Many times I have heard a very well-meaning parent tell a child not to be angry, or sad, or upset. It is also very common for adults to tell someone in varying ways that they shouldn’t be as upset as they are, or that they are making things seem worse, or they are over-reacting. Because we can be very uncomfortable with others’ emotional responses, we often want to minimize the experience and decrease the emotional reaction. After all, what could be the harm? We just want that person to feel better and calm down, right?
The problem with this approach is that it invalidates the person’s (adult or child) emotional experience. We don’t all have the same emotional response to the same experience, and something that may not upset you at all may make someone else feel very hurt or disrespected. If we respond with invalidation, which is to reject, ignore, mock, tease, judge, or diminish someone’s feelings, we make the person feel worse, not better. When we invalidate a person’s feelings, the implied messages are – I know what you should be feeling more than you do, or I don’t approve of what you feel.
Repeated emotional invalidation is considered a form of emotional abuse. It kills confidence, creativity, and individuality. Each person’s feelings are real; even if we don’t like or understand someone’s feelings, they are still real. When we invalidate emotions, it is like telling someone who just swam in a lake not to be wet.
Emotional validation is the process of learning about, understanding and expressing acceptance of another person’s emotional experience. It requires the use of empathy, which starts with really listening and paying attention to another person’s experience and perspective. It requires us to suspend our judgments and our egos, and even though we may not understand someone’s perspective, empathy allows us to recognize and validate their experience and feelings.
So how do you express validation? Try saying simple statements such as “that must have really hurt you”, “I understand you are really upset (mad, sad, etc.)”, “That must be really hard,” or “I am sorry you are going through a rough time, I am here for you if you need me” These responses can help someone feel heard and show that you care about how they feel. Instead of escalating emotions through invalidation, this can help lessen the intensity of strong emotions and may even have a positive long-term impact on the relationship.
Doty Collins, LCSW, has worked in different areas of the social work field since 2006. She has experience working with substance abuse and addictions, dual diagnosis, depression, anxiety, and PTSD. She has also been trained in alternative and complementary chronic pain treatments, as well as brief therapy techniques. She works in the Pocatello Health West Clinic at 1000 North 8th Avenue.