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Want to Make Someone Feel Better? Validate Their Feelings

Saying “I understand why you feel that way” improves mood and positive affect.

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Earlier this year, researchers from Penn State published a study, "How the Comforting Process Fails," that investigated the most effective (and ineffective) ways to comfort and support someone during times of emotional distress. I reported on this research in a March 2020 post, "Why Validation Is the Best Way to Show Someone That You Care."

The authors of this study (Tian, Solomon, & Brisini, 2020) found that validating someone's feelings using "person-centered" support messages that convey acceptance of a negative emotional state without trying to convince someone to feel differently resulted in more success during the comforting process and less psychological reactance.

For example, validating support messages involve saying things like: "It makes sense that you're angry about this" or "I understand why this situation is making you feel stressed out." On the flip side, messages of intended support that don't validate someone's emotions or try to convince him or her to feel differently (e.g., "Why are you so emotional about this? It's not a big deal." or "Snap out of it!") generally fail to provide comfort and trigger reactance.

Validating How Someone Feels Is Sound Advice, Growing Evidence Suggests

Recently, an Ohio State University study (Benitez, Howard, & Cheavens, 2020) on the effect of validation and invalidation reaffirmed the caregiving power of saying "I understand why you feel that way" and displaying empathy when someone is experiencing negative emotions such as anger, sadness, fear, or disgust. This paper was recently published in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

As the authors explain: "Validation communicates that another's experiences make sense and are understood, while invalidation dismisses the validity of an individual's experience."

In one arm of this multi-pronged study, the OSU research team focused on the negative emotion of anger by having 307 study participants spend five minutes writing about an experience in their past that made the test subject feel intensely angry. Then, each study participant was asked to describe his or her recollection of being really angry in spoken words. The researchers found that "all participants had a decrease in positive affect while they were thinking and writing about being angry."

After writing about their angry experience and describing these feelings out loud, facilitators were coached to respond to each participant's narrative with either validation (e.g., "I completely understand why that made you feel angry.") or invalidation (e.g., "I don't understand why that made you so angry.")

"Invalidation leads to greater reductions in positive affect and slower, more incomplete mood recovery after a discussion of a time in which one was angry," the authors observed. Conversely, they found that validation of someone's anger resulted in improved mood and increased positive affect in the context of someone experiencing negative emotions associated with a past experience.

"When you process negative emotions, that negative affect gets turned on. But if someone validates you, it keeps your positive affect buffered. Validation protects people's affect so they can stay curious in interpersonal interactions and in therapy," senior author Jennifer Cheavens of OSU's Department of Psychology said in a Dec. 14 news release.

Of note: Previous research (Shenk & Fruzzetti, 2011) demonstrated that "participants exposed to invalidating responses experienced significantly higher levels of negative affect." However, Benitez, Howard, and Cheavens' latest research (2020) on the effect of validation and invalidation on positive and negative affect "failed to support the hypothesis that validation or invalidation influence negative affect."

"Overall, [our] results provide a valuable examination of the association between experimental manipulations of validation and invalidation and affect," the authors conclude. "We hope that the findings provide the groundwork for future research and that the replicability of the results helps clarify the contradictions in the extant literature."

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock


Cinthia Benitez, Kristen P. Howard & Jennifer S. Cheavens. "The Effect of Validation and Invalidation on Positive and Negative Affective Experiences." The Journal of Positive Psychology (First published online: October 25, 2020) DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2020.1832243

Xi Tian, Denise Haunani Solomon, Kellie St.Cyr Brisini. "How the Comforting Process Fails: Psychological Reactance to Support Messages." Journal of Communication (First published: February 18, 2020) DOI: 10.1093/joc/jqz040

Chad E. Shenk and Alan E. Fruzzetti. "The Impact of Validating and Invalidating Responses on Emotional Reactivity." Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (First published online: February 2011) DOI: 10.1521/jscp.2011.30.2.163

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