Many of us struggle with self-doubt and insecurity as we reach adulthood, this can be a normal part of the maturation process, or something that holds us back from reaching our full potential due to fear of failure or fear of disappointing people who are important to us. In this post I will explain the DBT-based concept of an Invalidating Environment, the role it might play in adult insecurity, and how to learn and grow through this.
The Invalidating Environment
The Invalidating Environment is a concept developed by Marsha Linehan to describe what might happen in early childhood when a child grows up in an environment that is in some way not a 'good fit' for them. This situation might arise from something as simple as core differences in personality, for instance where two parents are extraverts with an introverted child (or vice versa). This core difference in interacting with the world can create a situation where the parents perceive their child as somehow wrong or dysfunctional, when the child simply functions differently than the parents. The child might also perceive him or herself as 'wrong' or inherently flawed because they have a very different level of tolerance for environmental stimulation than the rest of the family. Invalidating environments exist on a spectrum from a situation that might be completely unintentional and relatively benign, to something more insidious: deliberate manipulation or a pattern of gaslighting that perpetuates abuse.
Early childhood trauma can also result in the development of an invalidating environment, particularly early sexual abuse by a person in a position of trust. The adult or more powerful individual who is abusing the child (particularly if this is someone who would normally be trusted or safe), might be verbally telling the child that they are safe, that the perpetrator is trying to help or protect them, while the child's own intuition is telling them that they aren't safe and need to get away. This situation can create an extreme disconnect between the message that the child is receiving from the environment, and the message that they are receiving through their own body's senses. Few children are equipped to challenge a person in authority who is making them uncomfortable. How this often plays out in adolescence and adulthood is the victim has a great deal of difficulty trusting their own instincts, and will often not leave dangerous situations because of this lack of trust in their own gut. The victim will often tell themselves things like: "I'm making too big of a deal of this" or "I must be imagining this because I'm crazy" or otherwise experience self-invalidating thoughts and self-talk.
Reflecting back on my own experiences as a child growing up in a high-control religious environment I see this same pattern of self-invalidation. The beliefs that I was indoctrinated with as a child never really seemed real or believable to me. I tried really hard to believe, but just couldn't. Looking around at everyone around me though, because I wasn't allowed much in the way of access to or socialization with anyone outside of the faith, it appeared to be the case that I was the only one struggling to believe, it appeared to come so easily to others. I thought and felt that I must be somehow very flawed or sinful because the beliefs just didn't come easily to me. I remember even thinking: "I must be more of a Martha than a Mary." I faked it as best I could, until I could no longer do so, it wasn't until after I left that I realized that many other people were probably also faking it, for the very same reasons. I sometimes joke that I didn't really grow up until I was in my 30s because it wasn't until that time that I started noticing and validating my own internal experiences, rather than dismissing these.
Self-Validation and Boundaries
The first step to minimizing the harm of an invalidating environment and resulting self-invalidation is to recognize that it's happening. This can be done by attending to our own internal narrative. Are there thoughts or beliefs that you might be pushing away? Do you experience vague feelings of discomfort that you distract yourself from, without fully knowing why or acknowledging? Tuning into these sometimes ambiguous experiences might help you to start learning to identify boundaries, and by extension communicating to others. Remember that boundaries are a very personal, individual experience, so it's ok if your boundaries differ from other's boundaries. It isn't necessary to have the same boundaries as someone else to share a meaningful relationship, it is however necessary to honor these boundaries and for these boundaries to be respected by others, and most importantly to feel SAFE enough to communicate these boundaries. So really tune in when you're noticing discomfort, rather than shifting your attention elsewhere. Acknowledge, or self-validate, this experience first. Boundaries are about capacity and willingness, so ask yourself what your capacity and willingness are, self-validating will help you to be able to clearly communicate these boundaries to other people. A flexible, reasonable relationship can tolerate the communication and observance of boundaries. If you notice in a relationship that your boundaries are pushed or ignored, even when you have clearly communicated discomfort with this, this is very important information to be aware of.
Noticing and communicating boundaries can be a bit tricky if unfamiliar, so it's ok if this feels awkward or difficult at first. Most new skills do feel awkward and difficult when we're first learning them. A good way to practice is to find someone that you know is safe, communicate to them that you are practicing this skill and ask if they would be willing to let you practice with them. Now walk this person through your discomfort and try naming the boundary, it's a little easier to start with something less consequential in order to build confidence in yourself to communicate skillfully when the stakes are higher. I am fortunate enough to be married to someone that I can do this with, though it doesn't always go completely smoothly the first time we have a conversation about something tricky. I am able to have confidence that if the first conversation isn't a complete success, we will be able to circle back as often as we need to until the subject is resolved, and are actually much closer and understand each other better as a result. I have found that this skill comes much easier with practice, like most skills, so give it a try and with time and self-validation it will probably come a little easier.
If you would like to learn more about the Invalidating Environment or other DBT-based concepts read:
Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder by Dr. Marsha M. Linehan. This book details Linehan's Dialectical Behavioral Therapy which is very useful, regardless of diagnosis.