When I was small my mother told me, “Finish your dinner! There are children starving in Africa.” I promptly suggested that we box up my dinner, along with some of the food in the pantry, and send it to them. After all, how was finishing my dinner going to help those hungry children?
It couldn’t help them, because it had nothing to do with them. They were two different issues. Finishing my dinner would do nothing for them, and only give me a stomachache.
Likewise, thinking that others had it worse than you does nothing to help them, but it could hurt you.
The other day I heard from a reader who said, “I guess I just need to be stronger. When I read the comments on this site, I realize that others had it much worse than I did.” I’ve heard similar words from many others.
“Other people had it worse” doesn’t help because you are not other people. And it doesn’t help because you can’t heal an emotional wound with logic. Trying to do so will only isolate you from your feelings, and that’s very different than healing.
“Others had it worse than me” means you don’t think you should feel as bad as you do, because you don’t think you have a real reason to feel that bad. It’s a take on an invalidating statement that people say, far too often, to others–“Other people have it worse than you do, you know”— only now you might be saying it to yourself.
Invalidation is the act of rejecting, diminishing, ignoring, judging or making fun of someone’s feelings. Unfortunately, it happens all too often and there even seems to be an epidemic of it in society. Many of us have learned to think invalidation is “normal,” because it’s so common. Not only do we come to think it’s normal, but we internalize it and do it to ourselves.
When others invalidate our feelings, it creates emotional distance. When we invalidate our own feelings, we create alienation from the self. We also create feelings of guilt and shame. Self-invalidation (and invalidation by others) makes recovery from depression and anxiety particularly difficult.
“Just like children, emotions heal when they are heard and validated.”
~ Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey
Experts believe that invalidation is a major contributor to emotional disorders. A history of emotional invalidation is “significantly associated with emotion inhibition (i.e., ambivalence over emotional expression, thought suppression, and avoidant stress responses). Further, emotion inhibition significantly predicted psychological distress, including depression and anxiety symptoms,” according to a study titled, The Role of Emotion Inhibition in Psychological Distress, Thomas R. Lynch, PhD, Duke University
“Other people have it worse. This may, in point of fact, be technically true, but it only tells part of the story. Contemporary journalism often does this, pulling out the letter of the law but completely missing the spirit, the story, the truth. Knowing other people have worse problems doesn’t always help me emotionally manage my grief and pain. I need to come to grips with the enormity of the issue, not diminish my own mental health issues.
This stuff is important – for me – and that is not selfishness, quite the contrary. No one knows what I am going through but me. No one understands my part of the picture. No one knows how I am really handling this life, no one but me.”
~ Scott Williams, Clinical Therapist
Many of us got more than enough invalidation from the psychopath, and then from others afterward, and the last thing we need is to invalidate ourselves. Telling yourself you can’t be sad because others have it worse is like saying you can’t be happy because others have it better. And it makes just as much sense. Stop measuring how much of a right you have to feel bad and just let yourself feel bad.
There are plenty of other variations of self-invalidation beside the example used so far:
“I should be over this by now.”
“I should be ashamed of myself for feeling this way.”
“I should realize how much I have to be grateful for, not dwelling on this.”
“I need to just get over it already.”
“This is ridiculous, the way I feel.”
“I shouldn’t let this bother me so much.”
“I’m sick and tired of feeling this way.”
“I need to stop feeling so sorry for myself.”
“I need to get on with my life and move past this.”
“I must be crazy.”
“Therapists call the attempt to normalize one’s experience — the mental gymnastics that some people do to minimize their suffering — a kind of invalidation. By that they mean that the person is discounting his pain; negating his own feelings, usually by the intellectual exercise of comparing. And since he might well have been told at some point, in words or actions, that his feelings weren’t important, he now has the additional problem of saying it to himself. It is one thing to be alienated from the world, but self-invalidation adds a level of estrangement from yourself on top of that.
Stop running. It is the running that has given your vampiric emotions the opportunity to repeatedly torment you. If you give your wounds attention in the daylight, eventually the vampire who feeds on them will not come for you at night.”
~ Vampires and Buried Feelings: The Therapy of Getting Over Your Hurt, Dr. Gerald Stein, psychotherapist (*please see the article for a list of actions to take to resolve buried emotions)
Accepting the feelings that arise within us, and allowing ourselves to experience them fully along with the knowledge that we’re strong enough to survive doing so, means we accept ourselves and acknowledge the serious nature of our injury. It doesn’t mean we might not need help dealing with our emotions, though. Sometimes we need help. We can accept that, too.
Invalidation, whether it comes from others or from ourselves, lacks compassion. Compassion is what will help us to heal. Self-compassion is nothing less than a paradigm shift after involvement with a psychopath. It can be transformational. Being human becomes OK again (psychopaths despise that) along with all the emotions we feel. Compassion is healing; it’s the treatment for the harm suffered from being treated without compassion.
The best way to stop invalidating yourself is by practicing validation. It’s about accepting your internal experience as valid and understandable. That’s very powerful. By looking at the truth and validating yourself, you affirm that you need to heal and that you have a right to heal. It is in facing your feelings, and validating them, that you will eventually find healing, wholeness, and freedom.
*I want to add that you can have empathy for yourself AND for those who have it worse. The two are not mutually exclusive.
A reader named Linda had some wise words on self-invalidation:
“I now recognize this tendency in myself. It is habitual, and something I am working on correcting. I would not ask a friend to downplay her pain and suffering after such an awful experience; why should I do this to myself?
I have begun to understand that being “strong” actually means acknowledging the pain and accepting the reality of emotional damage, not denying it and thus invalidating myself in the process.”
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