In therapy, you may hear your therapist talk about the importance of “validating” your experience. When we validate, we “recognize the value of a person or their feelings and opinions”. In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, validation is explained as “finding the kernel of truth in another person’s perspective or situation,” as well as, “acknowledging that a person’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors have causes and are therefore understandable.”
Validation is a communication tool that can be used with ourselves (self-talk) and with others. Using validation can create and strengthen connection, increase understanding, and help to regulate ours and other’s emotions.
Sometimes we have experiences of invalidation, and this can leave us feeling upset, frustrated, numb, and can be especially painful to experience when we are children. Invalidation is any message we receive that gives us the impression that our feelings are “wrong,” in other words, that we should not be feeling and experiencing what we are feeling and experiencing.
Using validation helps to regulate emotions because once we feel understood and valued, we become less reactive. One study showed that in individuals who already have a difficult time regulating emotions and curbing aggression, validation was found to lower their emotional reactivity and reduce aggressive responses. As social creatures who live in a manner dependent upon other people to survive, it is important for us to be understood and accepted. It feels safe when we are understood; to have the sense that our experience is valued.
The best way to understand how validation works is through examples. I’ll first give an example of how we can practice using validation on ourselves and then I will give an example that illustrates how it functions when we use it in relationship to others.
I want you to imagine that you just had a rough day at work, are feeling worn out, tired, overwhelmed, and as a result, you completely forgot to call your friend like you had said you would two days earlier. You’re pretty upset with yourself, and you say things like, “I can’t believe you forgot to call your friend. You are such an idiot! I knew you would forget. You always do this. And why are you so stressed out anyway? You probably shouldn’t even be in this job if you are that stressed out; you clearly can’t handle it.”
In addition to being condescending, this response doesn’t really acknowledge the truth of our experience. It may give us the impression that we should not be feeling so stressed out (and therefore there is something wrong with us), and that our innocent forgetting to call back should not have happened (confirming again that there is something wrong with us). Talking to ourselves this way will probably leave us feeling guilty, on top of the stress we are already experiencing.
Let’s look at that same scenario, but this time we are going to use validation to honor our own feelings and experience. After we realize we forgot to call back our friend, we may say something like, “Given how stressed out I have been, it makes total sense that I didn’t even think to call them. I’ve had so much on my mind with work – these tasks are really challenging, and I am sure anyone would be overwhelmed in this role. Next time I’ll put a reminder in my phone.”
This second response puts value on our emotions and experience. Validation is not about being passive or noncritical, but it’s about honoring that our emotions and experience make sense. Emotions, experiences, feelings, thoughts, beliefs – they all have causes! And if we don’t take the time to accurately honor that the cause is understandable, we are left with a sense of being “wrong” and invalidated.
Now let’s look at how one would use validation in relationship. Validation can be used in relationship to anyone – friend, partner, co-workers, children, adults, anyone! Let’s say a friend of yours is really upset because you told them you would be meeting them at 6pm for dinner but didn’t end up showing up until 6:30pm. Your friend had a reservation and lost it, and now you both have to wait an additional 40 minutes to eat. Could you imagine what would happen if you told your friend, “Could you just chill out? It’s not that big of a deal. I don’t even see why you are so upset. I already told you there was too much traffic and I couldn’t do anything about it. I hate when you get like this.”
With this response, your friend will likely stay upset and perhaps even increase their level of frustration. Using validation, the way we might respond to your friend would be, “Hey, I totally understand that you’re upset. It’s probably really frustrating having to wait for me for 30 minutes, wondering where I am, and super disappointing that we lost our reservation. I tried to leave on time but traffic was way worse than usual. I really don’t want you to think that I don’t value your time.”
This second response uses validation as a way of honoring that your friend’s response makes sense, while still acknowledging your own intention/experience. Validation is not ascribing a sense of “rightness” or “wrongness” in either person, but instead it is saying, “It’s okay that you are having the response that you are having right now. I get it.” Validation also does not mean that we permit unacceptable behavior that harms other people. For example, if your friend verbalized she was upset, but then smashed in your car windows, her actions would not be valid, appropriate, or acceptable.
Validation as a tool may seem easy to comprehend intellectually, but there can be a lot of barriers to putting validation into practice. It definitely takes repeated effort to develop validation as an automatic response to your own or other’s experience, but you will find that using validation can greatly improve your self-esteem and relationships.
- Nina Tomkiewicz, LCSW To schedule with Nina, Click Here!