some common long-term effects of adult children of invalidating parents. I want to touch on a few of them here. Remember, these are based on chronic invalidation, not a one-time occurrence.
Involved in abusive relationships. Chronic invalidation is a form of emotional abuse. Those with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are commonly known to invalidate their children and partners, but it’s not solely people with narcissistic tendencies who exhibit these traits. (And, due to their kind, giving nature, some HSPs may attract narcissists and their need for admiration, validation, attention, and control.)
When you experience chronic invalidation, it’s hard to decipher a healthy and appropriate form of emotional expression versus something that’s not. You may find you normalize invalidating experiences without even realizing it or that you continue to experience a pattern of ending up in relationships that are invalidating. Or, if you are in a healthy relationship, you may unintentionally self-sabotage the success of the relationship because you fear “it’s too good to be true.” This is something I see in several of my clients who are recovering from invalidating experiences.
Codependent on your partner. Emotional codependency is when you view your worth as dependent on how your partner responds to you. If your partner has a bad day, you feel it’s your fault. If your partner is happy with you, you breathe a sigh of relief that they’re in a good mood — it likely feels validating to you. When your self-worth is impacted by invalidation, you may find yourself seeking a relationship where you receive love at least “some of the time” or settle for what feels “good enough.” You may find that you believe you’re asking for too much or tolerate disrespect, as you believe that’s normal. This is an unhealthy pattern that many HSPs who have encountered invalidating experiences may be at risk of falling into. This is because highly sensitive people struggle with codependency. In such relationships, there is a “need” (as compared to a “want”) to please your partner and you feel your purpose is to make them happy or even to “fix them.” While it’s great that HSPs are so empathetic, codependency takes it to a whole other level.
Suffer from depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or anger issues. Feeling invalidated is angering. If you experience this, you can name it as such. HSPs really want to feel heard, understood, and accepted for who they are. Anger protects a more vulnerable emotion, and this is where sadness and depression can usually be found. Some consider depression to be “anger turned inwards.” HSPs are prone to experiencing anxiety and depression, and experiencing chronic invalidation can create that feeling of loneliness despite being around others.
Experiencing chronic invalidation can cause you to feel like none of your experiences or feelings are valid or worth mentioning. And since HSPs are more sensitive to external stimuli and the last thing they want to do is disappoint others, they may try to bury their feelings or take things harder, which isn’t healthy either.
Additionally, literature has found a strong correlation with experiencing invalidation from your family and self-harm (i.e., cutting) and suicidal ideation. This same study also references Marsha Linehan’s work on studying borderline personality disorder (BPD). The study suggests that “Linehan’s biosocial theory of borderline personality disorder (BPD), a disorder marked by elevated rates of suicidal and self-injurious behaviors, proposes that BPD develops as a consequence of both a biologically based disposition toward negative affectivity and an invalidating environment marked by intolerance toward the expression of private emotional experiences.” Meaning, words can really impact and negatively affect someone.
In a Gottman Institute blog, Jenny TeGrotenhuis, licensed mental health counselor, describes invalidation as “a form of relational trauma which, over time, harms the brain and nervous system, and also results in the disintegration of any healthy bonds of connection, and dissolution of trust in others. Healing requires the slow, ongoing work of diligent growth in character, self-awareness, and love.”
Due to the fact that HSPs have a nervous system that is quite sensitive to external stimuli, and since they feel emotions so deeply, we can see why invalidation is so damaging for them.
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What to Do if You Experience Chronic Invalidation
If you feel you’re experiencing chronic invalidation, luckily, there is hope and a few methods you can try.
Work with a therapist for support. To help you overcome invalidating relationships, look for a therapist who specializes in self-love or recovery from narcissistic abuse. By working with a therapist, one of the most valuable skills you will learn is discovering the path to self-love and self-compassion. This is how you’ll learn to trust your feelings and the beauty of expressing them. You’ll learn to fully love yourself and begin healing.
Once you recognize that a relationship is invalidating, it’s important to leave that relationship (or relationships). Don’t allow the fear of being alone to keep you in an invalidating relationship. If it’s a relationship with a parent or family member where you feel you can’t just leave the relationship, then it’s important to start setting boundaries. Setting boundaries can feel uncomfortable for HSPs, as often the recipient isn’t happy when a boundary is set. And this can feel bad for HSPs who feel those emotions and know they may be upsetting the other person.
I like to describe boundary-setting as “saying ‘yes’ to yourself and ‘no’ to the other person” — vs. saying ‘yes’ to the other person and ‘no’ to yourself (which truly doesn’t feel good). If this feels uncomfortable, your therapist can help prepare you for this. A simple way to start setting a boundary is limiting the time you talk with the person. You may say “I need to go now” during an invalidating conversation. See how that feels and expand from there.
Start identifying healthier, supportive relationships to have in your life. You deserve healthy, supportive people in your life! For example, do you have any friends or family members who lovingly support you (no matter what)? A therapist can also help you get clarity on what a healthy relationship looks like. And, over time, hopefully you’ll have more validating people in your life instead of invalidating ones.
HSPs, it’s important to remember that nothing is wrong with your sensitivity, and your emotions have validity to them. Your emotional self is a beautiful gift to the world. You do not deserve to experience invalidation from loved ones — or anyone. And remember, the best news is, you can heal your pain and go on to have many validating relationships.
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