Dr Marsha Linehan is one of the most celebrated psychologists in the world today. So why, given her obvious gifts, did she feel that she was ‘an unacceptable person’ when she was young?
Dr Linehan’s recent memoir, Building a Life Worth Living, describes how she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital when she was 17. ‘Drowning in an ocean of self-loathing and shame’, she spent two years there and was viewed as ‘one of the most disturbed patients in the hospital’.
However, Marsha eventually found a way out of her own personal hell and resolved to ‘help people find the path to getting out of hell’ themselves. She went to college, earned a doctorate in psychology and eventually created dialectical behaviour therapy, or DBT, a modified form of cognitive behavioural therapy that is widely used to treat suicidal people or people experiencing intense emotions.
What caused Marsha’s breakdown? She refers to both a biological predisposition and a ‘toxic home environment’; combined, they represent a ‘psychologically deadly mix’. Now, when many people think of a toxic home environment, they think of obvious forms of trauma, such as sexual or physical abuse or deliberate parental cruelty.
Marsha suffered no such trauma, but she was constantly invalidated by her mother, who ‘constantly badgered me to dress properly, do my hair, lose weight, speak only when appropriate.’ Marsha was ‘constantly aware of her disapproval, the look in her eyes, her tone of voice’. If someone was mean to Marsha, her mother’s immediate response was to figure out how to change her so they would like her more; she never suggested those people were wrong, so Marsha ‘never even thought of that as a possibility until much later’.
Her mother ‘would never validate or accept me for who I was’, writes Marsha. ‘She loved me, I am sure, but she didn’t really like or admire the kind of person I was’. Essentially, ‘Mother saw me as a tulip and desperately wanted to make me into a rose. She thought I’d be happier as a rose. But I did not have what it took to be a rose, not then and not now.’
The net effect: torment and shame. ‘I thought I was fat and unlovable’, she writes. ‘I wanted to be dead. I felt I was an unacceptable human being.’
The ‘constant disapproval, this constant pressure to be someone else’ is a perfect example of an invalidating environment.
DBT emphasises that an invalidating environment doesn’t seem to understand your emotions. It tells you that your emotions are weird, wrong, invalid. Your personal experiences are trivialised or denied. Being ignored or repeatedly misunderstood, misinterpreted or misread, not being believed when you are being truthful, receiving unequal treatment – all of these are common in invalidating environments.
Invalidation can be deliberate and cruel, but it can also be unintentional. People who invalidate are often doing their best. They may be operating under a lot of stress themselves. Alternatively, they may not know how to validate, or how important it is, or how their actions and words may be perceived as invalidating. DBT emphasises the importance of cultivating an attitude of radical acceptance and this can be seen in Marsha’s reflections on her mother. ‘I don’t blame her for what she did to me as a young girl’, she writes. ‘She did her best, thinking she was helping me.’
Of course, while invalidation is often accidental, the psychological consequences can be devastating. No one wants to feel that they are an ‘unacceptable’ human being, to use Marsha’s description.
Nevertheless, Marsha Linehan succeeded in building a life worth living, to borrow from the title of her memoir. She emphasises that you can feel like a misfit in one group and fit in perfectly in another group.
The moral: ‘If you’re a tulip, don’t try to be a rose. Go find a tulip garden. All of my clients are tulips, and they’re trying to be roses. It doesn’t work.’
(First published in Southern Star on 04/02/2021)