Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Normalization of Invalidation

Content Warning: Fictional story about an internet sexual predator deceiving a high-school girl.

A couple years ago, I read a book called Wanna Go Private? about a high school student, Abby, who made friends with someone on the internet. This person seemed very nice and validated all of her feelings about everything, but it turned out he was lying the whole time and was only trying to have sex with her.

It was the start of Abby's freshman year of high school. She's really scared, but her best friend Faith keeps telling her everything is going to be awesome and brushing off her concerns. Faith pressures Abby to stuff she doesn't want to do, such as trying out for the school play. Abby gets stage fright and faints in front of everyone, and tells Faith not to tell anyone because she's so embarrassed. Faith does tell her parents out of concern for Abby's well-being (one of her parents is a doctor), and Abby feels really betrayed. Then Abby meets this guy online, Luke, who validates her feelings completely and agrees that Faith shouldn't be pushing her into stuff she doesn't want to do. He accepts how bad she feels about all of the changes in high school and doesn't pressure her to have a better attitude, the way that Faith does. Soon Abby starts to feel like Luke is the only one she has, the only one who gets it. At the end of the story, she notes that Luke always took her side on everything, whereas "real" friend like Faith would tell her that she was being negative, tell it like it is, even if she didn't want to hear it.

What really, really bothers me about this story is that it normalizes peer pressure and invalidation among friends - it tries to indicate that it really was okay that Faith invalidated Abby's negative feelings about high school, pressured her to be positive about things she wasn't happy about, and pressured her to get involved in school activities that she didn't want to do. It tries to indicate that nothing was really that bad in the initial situation, and this Luke guy tricked her into thinking that things were worse than they were and that he was the only one she could talk to.

That was not true. Things WERE bad from the start. Abby was in a really bad situation where people weren't listening to her and respecting her feelings, and Luke came along and acted like the friend she needed. As an outside reader, it's obvious that he's just pretending. It's clear that he's trying to lure her away from her friends and family. But my problem with the end of the story is that you get the impression that this guy was too good to be true, like the warning signs were there and no friend could ever be the way he was. And that is a huge problem because the friend Luke pretended to be is EXACTLY the kind of friend I want to have. It's NOT okay if my friend pressures me to be in the play when I don't want to be. It's not okay if my friend pressures me to be more positive when I'm saying that I'm not okay with something. And I WANT friends who agree with me on that. Now, Luke goes too far in saying that Faith is a bad friend - I would never tell someone to drop a friend completely over what Faith did. But there are times when I have needed to drop friends completely because they were hurting me, and I got no support at all. I had no one who told me, "If they're making you feel bad, drop them." And now that I have friends who support me fully in choices like this, I do cling to them very hard and feel like they are the ones who understand. Because they are. Luke encouraged Abby to drop her friends for manipulative reasons, so that she would become isolated with only him, which is obviously wrong, but there's this undertone indicating that it's always wrong to encourage someone to drop their friends, which is not true.

The story was good about putting the blame on the predator and making it clear that this wasn't Abby's fault, but when it did talk about how this happened, there was definitely a tone that when something is too good to be true, it usually is. My problem with that is that Luke was NOT too good to be true! He wasn't some billionaire who was offering her a free cruise around the world. He listened  and accepted how she felt at face value and never told her to be more positive or brushed her feelings aside. Abby's therapist talks about the technique predators use of simply repeating her own statements back to her. That isn't just some predator technique - that is a real-life listening skill! That is an actual way to make someone feel heard and validated and the fact that no one else in Abby's life would do this for her was a fucking problem.

The bottom line here: I don't want people treating me like Faith treated Abby. I don't want to be told to be more positive or be guilt-tripped into functioning or accepting things that aren't okay. I don't want to be told that something is not as big as it is for me. I don't want to be given a dose of reality. I am looking for unconditional, pressure-free, emotional validation, and I am NOT willing to live in a world where that is too good to be true.

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