the user-led self-injury organisation.

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Thoughtful girlLeading to low -self-esteem and an inability to express one’s self.

When a person is told that their ideas, desires and thoughts are wrong, stupid or not worth considering, that person can feel invalidated, i.e. they can feel unheard and discounted.

When a person finds that all their thoughts are always judged to be silly or not worth consideration, they can be said to be experiencing chronic, or long-term invalidation.

A growing child must of course defer to their parents better judgement, but there should be some areas of their lives that they can feel in control of. As a child grows, they naturally wish to express themselves, and decide things for themselves; they may have opinions on what they wear, what haircut they get, where they go and what they spend their time on.

As a child grows they will develop political, religious, philosophical, and practical opinions of their own, and now we are really discussing a young person, rather than a child.

If a young person is heavily criticised for having differing opinions to those of their parents / guardians, they can feel that they have had their rights to free thought removed, they may find that nothing they do or say garners favourable attention, they can be left feeling confused and unappreciated, even unloved, for who they are.

Linehan (1993a) investigates ‘invalidating environments’ and relates them to self injury:

“An invalidating environment is one in which communication of private experiences is met by erratic, inappropriate, or extreme responses. In other words, the expression of private experiences is not validated; instead it is often punished and/or trivialized. The experience of painful emotions disregarded. The individual’s interpretations of her own behavior, including the experience of the intents and motivations of the behavior, are dismissed…”

Abusive language is abuse

If a young person expresses their opinion, or personality (through clothes etc.) and is subsequently ‘shot down’ and belittled by their loving parents, it can lead to an identity crisis, they may wonder ‘who am I to have these thoughts that cause such anger in my parents?’.

Examples of daily invalidation:

Mother: “What’s that gunk on your face? You look a mess!”
Daughter: “It’s just dark eye-shadow, it’s how I like to look…”

Father: “Queers are always ramming their lives down our throats.”
Daughter: “I think gay people are just seeking equality, it’s a free country.”
Father: “Are you a queer-lover now? Jeez, what is wrong with you these days?”

Son: “I’m becoming vegetarian, I’m not comfortable with eating animals.”
Father: “Who’s been filling your head with this Liberal rubbish? You’ll eat what you get while under my roof.”

Young Girl: “Can I have the new Hotwheels AccelleRacers for my birthday please?”
Guardian: “I was thinking of getting you Lego Clikits, you get to make your own jewellery, won’t that be fun.”

Loss of external self-expression can lead to internal self-expression, and self-injury

Sad manIf a person’s self expression is inhibited, or even forbidden, then it may lead to such a crisis that they turn inwards, only expressing themselves internally, and this might manifest as self harm.

Self harm can be seen as ‘communication to one’s self’; a person who self harms may feel that the only way to have a voice, is to keep it silent and private, to express their feelings directly on their own body.

If there is no one who will listen to the emotional outbursts of a frustrated and distressed person, they may turn to self harm as a form of emotional expression. By creating physical harm to themselves, they seek relief from the emotional distress# that they are forbidden to express publicly.

“One factor common to most people who self-injure, whether they were abused or not, is invalidation. They were taught at an early age that their interpretations of and feelings about the things around them were bad and wrong. They learned that certain feelings weren’t allowed. In abusive homes, they may have been severely punished for expressing certain thoughts and feelings.”

Deb Martinson

Physical pain can seem easier to deal with than the emotional pain that is trapped inside an invalidated person, and it detracts from the emotional distress therefore offering some kind of temporary relief.

Chronic invalidation is not only experienced by young people, it can effect people of any age, in situations where a person in power, or a group of people, continuously discount and ignore a person. This sort of passive bullying can often be seen in the work place*.

If you feel that you suffer from chronic invalidation at the hands of other people, there are things you can do about it, although, one must consider the dangers of confronting a physically abusive care giver, and you will have to gauge just how much you can raise your profile safely.

Demonstrating maturity and competence are the first things that guardians and parents tend to look for to judge a child as ‘responsible’. Demonstrating responsibility can promote pride from your guardian or parent.

Invalidating language can be challenged, if done with respect and sensitivity.

If someone accuses you of ‘always being silly’, you could reply with something like: “I’m not always silly, although I can see how my behaviour today could be seen as silly.”

If someone calls you ‘stupid and incompetent’ you can reply with: “I’m not stupid, I’m having trouble with this thing, but I will learn, perhaps you can help?”

If you are told that you’re ‘crazy to think such a thing’ you can say: “I’m just thinking it through, this is my opinion based on what I know, if you can give me more information, I’ll think a bit more.”

By always explaining a little more after denying the insult, you show that you are willing to respect and listen to their opinion; something that they may not expect from you!

“When your awareness rises, you’ll begin to notice such comments on a regular basis. Together, they take their toll on us. We wonder if there is something wrong with us for feeling how we do. It seems fair to say that with enough invalidation, one person can figuratively, if not literally, drive another person crazy. This is especially possible, I believe, in the case where one person has long-term power over another. Examples of such relationships are parent/child, teacher/child, “spiritual” leader/follower, boss/employee, spouse A/spouse B. Such a sad scenario appears to be even more likely when the person being invalidated is highly sensitive, intelligent and has previously suffered self-esteem damage.”

Steve Hein

External Articles


Linehan, M. M. (1993a). Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: The Guilford Press.

# LifeSIGNS: definition of self injury
* Just Fight On: Am I Being Bullied?

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  • […] damages self-esteem, causes an increase of self-harming behavior such as cutting, leads to higher rates of anxiety and depression and even to the development of eating disorders. […]

  • Becky

    To M,

    You can help him by validating him.

  • Breanna

    I think that you just need to take those lessons for yourself, understand that you have lost your brother as a result of his invalidating family.
    Invalidation is not and will never be acceptable when it comes to a mentally and emotionally healthy individual because the two are opposing magnets.

    Make changes in your life, grieve over him but god damnit, do not continue the invalidation.

  • M

    Hello Steve.

    I hope you will be reading this comment as your article relates heavily to some issues I’ve been facing in my life, namely the unhealthy dynamics within my family. I want to talk to you about my brother and I. I’m 25 and he’s 21. All through our upbringing my mother treated me as the golden child and him as the black sheep (this is my interpretation). Through invalidating behaviour he was harassed and scolded. Sometimes I mirrored my mother’s parenting as the oldest of three boys living with my single mother. Once at 15 I moved to my father’s, my brother of then 12 started to take control over the family by turning my mother’s invalidation unto her and now so many years later it’s almost the only way he communicates with me and nobody ever bats an eyelid. I’ve tried some years ago to get my parents to help him, because it’s clear to me that he carries around intense resentment. I love my brother, but I can’t stand more of his relentless criticism and the fact that his whole personality now seems centered around protecting himself against invalidation, by convincing himself and everybody else as well as he can that he is untouchable and perfect: being arrogant, stonefaced, critical, demeaning and dismissive. He has become like a wall filled with spikes.

    He used to be such a sweet and caring child, not to mention so smart. How do I help him?


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