By Karen Hall, Ph.D.
One of the four options we have in any problem situation is acceptance. Validation is one way that we communicate acceptance of ourselves and others. Validation doesn’t mean agreeing or approving. When your best friend or a family member makes a decision that you really don’t think is wise, validation is a way of supporting them and strengthening the relationship while maintaining a different opinion. Validation is a way of communicating that the relationship is important and solid even when you disagree on issues.
Validation is the recognition and acceptance of another person’s thoughts,feelings, sensations, and behaviors as understandable. Self-validation is the recognition and acceptance of your own thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviors as understandable.
Learning how to use validation effectively takes practice. Knowing the six levels of validation as identified by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. will be helpful.
The first Level is Being Present. There are so many ways to be present. Holding someone’s hand when they are having a painful medical treatment, listening with your whole mind and doing nothing but listening to a child describe their day in first grade, and going to a friend’s house at midnight to sit with her while she cries because a supposed friend told lies about her are all examples of being present.
Multi-tasking while you listen to your teenager’s story about his soccer game is not being present. Being present means giving all your attention to the person you are validating.
Being present for yourself means acknowledging your internal experience and sitting with it rather than “running away” from it, avoiding it, or pushing it away. Sitting with intense emotion is not easy. Even happinessor excitement can feel uncomfortable at times.
Often one of the reasons other people are uncomfortable with intense emotion is that they don’t know what to say. Just being present, paying complete attention to the person in a nonjudgmental way, is often the answer. For yourself, being mindful of your own emotion is the first step to accepting your emotion.
The second level of validation is Accurate Reflection. Accurate reflection means you summarize what you have heard from someone else or summarize your own feelings. This type of validation can be done by others in an awkward, sing-songy, artificial way that is truly irritating or by yourself in a criticizing way. When done in an authentic manner, with the intent of truly understanding the experience and not judging it, accurate reflection is validating.
Sometimes this type of validation helps someone sort through their thoughts and separate thoughts from emotions. “So basically I’m feeling pretty angry and hurt,” would be a self-reflection. “Sounds like you’re disappointed in yourself because you didn’t call him back,” could be accurate reflection by someone else.
Level Three is Mindreading. Mindreading is guessing what another person might be feeling or thinking. People vary in their ability to know their own feelings. For example, some confuse anxiety and excitement and some confuse excitement and happiness. Some may not be clear about what they are feeling because they weren’t allowed to experience their feelings or learned to be afraid of their feelings.
People may mask their feelings because they have learned that others don’t react well to their sensitivity. This masking can lead to not acknowledging their feelings even to themselves, which makes the emotions more difficult to manage. Being able to accurately label feelings is an important step to being able to regulate them.
When someone is describing a situation, notice their emotional state. Then either name the emotions you hear or guess at what the person might be feeling.
“I’m guessing you must have felt pretty hurt by her comment” is Level Three validation. Remember that you may guess wrong and the person could correct you. It’s her emotion and she is the only one who knows how she feels. Accepting her correction is validating.
Level Four is Understanding the Person’s Behavior in Terms of their History and Biology. Your experiences and biology influence your emotional reactions. If your best friend was bitten by a dog a few years ago, she is not likely to enjoy playing with your German Shepherd. Validation at this level would be saying, “Given what happened to you, I completely understand your not wanting to be around my dog.”
Self-validation would be understanding your own reactions in the context of your past experiences.