Kate Thieda

Kate Thieda MS, LPCA, NCC

Partnering in Mental Health

Easing Partner Pain: Six Levels of Validation

More than just listening, validation shows your loved one that you are present.

Posted Jul 10, 2013

If you have a loved one with mental illness, compassion fatigue can set in quickly. Of course you still love this person. Of course you are still committed to helping them get better. And you also may be wondering, "Exactly when will we not have to deal with all this anymore?"

No one has the answer to when a mental illness will abate, or if it will abate at all. What we do know is the pain your loved one is experiencing - whether it is physical, mental, or both - is real. However, every person has a subjective experience when it comes to pain. For some people, they may function with a broken bone for weeks before realizing anything is wrong. For others, a small paper cut is agonizing. Your role as a supportive loved one is not to judge your partner's pain, but to accept it is real, and to validate the experience.

A key point to understanding validation is to know that "validation" does not also mean "agreement." Validation simply means you are expressing to your loved one, "I can hear you telling me you are in pain, and it is okay to feel that way."

Dr. Marsha Linehan, creator of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), identified six levels of validation. Each level increases in difficulty, and if you only stay at a lower level with your loved one, it will still helpful. Dr. Linehan's work is focused on treating borderline personality disorder, but her treatment has been proven to work for a wide range of mental illnesses. Validation is not just for those with mental illness, however: everyone deserves to know they have been seen, heard, and loved, even when they are in pain.

The first level of validation is being present. When was the last time you gave 100% undivided attention to your loved one? Many people are uncomfortable with the emotions of others because they either do not know how to respond, or find their own uncomfortable emotions rising to the surface. Being present when intense emotion is expressed is not easy, but worth the effort as a way to support your loved one.

The second level of validation is accurate reflection. When you are reflecting the thoughts and feelings of your loved one, you verbalize what you have heard. Accurate reflection can sound like, "So, I hear you saying you are frustrated that your energy level is low," or "I can tell you are feeling anxious about going to the party tonight." The key is to not be a parrot, repeating your loved one's words verbatim, as that can sound as if you are being sarcastic instead of being supportive.

The third level of validation is reading a person's behavior and guessing what they might be feeling. Many people are out of touch with their feelings. There are many reasons for this, including having an invalidating environment as a child, where they were told they were not having the feeling they actually were experiencing ("No, you are not hungry - you just ate!" or "Nice girls don't get angry" or "Boys don't cry.") Your loved one may also confuse emotions, such as thinking excitement is anxiety or anger is sadness. Or your loved one may have learned that others don't react well when they display their emotions, so they keep them locked down tightly. In this level of validation, you might say something like, "I'm guessing that comment from your supervisor was hurtful." Of course, your loved one might correct you, and that is okay. It was just a guess, and your loved one is the expert on his/her own emotions.

The fourth level of validation is understanding the person’s behavior in terms of their history and biology. We react to the world based on our previous experiences and biological wiring. If we have had a negative experience, future situations similar to the previous experience may cause a bad reaction. For example, if your loved one was bitten and scratched by a cat as a child, s/he may not want to be around cats now. An example of how you can validate this might be, "Given your experiences with cats, I completely understand why you would not want to go somewhere where there are three cats in the house."

The fifth level of validation is normalizing or recognizing emotional reactions that anyone would have. Knowing that other people would likely feel the same in a similar situation helps to reduce the negative feelings your loved one may be having. This might sound like, "Of course you are anxious about the job interview - everyone feels anxious when doing something this important." (However, do not follow this up with, "You will be fine," as that can negate the previous statement of validation.)

The sixth level of validation is radical genuineness. What is "radical genuineness"? It is treating your loved one as a real person with real feelings instead of as someone who has a mental illness and is incapable of solving his/her own problems. When you express radical genuineness, you are meeting your loved one as an equal, and expressing both your support as well as your belief that s/he has the capacity to solve his/her own issues.

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