“Just calm down.”
“It’ll be fine!”
“You should (or shouldn’t)…”
It’s hard to talk about validation without considering what it is NOT. Hopefully you can immediately see that the statements above are examples of invalidation. Although we don’t need to validate everything (and in fact, it would be unwise to validate everything), we need to at least know HOW to validate. Validation is a skill and it can be learned. It is actually possible to validate ANYTHING. Yes, anything.
Just to be clear:
Validation is not problem-solving…although it CAN be. Validation is not warmth…although it CAN be. Validation is not agreement…ALTHOUGH IT CAN BE. Confused yet??? I can validate that. [Ha.]
Ok, so then what is it? Well…I like to think of validation as stubbornly refusing to respond to another person like they are wrong, crazy, bad, or invisible. Exactly what to say or do then depends on several factors. It should be acknowledged that what is considered validating to one person could feasibly be invalidating to another. So yes, there are individual differences in what people find validating. The more you know about a person, in theory, the higher the likelihood you have of giving a validating response. But truthfully, it is the people we know and love best that can often suffer the pain of our invalidation. Why? Because it can be harder to validate when emotions are involved and invalidation is often returned by invalidation.
As I was writing this blog, I looked up to see that my friend was looking for a pen she thought she lost in her chair. As she was looking, I put my writing down and got up to help. As I searched with her she expressed frustration with herself and I responded, “Yeah…I hate when I do that.” When she ended up finding the pen behind her ear I smiled, “I look for my glasses all the time when they are right on my head.” The intention: Help her feel that her problem is important, that she has support, and that she is not strange. This is an example of functional validation (looking for the pen with her) and verbal validation combined.
Now let’s say that instead of validating, I used any of the opening lines from the start of this blog such as “just calm down” or “it’ll be fine.” It is probably clear that this would be epically irritating to her. But there are a variety of ways to invalidate! A more likely invalidation might be asking, “how did you lose your pen when you are just sitting there?” [and then laughing]. Or saying, “If you put your pen back in the same spot you won’t lose it!” [and smiling]. An unfortunate phenomenon is that invalidation is often returned with invalidation. In other words, she could then say, [cue sarcastic tone] “Wow that’s a great idea!” or "How about you shut the hell up?” This is, in part, how people get into cycles of problematic communication. But if JUST ONE person can commit to validation, it can really change up the whole dynamic.
When uncomfortable emotions are involved, we are more likely to invalidate. When we are afraid, we may problem-solve, give orders, and/or defend instead of listening. When we are angry or embarrassed, we may blame and defend or ignore. We see things from our perspective instead of through the eyes of the other person. We respond based on what WE want, not based on what the other person wants in that moment, and in effect, we hinder communication.
So how do you even start to validate when emotions are high? By recognizing when it’s happening (that you are emotional) and that validation needs to occur. Then, keep your mouth closed and listen. Imagine they are not talking about anything to do with you. Imagine, even, that they are another person altogether. That may help you not take things so personally. Then, remind yourself that there is ALWAYS “a nugget of gold” [something to validate] in the “cup of sand” [all the stuff they are saying]. This is how you can set the stage for validation.
Now HOW to validate…well, that’s something we cover in Part II.
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