I’m five years old in this picture and mad as hell. This photo was supposed to be only of me. My Mom dressed me up, curled my hair, and left me waiting for a man in a van to come take my photo. The man showed up, grabbed my dirty brother out of the sandbox, and stuck him in my picture. I was furious but didn’t say a word as I smiled for the camera.
In my generation, it was normal to stifle a child’s emotions. Anger was punished, boys who cried were sissies, and girls who made demands were selfish. If you were overly happy or excited you were told to settle down. Strong emotions of any kind were discouraged.
Although many parents today encourage emotional expression in their children, many kids are still taught that their emotions are wrong or inappropriate.
Children who are highly sensitive, anxious, or have ADHD, often receive more than their fair share of negative feedback from family members, teachers, and peers. They are told their strong emotions are inappropriate and annoying to others. In an abusive home, children are not allowed to have any negative emotions at all, no matter what happens.
The Impact of Invalidated Emotions
When a child has his or her emotions constantly invalidated, he or she comes to believe that their emotions are wrong or simply don’t matter. They learn to hide their true emotions from others, often losing touch with them themselves. They don’t always respect, understand, or trust their emotions and don’t express them easily or with confidence.
Rather than being a useful source of information, emotions become a source of confusion, self-criticism and self-doubt. You learn to minimize, ignore, or deny your emotions and this can lead to depression, hopelessness, withdrawal, or anger.
Showing How You Feel
If you are regularly punished or invalidated for expressing your emotions, you find safer ways to express yourself. You show people how you feel rather than tell them. You rely on body language, voice tone, silence, or lack of eye contact to signal your emotions to others. You may hide your vulnerability behind anger; attacking and blaming others instead of speaking honestly about how you feel.
The problem with using indirect methods to express yourself is that people don’t always read your messages accurately, and even if they do, it’s easier for them to ignore you. When others don’t respond the way you want, you may end up feeling rejected and invalidated.
If we express our emotions through anger, others don’t usually respond the way we want. Rather than validating us, they attack back or shut down. The vulnerable emotions, hidden behind the anger never get talked about. Anger often covers up feelings of disappointment, hurt, rejection, inadequacy, or fear.
Send a Clear Message
When we resort to hints, body language, and other non-verbal forms of communication, we often think we are saying more than we really are. Not being clear in our message sets us up for invalidation and misunderstanding.
When we speak honestly and openly about our feelings, needs and wants, there is no room for misinterpretation. If the person refuses to understand or show compassion, we know the deficit is in them, not in our reluctance to speak our truth.
Talking About Feelings Makes us Feel Vulnerable
We often avoid talking about our true feelings because it makes us vulnerable. When we tell someone about our fears, insecurities, disappointments, and hurts, we open ourselves up to judgement or rejection. For people with a history of chronic invalidation, it’s difficult to trust others to respond with acceptance and compassion.
Confide Your True Feelings to Safe People
It’s a sad truth that not all people want to hear our true feelings; even those who say they love us. If we make ourselves vulnerable, some people will respond in a way that hurts. Some people don’t know how to hear another person’s emotions without becoming defensive.
We need to build trust slowly by sharing our feelings a little at a time. When a person consistently proves he or she is trustworthy, we can share more and more of ourselves. True love and friendship comes when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and when our vulnerabilities are respected and understood.
In next week’s post I will elaborate more on emotions and talk about the difference between primary and secondary emotions. If you want to learn more about identifying and expressing your feelings, check out related posts and the resource section below. For specific DBT skills go to the DBT Skills in the menu bar.
“To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.”