“Validation” of our feelings and our experiences is a word that’s being thrown about a lot lately. It’s something very familiar to therapists and anyone in the mental health space, but what does it actually mean?
To put it simply, to validate is to demonstrate support for the truth and value of something. When we validate our friends or loved ones experiences and emotions, we are acknowledging what is real and true for them in the moment and letting them know that it’s okay (even if it feels difficult, stupid, uncomfortable or embarrassing for them).
Emotions are messy, and many of us were never taught how to be around our own – let alone other people’s – in any kind of supportive, compassionate or understanding way. We can accidentally fall into the trap of invalidating peoples emotions and experiences, out of habit, comfort, confusion or naivety. Here are some of the common blunders we make when validating others – and a few ways to fix them.
1. We don’t listen.
We’ve all got heaps going on in our lives, a million thoughts going through our heads at any given time. Sometimes, when someone else is talking or opening up, it can be easy to tune out or spend more time thinking about our insightful or pithy response than it is to truly, deeply listen. Have you ever been chatting to someone that you can tell is just not really listening? They might be scrolling their phone, looking elsewhere or just lost in their own thoughts. Feels pretty shitty, huh? And we’ve all been perpetrators too. This kind of thing can make someone who’s trying to open up about something close to them feel like you don’t care or can’t be bothered. This hurts.
You can validate by: practicing being a better listener. Listening is a skill that needs be developed. Use eye-contact. Nod and respond to them, and repeat what they’ve said back to them in your own words – which shows you’re listening and you want to understand (not just reply). If you’re distracted or your mind is elsewhere – let them know! That’s human too, and it’s better to acknowledge it, than just trying to pretend you’re present when you’re not really.
2. We make it about us.
This one is perhaps the easiest one to do, and definitely the most well-meaning. Often, our empathetic response will be to meet someones experience with a similar experience of our own. We say things like “I know how you feel – I felt the exact same way when…” and suddenly, there we are, hijacking the convo, talking about ourselves. Sometimes, it can feel good to hear from people who’ve been through similar experiences, but often, in peak emotional states, we really just need someone to hear us out and make us feel like we’re not defective.
You can validate by: allowing them to drive the conversation. While you can help normalise their experience by saying you “understand”, try not to take over the conversation and make it all about you. Ask them questions about their experience, and what they’re feeling – things like “what else can you tell me…” and “tell me more…” make it clear that you’re giving them the floor to be open and to share.
3. We try to fix it or make it go away.
Classic problem solving mode 101. As human beings, this is what we’re wired for – and when we see someone we care about suffering or in distress, we want to make it better for them. It’s so fair. Unfortunately, what this can do at times is make the person feel like their experience is not real or that their emotions are wrong. When we’re in a peak emotional experience, you can’t just flick a switch and turn it off for someone. They need to feel it, and be in it, and ride it out. And if you’re trying to fix it or force it away on their behalf, you’re giving them signals that it’s something that you don’t want to deal with or be burdened with. That can feel pretty shitty.
You can validate by: letting them know that however they’re feeling, it’s ok. Emotions are never wrong. They’re annoying and unpleasant at times, yes. But they are what they are – messy, authentic and essentially human. We all feel stuff. And it’s more likely we begin to develop a more positive, connected relationship to our emotions when we’re taught to recognise that feeling stuff is normal, safe, and ok.
4. We change the topic.
It can feel awkward to validate someones emotional experience because we can see its not particularly pleasant for them, and we don’t want to be seen to be endorsing it (“Oh you feel like shit? Good for you!”) Sometimes, this awkward feeling leads us to want to drive the conversation away from what our friend might be feeling and experiencing. Maybe something to “cheer them up” or “put their mind on something else”. This is fine if your friend has told you straight up that they want to talk about something else (they might not be ready to explore their experience with anyone just yet and that’s fine). However, if they’re sharing, venting or opening up and you’re driven to change the subject, this might be more reflective of your own discomfort in the face of such emotional experience. This can be a subtle signal to your friend that what they’re going through is not worth hearing about or even acknowledging.
You can validate by: staying with it. Notice that discomfort come up for you and resist shutting the convo down as a result. You don’t need to have all the answers, or say exactly the right thing. Often, what people need most is someone to hear them out, and know that what they’re feeling is ok.
5. We minimise it or suggest it should be something other than what it is.
Ahh, the classics “Don’t be sad!”, “It’s not something you should feel angry about!”, “I thought you were over that?”, “How can you possibly feel depressed when you have such a #blessed life?”…etc. Again, often completely well-meaning – but these responses often come from our own interpretation of our friend’s situation, and show that we haven’t made the effort to see and feel things from their perspective. Being told “not to feel” any kind of way never leads to the response “OK, I’LL STOP” and they just stop. What it does do, is indicate to them that you don’t want them to be feeling however it is they’re feeling – thereby, reaffirming that certain emotions are invalid or wrong.
You can validate by: acknowledging and accepting them and their feelings – whatever they might be. Reassure them that they don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed of their feelings. Feelings are normal and it makes sense, given their situation/past/experience, that they would be feeling like this.
Also remember, you’re not everyone’s therapist! You don’t need to take on everything for everyone. The better you take care of and support yourself, the more energy and space you’ll have to extend to others. Also, keep in mind that many of these invalidating techniques we use on ourselves too when we’re feeling big feelings. Keep an eye on how you react and talk to yourself next time something gets your emotional sea surging, and ask how you can validate and acknowledge yourself through it.