“Self is the only prison that can ever bind the soul.” – Henry Van Dyke
Many people who grow up in an invalidating environment gradually internalize invalidating messages about the self. This may happen with a child who was never taught to trust his own competency or ability to take care of himself. This child may learn that he is incapable of meeting his own needs and may grow into an adult who looks to others to take care of him.
Another example could be a child who grows up in an alcoholic household with a parent with unstable mood and behavior. This parent may send the child different messages about his self-worth based on mood. This can result in a child who grows into an adult who learns that others are unsafe and unpredictable and that his worth in the eyes of important others is subject to swift and unpredictable changes.
There are countless examples of potential invalidating environments that can range from mildly confusing or negative messages to extreme abuse and punishment. Since we rely on our parents in childhood to teach us about who we are, what our worth is, and what we are capable of, when these messages and behaviors go awry, the long-term consequences can be very painful.
Children often gradually internalize these messages about themselves, leading to a wide range of potential cognitions and self-talk in adulthood. Spradlin (2003) reminds us of the deep importance of acknowledging our challenges in life as important and real. Sometimes they are difficult. These are the moments in life when we need to count on ourselves the most to move beyond self-invalidation to a place of self-acceptance and self-compassion.
- There are perfectly good reasons for being emotional, even at times when others don’t agree.
- My ineffective patterns have been a long time in the making. They’ll take time and effort to change.
- Change can be difficult. I am capable of making the changes necessary to improve my life.
- When I feel hurt, I want to cry. This is not a sign of weakness.
- It is okay to reach out to other people to overcome certain problems. It takes strength to ask for help.
Spradlin (2003) explains that self-invalidation often flares up when we are trying to change/quit a bad habit. If you tend to feed yourself excessively negative self-talk when you are in the process of pushing yourself to make a big change, choose to mindfully slow down the process. Pause and use the “DBT’s ‘What’ Skills of Mindfulness” to Observe, Describe, and Participate in the internal dialogue that you are experiencing.
How to Give Yourself Validation
(1) Describe the habit or behavior that you would like to change.
(2) Notice what typical invalidating responses you tend to have:
- I should be over this by now. What’s wrong with me?
- It shouldn’t be this hard. It’s so easy for other people.
- I’m just stupid/worthless/lazy.
- It’s really not a big deal (minimizing).
(3) Choose a potential validating response that you would like to replace your negative self-talk with:
- This habit/situation is really hard for me to change/quit. Just because it’s hard now, that doesn’t mean it always will be.
- I can get past this, but it is going to take time and effort on my part. I am willing to invest in myself.
- This habit/situation is very important for me to change. I am willing to honest and compassionate toward myself.
- I am capable of changing my thinking and behaviors. I just need to keep moving in the right direction.
As you read through some examples of invalidating environments and forms of self-invalidation, what patterns or themes do you notice in your own life? Do you tend to give yourself particular types of messages when certain things happen? We all “tell ourselves” different things. This self-talk has the power to change our emotional states in either positive or negative ways as well as affect our willingness to engage in both healthy and self-destructive behaviors.
The messages that we give ourselves have a profound impact on the quality of our experiences. For those who have a virtual bounty of negative self-talk to plough through, it can be helpful to practice taking a compassionate stance toward yourself. It is possible that you learned that negative self-talk over a lifetime of repeated experiences. It can take time and effort to unlearn those beliefs. It can begin in this moment. Be an ally to yourself as you replace self-invalidation with support and compassion.
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Spradlin, S.E. (2003). Don’t let your emotions run your life: How dialectical behavior therapy can put you in control. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc
Featured image: Je t’aime melancholie(caged) by belgianchocolate / CC BY 2.0