By Dr. Jamie Long of The Psychology Group
We are delighted to have Dr. Jamie Long guest blog for us. Dr. Jamie is a trusted expert in the mental health community and has regular guest appearances on national radio publications and podcasts. Her blog, Finding Cloud Nine is widely popular and informative.
The Impact of Validation in Relationships
Validation is a critical communication tool and expression of love and acceptance in relationships. Conversely, invalidation is one of the most damaging forms of emotional abuse. What’s scary, it can be one of the most subtle and unintentional abuses. Invalidating a person’s feelings and emotional experience can make them feel like they’re going crazy!
If you’re the recipient of invalidating messages, know this: YOU’RE NOT CRAZY! Your feelings are valid and real.
Why Do Some People Struggle with Validation?
Some individuals knowingly invalidate others as a form of manipulation, control, and psychological injury. Possible explanations for why someone may struggle with validation (other than psychopathy) are: a low capacity for empathy and compassion, not understanding or valuing the importance of validation, not knowing how to express it effectively, and/or an inflated ego.
Other folks may invalidate unintentionally. The well-intentioned invalidators often defend their actions by stating they were trying to help someone feel better or differently (i.e., to an emotion they judge as a more accurate, more valid one).
5 Invalidating Statements NOT to Say (to someone you want to support):
(Note: There are numerous ways to invalidate someone. Below are examples of common invalidating statements).
- “At least it’s not…” -or- “It could be worse.”
Seeing someone suffer emotionally can be very triggering to those who witness it. Compassionate people want to fix the uncomfortable emotion or make it better. When someone cries, we offer a tissue to wipe away the tears or a tender sentiment in hopes of a smile. If those efforts don’t work, the ante is upped with stronger efforts to bring some relief.
In my therapy sessions, I often hear stories of how those in despair feel utterly alone and misunderstood. Take, for example, a young client grieving the devastating ending of her short-lived marriage. She shared several examples of how well-meaning, sympathetic souls offered statements such as: “At least you’re young, you will re-marry.” “It could be worse, at least you didn’t have any children with him.” The attempts of solace felt as if her friends and loved ones were marginalizing her pain, regardless of the validity of those statements. It wasn’t perspective that she needed, it was empathy and understanding.
- “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
As an experiment, ask a friend to pinch your arm. Instruct this person that no matter what you do the only response they should give is: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Have them pinch you until it starts to hurt. Once the pain has irritated you enough, tell the person: “Ouch! That really hurts!” Await for their scripted reply. How did you feel? Did your pain dissipate after learning they were sorry you felt that way? Of course not! Telling someone “I’m sorry you feel that way” is simply a socially acceptable way of saying, “I don’t really care how you feel, your reality is wrong” (or worse: your experience is stupid).
- “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
The message that a person shouldn’t feel a certain way goes beyond disregarding another’s feeling, it also communicates that a person’s emotional experience isn’t a valid one. The statement conveys contempt and superiority. Think about it, what gives you the authority or the ability to decide how a person should or shouldn’t feel? Only they know that! Denying a person’s perspective can — and often does — make them feel crazy, invisible and small.
This example reminds me of a severely depressed adolescent client who often complained during session that her parents didn’t care about her. The examples she gave to support her belief were invalidating statements by her parents. When she was anxious about something that happened at school her parents told her that she shouldn’t let it bother her. When she was frustrated with how her parents disciplined her she was told she should get over it. After crying over a fight with a friend they suggested that she should lighten up and that her friend probably meant well. The list of examples went on and on.
- “Don’t think about it, just get on with it.”
Imagine you have spent a large amount of time training for a marathon. You’ve worked really hard to condition your body and you’re confident that you have achieved the necessary level of fitness to run in it. Just a few days before the marathon, an unfortunate accident results in a broken leg. Sadness, anger, frustration, and deflation might describe a few of your feelings. Assuming you’re not completely unreasonable, it’s unlikely that you will tell yourself: “Don’t think about it, just get on with it and run anyways.” Your leg is broken! You can’t run a marathon with a broken leg, right?
Regarding emotions, people often tell themselves and others to dismiss a feeling and to just get on with it. Certainly, there are situations when we need to set our feelings aside so that we can function adaptively. However, I’m referring to the times when feelings are harmfully stuffed, brushed aside, and suppressed. Paradoxically, encouraging such emotion dismissal leads to even greater psychological distress. When we trivialize, minimize or disavow feelings, we inevitably cause the emotions to grow. Believe me, these emotions will find a way to be expressed. Think aches & pains, diarrhea, panic attacks, emotional eating, drugs, alcohol, etc.).
- “I’m not having this discussion!”
We’ve all been the victim or the perpetrator of one of the most powerful non-verbal invalidations: The Silent Treatment. The silent treatment can be leaving the room, ignoring phone calls/text messages or simply rolling our eyes. When we disagree with someone’s perspective, it’s understandable to want to shut it down. But we must resist this urge to shut down no matter how right we feel in the circumstance. Remember, validation does not mean we agree with another’s subjective reality. Validation is about having the capacity to allow another person’s emotional state a space to exist and it can start with simply being present and listening.
How to Be More Validating:
- Recognize that validating someone’s emotional experience does not necessarily convey agreement with it or that you think they’re right. You can communicate that someone’s emotion is valid without liking the emotion. *Remember an emotion is different from a behavior.
- Avoid becoming defensive or offering unsolicited advice. If you are the target of the emotion, try to accept responsibility for at least a small part of the complaint. If you have an idea on how to solve their problem, ask: “Do you want my help with this problem?” If the answer is “No,” focus on listening.
- Understanding must precede intervention. To truly listen to someone means to try to understand their position. The deeper you can understand where they’re coming from, the more validating you will be.
- Reflect the Feeling. “I can see you’re really upset.” “This must be so painful.”
- Summarize the experience. “I totally understand that you’re upset because I wasn’t on time which was rude and irresponsible.” Or “This must be so painful, it’s devastating to experience such a loss.”
In summary, it’s important realize just how critical validation is to the health of a relationship. To validate someone successfully, it requires you to see the truth in their perspective and respect that they might see things differently from you. The more you are able to validate a person, the more successful your relationship will be.
Dr. Jamie Long, a clinical psychologist specializes in anxiety and depression therapy, eating disorder therapy, PTSD and trauma therapy and addiction therapy in the Fort Lauderdale area. She is passionate about helping individuals improve mental health and psychological wellness. You can contact her at www.drjamielong.com and www.thepsychologygroup.com.