🎯 What Is Validation?
Validation means to acknowledge a thought, emotion, or other internal experience as valid and understandable despite being difficult or painful. You can validate your own thoughts and feelings as well as those of others.
👀 Examples of Validation
- I don’t like feeling sad, but it’s okay and makes sense given what I’ve just been through.
- It seems like you’re really angry… I would be too if I were in your shoes.
- It’s really frustrating to have all these worries and to-do list items pop into my head at 2:00 in the morning. But it’s not surprising since I have a lot on my plate right now.
- Anxiety feels bad but it’s not dangerous.
😬 Problems Associated with Poor or Infrequent Validation
- Emotional Fragility. When your default response to difficult thoughts or emotions is to either distract yourself (i.e. run away) or criticize yourself (i.e. attack), you teach your brain to fear that experience and reinforce the belief that you can’t handle it. This leads to emotional fragility and low confidence handling difficult experiences in the future.
- Strained Relationships. If you’re not good at validating other people’s difficult experiences, you’re likely to end up doing too much advice-giving or problem-solving. And while you may have good intentions, when your habitual response to people’s problems is problem-solving, it tends to make them feel like a problem. Over time, you tend to be perceived as unsupportive and/or judgmental leading to strain in the relationship overall.
- Low self-awareness and emotional intelligence. You can’t understand yourself deeply if your attitude toward painful emotions and thoughts is to immediately avoid or try to get rid of them. People who are high on self-awareness and emotional intelligence respond to difficult or painful experiences with curiosity, not judgment. And this self-curiosity begins with the ability to validate what they’re experiencing instead of trying to get rid of or avoid it.
💡 Key Insights About Validation
- Validation is powerful because it builds emotional confidence. As described earlier, most painful experiences are more difficult than they need to be because we’ve taught our brain to fear them by habitually avoiding or trying to get rid of them. For example: If you constantly try to get rid of sadness, you’re teaching your brain to fear it which will make you ashamed or anxious of sadness, which then makes it much harder to manage effectively because your overall emotionality is much higher. Validation is the antidote. When you turn into and acknowledge a painful experience, you teach your brain that it’s uncomfortable but not dangerous. Do this repeatedly and your brain starts to believe this, which makes you far more confident and resilient in the face of future difficult feelings.
- If you don’t know what to do when someone is upset, just validate and listen. Here’s the mistake most people make when trying to comfort or support someone who’s upset: They feel so anxious in the presence of other people’s suffering, that they default to problem-solving and advice-giving, which, however well-intentioned, usually isn’t what people want or need when they’re upset—and very often, it makes the situation worse. You will almost always do much better to shut up, listen quietly, and give the occasional validating statement now and then... That must be really overwhelming, It makes sense that you'd feel really angry right now, I know it's hard, but it's okay to feel that way, etc.
- Validation doesn’t have to take very long. When you validate a difficult experience you’re not having a therapy session. You’re simply reminding yourself (or someone else) that it’s okay to feel whatever you’re (they’re) feeling. It should take seconds, not minutes or hours. You might choose to make it longer or validate lots of different things at once, but the point is that it doesn’t have to be a long drawn out process. Once you’ve validated a difficult thought or emotion, it’s okay to refocus your attention on something else. No need to dwell on it.
🛠️ Tips and Tools for Validating Difficult Thoughts and Emotions
- "Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad—or that I’m bad for feeling it.” If you don’t remember anything else about validation, this short statement is all you need. Just get in the habit of saying this to yourself whenever you’re experiencing a painful thought or emotion and you’ll be well on your way to being much more validating.
- Remember ‘The Other Golden Rule.’ The Golden Rule = Treat others as you would want to be treated. The Other Golden Rule = Treat yourself like you would treat a good friend. You’re probably pretty good at validating other people and their difficult experiences. The trick is to remember to do it with yourself when you’re struggling. In other words, anytime you’re struggling emotionally, treat yourself like you would treat a good friend—with acceptance, support, and validation (not judgment, criticism, or superficial advice-giving).
- Name it to tame it. It can be helpful to name and acknowledge what you’re experiencing before you validate it. For example: I feel angry right and a little bit sad too. I don’t like feeling this way but I know it’s not bad or wrong for me to feel like this. Research shows that the more precise and specific you are describing your emotions, the less intense they tend to be.
- Start small. Validation is most helpful with big, extremely painful emotions and experiences. But if you’re not very skilled at validating, it’s going to be difficult to do when they’re that intense. Practice validating very small difficult emotions and thoughts—minor annoyances, bits of worry, fleeting sadness, etc. In other words, use small to medium-sized experiences to build up your skill and confidence with validation so that you’re better able to use it during big experiences.
- It’s not avoidance if you validate it first. Like we discussed, if you immediately try to avoid or get rid of a difficult thought or emotion, you actually make it harder to deal with because you’re teaching your brain to fear it. But that doesn’t mean you have to wallow in difficult thoughts or emotions forever… Once you’ve briefly acknowledged and validated a difficult thought or emotion, it’s fine to refocus your attention and energy onto something else. And in fact, that’s usually ideal. If you’re having a hard time refocusing after validating, use the 3Ms to choose what to do next: Move, Make, Meet… Moving on from a difficult experience seems to be easier if you’re doing something that moves your body (e.g. going for a walk), making or fixing something (e.g. baking cookies or cleaning out the garage), or engaging in a meaningful interaction with someone else (e.g. meeting a friend for coffee). Mindfulness training is also very helpful.
💬 Quotes About Validation
- God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. — Reinhold Niebuhr
- To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden. — Seneca
- Anything you accept fully will get you there, will take you into peace. This is the miracle of surrender. — Eckhart Tolle
- ‘What is the secret of your serenity?’ Said the Master, ‘Wholehearted cooperation with the inevitable.’ — Anthony de Mello
- Emotional pain cannot kill you, but running from it can. Allow. Embrace. Let yourself feel. Let yourself heal. — Vironika Tugaleva
🔬 Selected Research on Validation
- The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion. Kristin Neff's work on self-compassion emphasizes the importance of validation for overall health and wellbeing.
- The social consequences of expressive suppression. This study suggests that suppressing emotional expression – a form of invalidating behavior – can have negative social and psychological consequences.
- The power of feeling seen: perspectives of individuals with eating disorders on receiving validation. Good study showing the benefits of being validating toward others when they’re suffering.
📚 Recommended Reading and Resources for Validation
- Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristen Neff (Book).
- The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris (Book).
- 4 Simple Skills That Will Make You A Much Better Listener (Article)