Most people have experienced invalidated feelings. You feel cold and someone in the room with you says “What? It’s not cold in here”. Does that really change how you feel? Do you all of a sudden say “you know what, you’re right, I’m not cold”. Probably not. You’re more likely to feel irritated. In a sense, your reality has just been denied.
Okay, perceptions of temperature is a bit of an over simplification. But imagine being told that you shouldn’t feel sad or angry. A lot of times the person invalidating doesn’t mean to do harm. More often than not, people are attempting to help you feel better. However, invalidated emotions can result in feelinging ignored, judged or rejected. This often leads to emotional distance in relationships.
Emotions become hard wired in the brain because they help us detect danger. Invalidation can lead to doubting ones’ emotions. Over time we may eventually numb, distrust, or ignore our feelings. We learn that “my emotions aren’t okay and I shouldn’t feel them”.
This detachment from emotions leaves a person vulnerable to ignoring dangerous situations, not getting help when there are warning signs, or not fully experiencing positive feelings. Despite that detachment, we still want to feel and may end seeking out addictive behaviors or self harm in order to feel.
Part of treatment for sexual addiction should involve reconnecting and reclaiming one’s emotional awareness and acceptance. Without doing so, she or he will have difficulty noticing the triggering effects of emotional distress. This is problematic because the best way to deal with compulsive behaviors is to catch them before they start.
Take for example Bill who struggles with feelings of inadequacy. Bill just received negative feedback on a work project. Bill has some emotional intelligence and is able to recognize the feelings of inadequacy being triggered by the feedback. That awareness gives him more opportunity to use coping tools he has learned. Without that awareness, Bill is at risk to respond in automatic and compulsive ways (e.g., binging on pornography). This is why therapists trained in sex addiction counseling help clients identify the emotions that start the addiction cycle.
In addition to reconnecting with one’s internal emotions, addiction treatment should include learning to validate the emotions of others. Validating the emotions of someone we’ve hurt can be difficult, but no less important. The next article on validation will expand on this topic.