Thursday, August 14, 2008

No Pollution Here. Move Along!

I finally finished reading a book about Australia written by Jean-Michel Cousteau.

It's an excellent book, by the way--if any of you can manage to get your hands on it. It's well written, informative, and has beautiful photographs. An absolute treasure.

There's a story in the book about the authors and his team visiting Burnie, Tasmania.

Through out the book, they investigate various environmental concerns. They've been warned about a pulp mill in Burnie which pumps smoke out of it's smokestacks. Rumors have it that the pollution goes into the ocean. When the residents of Burnie swim in the nearby beach, they end up with rashes.

When Cousteau and his gang get to the factory, there is no ugly smoke anywhere. It's clean.

Those damn environmentalist hippies had been lying, right?

Nope. Some reliable sources told the gang that the mill had been shut down because the mill villains knew some writers, scientists, and photographers were going to be snooping.

Cousteau and the others returned unannounced a few days later and got to see the smoke for themselves.

Not only were the town's people grievances heard and believed, they were recorded inside a book that an American girl ended up reading.

Lately, because of a website I found, I'm all into this thing called invalidation.
Invalidation is basically telling someone their feelings are wrong.

We ALL do it to some extent.


We don't like negative feelings.

Essentially, we want everyone to be happy. And we want everyone to be happy all of the time.

I think lying is one major form of invalidation. Lying and denial. Just pretend something didn't happen. AKA covering your own ass.

If Cousteau never returned unannounced to uncover the dirty trick, the Burnie people not only would have to deal with ocean water that caused rashes, but also with people thinking they were a bunch of liars. What would the book have said then? We went to Burnie to investigate these claims of pollution only to find the air is clean. What in their damaged psych makes these townspeople lie? We may never know.I once read a blog of a young woman who was raped. After a few weeks, she started questioning herself. Maybe it wasn't really rape. Maybe I was wrong to call it rape.

What probably happened is people invalidated her experience. They might have said things like well, did you say no loud enough? Did you lead him on? Did you try to fight him off? Are you sure you didn't want it and then change your mind?

I think inappropriate questions are another form of invalidation.

An example besides the rape would be the way some of us would respond if we heard, "My best friend died."

We might ask. "How long did you know him?"

Yeah, it MIGHT be just curiosity, but for someone grieving it may feel like invalidation. It might give the grieving person the sense that if they didn't know their friend long enough, they don't need to be as sad.

Invalidation comes in all different forms. Some of it is more harmful than others. And some people are more easily harmed by it. Some of us are extremely sensitive to it.

A lot of us use invalidation on a regular basis and see nothing wrong with it. We think we're helping someone instead of hurting someone.

It also might depend on the situation.
My grandmother once had knee surgery and my little sister wrote her a card saying Don't Worry. Be Happy.
My grandma loved it and said it cheered her up.

Don't worry. Be Happy
is very invalidating. It's telling someone they shouldn't be feeling what they are feeling. They should be feeling a more socially acceptable emotion.
In some cases, it can be reassuring though. I think it probably depends on who is saying it. If I have a tumor and the radiologist says Don't worry. Be happy! I take that as pretty optimistic news.
If I already HAVE cancer and I'm dying, a friend saying Don't worry. Be happy is going to make me want to scream.

We live in a complex world with complex problems and we have complex emotions. I think we would all feel better if we faced these emotions instead of being afraid of them.
If someone says I wish I was dead, I personally think the appropriate thing to say is Sorry your life sucks right now. I hope you feel better. Do you want to talk about it?Instead what we mostly say is You don't really wish that! Look at how great your life is. Think about everyone that loves you. You'd destroy people's lives if you killed yourself. How could you even think of something that selfish? Come on! It's not that bad.

Yeah, that's going to make someone feel better!

The problem with invalidation is that it often doesn't remove the negative feelings. It just adds MORE negative feelings. The person now not only feels sad, but wrong and guilty for having their emotions.
The more I learn and think about invalidation, the more I hate it. I want to stop using it on other people and I want to avoid people who use it on me.

In my opinion, invalidation is like pollution. Pollution is often invisible and we don't know we're being effected by it. Slowly, it creeps into our lives and slowly it makes us sick. We often don't even know it was the pollution that made us sick. Some people are more effected by it than others. Those with power often deny the harm that it causes or say we're making a big deal out of nothing.
I think it is a big deal and I think it can cause a tremendous amount of harm.


  1. You are so right, as usual.

    It is hard for many of us to actually notice how invalidating much of what we do is to others, because it has crept into the common lingo which we often use toward others.

    "Get over it" is one example, which basically says "your experience and pain is pathetic and worthless, and so are you".

    A friend of mine today on the phone got angry at me when I brought up some pain I was feeling toward a loved one who left me, and it was basically "you need to just stop thinking about her".

    That was invalidation, because I can't help what I sometimes feel, and i only rang to get some sympathy and compassion, to have someone to hear my pain and validate me. I am quite capable of getting over it myself when the time is right, but invalidating me the way this lady did only stops me dealing with the pain and hurt and actually prevents me from "getting over it", not the other way around.

  2. Tribog,

    I don't know if we ever truly get over certain types of pain. It's always with us. If we're lucky we can express it when needed and be fairly happy at other times. But most of us are surrounded by people who invalidate us and we have no one to help us through it. We hide the pain to make everyone around us feel more comfortable, but we still feel it inside.

  3. What a great post and your analogy is very apt.