Your friend is thumbing through his phone as you are sharing your excitement that you made the cuts. Without looking up he says, “Uh, huh, that’s nice”. You share with your spouse about a work issue that could be an obstacle to your promotion. She responds by telling what you should have done differently. As you describe the medical test you are facing, your voice and face express your fear. Your friend attempts to reassure you that it will be fine, reminding you that you worry too much.
We have all felt the disconnect – your emotional experience is missed, corrected or dismissed. We have all done it to others. Life is busy; we have our own agendas and fears. However, validation is a powerful way to create connection and safety in relationships.
Validation is the acknowledgment and acceptance of another’s internal experience and behaviors as understandable, given his/her life and experiences. It conveys acceptance of the individual and recognizes that each individual has a right to his/her own emotional experience – “It is ok to feel the way you do”.
Validation is not necessarily agreeing. However, validation affirms one’s value, strengthens relationships, and sets the stage for deeper understanding- even in the midst of disagreement and conflict. It builds emotional bridges and creates safety. When we validate our children’s emotional experiences, we teach them that they can trust themselves. This sets the foundation for developing self-confidence and establishing identity.
Marsha Linehan, PhD (1997), defines six levels of validation:
- Listening and observing – being fully engaged and attentive to another’s verbal and non-verbal communication; seeking to understand, without judgment.
- Accurate reflection – the ability to accurately reflect back to the person his/her own feelings, thoughts, assumptions and behaviors. “You felt so hurt when you found out that she had betrayed your confidence”
- Expressing the nonverbalized – reading the message behind the words, capturing the emotion, even though it has not been expressed. It is important at this level to do so as a question or hypothesis, checking with the other for accuracy and accepting the correction. “I wonder if you fear you won’t be accepted if you don’t conform”.
- Acknowledging the influence of the past – “Of course I’ll keep the dog in the other room, I can understand how frightening it is to be around dogs after being bitten”.
- Normalizing the experience –“Most everyone is nervous doing their first public speaking”.
- Radical genuineness – the deepest level of validation, fully affirms the person and his capacity to move towards life goals. “I know you are discouraged by this grade, but you are smart, and you work hard. I believe you will be able to finish this class well”. Note, this could be equally invalidating if it does not reflect what the person believes about himself.
Invalidation occurs when we ignore, reject, or judge one’s emotional experience, or impose our own. It comes through as blaming, criticizing, dismissing, minimizing, or fixing. It can be conveyed non-verbally with rolling eyes, drumming fingers, checking one’s cell phone or telling the other how he/she should feel. Invalidation can occur unintentionally by doing for another what he can do himself or by lying to keep from hurting another. Invalidation says you lack value, do not know yourself, are inadequate in your ability to “handle it”, to learn, or to change. It says you are somehow made wrong.
We generally fail to validate because of our own fears or agendas. We believe if we validate, we are agreeing, will encourage the behavior we fear or we might make the situation worse. People who do not experience validation may develop low self-confidence, fail to develop a clear identity and frequently develop mental health disorders.
There is power in validation. It can make the difference between a marriage that fails and one that thrives. It can lead the way to new understandings, growth and healing. It can diffuse conflict or pave the way for reconciliation. Validation gives value and support. Who can you validate today?
Valerie A. Bond, MA, LPC, CAMS-II
Linehan, M. M. (1997) Validation and psychotherapy. In A. Bohart & L. Greenberg (Eds.), Empathy Reconsidered: New Directions in Psychotherapy. Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 353-392.