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The invalidating environment
Posted on 7:35am Friday 8th Jun 2012
The mental health workers’ guide part 22
Part 22 of The Mental Health Workers' Guide considers the role of the invalidating environment in mental health and emotional development. Don't forget that you can download the podcasts and video clips that accompany this series here.
We'll begin with a quote from Marsha Linehan…
“The environmental disorder is any set of circumstances that pervasively punish, traumatize, or neglect this emotional vulnerability specifically, or the individual's emotional self generally, termed the invalidating environment. The model hypothesizes that BPD results from a transaction over time that can follow several different pathways, with the initial degree of disorder more on the biological side in some cases and more on the environmental side in others. The main point is that the final result, BPD, is due to a transaction where both the individual and the environment co-create each other over time with the individual becoming progressively more emotionally unregulated and the environment becoming progressively more invalidating.”
Linehan M (1997)
Marsha Linehan, is famous for her work on the subject of Borderline Personality disorder and the creation of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, a blend of various principles from cognitive therapy and Zen Buddhism among others.
Linehan studied the various factors that contribute to the creation of Borderline Personality Disorder and looked both at the causes and the ways to overcome them. The result, DBT is one of the most evidence-based and verifiable approaches to the treatment of people diagnosed with BPD.
We’ll look at DBT in more detail in a later post. For now I’d like to spend a little time covering the very basic principles of what Linehan called the Invalidating Environment’.
“An emotionally invalidating environment is any environment in which a person’s emotional experiences are not responded to appropriately or are responded to inconsistently. For example, in an emotionally invalidating home environment, a child who becomes frustrated and cries may be told
“stop being such a baby.”
“In extreme examples, a child may be physically assaulted for expressing feelings. ”
Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD 2008
Trauma does not necessarily need to be acute (sudden/intense). It can be chronic (long-lasting) and might be relatively undramatic. This is the case with the Invalidating environment that Marsha Linehan identified.
In essence the very basis of emotional development is destabilised by the environment itself – or rather by the people who share that environment with the developing child. And it doesn’t really matter what the response is so long as it demonstrates that the child is ‘in the wrong’ or that their feelings are somehow inappropriate.
In truth all people have a perfect right to feel whatever they feel in any given situation. That is our private emotional life and it’s entirely up to us how we run our emotions. It may be reasonable to help people to control their emotions better but the fact remains that they can choose what emotion to feel for themselves. They can feel whatever they like.
The only real question then might be:
“But why would you want to?”
By helping people to understand their choices we can help them to develop self control. By invalidating the choices they have already made and blaming them for feeling bad for example all we do is introduce doubt and confusion into their emotional world. After a while the child comes to believe that they can neither control nor even trust their emotions. This is one possible explanation for the recurrent emotional turmoil in adults with the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. They don’t trust their emotions enough to know what to feel and so they end up experiencing a jumbled emotional mass that they cannot fully understand.
It is not necessary for the child to be beaten or abused sexually for this to happen. All it takes is for the child to be exposed to consistent criticism or for their beliefs to be undermined without rational explanation. If the way the child is treated by caregivers is inconsistent or if they are placed in the stereotypical ‘double-bind’ situation in which whatever they do they will be wrong then we have an Invalidating Environment.
The antidote to this is to acknowledge the child’s feelings – be clear that they are perfectly entitled to feel what they do and then, whenever possible, ‘catch them doing it right’. Many households have fallen into the habit of catching the child doing things wrong and then either punishing or mistreating them as a result. This is one of the hallmarks of an Invalidating environment.
The validating environment is at least as likely (if not more so) to catch the child doing it right – especially in matters of emotional control. So the child who feels angry but then manages to control their aggression is praised for their control – not criticised for the anger. The angry emotion is acknowledged as valid even if it’s not the best or most effective emotion that the child could have chosen. It’s OK to explain that anger is not always an appropriate response in difficult situations (that’ helps the child to develop understanding) but not to say that the feeling itself isn’t valid.
There’s a time and a place for every emotion – even anger.
A validating environment catches the child ‘doing it right’.
I need to be absolutely clear here – the invalidating environment is not the ‘norm’. Almost all families have moments of invalidation during which people’s emotions and opinions are not considered. As a father and stepfather I am well aware of the limitations of ‘good enough’ parents and none of us are perfect. This is not a problem.
Invalidating environments are those in which criticism and invalidation are constant. It takes more than the occasional row with your mother to constitute an Invalidating environment. It takes more than the odd inattentive moment from your father. These are the normal experiences of the average childhood.
In the Invalidating environment the child is seen as a problem ‘in themselves’. They are criticised for having problems and the ease with which those problems might be solved is also exaggerated. The child is then criticised for failing to solve the problem on their own and then, to add insult to injury, further blamed and criticised for feeling bad about their inability to overcome their difficulties.
The net result of all this is that the child grows up believing themselves to be useless and possible even ‘evil’ or ‘unworthy’. They experience guilt about every little mishap – even if it’s not their fault because they failed to prevent it (as usual) and they also come to believe that they cannot rely upon themselves to keep safe. So, no matter how toxic the environment they are in might be they are frightened of being rejected by those they are close to – of abandonment because they do not trust themselves to survive alone.
They can’t even decide what to feel unless someone else tells them. This, of course, means that adults with a history of Invalidating Environments as children often lurch from one abusive relationship after another because the control they experience lets them off the emotional hook. They can rely upon others to tell them what to feel. It also explains why it can be so hard for them to remain in more normal relationships where they are expected to run their own emotional life. After all – a caring partner will want to understand what the other person feels. This is a source of real confusion and often fear for the individual who has never learned to make sense of their emotions in the first place.
Linehan M. (1997) Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for Borderline Personality Disorder
The Journal Vol. 8/Iss. 1
Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD 2008 http://bpd.about.com/od/glossary/g/invalid.htm