What you want

I still feel queasy when I remember the words.

Children have a certain disempowerment simply because they are young — they are naïve, less learned, and lack perspective. But this transcended childhood.  It sank past the boundaries of adult to child, or parent to child, and trampled my self-identity and self-determination.

My mom had found a way to get past what some would have called the “fortress” that isolated me, that natural preoccupation with whatever I was doing and naïve self-centeredness, that self-ism or autism that was greater in me than most anyone else.

“Oh, you don’t want to get grilled cheese again!” she chided me, but her sharp glance to me denied the lightness in her tone.  Her expression would then change, as it so often did when she spoke to other adults, with the swiftness of flipping a social light-switch, and she turned to pleasantly address the waitress “She wants the ham sandwich.”

Or: “You don’t either, have a headache.  You’re just fine.  Now go get your work done.”

And in 9th grade, in a dizzying double-bind: “You don’t want to be a park ranger; quit flapping that survey!  You’re going to sign up for bookkeeping and typing, and you’re going to start getting good grades in math class, too.”

Increasingly, I was told how I “really” felt emotionally or physically, or told me that I could not possibly be feeling something, that indeed I actually was feeling.  Invalidation is when an emotionally abusive person distorts someone’s perception of the world, or when the abuser undermines their factual processing by casting doubt upon the facts of the events.  Denying what happened or the analysis of what happened, minimizing the importance of abusive statements or trivializing the recipient’s responses are also means of invalidation.

Over the years, my inertia increased.   I could never tell when I was expected to have a preference, or rather, to just to express a preference, since apparently I wasn’t really allowed to have them.  When it wasn’t convenient to others for me to express a preference (to speed up shopping, or to allow my mom to appear generous), I was soundly rebuked and told what I “really wanted”.

My stress and depression increased throughout my teen years.  When I should have been learning independence and skills and decision-making, I was thwarted, and then paradoxically, received further insults because of my lack of independence.  Never knowing when I was supposed to express an opinion, or what my opinion was “supposed” to be, I frequently gave up and just shrugged, unable to verbally express the “appropriate response”. I frequently did not know what that “appropriate response” was.

Worse, with my lack of being able to perceive all those subtle social cues that pervaded both my warped home environment, and even the subtle social cues that comprise such an overwhelming part of interactions in the “normal” world, I was becoming increasingly fatigued with the burden of shamefully lacking in whatever psychic means would have informed me.  It was of course, all my fault, as so many people were quickly willing to inform me.

My mom had found a way to get past my natural self-centeredness, not by inviting me to understand others’ worlds, but by trampling my personal boundaries of selfhood.  Although children have a certain disempowerment simply because they are young, they, like all self-conscious organisms, are entitled to — nay, required — that their selfhood be respected.  Denying that someone else might have opinions worth considering, much less that they are even allowed to even have opinions, violates that central inalienable right.


Years later as an adult, I was still running into much the same problem of “reality shifting” (being told by others what my personal reality and preferences were “supposed” to be), even if it wasn’t expressed as blatantly or as frequently.  One such event became (in retrospect) a tipping point — not in events, but in perceptual clarity.  I finally realized that such events were equally disrespectful, even if they lacked the overt denial and double-binds.

My (now ex-) husband was telling me that I shouldn’t want to do jury duty because it might interfere with my vacation schedule or my work schedule.  I shouldn’t want to do jury duty because it didn’t pay as much as my job did.

But I realised in confusion, that this wasn’t about what I wanted to do, to participate as a citizen, to help make a positive difference in justice, and to be able to observe another facet of social functioning.

Ostensibly, it was about what he wanted from me, in terms of convenience in the family schedule, and what he wanted from me in terms of my earnings. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, we were horribly, deeply in debt.)  I wasn’t denying that it could make these differences in scheduling and earnings — but really, that wasn’t the issue here.  Those “reasons” were just distractors.

Rather, he was trying to enforce my actions based upon his wants, and dismissing my wants as being unimportant.  He was trying to convince me that his wants were my wants.  We all have wants, but I didn’t think that mine should have been dismissed as being unimportant.

The solutions he proposed were ones compromises between the requirements of the law, and what he said I wanted.  But effectively, I was the one being compromised, because his announcement denied my interests and enabled him to get what he wanted, rather than what would have enabled both of us.

I got tired of being told what I should want. I got tired of being told how I should feel.  I was suffering from a chronic case of spiritual fatigue. Constantly negotiating to be taken seriously was an exhausting way to live.

I don’t miss those aspects of my life; my whole system twitches when I perceive someone telling me what I “should be feeling” or “really want to do”.

Now if only I could get out of some of these other double binds that infest my work life …


  1. Mados said,

    11 February 2012 at 2:21

    Very good post. I wasn’t sure what it was about a former friend’s way of talking with me that stressed me so much, but this is it… invalidating my experiences.

  2. 3 November 2009 at 15:28

    […] I got an extra dose of feeling like I just had to put up with emotional abuse and people disrespecting my feelings and wishes (a wonderful post, BTW). Somehow, men who wouldn’t keep their hands to themselves in a sexual […]

  3. Kate said,

    1 November 2009 at 0:11

    That’s a real shame.

  4. urocyon said,

    30 October 2009 at 14:00

    Excellent post, Andrea! Also a great link on invalidation/other emotional abuse tactics. Having gotten some distance, I knew I’d become accustomed to emotional abuse as “what you have to put up with if you want to be around other people”, but sometimes the wrongness of it still strikes me really hard.

    My grandmother is the master of invalidation, and my mom picked up too much of it while trying not to. The aftereffects surprised me again last night, when my (nonabusive) husband put in a DVD I’d chosen, which I wasn’t sure he’d enjoy. By now, I know it’s OK to have wants that don’t coincide with those of other people–and I went ahead and added DVDs to the Lovefilm list–but I still went into a full-blown panic attack. The context may have been wrong, but I expected my choice (and judgment) to be criticized in great detail, and could already hear the hectoring. An agitated “No, we’ll watch something else; I insist!” was easier.

    It was a movie. My reaction embarrassed me, but that’s PTSD for you. It’s getting better, if slowly.

    Agreed, it’s the expectation of having to justify your choice or opinion that is so awful, in the face of belittlement. Especially when you’re not so quick on your feet under stress.

  5. 28 October 2009 at 23:58

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve run into this one near-constantly.

    It also lead me to make the biggest mistake in terms of choosing colleges (Oh you don’t want to go to he local university, you want to go to a liberal arts college back east.) Despite being miserable the times I’ve gone “back east” (up north) in the winter.

  6. 24 October 2009 at 4:11

    The timing is eerie for me, too, as I have gone behind my husband’s back and submitted to present research at a conference he didn’t want me to present at on a topic he didn’t want me to present on. “You don’t want to do that; it’s career suicide.”

    But I realized I *do* want to do that. And rather than defend my want — as Lindsay put it, as if I were defending a dissertation — I just went and did it without saying anything about it.

    And so I’m feeling miserable at the perceived rift in our relationship because I am keeping something from him but also feeling thoroughly excited about the research and the upcoming conference.

    Somehow I will resolve this all.

  7. excavator said,

    22 October 2009 at 20:47

    The timing for me to read this is eerie, since this is a theme I’m revisiting right now. In my family, it wasn’t what you wanted, but what you were supposed to want. And if you didn’t want what you were supposed to want, your worth as a person was determined by your ability to override that not-want.

    Thanks for this.

  8. Stephanie said,

    21 October 2009 at 9:32

    I know someone who needs that tipping to self-validation. The effects can be so long, and so painful. Even when the abuse is gone, it lingers in one’s self-talk, as if it were all true.

    “Wants” just are. They shouldn’t have to be defended and reinforced. Which isn’t to say we can always have them, but we’re all entitled to them just because it’s the individual doing the wanting.

  9. Lindsay said,

    20 October 2009 at 0:49

    Good post, Andrea!

    I have to deal with stuff like this, too, sometimes; I often find I just don’t have the energy to ask for, or express a preference about, anything, because I suspect I’ll have to justify it, and I hardly ever have the mental resources to do that.

    I’m doing well if I can identify and voice a desire or opinion at all; I’m not going to be able to defend it like it’s a dissertation or something.

    • andrea said,

      20 October 2009 at 4:07

      Lindsay, YES, it’s the defending that is so exhausting … first you have to explain that there is a problem (which not being allowed to point out is an integral part of the whole double-bind thing), and then you have to defend why you feel the way you do. Frequently there is no real “reason”, other than, “I would rather have grilled cheese again, and not ham.”


  10. Adelaide said,

    19 October 2009 at 22:48

    This is a bugger of a situation!

    It’s awful when people traipse across your personal boundaries as if they had a right to.

    I hope you were and are able to realise that your wants are yours.

    And the whole inertia thing is not nice.

  11. Bug Girl said,

    19 October 2009 at 22:43

    I’m really glad you wrote this–I just had a tipping point revelation too!

    Thanks! I don’t suppose you’ll be at the ESA meetings this year?

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