I would like to firstly admit that this post is not an anti-lockdown or conspiracy theory post. This is an educational post for those wanting to have honest, frank and candid conversations with their loved ones via text, video call or telephone call. I think we should all accept there is a virus and it’s damaging many lives and their families.
Photography taken by Niamh Francis
A quarter of UK adults have admitted to feeling lonely in the last twelve months with the number being replicated amongst young people too. Loneliness wasn’t the only feeling with a study finding that suicidal thoughts have also increased from 8% to 10%; researchers pointed out that these figures are concerning since they rose in such a short space of time during the first wave of COVID19. With a new strain that’s considered more contagious and further restrictions the sight of normality feels a little longer away than what we’d all hoped for; with reports suggesting that a surge in mental health cases will come through the doors during and after the restrictions- how can we all support each other’s mental health without ‘invalidating’ our loved ones emotions and feelings?
For those with chronic illness and mental health concerns, those around them will use invalidating sentences and phrases in the hope it’ll make them feel better about their circumstances but for most it’s aggravating and demeaning. Those who opt for invalidating phrases and conversations usually are considered compassionate individuals wanting to fix everything. The Olivia Pope of mental health. Instead however, the invalidating conversations usually end up with the recipient feeling as though they shouldn’t feel those feelings or they’re imagining their suffering. By definition, invalidation is the process of denying, rejecting or dismissing someone’s feelings. Invalidation sends the message that a person’s subjective emotional experience is inaccurate, insignificant, and/or unacceptable. Let’s discuss some examples and how we can better support those around us.
Examples I’ve experienced include:
‘Do you know of *insert person name here* they have *name an illness* at least you’re not in their boat, or they have it worse than you’. The intention of this sentence is to offer some form of support and comfort- and typically comes from those around you who hate to see you suffering but it feeds this notion never is it a right time to feel those emotions or that they’re wrong. Often people use this as a way of putting your situation into perspective. Dr Jamie Long suggests that a way of avoiding the ‘it could be worse’ is through truly listening to someone. This means you try to understand the other persons position because the deeper you can understand where they’re coming from, the more validating you will be. If we apply this to today, a lot of people are telling people off for feeling sad or angry comparing their suffering to the two World Wars. All suffering is suffering regardless of another time, place or situation which was considered worse or went on for longer. I’m sure someone during the Second World War wouldn’t have wanted their experience to be compared to the Black Plague. For most of us, we all struggle to comprehend invisible illness because we can’t see it and we can’t feel it. It’s not like a broken leg where you can touch and see a cast on the leg. Mental suffering doesn’t come with the same understanding as physical (to see) issues despite us being more aware of mental suffering.
This invalidation can also be applied to the way we have an impulse to compare something to something else. I have nerve damage, and whether I rub a carrot over the area or have prescribed drugs I’m still in pain but this has been compared to stubbing a toe or skipping or just standard pins and needles. Most people in chronic pain from whatever the underlining illness can never describe their pain without it causing distress or it becoming a personal attack on their character. So, how can you imagine their pain? It is difficult to imagine pain to give advice or help which is why some never speak to their sufferer in pain in fear of upsetting or angering them. If the person is describing in explicit detail of the pain and suffering- how is this any shape similar to the minute of suffering you experienced when you stubbed your toe or lent on your arm for too long whilst watching Casualty? Those wanting to help, will want to compare it to themselves to try and understand or have a conversation. As a piece of advice from speaking to others in the community this usually only angers and suggests that you have dismissed everything they’ve said to you.
‘Sorry you feel like this’. This is almost a passive aggressive but socially accepted way of saying your experience is not asked for. To put this into reality and to try to educate you- I’d like you to imagine someone pinching your arm. The person pinching you can only say ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ to every single response you give. This is with no doubt, very painful but you’ll be irritated enough to tell the person ‘ouch! That really hurts’. The person pinching you, should ask you whether your pain weakened as and when they told you they were sorry you felt like that. Chances are, it’s not going to have made a blind bit of notice. It’s about validating the feelings your loved one is experiencing without dismissing their suffering. For example, you could try and speak more like ‘ i understand that you’re having or going through a difficult time; I can see why you feel that way you feel; It’s very difficult; I may feel the same way if I were in your shoes.’
You have *insert relationship, money, family, friends and a job*. Mental health and chronic illness does not choose it’s next person based upon statistics that human resources use when recruiting to justify a salary. You can be rich and have depression. You can be beautiful and be anxious and you can have four kids and a healthy marriage and have a life long chronic illness. All of these circumstances do not and should not mean you can’t feel or have these conditions or symptoms. Gratitude is considered by some as the holy grail for treating anxiety and depression whilst others consider it to be a gas lighting tool for those suffering. Those who applied the gratitude strategy during their early days of chronic illness suggested the tool led to dismissing their own. Research suggests that those who dismissed their pain and suffering based upon the gratitude model were believing that because other people have worse pain it means they’re not worthy of receiving worthy help. (inspiration for a new blog post right there)
‘Everyone is in the same boat’. In 2020 and now 2021, everyone was and is in the same boat when it came/comes to restrictions and our lives being on pause but this does not mean this sentence can some what help us. Most using this sentence will be using it as a way of saying you are not alone. This belittles the suffering because it suggests that because everyone is feeling that way you should be OK. Most who use this sentence will believe it’ll immediately make the person feel better and just not think that way again. The reality of this phrase is that we’re not all in the same boat. Some of us will ride the wave in; a yacht or cardboard box but some of us are encountering hurricane winds in the storm. Now how does that phrase stand up? It doesn’t because the reality is, whether someone else is feeling the way you do it offers some comfort that those feelings are perhaps normal or common but it won’t make you feel better. In the same way, that when you brake your leg nobody reads the statistics out to you to numb the pain. A surgeon doesn’t tell you before operating ‘by the way, we’re not sedating you’re not that bad’. We’re all sailing differently, some of us are sailing pros and some of us well we can barely use the oars to get us from shore into the sea/ocean/river.. It’s common to use this sentence to unite feeling and people but more commonly it distances people. Everyone’s feelings are justified and everyone is allowed to feel how they feel regardless of how ever many more people in the moment feel your pain. You cannot control your emotions and how you feel at one given time.
If you’re reading this thank you for getting to the end. This has not been written to attack anyone but it is a way that I can begin to educate anyone reading this on ways to have open and honest chats without their recipient feeling worse than they did before the chat. It’s a way of ensuring that as well as understanding mental health we understand how to how meaningful and useful conversations. I believe this is increasingly more important because when normality returns there will be- as reports are predicting a surge in mental health cases and a demand on mental health services in and around the UK. Let us support each other, let us not dismiss our friends anxiety or struggles and let us validate and support.