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The Invalidator: Exploring the Psychology of Verbal Mugging 

Updated: Mar 19

Man getting mugged by words

There are many beasts in the backwoods that come out to play from time to time. One, according to medical doctor Brian Kaplan is, The invalidator; a put-down artist, who delights in dismissing another in public. 

According to Kaplan, author of Almost Happy, when a person is put- down by an invalidator they experience something akin to being mugged.  

Kaplan paints a scenario of a person at a social gathering, everything is going fine, when out of the blue someone says something invalidating to you. Wow! Bang! You are taken aback. The comment might come after an argument. But just as likely it could come out of nowhere.

Invalidators, Kaplan implies, often project a confidence, some might say they exude it. They might appear to have it all together, looks, education, car, house. But the real tell about their character is how they negotiate their interchanges with others, especially in group settings. 

Boys will be boys and jibes among buddies can show intimacy, if done in the setting of one-on-one. But a mugging occurs if it takes place in a group so all can hear. And the aspersions are characterological in nature, related to one’s craft or appearance, or other very personal pieces of one’s life.  

These invalidating phrases come in degrees of intensities. There is the straightforward put down, You are stupid!

I still remember at a college gathering decades ago, out of the blue a guy blurted out in front of some ten others, "McGee you are the slowest person I know. Why are you so slow?” 

I sat there with my then girlfriend, dazed. We were drinking heavily. Excuse. As I recall I said nothing to the provocation. The boys there cackled. The girls waited, I thought, for a clever come back. 

That night, I contemplated why I didn’t have a quick clever comeback, (L ‘esprit de l ‘escalier, thought of on the stairway down) such as saying, why do you care? But I’d said nothing, just felt bad.

The next day a buddy commented that my invalidator was smitten with my girlfriend.

Kaplan says, ignoring a person in conversation is another invalidating behavior and is also meant to discount that person. With women and men alike it takes the shape of the mugger ignoring your contribution to a conversation and referring back to what the mugger was saying before your input. 

In the world of social media, ghosting can be seen as a kind of invalidation. One day you are in the group, the next you are dissed, unknowing as to the reasons. And defriended or canceled.

Relentless cynicism, Kaplan says, is a behavior in which the invalidator negates comments about all topics in a conversation, whether it is about politics, the weather or other matters of the world. Regardless of what is said by you, he, the invalidator, negates it. 

Blanket labeling of another is an example of an invalidation, such as, “You are a racist! You are antisemitic! You are anti patriotic! But these quick labels cast on someone dismissing them as a person puts an end to conversation about an issue. How does the muggee respond to that?

According to Kaplan, sarcasm is a common type of invalidation. It is often utilized without needing a response from the person mugged, and thrown out in a rhetorical way for all to hear.

That’s a scary proposition,” the mugger says to others, "that he's studying medicine,” emasculating the med student; the snide remark said  within an earshot of him. 

Locker rooms, pick up games, and even classrooms are petri dishes where sarcasm pops its head up. “Hey, Willie’s wennie is no bigger than my baby brothers’,'' the mugger chuckles, loud enough for all to hear, especially Willie.

Or, in a pick up game, the invalidator laughs, at the last boy chosen, “Who gets Bob?”

For the person mugged, a chewing of the cud comes in wondering what’s up with mugger?

Why does one invalidate? 

Kaplan says the mugger invalidates for many reasons. Some are very conscious of their behaviors. But it is just as likely that many are not aware of the effect of their invalidations on the person mugged. 

Kaplan says despite appearing to have it all together as might be the case for some muggers, in the world of Freudian and Adlerian psychoanalysis, muggers have a grave feeling of inferiority. This feeling is commonly referred to as an inferiority complex.

They have a deep feeling of a need to be superior over everyone which translates into put downs, thus elevating them over that person or the crowd. And some invalidators can be benevolent and welcoming in their comments toward another one moment, and invalidating the next.

“Invalidators,” Kaplan says,”are not born feeling deficient but acquire these patterns early in life. It could be due to never receiving enough love from a parent.” 

Looking at the upbringing and early experiences shed light on why a person is a mugger. Unresolved issues often relate to: neglect, shame, abandonment, substance abuse, anger, and a need for control. 

A standard go-to remedy for the invalidator when feeling a loss of control is the put-down. The bottom line, Kaplan says; the mugger is lonely and dissatisfied with life around him.

What to do?

For those mugged, the tendency to experience L’ esprit de L'escalier, is common, but there are strategies a muggee can keep in their hip pocket as ammunition. 

Kaplan says, complimenting the mugger is one strategy. Agreeing with the mugger is another.

A family story exists about my own father, who was a lawyer and after winning a personal injury case, agreed with the losing lawyer. The losing lawyer, (experiencing sour grapes) when interviewed by the press, said,'' juries are funny, no wonder this jury rendered the verdict it did. The plaintiff's lawyer was bald, the plaintiff was bald, and all the men on the jury were bald.” 

My dad responded to the reporter when asked to comment on the other lawyer’s claim. “I’ll remember that,” he said. “And I’ll keep my dome polished and next time in voir dire I’ll just look for bald jurors.” 

Kaplan says once an invalidator recognizes their behavior, through therapy, or being called on it and wishes to change, they can. 

But if one finds themself being the target of an invalidator, a personal reflection should ask, why do muggers attack me? We teach people how to treat us. 

Ultimately, for those hit by aspersions, it is important to keep in mind, put-downs have more to do with the mugger than the muggee. 

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