One of the greatest learnings from the Mindfulness in Education Conference in 2017 was our introduction to the concept of the Invalidating Environment (IE). Here are a few examples to illustrate what the IE is:
Scenario 1: Teenager and Mother
“You’re grand. Sure what would you have to be worrying about. You have studied loads.”
“But Mam, I feel sick with worry.”
“Would you stop. You’re fine.”
Scenario 2: Teacher and Student
“Teacher, I am really tired.”
“You’re tired? Sure we’re all tired. You’ll be fine. Sit down.”
Scenario 3: Two friends
“Dave, I haven’t been feeling great lately.”
“Ah Mark, would you stop. Sure you are the one who keeps us going.”
“Go away out of that.”
In Ireland, as in many countries around the world, we are not comfortable when someone expresses tricky or uncomfortable emotions. We have never learned about our own emotions. It is therefore not surprising when someone communicates a feeling that expresses some form of pain, that we want to run away from it. Bring on the Instagram-able highlights of fun and laughter but we cannot cope with distressing, raw emotions. This is because we have grown up in a society made up of people who are essentially emotionally-blindfolded. We have never learned how to recognise how we are feeling or how to express it. Therefore, when someone communicates this information to us, we often don’t know what to say or do. In many cases, we will try to shut down the conversation by trying to reassure the person that what they are trying to express is in fact incorrect. That they are not in pain or anxious or stressed or whatever the case may be. In true Irish form we aim to soothe by telling them that they are ‘fine’ or ‘grand’. We do this with the best of intentions and are coming from a place of kindness. We want the person to be OK. In the scenarios above, we want our teenage daughter’s worries to go away. The teacher wants their student to be fine and the man wants his friend to be back to his cheerful ways.
Both Aoife and I coined the term the ‘Irish band-aid’ – this refers to whatever emotional cut or wound the person is expressing we slap on a ‘you’re grand’ band-aid. Instead of listening to them, we in fact invalidate what they are expressing. From this they learn to suppress and move on and we think great, job done! Sadly, it’s the complete opposite. We were again blown away by this concept. Once we learned about it we then could recall how many times we’ve invalidated students in our classes over the years. This is not something that had ever come up in our teacher training.
So how do you go from the invalidating environment to the validating one? How do we stop slapping on those Irish band-aids? It’s one thing learning it but it’s a whole other ball game implementing it. Thankfully our continued research brought us to an on-line workshop with Renee Jain, the founder of Gozen.com. Renee introduced us to the Fast-Food Rule (FFR) strategy – a simple but hugely effective way to validate people’s feelings. Another game-changer for us. Aoife and I set about implementing the FFR in our classrooms and relationships outside school. To see the transformation in the children in our class was quite simply phenomenal. It didn’t happen overnight but what we were creating with this new information was an environment built on human connection and where all of our students felt valued, heard and understood. At first the students didn’t know how to react when we listened attentively and repeated what they said to us, but slowly it offered them the opportunity to problem-solve for themselves and accept that whatever feeling they were experiencing was normal.
The only band-aids used now in our classrooms from that point on were for physical wounds. If you’re interested in hearing more, check out our programs for parents / teachers coming soon…