Validation is a deep and meaningful topic to me that comes up frequently in my work with clients. Far too often I listen to the painful stories told by clients that come to my practice with very real trauma caused by invalidating environments and relationships in their lives. I was recently putting together a handout on validation to give out to clients who suffer from the lasting effects of invalidating environments in their past and present. During my research, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels to the detrimental effects of invalidation to an individual’s emotional and psychological health and the same detrimental effects to people of color from the All Lives Matter movement as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
It might be best to start off with some basic education on validation; what it is; why it is important; and what happens when we are denied this essential piece of human communication.
The Cambridge English dictionary describes validation as proof that something is correct or the feeling that other people approve of and accept you, or something that gives you this feeling. Fruzzetti (2006) defines validation as the communication of understanding and acceptance. Simply put, validation is that aspect of communication that shows that we understand and accept what another person is telling us, and subsequently, that we believe that their experiences or actions make sense and are normative. Validation communicates legitimacy of someone else’s experience on some level given the specific circumstances of the situation.
You might be saying things like, “Well, this is all well and good, but I am not going to go around agreeing with anything someone says just to make them feel better about themselves.” Of course not. No one wants fake support and sugar-coated offerings of acceptance just to keep their feelings from getting hurt. It may be helpful to discuss what validation is not so that we can better understand what it is. Validation is not synonymous with agreement. Although validation certainly can be done by agreeing with someone (if that agreement is genuine), it is not necessary to agree with someone in order to validate their experience. For example, you can still validate the reality someone’s feelings even if you may disagree with their actions or beliefs, and I will get into the specifics of this later. The key to remember is that heart of validation is understanding, not agreement.
If you are still questioning the immense importance this aspect of communication plays, consider the following:
- Validation enhances communication. Validation communicates that you are listening with the intent to understand, rather than argue or be right. This attempt to understand encourages the other person to open up and explain themselves and will allow for more accurate expression to take place.
- Validation soothes emotions. When someone can communicate that they understand us, we feel accepted and are able to relax. When another person makes no effort to understand us, or seems not to want to, this can be a very painful experience. Additionally, when others interpret us as not understanding or accepting their experience, they experience pain, which starts a cascade of protective defense mechanisms.
- Validation slows or turns around negative reactivity. Since validation can soothe emotions, it can stop or slow down these protective defense mechanisms. This means that instead of arguing or shutting down, the other person can relax, feel safe and be more inclined to listen.
- Validation builds trust and closeness. When people feel accepted and understood by another, they are more likely to trust them and feel close to them.
- Validation enhances self-respect. We know that validation has the effect of enhancing communication. Additionally, when we make the effort to validate in our communication we are better able to maintain our own negative emotional arousal which reduces the possibility that we will say something we may later regret in the heat of the moment.
By now, you should be able to see the importance of validation in communication, but you may still have doubts about how to use it. I mean, we are not going to like or agree with everything that we hear or experience from someone else. So how do we genuinely communicate understanding when we can only see what’s wrong with what the other person is saying or doing?
The good news is that we can validate a wide range of experiences or behaviors. We can validate someone’s feelings or thoughts. We can also validate their actions…and, we can validate wants or desires, and beliefs. What this means is that you can find something about the other person’s experience that you can understand, and validate that, even if you disagree with everything else.
Okay, so we know why validation is important and we know what we can validate, but how do we do it? First, you need to find the target to validate. As I stated above, you have to find the one aspect of the other’s person’s experience that you can understand and communicate that understanding. I like to call this the kernel of truth. By truth, I mean the truth that you can find in the other person’s experience. If you’re not sure how to find that, here are some helpful hints:
- If it exists, it is real. Being able to describe and acknowledge someone else’s reality is extremely powerful. It does not matter the cause of the reality or the cause of the feelings, for the purposes of validation, if the feelings exist, they are real. Theft of belongings from a vehicle is still a violation, and at best an inconvenience, regardless of how the theft occurred (bad luck or negligence of leaving the vehicle unlocked).
- It is reasonable or legitimate under particular circumstances. Some behaviors and thought patterns in life are learned through conditioning from our environment. Walking on eggshells, lying or people-pleasing may be learned behaviors that allowed people to survive chaotic or dangerous environments as children, but that become problematic as adults. These patterns may lead to overreacting or underreacting in current relationships. As a result, there may be feelings that do not make sense in present situations, but when seen in the light of past environments may be valid.
- It is normative for anyone to think/feel/want/do that. Normalizing feelings and behavior can see like stating the obvious, but it is one of the most important ways that we can validate someone else. Often, people speak to themselves very negatively about how they feel or acted in a situation. Hearing from an outside party that their thoughts, behavior, feelings were completely normal given the circumstances can be an especially important step towards validating their experience.
Now we have explored what validation is, why it is important and what and how to validate, so let’s put it all together in an example.
Recently, I had a discussion with a close friend of mine on changes to gun laws in Canada. Personally, I am not a gun enthusiast. I support the right of the public to own firearms, but my personal beliefs fall on the side of gun regulation being beneficial to the general safety of society. My friend, on the other hand, sees these laws as a violation of his personal freedoms. This conversation could have become an argument about the pros and cons of gun regulation, but instead, I decided to validate what he was experiencing. What I did was look to understand his point of view, how he was feeling about the situation and communicate my acceptance. While I do not support fewer regulations on firearms, I can understand the anxiety and anger that is felt over having your personal rights violated. This is what I validated. Did I agree with him completely? No. Was I still able to communicate in a validating way? Absolutely.
This brings me back to the connection between invalidation and All Lives Matter. Now that we have examined the benefits of validation, and indirectly, the effects of invalidation, it should be clearer how damaging it is to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement with arguments for and declarations of All Lives Matter.
Before I continue, let me be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of All Lives Matter. On its own, it is a valid notion. However, it is not an appropriate response or reaction to Black Lives Matter. When used in this way it is extremely invalidating to black people. If validation is the communication of acceptance and understanding of another’s experience, saying All Lives Matter as a response to Black Lives Matter communicates neither one of those. What it communicates instead is an unwillingness to listen with the intent to understand more about the issues behind Black Lives Matter; a desire to be right above a desire to empathize; a denial of the importance of the issues Black Lives Matter represents; a denial of the ongoing reality of racism, injustice, and violence against people of color; and a general lack of compassion to the damaging effects of a system that is designed to support these. Worse, it communicates (intentionally or unintentionally) a desire to glance over the immense pain of hundreds of years of racial injustice and violence against black people. Remember, one of the most powerful experiences someone can have is to have another person recognize and acknowledge their reality. Conversely, one of the most damaging things we can do to another person is to deny or glance over their experience.
How can you respond to Black Lives Matter in more validating ways? First, you have to understand the real effects of invalidation that results from arguing that All Lives Matter. When we have pain, we are comforted when someone else listens and takes the time to acknowledge our pain. We are not comforted when they respond to our pain by talking about their own pain or everyone else’s pain. This is invalidating. Jumping to All Lives Matter before trying to understand the real issues behind Black Lives Matter is invalidating, and ultimately, damaging. This brings me to my second point, do not jump to argue All Lives Matter. Take some time to find the kernel of truth in the issues behind Black Lives Matter and communicate your understanding or acceptance by validating that. Finally, and most importantly, let go of the need to be right and adopt a desire to understand. Black Lives Matter is about real issues that are deeply rooted in centuries of racism, and more recent issues of the effects of systemic racism and the microaggressions of white privilege on people of color, particularly black people. To oversimplify these issues by categorizing them only in terms of the skin color of people being killed fails to see the bigger picture.
Understanding how validation works can hopefully help us to respond in more appropriate ways that enhance communication, show that we have a desire to understand, and bolster our own sense of self-respect, not only in our relationships, but in how we respond to wider social issues.
Fruzzetti, A. E. (2006). The High Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behavior Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy & Validation. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.