By Naomi Leboe
Expressive Arts Therapist at Fraser Valley Treatment Center
Emotional validation is the acknowledgement and acceptance of a person’s emotional experience. It is not the same as agreeing with the other person’s perspective. One dictionary definition is: To substantiate, to confirm, to verify, to authenticate.
Validation can be difficult if the person is having an emotional experience due to an interaction with us personally, or if we have preconceived biases or judgements. It is a skill that requires practice. Validation is one of the best gifts we can give to others.
There are many reasons why a person might have an emotional experience. It could be due to an interaction the person had with us or with another person. It could be in response to a loss or to something that created a sense of disappointment in oneself. It could be linked to an accident or to a memory that was triggered. There may even be no apparent direct correlation between the mood and an external event.
When we validate someone’s internal experience–their emotions and perceptions, we respond with statements such as, “That must have felt really scary for you,” or, “Yes, I can see what an upsetting experience that was for you.”
Validation can be helpful in decreasing the stress response, which in turn calms our central nervous system, which in turn affects the way our body and brain are responding to a given situation. Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) is very useful for helping us to learn and feel good about validating ourselves. Self-validation is one of the most transformative tools we can have in our tool kit. It prevents us from always needing to seek external validation–a practice that most often leaves us feeling hollow and disappointed. However, for those who struggle with self- validation, having a friend, family member or trained therapist who is able to model validation for them can help to set a person on the path to being able to do this for themselves. *
Children who grow up in invalidating environments are at risk for borderline personality disorder. Adults who chronically invalidate themselves (often reinforced by invalidating friendships and romantic relationships) can be prone to seek out potentially harmful methods of numbing or self- soothing the pain caused by the cycle of invalidation. This can look like: cutting; substance abuse; eating disorders; the need to control the external environment (OCD); gambling; porn addiction; relationship addiction; and even behaviours not typically recognized as potentially destructive such as excessive care-taking of others while neglecting self-care; or remaining in a constant state of stimulus and distraction through activities, television, internet, radio, texting and so on.
Validation is not the same as experiencing the emotion alongside a person (getting angry at the person they are angry with, for example). Doing so could either amplify what the person is already feeling, or the person may end up invalidating (disqualifying) their own emotional need and driving it inward in order to to pacify us. Either way, the person is still left with the unpleasant emotion and the thought rumination which often accompanies it.
Validation, acknowledgement and acceptance means recognizing that this is the way the person is feeling and perceiving in this moment, regardless of whether or not we might personally resonate with those same feelings or perceptions.
Each person’s experience of an event differs to a greater or lesser degree. Some reasons for these differences can be attributed to dynamics in our family of origin and the way in which we were raised; our cultural background; our spiritual beliefs; past traumas, and so on.
Sometimes, when we have trouble relating to what another person is experiencing, or if their emotions are creating discomfort within us, the tendency can be to minimize, discount, dismiss, downplay or even tease or mock a person for the way they are perceiving and feeling about an event.
Invalidation can even masquerade as encouragement: “Come on, cheer up! There’s always a silver lining!” or, “You just need to look for the good!” or, “You did great! Now don’t you feel silly for being nervous?”
More often than not, there are no quick and easy fixes. Statements like these are often used for reasons noted above, or when we feel somehow responsible to “fix” the person rather than simply “be with” them.
Contrary to what might be intended, these types of statements do nothing to make the person feel better but rather they may escalate the intensity of the emotions or drive the thoughts and feelings inward. As noted previously, neither are optimal outcomes.
It may appear paradoxical that, rather than reinforcing the emotions, acknowledging and accepting often eases the emotional response (and associated thoughts) of the person experiencing them. If we spend some moments reflecting back and connect to a time when we were upset and felt heard and understood and what that did for the intensity of grief, frustration, anger, fear (and associated thoughts) we will hopefully be able to understand and create a connection that will help us to know and remember what to do the next time we encounter a loved one, a coworker or even a stranger who is having trouble dealing with a difficult emotion.
* Resource books about the emotional stress response and how dialectical behaviour therapy can help: The Stress Response (Christy Matta), and Calming the Emotional Storm (Sheri Van Dijk).