By Cyberquill 04/30/201224 Comments

Light up your face with gladness,
Hide every trace of sadness,
Although a tear may be ever so near.
That’s the time you must keep on trying,
Smile, what’s the use of crying?
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile …

A little girl accidentally breaks an arm off her doll and starts crying. You say to her, “Don’t be sad. We’ll fix it. Come on. Smile.”

Nothing wrong with offering assistance to reattach the broken limb.

Plenty wrong with telling the little girl how to feel.

See, children identify very strongly with their emotions. From their perspective, they are whatever they feel in the moment. So if you, even in as ostensibly benign a manner as can be, command them to feel differently from the way they do, what they’ll invariably hear is, “I don’t like you the way you are.” That, of course, is one among many powerful ways to instill neuroses in a child; specifically, to lay the groundwork for a life-long quest for validation by others, including the whole ragbag of personal insecurities that commonly attend such a quest.

So if your paramount objective in life is to find unconditional love and acceptance, chances are you were told to stop crying one too many times.

Unsurprisingly, the psychological term of art for instructing others on how they’re supposed to feel is invalidation. A person will perceive him- or herself as having been invalidated when informed that how they feel—i.e., who they are—is not being appreciated; that their present emotion—i.e., they—ought to be discarded and replaced.

Charlie Chaplin inadvertently composed the unofficial Hymn of Invalidation: Smile, though your heart is aching / Smile, even though it’s breaking / … (In fairness, Mr Chaplin is innocent of the lyrics, lovely as those lyrics may seem until you consider the troublesome thesis they advance.)

And by no means does this concept apply to children only; for what are adults but big infants with an advanced capacity for behavior modification, i.e., for bottling things up and pretending?

Sure, as adults we may conclude intellectually that how we feel in the moment isn’t “who we are” and that being told to smile doesn’t necessarily amount to a wholesale rejection of our entire being. However, our neurological hard-wiring rarely conforms to our rational understanding of the world. Upon introspection, most of us will probably find that our internal response patterns to external stimuli, e.g., to treatment by others, have remained fairly unchanged relative to when we were five years old.

So even as grown-ups, for all practical purposes, our emotions and beliefs—more often than not, our beliefs are but extensions of our emotions anyway, rendering the distinction largely irrelevant in this context—comprise a significant part of our identity, which is why we generally don’t take too kindly to being told to “calm down” or “relax” or “be happy” or the like; for, once again, the message that comes through loud and clear is “I don’t like you the way you are,” and this harks right back to our childhood trauma of feeling unwanted in consequence of experiencing emotions our parental units disapproved of.

The broadside on people’s self-esteem aside, this irritating habit of issuing guidelines regarding acceptable vs. unacceptable emotions bespeaks an eagerness on the part of the issuer to control his or her environment, and this, in turn, suggests a diminished ability to cope with his or her own emotions, manifesting as a desire to regulate other people’s.

Needless to say, a person telling someone else how to feel (or how not to feel) will assert it’s all for the good of the person experiencing the offending emotion. Fiddlesticks. In reality, it’s all for the good of the individual that can’t deal with observing that emotion in the other person. The little girl can handle her sadness over her doll’s broken arm just fine. It’s the parent that can’t handle watching his daughter cry and hence attempts to manipulate the girl’s state to secure his own comfort.

That said, there are situations where controlling someone else’s emotions is called for, such as when a reasonable concern exists that a person’s emotional state might spin so out of control as to potentially pose a clear and present danger to himself or others, either by setting off a medical episode of some sort, damaging property, or physically assaulting somebody; or in a work environment where showcasing certain emotions might alienate clients and negatively affect the bottom line: if you walk around bawling while working at Disneyworld, your supervisor has a point when he asks you to cut the waterworks and cheer up—it’s part of the job description.

Whatever the circumstances, telling others how to feel is an extremely controlling behavior. Nonetheless, even far afield from professional or “clear and present danger” scenarios, exhibitors of this behavior will often insist they’re not being controlling when delivering peremptory directives along the lines of “calm down” or “cheer up” under the gauzy pretext of caring about and wanting to help the other person overcome a painful emotional state.

If the objective truly were to help to the other person—rather than to make yourself feel better by molding your environment so as to reflect your own comfort zone—accepting any emotion on display and trying to understand its provenance would go a much longer way toward being of genuine service in terms of unearthing possible demons that may impair a person’s quality of life in some way, as opposed to waxing dictatorial in hopes that clipping off the tip of the iceberg by fiat will make the iceberg go away.

In the latter case, to remain in the realm of metaphor, all you’re doing is trying to incapacitate the regulator valve in a pressure cooker, which might not be the best strategy for preventing it from blowing up at some point.

On a related note, there’s no such thing as a “small deal.”

There are only clues.

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  • Thecriticaline

    A penetrating and, at times, an uncomfortable analysis.

    I think the example you chose --cheer up is a difficult one. I like being told to cheer up by someone who is concerned about me and identifies with me, but that does not detract from your message.

    Is it generally wrong to seek to change a person’s feelings, except in the special circumstances you mention? Is praise of a loved one that makes them smile to be avoided? A strict application of your rule would exclude much that is genuine and sincere in our dealings with others.

    A lot depends on who seeks to change your feelings.

    • Cyberquill

      Show, don’t tell. Nothing wrong with taking meaningful steps toward changing a person’s state from a painful into a more pleasant one. The problem is trying to change a person’s feelings by decree, which, I contend, only adds insult to injury. 

      If little Johnny has stepped on a thumbtack and is crying in pain, you remove the tack, clean the wound, put on a band-aid, and give him a hug and some ice cream. Chances are, by now little Johnny will be all smiles and happy, having forgotten about the pain. 

      But to tell him to stop crying is not only useless, but risks exacerbating his pain by adding a component of rejection of the part in his being that gave rise to the pain in the first place. 

      If I’m hungry, feed me. Fine. But what am I supposed to do with the instruction “Don’t be hungry!” I am hungry. How am I to not be what I am? I am a person who gets hungry when he’s not eaten in a while. That’s who I am. Telling me to not be that borders on mockery. 

      How we feel in any given situation derives from who we are, for better or worse. Being told not to feel how we feel is like saying, “There’s something wrong with you.” 

      Of course, there may indeed be something wrong with a person, but I seriously question the consolation value of the message. If you want someone to feel better, conveying to them that there’s something wrong with them might not be the most effective strategy. 

      Also, let’s not underestimate the therapeutic value of being allowed to express painful emotions. In fact, expressing them is often a way to overcome them. By telling people to stop feeling what they feel, you may be actually be interrupting the natural healing process. 

  • Richard

    I agree with Thecriticaline.

    What is an internal response patter?

    • Cyberquill

      Our internal response pattern is how our nervous system reacts to external stimuli. It’s our neurological wiring. It kicks in long before our rational brain has figured out a “reasonable” response. It’s the difference between how we actually react versus how we believe we’re supposed to react. 

      • Richard

        Oh! Internal Response Patter …. N …. s.
        Thank you.

        • Richard

          sorry  -- only the N should have been bold.

          • Cyberquill

            Oh, you were correcting a typo. Thank you very much. 

            I failed to catch it multiple times because, alas, I seem to be taking the lexical as opposed to the phonological route when I read my own writings. 

            On second thought, my typos are who I am.  Now I’m feeling invalidated by your correction.  So please do me a favor and don’t pile on by telling me to stop feeling this way. In order to secure a continuing comity between you and me, you must accept my emotions and allow them to run their course.

            • Richard

              You mean your spirits weren’t lifted to have your error revealed? I felt sure they would be. I still feel the same. You have invalidated me. The comity of our respective nations is in the balance.

              I daren’t speak for fear of invalidating myself not only as I am but also as I was and shall be. If I am invalidated, you are invalidated for repressing the need not to invalidate me, likewise.

              This has Keynsian qualities. It has growth potential. You and me both could end up with a job. Then comes the final invalidation.

            • Cyberquill

              The day I end up with a job will be the day the British admit that the side they drive on is the wrong side. 

            • Richard

              It’s the eyes which confuse and slow up reading. Train them to look in the right places and use the full field of vision. The brain can cope easily until it tires.

              Motoring is similar. Drive on the left and your right hand is free to lower the window and gesture opposing drivers.

            • Cyberquill

              Are you saying that because most people are right-handed, driving on the left facilitates flipping the bird to opposing drivers? Was this the official rationale given for reversing lanes in your neck of the wood?

            • Richard

              It’s there in Hansard. The eyes had it.

  • Andreas Kluth

    Suddenly you’re on my territory (I am speaking as a father now). 

    We took a seminar a few years ago about parenting, and this concept of “validation” was the key one I took away. 

    It came up again the other day in a perhaps surprising context: Kids or teens who become especially vulnerable to sexual predators often had their emotions “invalidated” by their parents, as you describe. An ugly, smelly uncle wants to hug and pinch them goodbye and they want to run away but mommie, out of awkwardness, says “oh come on, be nice to Uncle Joey.” So they learn not to trust their instincts. 

    All this applies to marriages just as well: usually, when one spouse is venting, he or she mainly wants to be “validated”, ie heard. He/she’s not actually looking for hands-on counseling or advice. “Don’t get so worked up about it” will probably only enrage this spouse.

    • Cyberquill

      I’m speaking as a child, as always. 

    • Richard

      Children require protection from predation and this occurs in a family context more than anywhere else. There should be no damping of their instinct to run.

      On the other hand, not all demonstrations of affection are abuse. Emotional disinfectants are not good for a child either.

      What of the child who inadvertently associates with an undesirable character? I would have no hesitation warning them off, invalidation or not.

      It’s all a question of judgment, balance and constant vigilance -- the fundamental obligations of a parent

      As for invalidation in adulthood, well, that is all part of being grown-up.

      • Cyberquill

        My post discusses neither the value of vigilance nor the merits of showing affection. My post is about the concept of invalidation, defined as telling others how to feel as if emotions responded to direct commands in conformity with the substance of those commands. 

        • Richard

          Emotions and instinct are not the same as feeling and intuition. Children benefit by learning to refine their emotions and understanding they cannot be given free play at the expense of others

        • Cyberquill

          I use the terms feeling and emotion interchangeably to refer to any state we would describe as “I feel (insert adjective, e.g., angry, sad, happy, itchy, etc.).” For the purpose of my argument, the distinction between feelings, emotions, and sensations is immaterial. 

          If a child’s emotions/feelings/sensations trigger undesirable or potentially harmful behaviors, you gotta take meaningful action to address those emotions at the root, i.e., try and figure out what causes those emotions,  not try to clip them off at the top by decree, as doing the latter is akin to putting your finger on the steam-escape hole of a pressure cooker. That way, all you’ll teach your kids is to hide their emotions from you. Then one day they’ll blow up in your face one way or another, and you’ll go, “Oops, where’s that coming from?” 

          True, I have no experience being a parent. But I have lots of experience being a child and, as such, being told which of my feelings/emotions were “necessary” and which weren’t, a distinction I struggle to comprehend to this day.

          • Richard

            Emotions are a fine thing, but they are no guide to conduct.

          • Cyberquill

            I don’t know what you mean by “are no guide to.” Obviously, emotions spawn all sorts of conduct. It ain’t auricle shape alone that distinguishes us humans from Vulcans.

          • Richard

            I should have said a poor guide. Sure, emotions are a wonderful part of being human, and more often than not we are guided by them.

            If only we could always subject them to the test of reason before we act we wouldn’t have to spend so much of our lives extricating ourselves from some of their undesirable consequences.

            It is reason that raises us above other animals, vests us with a sense of duty towards them and turns some people into vegetarians. Those of us who continue to eat meat are invalidated by vegetarians who moralise to us, or who we perceive to moralise to us.

            And above reason are feeling and intuition. According to Jung, that is.

          • Cyberquill

            Obviously, invalidation can cut both ways, and there’s always the risk of setting off an invalidation feedback loop, where two parties end up squabbling over who’s invalidating whom. 

            • Richard

              Yes. And even a very young child is skilled at parent invalidation .

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