I am no stranger to emotional invalidation. I was a very emotionally intense child (an early warning sign of the Bipolar I would later develop) and one of the phrases I remember hearing most as a kid was ‘Awh, Jess’. My parents would say it, exasperated, frustrated, unable to understand my emotions and choosing to downsize them instead. But this isn’t a post about my parents and where or how they might have gone wrong. My parents are great people and tried their best with a difficult kid. This is a post about the experience of emotional invalidation and how it often follows those with mental illness, even before they are diagnosed (as detailed above).
Psychology Today gives a powerful description of emotional invalidation as follows: ‘Invalidating someone else is not merely disagreeing with something that the other person said. It is a process in which individuals communicate to another that the opinions and emotions of the target are invalid, irrational. selfish, uncaring, stupid and most likely insane, and wrong, wrong, wrong. Invalidators let it be known, directly or indirectly, that their target’s views and feelings do not count for anything to anybody at any time in any way‘.
Something that I would add to this definition is that invalidators act as though the target couldn’t possibly understand their emotions and their conclusions about their own emotions are inaccurate. This is something that has happened to me a great deal since I was diagnosed with Bipolar. As one of my symptoms of mania and hypomania is irritability and aggression, people often invalidate my experiences of anger. For instance, I may get angry at someone and shout and they might ask me something like ‘have you taken your medication?’ or ‘have you spoken to your psychiatrist about this irritability?’ As though I am literally incapable of feeling the emotion anger without it being a symptom.
When others invalidate me in this way, describing my emotions as mere symptoms, it makes me feel incredibly unseen. It makes me feel misunderstood and useless. So be mindful, just because someone has a mental illness doesn’t mean they don’t experience emotion in the same broad spectrum as you. For example, myself and many people with Bipolar, go through periods where our emotions are completely stable (meaning we experience emotion in the same way as anyone else in the population). So to misread any or all of our emotions as symptomatic isn’t just hurtful but it is decidedly false.
I think it once again comes down to the nature of invisible illnesses. No one would ever tell a cancer patient what is and isn’t symptoms. But with mental illnesses people often seem to believe they know better than us. And I’m here to tell you that as much as you might try to invalidate my emotions, and as much as it hurts at the time, I know that I am the expert on my own experience. And I know my emotions are valid, whether they be symptoms or otherwise.