Invalidation versus presence

Invalidation is what happens to us as kids when we’re told to control our emotions, especially negative ones—anxiety, fear, anger, and the like. This happens more in some families than in others. If it happens to you a lot, and if you’re emotionally vulnerable, you may well grow up and become self-invalidating, prone to constantly and aggressively denying the validity of your own inner experience. In a sense, you are denying your very right to feel anything at all—even to exist as you do.

The opposite of invalidation is presence. Presence is accepting yourself as you are, with your entire range of thoughts and feelings, in whatever role you find yourself. You affirm your experience as valid, for no other reason than it happened to you. In doing this simple thing, you affirm your right to exist.

Self-invalidation is social in nature. This is because what most of us have been taught to call our “self” is also social in nature—a portrait constructed out of words, a description assembled for the purpose of deciding who we are, how much we are worth, how we fit in, and so on. This verbal portrait originates in large measure to serve other people’s purposes—starting out with the needs of our parents and other adult caregivers around us as we grow up. Here is where the problem begins, if there is going to be one.

When the English poet Philip Larkin famously wrote, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do,” he was talking about the generational and cultural passing on of emotional repression and thus invalidation. A somewhat more technical explanation than Larkin’s can be found in the 1999 book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Change:

Children are told, regularly and often, that they can and ought to control negative affective states. Even babies are often evaluated according to how little they experience negative affective states (e.g. “She’s such a good baby, she never cries.”) Punishment and reinforcement are frequently doled according to the ability to control and suppress at least the outward signs of aversive emotional states (“Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.”) Siblings and schoolmates support the ongoing purposeful control of thoughts, memories, or emotions. Statements such as “Don’t be a baby” or “Just forget about X” will be backed up by a variety of socially mediated consequences (e.g., getting beat up, being shamed, etc.). What is going on here is that seeing negative emotions in others is aversive, so pliance is used to reduce the frequency with which children express negative emotions.

A person who grew up in such an environment, and who many years later finds himself or herself suffering the after-effects in the form of anxiety, depression, or some other mental illness, may discover that at least some of their self-critical behaviors are part of an extensive pattern of invalidation. In my own case, one such pattern consists of what one of my therapists aptly called “rejection sensitivity.” It’s quite simple: my mind, acting on what it believes to be my behalf, constantly scans the environment and other people’s behavior for signs they don’t like me or are angry at me. Everyone is included. I can convince myself in a heartbeat that the clerk at the supermarket has taken a dislike to me because of my failure to smile at them at just the right moment; if a friend takes too long to return a phone call or email, I am capable of deciding they’re doing it on purpose and working myself up into fits of alternating depression and rage. When I’m at my worst, no one is immune from my suspicion, and I walk around angry and upset. The toll on my personal and professional life has of course been significant.

I see other people invalidating themselves as well, usually without realizing it. This includes many who consider themselves high-functioning and in no need of therapy; from time to time it may include you. How often, when you’re unhappy, anxious, or sad, have you told yourself to get a grip on your feelings; that you have “no reason” to feel as you do; that you have to “grow up” and stop making a fuss; that you’ll be okay if you can just get rid of your distress by replacing it with a “positive mental attitude”? Or that your misery is selfish and wrong because somewhere in some third-world country, “someone is starving right now,” meaning, apparently, that suffering has only to do with material wealth? By the same token, how often have you attacked in this innocent manner a friend, a partner, a child? Every time we do this, no matter who the target, we are practicing invalidation. What we imagine to be moral authority is merely the internalized voice of a parent or other adult from our childhood; and what that voice is expressing is merely its own fear of emotion—nothing more.

The balm for invalidation is nonjudgemental mindfulness. You can learn the practice of mindfulness from one of the new, “third wave” talk therapies, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or Dialectical Behavior Therapy; or you can learn it via a more traditional route such as one of the many forms of Buddhism now popular in this country: Zen, Vipassanā, Tibetan, etc. The basic ideas are the same.

In my own case, becoming aware of the true extent of my “rejection sensitivity” has been a long time coming. It has been a process of gradually noticing the sameness in many of my angry thoughts—not arguing with these thoughts, but awarding them respect as valid, listening to them without necessarily buying what they have to say. This then gives me a little more room to see the pattern; and to delay my reactions and wait for more definitive signals pro or con from the people around me. Often, just waiting a little bit reveals that my initial thoughts were off-base. It’s okay that they were off-base. My purpose is not to judge myself right or wrong, but to become more skillful as a human being. My suspicious, rejection-sensitive thoughts may not go away any time soon, but their meaning is gradually changing, loosening up. Like a fist my mind still clenches, but it is becoming easier to unclench it.

This brings me to presence. I’ve borrowed this word from other contexts—it shows up a lot in speaking about acting or performing; in speaking about the vitality a person conveys to us. It means we are really here, not somewhere else. Presence is naturally cultivated by the practice of mindfulness: we learn to feel our body sensations rather than ignore them; to spend more time in the now rather than dwell solely in what our mind tells us was the past or will be the future. But there is an additional aspect of presence that comes up when we talk about invalidation, and it is this second aspect, which I’ve only lately discovered, that especially interests me.

It is simply this: in being here as we are, we must inhabit many roles: parent, child, friend, lover, insider, outsider, boss, worker, and so on. In fact our roles can be much more subtle than we are aware of. There is rarely if ever a time when we are not inhabiting some sort of role, even if all we are doing is reading or eating or walking down the street.

If we take the metaphor a bit further, then each role is a performance, and we are on a stage with an audience. What does this mean for presence? It means that to fully inhabit a role, we must take on the trappings of that role—including the natural authority of performing it. How many of us, practicing self-invalidation, do our best to shrink inside our clothing or turn ourselves invisible? Shame does that. Yet if our role of the moment is to be an adult child, talking to our elderly parent, then we possess the natural authority of that role—to give advice, to listen, to take what responsibility we may. If we are a writer, writing for publication and speaking to imaginary readers, we possess the natural authority of someone speaking up, offering their point of view. A worker digging a trench for a sewer line has the authority of his role as expert digger. A prisoner of war waiting to be executed has the authority of that role—there is no one else who can fill it. Someone in charge shouldn’t shy away from being the boss—the role is there, waiting.

Here is the thing. If we become aware of our invalidating habits, we can begin to see the occasions of our suffering as occasions also for practicing presence. Even as we hear the familiar harsh voice in our heads, telling us we have no reason or right to be angry, depressed, sad—or for that matter, no right to be excited, engaged, glad—we can validate our experience, up to and including the harsh voice and beyond. We can fear a role and perform it anyway: tell our parent what we think and why; respond thoughtfully despite our irritation to a reader’s criticism of something we have written. We can walk down the street feeling happy or feeling sad and allow ourselves to be in the moment. Being is not boasting.

John Daido Loori, the abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery in Woodstock, New York, has written The Heart of Being, a book of commentaries on various koans; one chapter is titled “Cause and Effect: Pai-chang and the Fox.” In it Daido Roshi has this to say about how invalidation gets hold of us and poses as our “self”:

An ego trip is an ego trip. “Big-deal self” is an ego trip. “The insignificant self” is an ego trip. “I can’t do it” is an even bigger ego trip. “I’m no good. Everyone is better than I am” is the biggest ego trip of all. It’s all got to do with self-preservation. There is no self to protect. What are you holding on to? What are you protecting?

The next time you think you’re selfish for having a particular thought or feeling or point of view, ask yourself: who is it I’m supposed to be, if not myself? Why shouldn’t my life center around myself—who else would it center around? Who is here at the center of my experience, if not me? Consider the fox in the koan “Pai-chang and the Fox”: would a fox, would any animal, waste its time asking whether it has the right to feel what it feels? Can there be any invalidity in a fox? Can there be any in you? Strangely, the more you ask such seemingly self-centered questions, the more you will find you have in common with everyone around you.


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