When I was about eleven I apprehensively went up to tell the teacher i was being bullied by some of the boys in my class: ‘Miss, the boys are chasing me and calling me names.” Miss thought for a fraction of a second and said ‘Just ignore it, And stay away from them’. ‘But they can find me!’ Miss went on to apparently more important things and I was all alone.
When I was 22, a skinny kid in hippie clothes with a faded streak of purple in my messy hair, I was in England with my parents. I was a visual artist at the time, and made the most incredible, soulful drawings. I went to a shop in the town where we were staying to buy some pastels and a can of spray fixative. I went up to pay for these things and the woman behind the counter looked at me and said ’Where did YOU get a fifty pound note?’ ‘The bank’ I said and left.
When I was 38 and a public servant, published author and home-owning middle classy sort of person I was in hospital. I apprehensively went up to tell the nurse the toilet in my room was running and I couldn’t use it. I told him four times over a period of three hours – by which time I was busting! Each time he dismissed my concern until finally coming into my room for a different reason and seeing the broken toilet. That example might seem a little incongruous until I tell you it was a psychiatric hospital and I have a mental illness with apparently negates all the socially valued roles I have.
These three examples of essentially very poor behaviour relate to instances of my concerns – or my own self – being dismissed and my ‘me’ being invalidated. In each instance this was done by a person in a position of authority of sorts. Each represents a time I felt the power imbalance between myself and others in the world and felt ashamed and powerless.
The first example is probably a combination of the teacher / student dynamic and also discrimination about my ‘difference’ (there was no Asperger’s diagnosis in Australia in 1985). The second example is a class privilege sort of thing and maybe also some ageism and the final was clearly discrimination on the basis of mental illness. These invalidations go on all the time and for people from various backgrounds – Autistic people, disabled people and those with mental illness, people from certain ethnic groups and faiths, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other First Nations peoples, some older people, some younger people, trans people, those who identity as Lesbian,Gay, Bisexual, Intersex, Asexual, and / or Queer, …there is a long list, but a dynamic of invalidation and discrimination exists for a lot of people.
Invalidation means treating someone as if they don’t matter, their opinions don’t count and they have no rights or say in their future. Invalidation has a number of effects on people. It can result in feelings of worthlessness, trauma, self-hate, self-destructive behaviour and things like suicidal thoughts and self injury,
I tend to think invalidation comes out of prejudice People doing it don’t see the person as deserving of respect or kindness. They really don’t matter in the eyes of the person doing the invalidating. There are different magnitudes of invalidation but it all starts from a perceived or actual power imbalance I think, a sort of dynamic privileging one person’s experience over another.
Is there a solution to this sort of thing? I hope there is. In fact there are a few ways to come at this. One approach basically entails addressing power imbalances between people and promoting respect and understanding of people from all different groups in society. This is a very large task! There are subsets of this approach happening all over the place though. My writing this blog post is a very small action to address these issues. I’m pretty certain it won’t single-handedly fix the issue of discrimination and invalidation but it will join a bunch of other writings and talks about addressing these issues. Another way to address it is to implement measures to change the culture in institutions which are known to invalidate those under their care. This is actually quite a good way of addressing it but once again, would involve a lot of effort to get to staff members in every psychiatric ward etc. My favourite way of addressing invalidation is actually a lot less resource-intensive off the previous options. This one is also potentially highly effective. Here’s how it works:
Just in terms of Autism, think of every autistic adult, and child, every parent, partner and supporter for those people, every ally and coworker who values their Autistic colleague. That is quite a lot of people, and probably cuts across other demographic groups as well. What if all those people were empowered to see invalidation and say ‘No! We will not have this!’ Every time invalidation was an issue those people would speak up and support one another to speak up. This is a big part of what advocacy is for. It is often hard to speak up for yourself so those in our community supporting one another can address this invalidation is about making people feel alone and isolated, like they don’t matter. But we do matter. Clearly demonstrating our worth through advocacy so that at each moment of invalidation someone speaks up and asserts their value would turn invalidation on its head. And one person speaking up will be seen by others, hopefully empowering them to do so too.. The empowerment through advocacy can flow to other parts of life. And you know what? This is already happening. We are starting this journey together.