Updated: May 20, 2020
THE IMPORTANCE OF VALIDATION IN THE THERAPEUTIC PROCESS AND BEYOND
Blog created with the information from our #mentalhealthmonday live with Dafna Gutkind, LCSW (that aired on April 20, 2020). Compiled by Arielle Jacobowitz, edited by Rebecca Shapiro.
Everyone has it hard in different ways, and each person’s hardships are valid.
Many of us grew up in homes and in societies where feelings were not only not validated... they were ridiculed and even considered shameful.
If you are one of those people, you may be wondering why therapists make such a big deal about validation. I mean, if feelings are always validated and "fed-into", how would someone ever develop resilience? By placing such a strong emphasis on validation, are we not breeding a generation of weak people who will not be able to handle adversity?
Allow me to validate your concerns, and then help you understand validation a bit better. Before we move on to why it’s important, let’s define it better; What is validation?
Validation is recognition or affirmation that a person, their opinions or feelings are valid and worthwhile.
Validation does NOT mean that you agree with or endorse their behaviors, but it allows for the other person to feel heard, understood and valued unconditionally. It keeps the lines of communication open, preserves the relationship. It gifts the person with peace of mind, freeing up some brain space to process what they are going through with more clarity. Alternatively, when validation is not offered, the dialogue usually shuts down and the long term relationship can suffer tremendously.
Validation actually plays a role in all of our relationships.
VALIDATION IN MARRIAGE
Validation plays a huge role in the relationship between a person and their spouse.
Each partner must be able to validate the other’s experiences, because often, that’s all your partner is really looking for. After a hard day, all we really want is for our spouse to listen openly. When your spouse tries to fix the problem, this doesn’t provide validation for your feelings. All you want is for your spouse to say; Wow that sounds rough, I'm sure it was really hard for you. Often a spouse will try to be nice by offering advice, but that isn't usually all that helpful.
There is a really cute video that is a spoof on that idea. Check it out above.
VALIDATION IN PARENTING
In a parent-child relationship, validation is equally important.
For example, a parent may ask his child how was your day? The child responds that he is really sad because his friend didn't play with him during recess. The parent will probably feel uncomfortable with his child being sad. Therefore, the parent’s automatic reaction is to reassure his child by saying "don't worry, you’ll play with him tomorrow" or "Don't be sad, you have so many other friends you can play with". This is well meaning because the parent wants his child to be happy, but at that moment, that child is rightfully sad. Brushing aside his feelings of sadness teaches him that there is something wrong with feeling sad. If the parent does not validate his very normal feeling of sadness, the child will start to feel bad about himself whenever he has similar emotions. He will eventually learn to repress them or he will develop negative thoughts about himself. As an adult, this can manifest in not knowing how to express one's feelings effectively, which can lead to a wide variety of mental and physical health concerns.
To top it off, by not validating and by not emotionally coaching the child in a healthy way, the parent will likely jeopardize their long-term close relationship.
In the opening paragraph one of the questions was; If you validate feelings all the time, would that not hamper the development of resilience? By placing such a strong emphasis on validation, are we not breeding a generation of weak people who will not be able to handle adversity?
Let’s address that now; We can't solve all of the problems that our kids face for them. We do need to let them learn to resolve issues for themselves.
A parent's ultimate job is to instill a sense of safety and security in their children. There are lots of dangers out there, and it is inevitable that your children will be exposed to them. If the parent / child relationship is secure, and the parent has consistently shown that they can be relied on to listen without judgement and ridicule, the child will feel safe coming to the parent for support. A parent must keep these lines of communication open if they want to be an active part of the child’s growth process. This might mean having difficult conversations about topics that are uncomfortable or it might mean listening to a child talk about something they did wrong and validating them without any judgement or shaming remarks. And it definitely means learning to be OK with strong emotions (both their own and their kid's).
So let’s say a child is being bullied. Sometimes kids who get bullied do need to learn skills to stand up to the bully, but at the same time, it is critical for the child to feel safe and secure. It is NEVER helpful to throw a kid in front of a bully without a lifeline and tell them to toughen up. Sure, children are naturally resilient and will likely learn to survive on their own, but this survival will be more primal and maladaptive, rather than healthy and effective. Teaching children what to do so they have more adaptive skills to draw on when they are faced with adversity requires loving support and coaching (and many of us don’t even have those skills ourselves because we ourselves were self-taught - if that's the case, reach out to a professional for advice).
So how would you teach a parent who would normally tell his child to toughen up, that this invalidation is harmful to his child? Education. Explain how his invalidation of the child’s feelings will prevent the child from opening up in the future and from learning more functional problem solving skills. I mean, we are not raising animals, so why would we want our human children raised in the mindset of “survival of the fittest”? Our children have parents, so thankfully they do not have to behave as if they are in Lord of the Flies. If we are fortunate to be living in times of safety, that is the perfect time to proactively teach our children how to be superior and behave like healthy humans.
VALIDATION IN FRIENDSHIPS
Friendships work pretty much the same way. Nobody likes to feel judged and devalued. Eventually, if validation does not play a central role in the friendship, resentment will bubble under the surface and the connection will be severed.
VALIDATION IN THE WORK PLACE
A boss who learns to validate his employees feelings and shows that he cares about them by investing time to get to know them better and appreciate their unique contributions will likely have a much higher productivity and lower turn-around rate. Getting along better with co-workers will also hinge on one's ability to validate another's feelings and experiences. It's really the key to building any strong relationship.
VALIDATION IN THE THERAPEUTIC PROCESS
Validation actually plays a vital role in the therapeutic process, which is why there is a huge difference between going to therapy and ordering self help books. I mean if it were just about the information, ordering books would save a lot of money.
People go to therapy because they need the therapist (generally someone who will fill certain attachment needs that were never previously met) to understand their experiences and validate them. As mentioned before, when we say validation, it is actually NOT agreement. It is understanding what the other person is going through, and why they did what they did or do what they do.
Of course, the ultimate goal of therapy is to make lasting changes in your life, but first you have to go through the trust process. You need to connect with, and build a safe relationship with someone who sees you for who you are, and validates where you are at. ONLY with this trusting bond can therapy really be successful.
Therapists who have learned DBT skills know that in order to provide proper validation to the client (or anyone, for that matter), we must do 6 things:
Be awake, aware and completely present with the client. Visibly show interest.
Accurately reflect what the client is saying by repeating back what he said in your own words. This shows the client that you are really listening.
Try to guess what the client must be feeling, and name the feelings. (Example: I’m sure you must be furious that this person did that). The stronger the bond between therapist and client, the easier it will be to guess what emotions would accurately validate how the client is feeling. It’s important to check that your guess is accurate.
Validate the behavior even if it is coming from a dysfunctional place. You might say something like; “Wow, given what you went through, it’s totally understandable that you would do that” or, “I can see that this situation reminds you of _________ so it makes a lot of sense that you would respond in that way.”
Normalize the client’s feelings by saying something like; “anybody would feel like that in your situation”. Really try to express that their actions seem completely reasonable given their past experiences.
Show radical genuineness. This means being real with the client on a personal level. True connection allows the client to get to know the real you. No relationship can be strong when there is a perceived imbalance of power, so never be patronizing or condescending. Level the playing field and allow the client to relate to you. Obviously you will not share all of your personal baggage - that would not be professional. You can however share a personal anecdote or story that shows you understand and that you are human.
The bottom line is, validation is the key to any successful relationship.
Even if the other person knows you don’t agree with them, when you validate them, they will be much more likely to come to you again and eventually (when the relationship is really really really strong) ask for and listen to your opinion.
It can be hard to accept that we don’t always have control over what our loved ones do. But that is the reality. Always. If you do control someone else, that is a really unhealthy relationship. Our role in any relationship is not to create and be with clones of ourselves - it is to connect with someone else and appreciate them for who THEY are - not who you expect them to be. With that understanding, your best move in any relationship is to validate and connect rather than pushing people away with your manipulation, judgement and shaming.
Below you can find the full recording (in 2 parts)