When our loved one erupts in anger and frustration, the last thing most of us think to do is to pour fuel on the fire by telling them they should feel angry and frustrated.
Yet when done correctly, providing someone emotional validation can have extremely surprising results that strengthen relationship bonds.
Dealing With Another Person's Anger
We've all been in situations in which a loved one is incredibly upset. It is often hard to know the best way to react in such scenarios. Our instinct is to try and calm them down but that is not easy to do and it might even be risky.
As a result, we are often extremely uncomfortable and at a loss for what to say. If their anger is directed toward us, we might need to consider How to Apologize Effectively, but regardless, we need to validate their emotions.
The idea of fanning the flames by telling the person in question they have every right to feel irate or livid seems counterintuitive. But when we convey exactly that message and do so from a place of empathy and sympathy, something magical happens. Rather than inciting the other person's fury and fueling their fire, our message of emotional validation actually douses the flame!
Emotional Validation Is a Basic Human Need
Emotional validation is something we all seek and crave far more than we realize. When we are upset, angry, frustrated, disappointed or hurt, our tendency is to want to discuss our feelings with others so we can get it off our chest.
However, getting things off our chest by telling others about our feelings is not always satisfying or cathartic. If the person to whom we vent simply looks at us and shrugs or responds by giving us advice or by telling us what we did wrong, we won't feel any better and we will probably feel worse after speaking with them.
What we seek when venting to others is for that person to "get it" — to understand what happened to us and why we feel the way we do. We want them to validate our feelings by conveying that understanding to us and to do so with a dollop of sympathy or empathy (see How to Test Your Empathy).
When we tell someone why we are extremely angry or upset and they totally get it truly, it effectively validates our feelings. As a result, we experience tremendous relief and catharsis. Only then can we actually let go of at least some of the feelings we had built up. It is that which feels like an authentic visceral "release."
Authentic Emotional Validation Is Hard to Get
However, true cathartic experiences of this kind are actually rarer than we realize. We typically find the need to express our tales of woe, outrage, or sadness to many people because we rarely get the response we crave — true emotional validation. When someone does finally offer us real emotional validation, we tend to feel extremely grateful to them for doing so.
We might think our nearest and dearest, those who know us best would be the best sources of emotional validation but unfortunately, this is not usually the case. Those who care about us the most are most likely to be personally distressed by our own distress.
As a result, they might (with the best of good intentions) try to minimize our emotional experience (saying things like "Don't dwell on it," "Just let it go," or "Don't let them get to you") or to offer solutions ("Here's what you should do" or "Don't mope, take action!") instead of reflecting their understanding and acceptance of our pain.
Again, although their intentions might be good, such responses can feel more emotionally dismissive than they do helpful or cathartic. If these loved ones first provided emotional validation and then offered such advice, we might be far more receptive to their suggestions but this is rarely the case.
So how does one offer authentic emotional validation?
The Recipe for Authentic Emotional Validation
Here are the steps for offering authentic emotional validation. But take note: You must do all five steps and do them correctly to achieve the desired impact.
- Let the person complete their narrative so you have all the facts.
- Convey you get what happened to them from their perspective (whether you agree with that perspective or not and even if their perspective is obviously skewed).
- Convey you understand how they felt as a result of what happened (from their perspective).
- Convey that their feelings are completely reasonable (which they are given their perspective).
- Convey empathy or sympathy (not pity!) for their emotional reactions.
Lastly, if your loved ones are not good at emotional validation when you vent to them about your own emotionally painful experiences, email them this article. It will be worth it!
For more about emotional validation, and empathy, check out my book, Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts, watch my TED Talk, join my mailing list, and follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch.
Copyright 2011 Guy Winch