How can we safely express ourselves when loved ones invalidate our feelings?
Thank you for this question which came from a reader.
When I read it I first noticed the word “safely”. I so love that the asker of this question wrote this word. To me feeling safe in a conversation is so so crucial. In a way it is like the foundational need for me. When my need for safety is met then I can bring more and more of my authentic self-expression. I can be more me. When I don’t feel safe then I will be guarded, afraid of being vulnerable and then my self-expression will suffer as well as my ability to create the type of human connection that is so dear to me.
So in other words I am affirming the importance of safety – emotional safety – in any conversation. I want to strive for safety in all my communication and if my sense of safety is not met then I want to focus on how I can meet it before doing anything else.
How to take care of my need for safety in a conversation?
For me emotional safety is created when I see my own needs and stay in contact with them.
Oftentimes I notice that I mentally abandon myself. This might happen if I focus on others’ needs and forget my own. Or I might unconsciously let fear make my decisions instead of really checking with myself what I’m needing or wanting and acting from that place.
So to create safety I mentally say to myself and to my needs “I’m here with you, I won’t abandon you, I won’t forget you. If you send me a message that something doesn’t feel right then I will do my very best to listen to you.”
This gives me a sense of assurance. I am always wanting to assure myself that I am here to support myself.
Ultimately I believe that if I am taking care of myself then I am best able to take care of others. When my needs are met then I am more available to listen to and support others’ to meet their needs.
So returning to the question, this is how I look at safely expressing myself. I can’t control whether the other person will invalidate my feelings (and we’ll look at what that means below). I can only control my own self expression and how I respond to a loved one invalidating what I’m sharing.
Reminding myself that I am in control tends to strengthen my sense of safety because I know that if I feel unsafe in a conversation (maybe with the other person is trying to argue with me and my experience) I can leave the conversation or I can take some sort of supportive action that sees and takes care of me.
So in summary:
- Our emotional safety is crucial in order for us to have an expressive and connecting conversation
- We can care for our sense of safety by internally focussing on our needs and reminding ourselves that we are there with ourselves and will do our best to take any supportive action that our needs are requesting of us (e.g. to take a time out from the conversation)
So now I’d like to talk about what it means to be unvalidated after we’ve expressed ourselves.
What does it mean to be invalidated?
The asker of the question explained that invalidation for them can mean that the other person either:
- doesn’t acknowledge, or
- pushes away, or
- puts them down because they can’t relate, have become defensive or are too uncomfortable.
The first thing that arises in me when I read about the experience of being invalidated is pain. How painful it is for me when I bring myself vulnerably, when I express what is alive in me and I’m met with a response which essentially says “no” in some way. How painful to receive that response, especially from those people that we care about and that care for us.
I take a breath. And another.
Because this is a part of relationships. This is a part of communication and I just breathe the challenge of it all. And my breath is also a wish for things to be more simple. How I wish that my partner/mother/friend would just be able to hear my self-expression and just be with me – to truly listen to me.
But experience shows me that it’s just not that simple, most of the time. Most of the time there are so many things that are affecting the other’s response. So much of their own pain, their own painful beliefs about themselves that lead them to react from a place of pain.
Because when another doesn’t acknowledge me, or pushes me away or puts me down, they can only be coming from a place of pain or contraction in them.
So I guess I’m saying two things. One, how painful of an experience it can be to be on the receiving end, and how much pain or fear is alive in the other person for them to not want to acknowledge my experience or to push it away or put me down.
How can we respond in such situations?
In nonviolent communication we talk about only having three places that I can be in any dialogue. I can be in honest self-expression, self-connection (internally giving empathy to myself) or listening empathically to the other person.
If someone responds to my self-expression by either arguing with what I said (aka not acknowledging), by pushing me away (“I don’t want to hear this now”) or by putting me down (“you’re so sensitive!”) then to me this is a sign that they are not available to listen right now. This is a sign for me to move back to listening to them empathically or to walk away from the conversation to connect to myself and give myself empathy.
What helps me move from expression to listening even when I’m hurting is asking myself a question which connects me to my needs.
In that moment of hurt, for example someone has adopted a disapproving look on their face after I’ve expressed my feelings and said “you’re so emotional” in a judgmental way, in that moment I like to ask myself a question: “What do I want from this conversation right now?”
This question directs my attention to what’s important for me – to my needs. I might see that I really want connection right now, that I want togetherness and I also want self-expression and can remind myself that this doesn’t have to come now but can come soon. This may allow my heart to open and give me the internal space I need to move from self-expression to listening. That way I can stay in the dialogue and continue to strive to meet my precious needs.
Because if another person is “invalidating” me then it means that they are not really available to listen to me. It means that they still have more that they need to express. Invalidation from another to me is a cry for help. They are saying “I’m hurting right now, there’s contraction in me. I so want to be heard and to understand for myself what is going on in me. I’m lost and I don’t even really know that I need these things. Would you be able to make space for me and be with me?”
And so I have a choice at this moment. I check in with myself. “Hey dear me, I’m still here with you. Would you like to make the space to listen now for the sake of connection, togetherness and self-expression? Or would it be most supportive for me right now to ask for a pause in the conversation and go and be with myself or ask a friend to be with me because I’m needing self-care?”
So I like to have this kind of inner dialogue with myself which lets me feel the safety that I so long for, that the question asked about.
And if I choose to go back to listening to the other then I mentally make that shift. I might ask an empathic question to encourage the other to continue sharing “sounds like you see things differently?” or “did my sharing now sound like I was blaming you?” or “it was difficult to hear me share right now yes?”
And then I listen, I rejoin them where they are and follow them as they share.
“The more we empathize with the other party, the safer we feel.” – Marshall Rosenberg
But I really want to emphasise – only if it feels right for me.
I might really be in pain, especially if it’s a person that I regularly receive such a response from, and what I might need is to take some time away from the conversation in order to give to the connection between us.
By taking a time out to speak with a friend, to journal (acts of self-connection) I can give myself the care that I need in order to return to the conversation more open and able to make space for them.
The time out might also give them space to reflect (“I wonder why I reacted like I did right now?”)
It might also demonstrate for them that you really value your own needs and are willing to ask for them (“I need to have a time out now”) and that you really value the connection (“our connection is so important for me, I don’t want to continue chatting until I really am in a place where I can continue nourishing it”).
So in summary to the initial question – How can we safely express ourselves when loved ones continue to invalidate our feelings?:
- We remain emotionally safe by remaining aware of our own needs throughout any conversation. We can care for ourselves and our safety by assuring ourselves that we are here caring for our needs, that we won’t abandon ourselves.
- If another responds in a way which feels like invalidating us we can do the following:
- Take a time out from the conversation (in order to care for ourselves and give ourselves time to give empathy to our own pain)
- Remind ourselves that there is clearly some sort of pain or contraction in the other and they are acting from that place and therefore unable to really listen and be with us.
- Ask ourselves: What do I want from this conversation right now? This can connect us with our precious needs that we are trying to meet in this dialogue.
- Mentally shift from expressing ourselves to be the listener in the conversation and thus give the other person space to express themselves more fully and perhaps we will have a chance to express ourselves at some point
I feel as if it is time to pause and welcome your response, the reader. Did this post resonate? What resonated with you? Was anything unclear that you wanted to clarify?
I’m a certified coach therapist supporting and guiding those desiring more compassion and connection to themselves and in their relationships. I weave together nonviolent communication and mindfulness.