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Validation and Empowerment

The necessary balance for self help

A journalist recently asked me to comment on current trends in the psychological “self help industry,” because I had used the term, “pop-psychology” in an article. I had to admit that I don’t read self help books and blogs myself – too busy treating clients and researching my own books and articles – but I was interested in his observations about the “industry.”

It appears that the central problem in self help books and blogs that deal with behavior and emotions is very similar to the central problem of psychotherapy. When I supervised counseling interns of various helping professions, the most difficult struggle was to help them strike a balance between emotional validation – how you feel - and empowerment – the ability to change your state of being, including your feelings and behavior, for the better. Balance is absolutely necessary. If you don’t validate sufficiently, distressed clients will resist the best empirically supported attempts to empower them to make their lives better. But if you validate too much, they begin to identify with their pain or their symptoms or the abuse they’ve suffered. They come to feel like they would invalidate their experience by getting better and lose their identities by improving their lives: “Who am I, if not a victim or codependent or depressed or anxious?” Emotional validation without empowerment is not true compassion but ineffectual pity, and empowerment without emotional validation makes clients feel that you’re not really “getting them,” you’re just telling them how they should feel.

Interestingly, there was a clear sex difference among the many interns I supervised. The male students wanted to leap too soon to empowerment, and when they did, their clients dropped out of treatment. The women interns wanted to stay too long with emotional validation, and when they did, inhibited client progress, inadvertently making themselves necessary to those who felt they couldn’t self-validate. (Recent brain imaging supports this sex distinction. Probably due to higher testosterone levels, males move more quickly from the MNS or “empathy” region to the TPJ or “problem-solving” region of the brain than higher estrogen females.) To make effective therapists we had to slow down the men’s transition from emotional validation to empowerment and speed up the women’s. It seems that self help books and blogs are subject to the same bias, depending on the sex of the author. In general, female authors validate too much, while male writers try to empower too soon. Because women constitute more than 90 percent of voluntary therapy clients and self help book buyers, they are the most ill-served by these opposite but equally damaging mistakes. It is very difficult to improve when the books and blogs they read exploit their desire for validation. There’s always another book or blog or workshop or that seems necessary to make them feel validated. Cynics would say that the purveyors of self help wares want exactly that, for the customer to keep buying more and more “emotional validation,” which inadvertently (to be generous) reinforces victim identity at the cost of empowerment.

Anyone who is hurt or distressed can easily get stuck in the self help over-validation treadmill. If you regularly read self help books and blogs, answering the following questions can reveal if you have escaped that particular trap or succumbed to it.

When you feel validated, does the good feeling last for just a short time, followed by a down mood or emptiness?

Do you have trouble understanding perspectives that do not match your experience?

Are you uncomfortable when you read “facts” that do not fit your experience?

Do you have trouble empathizing with anyone who doesn’t validate you?

Do you have an urge to devalue (or retaliate against) anyone who doesn’t validate you?

Do you have trouble tolerating disagreement?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, it’s time to shift your focus from emotional validation to empowerment and growth.

In 1994, I founded CompassionPower to address the compassion/empowerment issue of psychotherapy. The primary goal of CompassionPower programs is to help clients develop the capacity within them to create value, meaning, and purpose in their lives. Over the years, the most difficult people to help have been those who had read the most self help books and had focused for so long on their perfectly valid feelings of betrayal or victimization that they identified with their various symptoms. That should have told me something about the trend in self help.

Although necessary for growth, emotional validation is not growth. By definition, emotional growth is transcending the limitations of our painful experience, which is much easier to do, once it is validated. In other words, emotional validation is not an end but a precursor to healing and growth. An enriched life comes from the ability to see many perspectives, in addition to our own experience.

We all need compassion, to be sure, but just enough to be able to give it; personal power comes from giving compassion, not from getting it. This is the message urgently needed in self help books and blogs.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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