What is an Invalidating Environment?

It’s a much talked about factor in the development of BPD and other trauma based mental health issues but what does it mean?

An invalidating environment is one in which a young person does not feel acknowledged or supported.

This can be anything from a child getting the message that certain emotions are unwelcome, to being told that they are wrong, overreacting, are too sensitive and too demanding, or worst of all, that they are being manipulative.

The following are examples of interactions which are invalidating.

For the Complex Trauma response to occur or for BPD to develop, invalidation needs to occur over a period of time and from an early age. These invalidating experiences will also generally take place in the context of an attachment relationship.

Children and young people are inherently more vulnerable than adults and their developmental needs can place demands and stresses on parents who may already be undergoing stress such as job loss, marriage difficulties, financial problems or personal crises.

Parents of course, may not mean to be invalidating or to cause distress, but for the growing child, lack of emotional support and validation can be immediately distressing and may also cause more serious problems down the track.

Examples of Invalidation:

  1. A parent who cannot tolerate negative emotions might discourage them in their child. For example, a mother warns her son that discussion of angry or sad feelings will make him feel much worse. Instead of a pointless discussion of feelings, she states, he should adopt a “positive attitude” and “get on with life” or “pull his socks up”.

  2. The parent contradicts the child’s description and interpretation of his own emotions and desires. For example, a father who tells his son (after he shows the father a picture he has drawn) that there is no reason why he should feel so proud.

  3. The parent has expectations that are too high for the developmental stage of the child. She oversimplifies the process of problem-solving and downplays the obstacles. For example, a mother who tells her daughter (who is learning to tie her shoelaces) that she is taking too long and that even a stupid person would have figured it out by now.

  4. A child might express anger at her father’s bad behaviour. Her father then accuses her of faking her anger and having a hidden agenda.

Something that might also be heard in an environment like this is “you can’t possibly be (hungry, tired, stressed, anxious etc)” or “don’t tell me that.”

Often the child will suppress their genuine feelings in order to be accepted.

Invalidation can be subtle - or more overt.

Sometimes a facial expression or tone of voice is enough for a sensitive child to feel that their authentic self is unwelcome. Often the parents who are in situations such as those described above are uncomfortable with emotion - their own and other people’s.

They may become anxious or dismissive in the face of unexpected or intense reactions, often projecting their own fears onto their children, making it difficult for the child to understand and manage their own emotions.

Without encouragement and acceptance for their developing self, the young child will have difficulty maturing into someone with good self-esteem who understands and can successfully manage their own emotional states.

If you are continuously told that you are not feeling what you are feeling, then you will be unable to recognise what is going on inside you and will be at war with yourself, cling to others for self-definition or feel empty much of the time.

How can Psychotherapy help when you have grown up in an “Invalidating Environment”?

Psychotherapy can help you by encouraging the development of self-awareness.

Therapy with me will provide you with a supportive, empathetic experience of relationship, so that you can take those first steps towards discovering a stronger and more authentic you.

Psychotherapy for BPD and Complex Trauma will also teach you new skills around recognising and managing emotions as well as the ability to tolerate distress and anxiety. These skills are needed if you are going to have better relationships and live a stable, fulfilling life.

Taking the journey of self-awareness and transformation is a big step, but the rewards are well worth the hard work.

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