Understanding Validation: A Way to Communicate Acceptance
A simple strategy can improve your relationships.
Posted Apr 26, 2012
One of the four options we have in any problem situation is acceptance. Validation is one way that we communicate acceptance of ourselves and others. Validation doesn't mean agreeing or approving. When your best friend or a family member makes a decision that you really don't think is wise, validation is a way of supporting them and strengthening the relationship while maintaining a different opinion. Validation is a way of communicating that the relationship is important and solid even when you disagree on issues.
Validation is the recognition and acceptance of another person's thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors as understandable. Self-validation is the recognition and acceptance of your own thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviors as understandable.
Learning how to use validation effectively takes practice. Knowing the six levels of validation as identified by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. will be helpful.
The first level is being present. There are so many ways to be present. Holding someone's hand when they are having a painful medical treatment, listening with your whole mind and doing nothing but listening to a child describe their day in first grade, and going to a friend's house at midnight to sit with her while she cries because a supposed friend told lies about her are all examples of being present.
Multi-tasking while you listen to your teenager's story about his soccer game is not being present. Being present means giving all your attention to the person you are validating.
Being present for yourself means acknowledging your internal experience and sitting with it rather than "running away" from it, avoiding it, or pushing it away. Sitting with intense emotion is not easy. Even happiness or excitement can feel uncomfortable at times.
Often one of the reasons other people are uncomfortable with intense emotion is that they don't know what to say. Just being present, paying complete attention to the person in a nonjudgmental way, is often the answer. For yourself, being mindful of your own emotion is the first step to accepting your emotion.
The second level of validation is accurate reflection. Accurate reflection means you summarize what you have heard from someone else or summarize your own feelings. This type of validation can be done by others in an awkward, sing-songy, artificial way that is truly irritating or by yourself in a criticizing way. When done in an authentic manner, with the intent of truly understanding the experience and not judging it, accurate reflection is validating.
Sometimes this type of validation helps someone sort through their thoughts and separate thoughts from emotions. "So basically I'm feeling pretty angry and hurt," would be a self-reflection. "Sounds like you're disappointed in yourself because you didn't call him back," could be accurate reflection by someone else.
Level three is mindreading. Mindreading is guessing what another person might be feeling or thinking. People vary in their ability to know their own feelings. For example, some confuse anxiety and excitement and some confuse excitement and happiness. Some may not be clear about what they are feeling because they weren't allowed to experience their feelings or learned to be afraid of their feelings.
People may mask their feelings because they have learned that others don't react well to their sensitivity. This masking can lead to not acknowledging their feelings even to themselves, which makes the emotions more difficult to manage. Being able to accurately label feelings is an important step to being able to regulate them.
When someone is describing a situation, notice their emotional state. Then either name the emotions you hear or guess at what the person might be feeling.
"I'm guessing you must have felt pretty hurt by her comment" is Level Three validation. Remember that you may guess wrong and the person could correct you. It's her emotion and she is the only one who knows how she feels. Accepting her correction is validating.
Level four is understanding the person's behavior in terms of their history and biology. Your experiences and biology influence your emotional reactions. If your best friend was bitten by a dog a few years ago, she is not likely to enjoy playing with your German Shepherd. Validation at this level would be saying, "Given what happened to you, I completely understand your not wanting to be around my dog."
Self-validation would be understanding your own reactions in the context of your past experiences.
Level five is normalizing or recognizing emotional reactions that anyone would have. Understanding that your emotions are normal is helpful for everyone. For the emotionally sensitive person, knowing that anyone would be upset in a specific situation is validating. For example, "Of course you're anxious. Speaking before an audience the first time is scary for anyone."
Level six is radical genuineness. Radical genuineness is when you understand the emotion someone is feeling on a very deep level. Maybe you have had a similar experience. Radical genuineness is sharing that experience as equals.
Understanding the levels may be easy. Putting them into practice is often more difficult. Practice is the key to making validation a natural part of the way you communicate.
Consider this example. Your best friend is upset because her husband cut up her credit card. She says he's treating her like a child and is so controlling she doesn't have room to breathe. When you ask her what his reason was, she says that she overspent for the fourth time, running the balance over the limit by buying expensive shoes and they were unable to pay the bill. How do you validate her? Remember to use the highest possible level. Think of your answer before you read further!
Probably Level 2 is the highest level you could use. You could say, "I understand, you are upset because your husband cut up your credit cards without your agreement—-that made you feel like he was acting like your parent." You reflect her thoughts and emotions back to her, showing that you accept those feelings as her internal experience.
You probably couldn't use Level 6 or radical genuineness as it's unlikely you have similar experiences that you could understand her feelings on a deep level, such as having had the same experience and reaction. Level 5, normalizing, would not work because most people would agree his response was reasonable and not be upset in that situation. There is nothing to make her response more understandable in terms of her history, so Level 4 is not possible. Level 3 is also not applicable because she's told her feelings clearly--nothing to guess.
Let's try another example. Jesse tells you she quit her job. She quit because her boss loudly criticized her in front of other people. She's asked him twice before to not embarrass her but he loses his temper easily. She felt afraid of him because he reminded her of a verbally abusive uncle and she couldn't continue to work for him. What level of validation do you use?
Level 6 or Level 5 might work in this situation. If you have been in a similar situation or you really understand how she felt, you can validate her by saying, "I completely understand. I would have done the same thing." That would be Level 6. Level 5 would be, "I think most people would have felt the same way you did."
Though she has a history of being verbally abused, you don't use Level 4 because Level 5 fits. Always use the highest level possible. Level 4 would be to say, "Given your history of being verbally abused, I understand why you would quit." That's actually invalidating because anyone, whether they had a history of being verbally abused or not, would be upset if their boss humiliated them.
Joanna calls you and talks about her diet. She complains that she has eaten chocolate cake and other sweets and wants to eat more, but she doesn't want to gain weight. What level of validation can you use?
Level 3 would be a good choice. Joanna didn't mention any feelings though she is eating for emotional reasons. You could say, "Has something happened? My guess is you're upset about something." Then she might tell you that the cat she's had for six months died yesterday. At that point you could use a Level 5 or 6, depending on how you feel about losing a pet.
When Shawna was a teenager, she almost drowned in a large pond. She was a poor swimmer and swam out further than she realized. When she stopped swimming, her feet couldn't touch bottom and she swallowed water. She panicked and a friend swam to save her. Since that time she's been afraid of water. A neighbor invited her to a pool party. A guy who was flirting with her pushed her into the pool and she panicked, even though she was only in waist high water. She tells you that she's ashamed of her reaction and she hates being crazy.
Level 4 validation would work in this situation. "Given your history of almost drowning, of course you panicked when you were pushed into water. Anyone with a history of drowning would probably react the same way."
Emotional invalidation is when a person's thoughts and feelings are rejected, ignored, or judged. Invalidation is emotionally upsetting for anyone, but particularly hurtful for someone who is emotionally sensitive.
Invalidation disrupts relationships and creates emotional distance. When people invalidate themselves, they create alienation from the self and make building their identity very challenging.
Self-invalidation and invalidation by others make recovery from depression and anxiety particularly difficult. Some believe that invalidation is a major contributor to emotional disorders.
Most people would deny that they invalidate the internal experience of others. Very few would purposefully invalidate someone else. But well-intentioned people may be uncomfortable with intense emotions or believe that they are helping when they are actually invalidating.
In terms of self-invalidation, many people would agree they invalidate themselves, but would argue that they deserve it. They might say they don't deserve validation. They are uncomfortable with their own humanness. The truth is that validation is not self-acceptance, it is only an acknowledgement that an internal experience occurred.
There are many different reasons and ways that people who care about you invalidate you. Here are just a few.
Misinterpreting what it means to be close: Sometimes people think that knowing just how someone else feels without having to ask means they are emotionally close to that person. It's like saying they know you as well as you know you, so they don't ask, they assume, and may even tell you how you think and feel.
Misunderstanding what it means to validate: Sometimes people invalidate because they believe if they validate they are agreeing. A person can state, "You think it's wrong that you're angry with your friend," and not agree with you. Validation is not agreeing. But because they want to reassure you they invalidate by saying, "You shouldn't think that way."
Wanting to fix your feelings: "Come on, don't be sad. Want some ice cream?" People who love you don't want you to hurt so sometimes they invalidate your thoughts and feelings in their efforts to get you to feel happier.
Not wanting to hurt your feelings: Sometimes people lie to you in order to not hurt your feelings. Maybe they tell you that you look great in a dress that in truth is not the best style for you. Maybe they agree that your point of view in an argument when in fact they do not think you are being reasonable.
Wanting the best for you: People who love you want the best for you. So they may do work for you that you could do yourself. Or they encourage you to make friends with someone who is influential when you don't really enjoy the person, telling you that that person is a great friend when it's not true. "You should be friends with her. She'll be a good friend to you."
There are also many different ways of invalidating. I've listed a few below.
Blaming: "You always have to be the crybaby, always upset about something and ruin every holiday." "Why didn't you put gas in the car before you got home? You never think and always make everything harder." Blaming is always invalidating. (Blaming is different from taking responsibility.)
Hoovering: Hoovering is when you attempt to vacuum up any feelings you are uncomfortable with or not give truthful answers because you don't want to upset or to be vulnerable. Saying "It's not such a big deal" when it is important to you is hoovering. Saying someone did a great job when they didn't or that your friends loved them when they didn't is hoovering. Not acknowledging how difficult something might be for you to do is hoovering. Saying "No problem, of course I can do that," when you are overwhelmed, is hoovering.
Judging: "You are so overreacting," and "That is a ridiculous thought," are examples of invalidation by judging. Ridicule is particularly damaging: "Here we go again, cry over nothing, let those big tears flow because the grass is growing."
Denying: "You are not angry, I know how you act when you're angry," and "You have eaten so much, I know you aren't hungry," invalidate the other person by saying they don't feel what they are saying they feel.
Minimizing: "Don't worry, it's nothing, and you're just going to keep yourself awake tonight over nothing" is usually said with the best of intentions. Still, the message is to not feel what you are feeling.
Nonverbal invalidation is powerful and includes rolling of the eyes and drumming of fingers in an impatient way. If someone checks their watch while you are talking with them, that is invalidating. Showing up at an important event but only paying attention to email or playing a game on the phone while there is invalidating, whether that is the message the person meant to send or not.
Nonverbal self-invalidation is working too much, shopping too much or otherwise not paying attention to your own feelings, thoughts, needs and wants.
Replacing Invalidation with Validation
The best way to stop invalidating others or yourself is by practicing validation. Validation is never about lying. Or agreeing. It's about accepting someone else's internal experience as valid and understandable. That's very powerful.