Who do you know who seems to go around repeating the same story, the same upsetting scenario to different people without ever seeming capable of letting go and moving on to more constructive thoughts or behaviors? Do you find yourself telling them what to do? Are YOU sometimes that stuck person? I know can be!
We have a tendency to give someone a solution instead of acknowledging their feelings. Have you noticed that telling them what to do does not stop them from being upset? In fact, it can even escalate. So what do you do?
Smart people like ourselves can often get tripped up by our ego. When faced with something with strong feelings around it, we become competitive and develop this “I need to prove that I am right” scenario in our heads, becoming defensive. The way to turn this around is to simply acknowledge and validate their feelings. This takes them into a more constructive and crititical thinking place.
The Human Need for Validation
People can be very uncomfortable around strong emotions. The natural tendency is to try and stop you as quickly as possible. This is a misguided attempt at making you feel better. And when our feelings are strong, we yearn for acceptance. Just having your feelings acknowledged without judgement is what validation truly is.
Judging a person’s feelings as being bad or good is like trying to control the weather. In our society, we have very few places where feelings are welcomed. In fact, shaming is pervasive both at home and at work. We are taught strength means that we don’t cry, brave means we are not fearful and maturity means we are never angry. This trips us up from our ability to validate others easily.
When Validation is Easy
If someone tells you they hate getting telemarketing calls during supper and you feel the same, it is very easy to say so. The conversation is very short and both parties feel warmth and mutual understanding. Yay.
When Validation is Harder
If someone expresses feelings around something that you experience differently, it may be more difficult to validate. This is when it becomes valuable to be able to access our whole range of underlying emotions below the first ones that we identify.
Let me share a short example. If someone just lost their job and tells you that they want revenge against the boss who fired them, you may recognize their anger but not share it. You may be a boss that had to fire someone and felt badly and helpless around your choices at the time. Your natural inclination may be to defend the boss’ actions. However, digging down, you also know how upset you would be if you were the one to lose your job. Identifying your sub feeling of anger to the whole job loss scenario makes it easier to honestly validate the anger the other person is feeling.
Misconceptions about Validation
Let’s talk about what validation is not. Validation is not telling the other person that they are right. It is about respecting how they feel and acknowledging that they have a right to those feelings. As soon as we deny the other person’s feelings, the message is “you are unimportant”. How do you feel when someone tells you your feelings are unimportant?
Many people are worried about increasing the other person’s negative feelings through validation. But the opposite is actually true. People are better able to master difficult emotions once acknowledged. In the job loss scenario, validating doesn’t mean they will take action on their feelings of “revenge”.
I want to share a story of a private client, Tony. When he came to me with stories of his ex-wife wife with her many borderline personality traits, he angrily told me that she accused him of the potential for violence. He was having difficulty even having access to his son just based on false accusations.
To be honest, he was an imposing guy and his anger was palpable. I listened to her accusations and was able to tap into how I would feel if someone accused me of being dangerous when I had never done anything violent to them. I calmly and simply said “that must have really hurt your feelings to be accused of violence when you have never done anything like that”. His entire demeanor went from an imposing, angry, loud, 6 foot tall man to a little boy who just wanted to be heard. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see tears.
Tony’s ex-wife was triggering him regularly and I do think that he could have been unfairly arrested because he was unable to stay calm around this manipulative woman. I am happy to report, that he never got arrested and he was able to start seeing his son again by staying calm. I validated him, and he learned to validate her feelings even though those changed on a dime.
The Truth About Validation
When we validate, it’s as though the negative emotion loses its power over the person who is struggling. I’ve seen transformations happen. Simply by acknowledging feelings, things calm down, relationships improve, and the ability to think beyond the problem becomes possible.
Feelings are not moral, it’s the actions we choose that have moral value. Being treated with empathy and compassion guides the directions of those actions. Therefore, validating negative feelings reduces negative actions in our work and home environments.