Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Therapeutic Paradox of Self-Invalidation

If validation is one of the core skills for fostering a therapeutic alliance, it may be even more important for clients who grew up in an invalidating environment, may have little prior experience of validation, and habitually invalidate themselves. However, it's also important to consider and plan for how a particular client is likely to experience and react to validation. Some respond positively: validation improves rapport, diffuses pain, and over time helps clients become better able to self-validate and self-regulate. Others find validation itself to be distressing.

While such a reaction may seem counterintuitive, it makes sense in the context of the client's experience. For someone who has been chronically invalidated, the experience of validation is foreign and uncomfortable. The client may feel thrown off balance by the unexpected response.

At a more complex level, a client who habitually self-invalidates may find validation itself...invalidating. This presents quite the therapeutic paradox: I can validate my client's experience, which invalidates their self-invalidation of that experience; or I can validate the self-invalidation, which invalidates the experience.

Both of these options are likely to dysregulate the client. Perhaps this is why clients with Borderline Personality Disorder are so often labeled "difficult clients." However, that's also invalidating of the genuine and understandable distress these clients experience living inside this paradox day in and day out.

The challenge for therapists is to find a way to lessen a client's suffering by gradually lessening the internal dissonance of self-invalidation - which happens in part through the experience of validation. How, then, can we make validation less invalidating?

I believe the answer is that validation itself must be dialectical. We need to name and reflect both the client's initial internal experience, and their self-invalidation of this experience. In this way, by simultaneously validating the experience of invalidation, and the experience that is invalidated, the client may finally be able to experience genuine validation.

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