Since the release of Garbage Bag Suitcase, I have had some interesting human encounters. I have traveled around the country and even into a few foreign countries. I have been too epic urban areas and to remote rural communities. I have spoken to groups as small as 3 and as large as 1000. I have spoken for free and paid, all in the hopes of spreading awareness about the child welfare system. I have preached to the choir, so to speak, and I have spoken to crowds who have had absolutely no idea what the journey through foster care is like for a child. I have been awed at the courage of some who have stood up and shared their stories, sometimes for the first time, besides me. I have gasped at the comments that some have made directly to me (the most recent was how garbage bags are the perfect way to move a child and we shouldn’t be so quick to get rid of them). Mostly, however, I have found compassion, honesty and shockingly individuals who minimize or invalidate their own thoughts and feelings. Many times someone has approached me after an event and started with, “I didn’t have it as bad as you, but . . . “ It has been one of the big surprises for me, and I started to get curious about the emotions behind it. What are they, and how does minimization of self-come about? For most of my life, I felt crazy. If someone asked me the simple question, “what’s wrong with you?” I had the same answer, “I’m crazy.” I didn’t answer that to be ironic or even a smart ass. I answered that way because I felt it was true. My entire life I felt crushed and smothered. I was constantly second-guessing my feelings, my perceptions, my memories and myself. I found myself often asking “What’s wrong with you?” This came to a head while I was writing the book. In fact, a year into writing, I stopped writing completely. I was overwhelmed with these feelings. I found myself wanting to retreat and withdraw purposefully alienating myself from those around me. It seemed the only way I could cope with my crazy feelings and negative, circular self-talk. Then, trying to trudge through more self-help books, looking for answers on how to heal myself, I came upon a term that lead to a movie. I started connecting the dots. If you haven’t seen the 1940 movie, Gaslight you should immediately go and watch it. It explains wonderfully the term “gaslighting.” Gaslighting is an idea how emotional abuse slowly eats away at a person’s ability to make judgments. Abusers to rationalize their actions make the victim question their own sanity by using this technique. This term is used frequently today, and I am not sure it is always used in the right way. Recently, a Facebook friend shared an article about whether parents were “gaslighting” their children and asked for feedback and comments on the article. It was enlightening for me to watch the responses. The point of the article was when children cry, we shouldn’t dismiss their tears and tell them “stop crying,” but rather we should get to the core of why they are crying. The articles’ point was that when minimizing a child’s feelings we create a type of deception involving denial. We then rationalize those feelings by saying things like, “other kids have it worse.” The point of the article was clearly missed. Comments from numerous indicated it is ok to minimize a child’s feelings if the parent believes the child is having an irrational response. Many used the example of a child crying because he/she couldn’t’ get candy at the store. While the example is quite benign, I think it is a sign of a larger problem. If a child cries over not getting candy, and our standard response is “Don’t cry” or “Other kids have it worse than you” aren’t we minimizing and gaslighting? How does someone else’s situation have anything to do with this child? Is one person’s trauma worse than another’s? I would argue no. Regardless of what I have been through - other people have had experiences; some I can relate to and others not so much. However, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t have the experience or that their feelings should be minimized just because the event wouldn’t overwhelm or traumatize me. When we emotionally invalidate someone it can become difficult for them to recover, and they learn to doubt their own thoughts, feelings, and judgment. This leaves them even more vulnerable and unable to cope. I understand that, especially in the parenting example above, parents want to teach their children that they can’t always have their way. That is acceptable, but we should communicate it differently. What, if instead, we said:
You seem really upset about that?
Tell me about why you are sad/mad/upset/angry
It doesn’t seem fair, what else could you do?
It’s ok to be sad/mad/upset/angry
Don’t these validate without minimizing? Don’t these teach without questioning the feelings the child is having? Can it help the child to accept disappointment without discounting how it makes them feel? While I believe it is true in some situations someone might be overreacting or acting in an irrational way, it is important to listen to and truly understand the situation and needs. You can’t allow your own trauma, your own inner voice and minimization to discount the current feelings and emotions of yourself or others. This is not a competition. No one person’s trauma has more or less of an impact than another’s. Minimization and invalidation are emotional coals smoldering in your soul, if you don’t extinguish them, you are likely to find yourself engulfed in flames. Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth, and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of Good Harbor Institute an organization focused on translating evidence-based research on trauma into skills that can be used immediately by individuals and organizations. You can learn more about her and her work at www.garbagebagsuitcase.com or www.goodharborinst.com