Validation is a skill. I don’t care what that one angry lady from Vermont said at my DBT presentation a few years ago, validation is NOT “a way of life.” It is a skill we can use or not.
Quick review on what validation is: Validation is a communication strategy that involves a stubborn refusal to communicate with another person in a way that leads to them feeling crazy, fragile, stupid, wrong, or bad.
Please do not make the mistake of thinking that the message is that you HAVE TO validate all of the time. First of all, you don’t HAVE TO do anything, and second, INvalidation is inevitable and necessary at times [more on that in a future blog]. That being said, once you understand what validation is and HOW to do it, you then have a choice as to whether to use it or not. Sometimes it comes easy but other times it seems absolutely impossible. Understanding things that get in the way is vital in order to maintain that freedom of choice.
Validation is the opposite of communicating with the main goal of trying to get the person to change. Even if that attempt to change them is “for the better,” (as in, “I just want them to feel better about themselves”), that is STILL not validation. Finally, in theory, there is SOMETHING valid in everything, so if we look hard enough, we can find it. Note that I used the word “if.” More on that in a minute.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a model of therapy that is all about validation. Seeing as it’s also one of the treatments of choice for extremely severe issues such as repeated suicide attempts and self-injury, we can pretty much count on that validation is an important skill to learn. Good DBT therapists know how to validate in some of the toughest situations imaginable. Think about someone talking about cutting themselves or overdosing—imagine what is involved in figuring out what to validate! Fear of making the problem worse by validating is one of the MAIN reasons why therapists fail to validate in these scenarios. Instead, they jump immediately to trying to change things and in effect, alienate their suicidal client.
So that leads me back to the “if” part. Even if you know HOW to validate, it doesn’t mean that you WILL validate. We don’t do so for various reasons. Some barriers are:
Fear: We don’t want to make the problem worse
Ego: We don’t want the person to think or feel xyz about us and/or we think validating would mean admitting defeat or weakness
Anger: We are so pissed we actually cannot access the thinking part of our brain
Bitterness: We withhold validation because “they don’t deserve it”
To Harm: We actively INvalidate to “show them what it’s like”
Creativity block: We can’t figure out what to validate without lying or being insincere
What to do depends upon the reason or reasons why it is difficult to validate. In the example of working with a client who is suicidal or self-harms, it is important for the therapist to remember that CHANGING the client [to feel better, to not be suicidal, to not self-harm etc.] is the END goal, but not the FIRST goal. Accepting help from a therapist is only possible once a client believes that the therapist actually “gets it.” Same for the people in YOUR life you would like to change. Same for anyone. If you don’t FIRST forget yourself entirely, get into the other person’s world, and effectively mirror their experience back to them, they cannot feel confident that your help would be of any help at all.