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Invalidation in Families: What Are the Hidden Aspects?

Invalidation is not as simple a process as it might appear.

Invalidation, as used in psychology, is a term most associated with Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Marsha Linehan. As I described in my post on the family dynamics of borderline personality disorder, “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, 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 or in any way. In some families, the invalidation becomes extreme, leading to physical abuse and even murder. However, invalidation can also be accomplished by verbal manipulations that invalidate in ways both subtle and confusing.”

This post will discuss two aspects of invalidation that Linehan does not, I believe, discuss. The first involves the relationship between the concept of invalidation and a similar concept from family systems pioneer Paul Watzlawick that he called disqualification. The second idea is that when children in a family are continually invalidated by their parents, they start to give them what the children think they want: saying and doing things which literally invite other people to invalidate them.

1. Relationship to disqualification. When I first read Linehan, I thought of a similar concept that I had read about in a classic book in family systems theory by Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson first published way back in 1967 called Pragmatics of Human Communication. They called this concept disqualification. At first, I thought that maybe Linehan was re-discovering the wheel, but then I went back to the old book to look at how they defined disqualification. To my surprise, disqualification is something one does to oneself, not to someone else.

One disqualifies oneself when one is afraid to say what one really feels or means for fear that others will reject it. Hence disqualifiers say things in a way that allows them “plausible deniability.” They can claim they were misinterpreted if another important family member objects. They accomplish this through wide range of deviant communicational phenomena “… such as self-contradictions, inconsistencies, subject switches, tangentializations, incomplete sentences, misunderstandings, obscure style or mannerisms of speech, the literal interpretation of metaphor and the metaphorical interpretation of literal remarks, etc." (p. 76).

Now, why would anyone disqualify themselves? The answer has to do with something that the psychoanalysts, who got a lot of things wrong, got right. They thought problematic behavior resulted from an unresolved conflict within the individual between two opposite courses of action. Now the analysts assumed that the conflict was between biological impulses like sex and aggression and a person's internalized value system, otherwise known as his or her conscience. While certainly one can feel conflicted over those things, the focus of the analysts was far too narrow.

Experiential therapists like Fritz Perls and Carl Rogers felt that a far more basic conflict was between one’s need to express one’s true nature (self-actualization) and doing what was expected by everyone else. Family systems pioneer Murray Bowen framed this as a conflict between the forces of individuality and the forces of togetherness. Those with such a conflict suppress parts of themselves that do not seem to conform to what they believe other important family members expect of them, but the suppression is never complete. Such a person will disqualify what they are trying to get across just in case it is unacceptable to others. If it is, then they can claim that they were merely misunderstood.

Unfortunately, when someone disqualifies what they are saying in this manner, the other people listening are on shaky ground when trying to determine what is actually being communicated to them. The communications are very confusing. In fact, just when listeners think they have a fix on it, such people may contradict themselves, leaving listeners to start to doubt their own perceptions about what was just said. In other words, when someone disqualifies themselves, they are often invalidating the person listening to them. The two concepts are not just similar to each other, they go hand in hand!

This leads to the proposition that when family members seem to be invalidating another family member, the apparent invalidators may really be disqualifying themselves. Listeners would have no way of knowing this, and would be inadvertently led to believe that they were being mistreated by the apparent invalidator. Most therapists think this, as well.

I had a big clue that invalidators may actually be thinking about themselves when they appear to be invalidating others. One of the ways I learned about borderline family dynamics was when adult patients brought audiotapes of conversations with their parents on the phone when the parents did not know they were being recorded. (Making recordings this way is illegal in some states, but it is not illegal for me to listen to them.) Patients brought me these tapes primarily because they were tired of other therapists continually insisting that their memories and descriptions of interactions with their families were all distorted.

One patient, one of the worst self-cutters I have ever treated, used to have phone conversations with her mother nearly every day that lasted for hours and hours. On first listening, it sounded like the mother was expressing appropriate concern about the daughter’s cutting. In fact, I realized that my patient had been very good at getting me to sound just like her mother.

I never knew how good at that patients could be. I later learned that the conversation I listened to was essentially a rerun. They had had the exact same conversation over and over again. For hours and hours. The mother’s comments in that context no longer sounded like appropriate concern but more like the mother’s obsession with her daughter and a compulsion to lecture the girl repeating the same things—constantly. That ties into the second point of this post, but more about that in a minute.

The clue I was referring to was that suddenly, in the middle of an hours-long conversation, the mother unexpectedly exclaimed, “I was a bad little girl,” and went on to describe how horrible a daughter she had been. It suddenly occurred to me that, despite appearances, she might really have been thinking about herself a good deal of the time during the conversation. The “obsession” with the daughter had a very hidden component that my patient would have absolutely no way of knowing about. The mother often disqualified herself while seeming to be in the process of invalidating her daughter. If the daughter brought up something the mother had just said, the mother would accuse her daughter of living in the past! The past being less than one minute ago!

2. Inviting others to invalidate you. One of the main things I have learned over the years in dealing with dysfunctional families is that, when parents do the same thing over and over again in a compulsive manner, their children come to the conclusion that the parents need to keep doing whatever that is. They will therefore give the parents repeated opportunities to keep doing it. Parenting columnist John Rosemond alluded to this in a recent column. "I have to wonder if (constant) parental concern is eventually self-fulfilling: as in, if you are concerned, then your child will give you something to be concerned about."

I don't wonder about that at all; it is absolutely true.

In this case, if you seem to have a need to invalidate your kids, they will say a bunch of stupid stuff just so you can keep doing it. In the case of the patient I just described, for instance, she would keep telling her mother, “I’m fine. I’m doing great.” She said this while she was in the process of cutting herself deeply near her carotid artery, which, of course, could kill her.

What are you supposed to say when someone insists there is no problem when there is a huge problem overshadowing everything? Are you going to say, “That’s insane”? Of course you will. Also, during this process, the daughter was completely invalidating her mother’s expressed concerns about her well-being. In the families of patients with borderline personality disorder, children eventually learn to give out every bit as much as they get.