Ten Ways to Invalidate

Emotional invalidation is a form of gaslighting. Here are some examples of how this might look in the workplace, and how to do better.

When a worker gets emotional at work, colleagues and bosses may make things worse by invalidating their feelings and perceptions. Sometimes this is intentional gaslighting, but other times this happens due to discomfort with emotion, or deficits in emotional intelligence. Either way, it creates an emotionally unsafe environment.

Here are some ways workers and bosses gaslight their employees through emotional invalidation:

1. Passing Tissues When a Worker Cries

Tough stuff happens at work, so people might cry at times! An aggressive customer, an inappropriate comment by a colleague, being passed over for a promotion — these are just some examples of what might make someone cry at work. Passing tissues can be received as a kind gesture, but sometimes it seems to say, “Okay now, stop crying.”

It’s nice to have Kleenex around so that people can reach them if they want, but often it’s much more helpful to sit silently and let someone cry. Crying is a great way to release emotions. Not rushing tears makes people feel reassured that their feelings are a normal reaction to whatever has happened to them. The solution-focused conversation can happen later.

2. “Control yourself. This is a work environment.”

This is the adult version of, “Stop crying now. Be a big boy.” It pushes people to suppress their emotions. Certainly some forms of emotional displays are inappropriate at work. But why should we feel we have to completely hide feelings of anger, fear and hurt? Why can’t colleagues hold space for our feelings, especially when we feel disrespected?

Being received with care and kindness does a lot more to help someone get control than telling them to stop having feelings.

3. “Calm down.”

No one in the history of the phrase “calm down” has ever calmed down. I have tried it and observed it so many times as a social worker, and it always fails. Instead, it often puts fuel on the fire. Why? It makes people think that they are being told that their distress and anger is unjustified. This phrase is a sure trigger if it is yelled, used with frustration or with an eye roll.

I advocate kinder strategies even when the person is indeed acting in a way that is inappropriate for the workplace. You can discuss consequences for the behaviour later.

Imagine a worker has been asked to leave for the rest of the day after being caught breaking a rule, and he has a “fight” stress response. Strategies that work better than “calm down” include:

a) Remove the audience and give the person space. In time, they won’t feel under threat anymore and their adrenaline and cortisol will dissipate.

b) Keep really calm and kind and warm yourself. Breathe. Breathe regularly. Your expression, tone and calm central nervous system will calm them.

c) Say validating things, “I can see that you’re really angry. I am sorry that you are feeling so insulted. I hate feeling disrespected too.” None of this is agreeing with their perception of reality, but it isn’t denying it either. This has to be done in a really authentic way or it comes off like a non-apology. If you do agree with their perception of reality, it can work sometimes to vocally agree. “You’re right; this isn’t happening in the way that it should have. But it is still happening.”

d) Use a firm and assertive tone and direct them to do exactly what you need them to do. “I need you to leave the building.”

4. [Employee brings up overwork.] Boss: “Let’s talk about time management.”

This is an example of bypassing boundaries. The employee is trying to set a boundary around their workload for their own wellness. But managers seem to have this time management line at the ready whenever employees bring up the issue of overwork. It completely invalidates the employee’s perception of reality, ignores the feelings they have about it, and makes them feel that their own skills are being questioned.

Believe that workers know how to identify their problems and collaborate with them to implement solutions.

5. “I see what you’re saying, but you’ve got to find a better way of saying it.”

This hypothetical speaker is doing two invalidating things: first, they are derailing a conversation by focusing on how something is said rather than what was said, and they are tone policing. The first invalidates the content, and the second invalidates the emotion. There are incidents that happen at work that illicit an emotional response. Emotion charges a voice up with tone. That’s normal. Tone can be rude, but it isn’t always rude. Tone can be assertiveness. Tone can be righteous anger.

Workers should not be expected to maintain neutral tones and expressions in the face of sexist, racist, ableist, sizist or otherwise oppressive behaviours. Having a reaction to a decision that makes a big impact on an employee’s work or livelihood is also really normal. For example, if a worker were to bluntly question why a decision has been made without consultation, that would make sense.

Hold space for tone. Focus on content. A kind response will automatically help the person manage their tone and communicate clearly.

6. “That’s just your anxiety.”

Imagine an employee has interpreted a boss’s comment to mean that she is unhappy with the employee’s work performance. When the employee asks directly if the boss is unhappy with them, the boss denies it, telling the employee they are only perceiving things that way because of their anxiety.

This kind of thing happens when a manager has knowledge of an employee’s experience with mental illness and can make it risky for an employee to disclose their mental illness.

What’s tough with this one is sometimes a person’s anxiety does cause them to overreact or misperceive a situation. But immediately telling them that their perceptions and feelings are wrong is not helpful. Instead, ask them why they are feeling that their performance is being questioned. Together, you can decide if anxiety played into the dynamic, or if perhaps there is something to be improved in the communication.

7. “I am sorry your feelings were hurt.”

The non-apology is so invalidating! There’s a couple things going on with this sentence. One is the use of the passive voice. It erases the subject, the doer of the harm. It’s an insincere way to apologize; it makes it seem like they’re apologizing only for optics. It implies that the hurt person is only hurt because they’ve misinterpreted the other person, that they’ve made a mistake in judgment or chosen to be hurt.

Try: “I can see that you are hurt and I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you but I recognize I did.”

8. “The customer is always right.”

Some workplaces still have the idea that keeping return customers is more important than demanding respect for their employees. Sometimes the bosses take the customer’s side because they don’t know how to meet abuse, racism, sexism and other forms of oppression and bad behaviour. Unfortunately, they might not care. These failures to intervene can be more hurtful than the customer’s behaviours. (Sometimes placating a customer is the quickest way to get a negative interaction to end. This is fine, as long as the employee knows why the boss is using this strategy.)

Workers can invalidate themselves by unfailingly performing “customer service with a smile.” Yes, we have to perform certain emotions as part of our job. But when a job feels like all performance and very little just being your authentic self, it can get quite exhausting. In particular, if we’re managing our feelings in order to manage a customer’s aggressive and disrespectful behaviour, there is a personal cost. Where is it written that being a platform for abuse is just part of the work?

Setting boundaries for yourself and expecting your boss to help you protect your boundaries is healthy.

9. “If that really happened, you would be more upset.”

If an employee needs to discuss something that happened to them at work with a boss or colleague, they often have to filter their emotions to try to get their needs met. If they get too emotional, then others just stop listening, labeling them as irrational. People literally check out when they’re uncomfortable with big feelings. However, if they’re not emotional enough, then others don’t seem to believe them. Or, without the emotion they expect as “evidence,” they may not understand the seriousness and impact of the situation. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Part of emotional literacy is understanding that we can’t project our expectations of how emotions should look onto other people. Some people are good at being stoic at work, and cry to their family at home. Some people are using all their energy to explain the situation rationally because any time they’ve shown emotion in the past, they’ve been dismissed. Some people just never show their emotions, ever.

However, if a person is visibly upset, that is the normal and appropriate response to the stressful situation. For them. Emotionality is not the opposite of rationality.

10. “Oh you two must be getting your wires crossed. There must be a misunderstanding. I think they’re so nice.”

Telling someone they perceived things incorrectly when they disclose that they were harmed is the most violent form of invalidating a person’s feelings.

An employee goes to HR to complain about racism or sexual harassment and gets the response, “Oh I’ve never heard them say anything racist. I am sure you are mistaken,” or “That is not sexual harassment. It’s just a lighthearted joke. He’s married.”

If your workplace won’t intervene in the violent behaviour of a colleague, then work becomes a dangerous place. A person who feels unsafe at work will simply leave at the next opportunity, leaving the toxic employee behind to potentially harm their replacement.

Workers, especially those in a position of power, should seriously consider the impact of not believing an employee who has been harmed. Everyone I talk to says that the failure of people who knew about the violence to intervene felt worse than the original boundary violation. This is how a traumatic experience gets “stuck” in our nervous systems, causing us to be quick to fight, flight and freeze.

To create emotionally safe work environments, we can believe that our employees or colleagues can perceive reality correctly, hold space for feelings, be accountable for how we affect others, and listen actively to both feelings and content. Ultimately, however, building an emotionally safe work environment is less about having the most emotionally intelligent response, and more about expanding our capacity to care about how others feel.

Be kind.

Audrey is an educator, counsellor, and curriculum developer running her own business in Toronto. She writes about social services, mostly. audreybatterham.com.

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