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Invalidation, how it affects our emotions and can lead to Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

Invalidating relationships

An invalidating environment – what is it?

An invalidating environment is one where the people around you don’t help you to deal with your emotions, whether they mean to or not. They may say you are wrong for feeling your emotions or punish/ignore you when you get emotional.

It may be that someone uses words or actions in doing something that upsets you repeatedly, yet indirectly.

Simply growing up in a family where everyone seems different from you can be invalidating, even if no one is telling you there is something wrong with you, you may think there is – like you are the black sheep or outsider.

Abuse can be prevalent too – emotional and physical.

Invalidation can be:

  •  People ignoring you when you are emotional
  • Getting angry with you when you are emotional
  • Dismissing you when you are emotional
  • Rejecting you when you get really emotional

The combination of emotion vulnerability and environmental invalidation can lead to Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

Many people are emotionally vulnerable but never develop BPD if they are not in an invalidating environment.

Similarly many people have stressful invalidating or abusive childhoods never develop BPD, because they are not so emotional.

In this theory it takes two to tango so to speak. But neither factor is to blame. Being emotional can be great as it can make a person charismatic, interesting, passionate about life and feel others’ pain deeply. They are often empathetic and sympathetic. People who are less emotional may not know exactly what to do with a very emotional person, especially an emotional child. It is back and forth with an invalidating environment and an emotional child/person.

The caregivers therefore are sometimes unable to deal with it and say ‘get on with it’ as they don’t know what to do even if they do care.

So if you are told not to feel something, then you may feel it worse, get defensive or feel out of control, becoming even more emotional than you were before. Then the caregivers may feel even less able to deal with it and feel out of control themselves, upset or angry.

One amplifies the other. When this happens repeatedly, emotionally vulnerable people may find it even harder to manage their emotions and may become afraid of their emotions and find them intolerable. This can lead to the spiral of wanting to self-harm or worse.

One should feel validated with ones feelings, not to be told they are wrong in how they feel. It isn’t about emotions being wrong; it is about trying to understand what those feelings are and why a person might be feeling that way. Empathy is very important, and without it, invalidation occurs.

In short, if we grow up as a child without having our emotions validated by our caregivers, how are we supposed to know what an emotion is and how to deal with it? If we got sad when a friend moved away when we were six years old, and our caregiver said ‘Oh come on stop crying, you will make new friends’ it doesn’t teach us anything about that emotion we were feeling (in this case, sadness at the absence of our friend). So, next time we feel sad, we might dismiss it, hide it from our caregivers or turn it into a different emotion outwardly. We may feel weak for being sad since our caregiver didn’t help us to understand it before, they made us feel like it was wrong, or silly, to feel sad. If we were told off for being sad, and were punished say, then maybe we would learn that when sadness comes on we should be punished because the emotion is bad. So we might punish ourselves for the sadness – what a terrible scenario!

There are so many ways a person can invalidate, sometimes it might be on purpose, other times the person didn’t mean to, but it all results in the same – invalidation of a child’s emotions leading to a misunderstanding of what their emotions mean and how to deal with them. But, often the invalidation isn’t just in the childhood as many people invalidate others as adults as well, which just continues the momentum of misunderstanding ones emotions.

Understanding we are in an invalidating relationship can be hard, getting away from the invalidating relationship even harder, but it can be done.

It’s time to look after yourself. The time is now

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