by Sjoekje Sas(a)bone, LCSW, EMHA
At eighteen years old, my father was a P.O.W. KNIL soldier during WWII Japanese occupation (approximately 3.5 years). At nineteen, he witnessed a civilian diagonally sliced (shoulder to waist) with a samurai sword by a Japanese soldier who lost aim during this beheading. At twenty, my father retreated to his prison camp during an air bomb attack, scooping soot and soil from buried captives’ mouths, digging them out to safety.
When my father learned the war was over (Japanese soldiers abandoned their camp), he went to a civilian camp where the Japanese reigned as if the war continued. My father purposely tripped a soldier, confronted him that the war had ended, and helped corral the Japanese onto the beach as their prisoners. A civilian asked my father, “Well, what do we do now?” My father asked, “What do you want to do?” “I want to attack.” My father yelled, “ATTACK!” Everyone stormed the beach with vindication and beat the Japanese until they begged to die. My father was twenty-one years old.
Comparing Appels en Sinaasappels
I routinely retold my father’s stories with pride and admiration while comedically comparing events from my age at the time of his experiences to highlight the incredible events no one should have to experience.
“Do you know what I was doing at 19? Spring Break in Rosarito. At 20? Dancing to ‘Whomp There It Is’ … ‘Baby Got Back’ …meanwhile, my father is surviving and saving people! What am I doing with my life?!”
My experiences were incomparable to his. I wouldn’t dare complain because I did not want to come across as disrespectful to someone I admired and loved. Nevertheless, despite my conscious efforts to be humble and respectful, my immediate family illustrated comparison when I’d verbalize life stressors. For example, as a first-generation American child, I faced daily bullying over my name, looks, laugh, food, etc. Each part of my character was a significant component of my Indo culture. My parents would be in my corner and defend me in a heartbeat. However, before my parents confronted my school, they dismissed and minimized my hurtful experiences to try to make me feel better. Out of a place of love, they reminded me of their own challenging experiences at my age, which were inarguably much more arduous. I eventually accepted my hurt was “nothing” compared to theirs and believed anything I experienced was unworthy of reaction or emotion.
In comparison, I believed my problems were not “real” problems. Thus, under the veil of believing I am being humble and respectful, I conditioned myself to underreact to situations. I navigated life through dismissive sarcasm. I also elevated emotions to exaggerated dramatic worry, anxiety, or extreme sadness to gain “worthiness” to obtain comfort from my Indo loved ones when I faced life’s problems.
Why Do Our Indo Loved Ones Invalidate?
Our Indo loved ones experienced an enormous amount of trauma. Some cope with this trauma through avoidance, humor, religion/spirituality, alcohol, substances, self-harm, self-sabotaging behavior, and/or invalidation of their own experiences. Trauma survivors are often unaware that their words or behaviors invalidate their loved ones. Instead, loved ones can perceive their intention as helpful attempts to transition from a complex emotion or experience by minimizing and dismissing reactions. For example, our Indo parents might say in an annoyed tone, “hou op te huilen!” Or if we are tearful, they might gleefully say, “kop op!”
Another reason trauma survivors may invalidate thoughts, feelings, emotions, or experiences can be their inability to understand or empathize. Our Indo loved ones are doing their best. For some, they want the best for their children in an unfamiliar country where they want the best. However, the country they have immigrated to has different traditions and no prior family history to reference and relate to. For example, Indo parents might find their first generation American children’s experiences unrelatable, therefore dismissing them altogether. Thus, an Indo parent can tell their first generation American child, “You are acting like an American.” In Indo translation, this is the insult of all insults, indicating the first generation American child is rude, disrespectful, spoiled, and “brutaal.”
Finally, trauma survivors may feel uncomfortable with emotional expressions because they avoided their traumatic experiences by evading triggered emotions they cannot identify, process, or tolerate (Khiron Clinics, 2020). Many of our Indo parents have not received therapy. To obtain any compensation for serving in the Dutch Army, my father had to substantiate that he was dealing with his trauma. I was either in junior high or high school at the time. Before that, he spoke nothing of the war. He bottled it all up inside for about forty years.
Effects of Invalidation
Our Indo parents love us. They want us to succeed. They may not express pride directly to us, but they feel it deep inside and tell others about our accomplishments. Some Indos may never hear this directly from their Indo loved ones and feel the effects of not hearing pride and validation from those they respect. Dr. Jonice Webb explains that children feel deeply as a natural expression of their authentic selves, much like adults (2021). Validation helps children feel seen, understood, and heard by the adult they love and trust. When children’s emotions are consistently invalidated, it’s due to the parent’s inability to identify and cope with their own emotions.
Some adults may believe that emotions are a choice. As a result, they demonstrate intergenerational maladaptive coping skills to contend with triggering events. Although resentment and hurt may surface, the root of the matter is that some of our Indo loved ones are unable identify emotions felt during their traumatic experience. As a result, some Indos set their emotions aside to help make them feel good, and subsequently, they also set aside the emotions of their children in an attempt to make them feel good as well.
Unfortunately, when adults label emotions as a choice, judgment surfaces, deeming emotional expression as “bad behavior,” aka “acting like an American.” Salters-Pedneault explains that if a parent interprets responses as overreactive “bad behavior,” they will most likely counter-react by discouraging the child’s emotional response (2021). Several experts theorize that emotional invalidation, particularly in their formative years, might contribute to the onset development of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
For example, some Indos may not know how to express emotion appropriately, so that they may emote in extremes triggered by a real or perceived sense of rejection/invalidation. Conversely, other Indos may invalidate their emotions and underreact due to not knowing how to react. Consequently, Indos may find themselves placing worthiness/value on their feelings, engaging in toxic relationships, experiencing “imposter syndrome” or having chronic health conditions related to stress.
Reconnecting with our Authentic Selves
How do we begin to heal ourselves without feeling as if we are being selfish or disrespectful? There is a dichotomy between wanting to self-advocate while not feeling as if we are invalidating our Indo loved ones. Khiron Clinics explains that education and awareness are essential factors in healing wounds of invalidation (2020). But, first, adults must learn how to validate their feelings and experiences. They may seek this validation from others but cyclically respond with invalidation. Logically speaking, if we cannot accept our feelings and experiences as valid, how can we accept well-deserved praise, sympathy, and empathy from others?
Self-validation can be very challenging for many Indos due to feeling guilty. The guilt is often based on comparing our experiences to someone who survived the war. It’s truly unfair to compare the two. It’s incomparable to tell someone that they should not complain or say they have any problems because war is the benchmark of worthiness. It’s okay to have hurt feelings, from someone insulting you to experiencing a break-up. From losing your job to being disappointed by a close friend, to the death of someone you care about, such as a parent, to anything that makes you feel any particular way that has nothing to do with being a war survivor.
Concurrently, those who survived the war have every right to have their experiences acknowledged and self-validated. Because they survived, we are here on this earth to make an impact on others in their honor. How can we achieve our own greatness if we do not recognize our worthiness?
With that being said, we might be a bit clumsy when it comes to self-validation to where it unintentionally manifests itself into “toxic positivity.” Regan (2022) defines toxic positivity as “holding a perpetually positive outlook to the point that one denies their own emotions or the emotions of others.” Toxic positivity stems from wanting to feel anything other than uncomfortable, complicated feelings of hurt, sadness, or stress/anxiety. Thus, we substitute these feelings with positive statements to feel differently, inadvertently running the risk of invalidation. Sometimes this can result in optimistically saying “everything happens for a reason,” comparing worse events to yours, feeling guilty over your emotions, and inadvertently dismissing them. Therefore, in an attempt to be positive, we are at full circle with self-invalidation.
Suppose you are interested in pursuing professional interventions. Salters-Pedneault references clinical psychologist Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., the developer of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DBT is an intervention tailored in response to help navigate emotional dysregulation stemming from an “emotionally invalidating environment” (2021). Interventions from a trained DBT therapist provide means to identify triggering events that lead to emotional dysregulation and BPD symptom management techniques for said triggered events.
Finally, boundaries help contain erratic reactions by creating emotional shields for safe and appropriate emoting to curb vulnerability to environmental triggers. Additionally, a healthy sense of self-worth, confidence, and self-advocacy develops when confronting external invalidation and practicing self-validation.
Practicing these interventions, perhaps with a professional clinician’s guidance and therapeutic validation, is vital without feeling guilty or disrespectful to our Indo loved ones’ experiences. Otherwise, we continue to compare events while validating our loved ones’ situational experiences at our own expense, which we may pass on to the next generation.
My father experienced something that no young adult should face between the ages of eighteen through twenty-one. He deserved to experience average life’s problems regarding school, work, relationships, sibling disagreements, getting frustrated with his parents, and debating what to do with his future. Instead, he witnessed violence, murder, destruction, and loss. I hate that he went through that. I resent that our Indo loved ones faced undeniable horrific experiences during the WWII era. It hurts to hear about it, read about it, and learn about it.
Fortunately, we did not go through that, and yet our Indo-loved ones will dismiss the sadness we feel for them out of good intention. Our Indo loved ones are beyond grateful that their children did not experience what they have and remind us of what they went through in an attempt for us to feel grateful and humble. Consequently, we dismiss our genuine emotions and reactions through humility and gratitude, causing a ripple effect of maladaptive approaches in our lives. Nevertheless, our current era contains congruent challenges, stressors, and celebrations that deserve acknowledged validation. AND, we have a right to feel sad and sorry for our Indo loved ones. However, in doing so, we are validating their experiences to be highly traumatic and awful-something they may be uncomfortable facing.
- Your feelings matter.
- Your experiences matter.
- I believe you.
- I believe IN you.
- Your accomplishments are rightfully deserved.
- Your successes are exceptional.
You remain respectful to your Indo parents when tending to your feelings, wellness, and mental health. Surround yourself with people who see your value and remind you of this. Remember, self-care through self-validation makes you a stronger tenacious warrior that makes your ancestors proud.
This article is dedicated to the loving memory of ancestor Alexander Sasbone “Rust Zacht In Vrede” (Psalm 23) 11.15.1924-10.23.2016
Khiron Clinics. (2020). The Need for Validation and the Consequences of Invalidation
Webb, J. (2021). 10 Ways You May Have Been Emotionally Invalidated as a Child
Salters-Pedneault, K. (2021). Emotional Invalidation During Childhood May Cause BPD
S. Regan. (2022). What is toxic positivity? A deep dive into why you should avoid it.
The author and publisher disclaim any liability in connection with the use of the information and content of this article.