ERROR: Your problems are invalid

tHE Damaging EFFECTS OF emotional INVALIDATION

(or maybe they’re not that bad…)

What is invalidation? Dictionary.com defines it as “to render invalid; discredit; or nullify”. I’m sure everyone has experienced some form of invalidation at one point or another, and normally we just learn to deal with it and move on. But what about when this invalidation is in regard to something particularly personal, such as your thoughts and feelings?

Emotional invalidation is when your feelings/emotions are dismissed, minimised, rejected or ignored. You are made to feel like your problems are not serious enough, that they are not important. This can be considered a form of emotional abuse and consequently can be very harmful to a person’s self-esteem and self-worth. This can be particularly damaging when that person is already in a vulnerable position, such as when disclosing mental health difficulties.

How about when this invalidation comes from a so called ‘expert’, someone you would expect to trust? For example a doctor or counsellor. Imagine plucking up the courage to go and speak to someone about your mental health difficulties to then be completely shot down and your struggles made to seem insignificant. A storm of emotions crash over you; anger, despair, upset, confusion, shock. This is unfortunately the case for many people, myself included, and it can cause some pretty damaging, and long-lasting effects, particularly if the experience is repeated more than once.

Seeking support – what happens when it causes more harm than good?

We are constantly encouraged to reach out for help if we’re struggling, reassured that we are not alone, that people want to help. But what we don’t talk about enough is what happens when you try and seek support but are instead dismissed and your problems invalidated. When you ask someone for help but they don’t listen or understand. What happens then? What are you meant to do now?

It seems to be often assumed that you ask for help and you get it. It’s that simple. No one seems to talk about the occasions where no help is offered, the damaging effects of being shot down after you’ve mustered up the strength and courage to seek help. Spending hours mentally psyching yourself up for an appointment, meticulously planning and rehearsing what you will say, allowing yourself to feel one small speck of hope that things might get better. However, all this work ends up being for nothing. Your hopes of a better life are shattered in the space of 10 minutes. That soul crushing disappointment as you realise all your energy was wasted. You have received no help, and in fact now feel even worse than you did before as you come to realise that this could be your life forever.

I know I have certainly felt this way. I had never heard much about others’ experiences of being dismissed by medical professionals and as such I felt very alone. I wish it was talked about a bit more publicly because I am sure I am not the only one who has gone through this and when your feelings have been invalidated all you want is some reassurance and external validation, confirmation that your problems are real and important and that you matter!! I struggled to find this anywhere and I longed for something to help me feel a little less shit about it all. I think even just having the knowledge that I was not alone and other people had similar experiences would have at least slightly softened the blow and reduced my self doubt slightly.

Experiencing this invalidation from medical professionals once is bad enough, but how about when these experiences are repeated several times over a period of many years, and by different people? Whilst an unpleasant experience, you think perhaps you were just unlucky the first time, you maybe got unlucky with the doctor you saw and there may be some hope were you to see someone else. However, when this experience is repeated by a range of so called ‘professionals’ over several years, the damage can be severe. Over the space of 5.5 years I was dismissed by doctors at my GP surgery on 3 separate occasions (as well as booking and subsequently cancelling appointments at the last minute a couple of times due to fear of being dismissed again) and again by two different counsellors through my university’s wellbeing service before I was finally listened to. And to be honest, that was only because my mum came to the doctors  with me and pretty much insisted they let me try medication (so wasn’t really me they listened to…).

During these visits I had one doctor write on my consultation notes ‘clear she is not depressed’, another write ‘feeling low but not depressed’ and had a counsellor tell me to my face that I was ‘definitely not depressed’. Now, whilst I’m not a ‘qualified’ medical professional (not sure how useful that is anyway…), I can say with pretty high levels of certainty that I was severely depressed on each one of these occasions, but unfortunately my feelings were completely dismissed and invalidated each time. One person denying you’re depressed isn’t great, but it’s feasible they may have got it wrong (although it is still extremely crushing to be told you’re essentially fine when you’re sure you’re not). However, having three separate professionals tell you this does really make you start to question yourself. Maybe I really was just making it up?

Additionally, another so called ‘counsellor’, in response to me telling her about my repetitive thoughts, asked me ‘have you ever tried not repeating them?’*. I don’t think she could have made my problems sound anymore insignificant if she tried and the only thing she successfully achieved in that appointment was making me feel like an absolute idiot for seeking help and sharing my problems with her (i honestly questioned if i had the word ‘MUG’ tattooed on my forehead).

*(in case you were wondering…surprisingly, yes, during the 7+ years I’d been experiencing these repetitive thoughts it had crossed my mind to try and ‘simply not repeat them’ but it had unfortunately proved unsuccessful on each and every occasion)

Every time I sought help, I was dismissed, my feelings invalidated and minimised, made to feel like I wasn’t important and that no one cared. Not only did this cause me emotional distress but it also prevented me from being honest with other people about how I was feeling. When people asked how I was or what was wrong I felt I couldn’t tell them I was depressed or had anxiety or OCD because I’d feel like a fraud. I felt like the doctors/counsellors had made it pretty clear that they didn’t think I had any of those conditions (whilst also offering me no alternative diagnosis) so even though I was certain that I fit the diagnostic criteria, I’d be lying if I said I had them. I really wished I could give an honest response when people asked but I just couldn’t find the words to explain without feeling like a liar. So instead I always resorted to the classic “I’m tired” or making a joke about my mental health. This was my coping mechanism. I wanted so badly to tell people how I was really feeling, but I feel like ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’, ‘ocd’ etc. were these ‘protected titles’, saved only for those who had been ‘officially’ diagnosed. I didn’t ‘deserve’ to use these terms to describe what I was going through and if I did use them to describe myself I would be a liar and it would be disrespectful to all those who really are struggling with those problems (although I obviously was too, but the constant dismissals had filled me with a lot of doubt).

Now I totally understand that doctors don’t want to prescribe medication straight away, and I completely agree with this as I think it is important to try other things first. But handing out some shitty leaflets to useless websites that I’ve looked at countless times already and suggesting meditation and mindfulness apps isn’t going to cure me or anyone else who has been suffering for this long. I completely support the use of such things but it is unlikely to really solve your problems unless they are only mild and/or acute. I recognise the benefits of mindfulness/meditation (and do try to incorporate such activities into my life)  but trying to treat my mental health problems solely with this seemed like the equivalent trying to treat a broking leg with nothing more than some paracetamol, i.e. it might help a tiny bit, but some more substantial treatment is definitely necessary as well.

I felt stigmatised by the doctors/counsellors – that my problems didn’t matter and I was making a big deal out of nothing, that I could fix it all with a couple of leaflets, meditation and self-help, that I could (and SHOULD be able to) do it on my own, but I couldn’t, I needed help from someone else, I couldn’t do it alone and I wish that the doctors had understood that (or at least made some sort of effort to try and understand). I was not okay and no matter how much I wanted to or tried to help myself, I didn’t have the tools to do it alone. It takes a lot of strength and bravery to admit that you need external help (not just self-help) so to have that rejection is absolutely soul destroying and leaves you drowning in a sea of hopelessness.

Thankfully, I am now on medication which has helped somewhat, I had some CBT which was quite useful, and I was diagnosed with (and subsequently medicated for) ADHD, which explained a lot of my difficulties (and the medications have helped with some of those symptoms). But honestly I’m still not in a great place and would probably benefit from some therapy. But the main reason I feel I require this isn’t so much to deal with the original problems I sought help for, but rather to address the psychological damage caused by being constantly dismissed and invalidated when I have previously sought help. I have a lot of unresolved feelings regarding my experiences and I see the impacts of this constant invalidation in my life everyday, manifesting in my low self-esteem and a reluctance to express my needs and ask for help.

The painful irony is that my quest to get help for my MH difficulties has left me so mentally scarred and traumatised that I now need even more help (but I’m also scared to get help in case it happens again…). It has left me so broken and exhausted that I still can’t function properly, even though my original problems have been addressed and shown some improvement. I am sure many other people have has similar experiences.

These experiences have left me feeling a lot of different emotions.

SADNESS, ANGER, RESENTMENT , DESPAIR , FRUSTRATION, DISAPPOINTMENT.

I’m just so ANGRY at the doctors/counsellors that dismissed me. I had several friends say to me “why don’t you try meds”? I know they were just trying to help but this was the opposite of helpful (they obviously weren’t to know this). I would have loved to try medication. I know meds are not always the answer and you shouldn’t rely on them, but I was desperate at this point. I had been struggling so badly for so many years and nothing I tried seemed to help! I was going to the gym almost every day as it was the only thing, other than sleep, that offered any form of relief for me. And even then the effects were very short lived, often having worn off by the time I arrived home from the gym. I was napping most days because I was constantly exhausted and mentally drained. If only it was that easy for me to try meds. I heard several stories from friends about how easily they were prescribed them, but this was the complete opposite to my experience. Every time I went to the doctors I felt like I was dismissed, made to feel like there was nothing wrong with me and fobbed off with nothing more than a leaflet (with a sprinkling of psychological trauma and distress). Fair play to them, every time when I was sure my mental health couldn’t get any worse, that I couldn’t move any further towards the cliff edge without falling off, they managed to push me that little bit further. I’m angry at myself too, maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough to get better, maybe it was my fault, maybe I wasn’t standing up for myself enough. But I know I did try, I went on those shitty websites that offered no real help. I kept revisiting every so often, hoping that by some miracle they’d updated the website and I might actually find something useful (unfortunately pigs don’t fly). 

I’m SAD and FRUSTRATED about all the damage they’ve caused me and how much my life has been impacted. It’s impacted my mental wellbeing, my social life, my academic performance, my work and literally every other aspect of my life.

I’m filled with RESENTMENT at being treated so poorly and hurt so much. I resent the doctors/counsellors for treating me this way. I also resent how easy it was for other people to get medication or support. I hate that I feel that way, I shouldn’t be angry about other people receiving better support than me or an adequate level of treatment, I should be happy for them, and deep down I am, but I am also filled with DISAPPOINTMENT that I did not receive the same level of support.

I have spent years with a constant feeling of DESPAIR, a complete loss of hope. A loss of hope in myself and my ability to succeed and be happy, a loss of hope and confidence in the ability of the GPs and my university to effectively help me or other people. A loss of hope for life in general.

I don’t want to feel this way, these are not attractive qualities, and it’s not enjoyable feeling this way. I want to be able to move on, but I feel like in order to move on I need to actually talk about and acknowledge the feelings I have and not just keep it all to myself. I think bottling up these feelings has been preventing me from moving on. I think writing down my thoughts and sharing them with others is the first step in this process.

All I want is to be able share how I’m feeling with someone else and for them to just listen, acknowledge and accept my feelings as valid, rather than instantly dismiss them. Surely that’s a reasonable request? Surely everyone deserves to have their feelings listened to, respected, and accepted? Everyone’s feelings are VALID and personal to them and should be treated as such.

If your feelings have been invalidated, don’t let it deter you or stop you getting the support you need. Reach out to another source, whether that’s seeing a different medical professional, or simply speaking to a friend or family member, there will always be people out there to listen and support you. Or even using mental health helplines such as Mind or Samaritans or Shout (a text messaging service). There will always be someone available to listen. Never underestimate the power of a listening ear and judgement free love and support. No matter how many times you get knocked down or dismissed, remember that YOUR FEELINGS ARE VALID. Keep pushing until you get the support you need and DESERVE.

Mind – 0300 123 3393; Samaritans – 116 123; Shout – Text SHOUT to 85258

If your feelings have been invalidated, don’t let it deter you or stop you getting the support you need. Reach out to another source, whether that’s seeing a different medical professional, or simply speaking to a friend or family member, there will always be people out there to listen and support you. Or even using mental health helplines such as Mind or Samaritans or Shout (a text messaging service). There will always be someone available to listen. Never underestimate the power of a listening ear and judgement free love and support. No matter how many times you get knocked down or dismissed, remember that YOUR FEELINGS ARE VALID. Keep pushing until you get the support you need and DESERVE.