Validation is distinct from Normalization. They are both integral to the process of therapy, something that can be done for others outside of therapy and also something that can be done for the self. In this blog, I will focus on validation - what it is and how to do it.
I find that my therapy clients commonly have a very difficult time with validation. Heck, we all do. Myself included. Validation isn't exactly easy or natural, maybe especially considering one's upbringing. You may not have grown up in a family/environment/culture where validation was even a thing. I think many of us didn't.
I posted this to Instagram, comparing the words "validate" and "normalize" -
I think that's what it boils down to. A recognition of the feelings of someone else. A recognition of their existence as is. Not an evaluation of the feelings, not an assessment of those feelings or a judgment. Simply recognizing the factual existence of those feelings.
But also recognizing the worth of those feelings. Not like a dollar amount. Not really a judgment on how much or how little those feelings are worth. That's not what I mean. By worth, I am referring to the inherent worth. As in, those feelings come from another human being. And by simply existing, you have value as do your feelings. The feelings that we have are significant just by their existence.
Now, I'm not saying that all people at all times are going to recognize either of these things. Nor will the people who maybe should. Nor will they do so in the best way possible for you in particular. And I'm not even suggesting that because of Feeling X, that someone else should act in this way or that. I'm simply saying that validation is the affirmation and recognition of someone else's feelings. This isn't a prescription for how someone else should or should not behave based on someone else's feelings.
Let's do a little exercise on validation. Read what Person 1 is saying below and do the best you can to affirm and recognize their feeling(s).
Person 1: "I'm so sick of doing virtual classrooms! I miss seeing my friends and I feel so lonely."
This should be fairly obvious. What feelings are existing here that you can recognize? Being "sick" of something. But drilling down a bit more, it might be frustrated, bored or maybe dreading. There is also the feeling of missing, or wanting connection. And also loneliness. Again, wanting connection. So when you validate this person, you could simply use their words or even give them new ones that might fit. (They'll let you know if you get it wrong.)
Let's do the exercise again, but make it less obvious.
Person 2: "I had a really hard day at work today. My boss is changing my program duties and putting me into a program where they're incompetent."
What could be validated with Person 2? Sounds - at the very least - like a "hard day." But there could also be some stress about the unknown. Some dread. Maybe they feel unwanted or discarded. Could be a lot of things, but at the very least, recognizing the difficulty of what they are feeling from their "hard day."
And if you're unable to even provide this level of validation, worry not. Simply being interested in the other person and being an active listener is a validating act in and of itself. You could ask questions about their feelings or try to paraphrase what they are saying. If Person 1 or 2 received that from you, they would feel important to you. As they continue to talk about their feelings, they might feel validated.
Your active interest in them as a valuable human being and your active interest in their feelings will be validating. It shows the other person they are important. And we all need that.
For the self
This doesn't all just apply to Person 1, Person 2, some other person or a client in therapy. No, this applies to you as well! Like I said at the beginning of this blog, we all have some difficulty with validation, but maybe no more so than when attempting to apply it to the self.
First, we kinda suck at slowing down and noticing that we even have feelings at all. We live fast-paced lives, chock full of constant streams of immediate gratification. We're incessantly distracted by our own avenues of entertainment that we don't look inward. We focus on the problems of the external world and ignore the problems of the internal. We direct our energies to this cause and that cause; or in response to someone else's cause in defensiveness.
But we don't really just pause and recognize the feelings that we have inside of us. No, instead we maybe identify that we're angry, but then use that energy to create a narrative of blame. We maybe identify that we feel sad or alone, but then create a narrative of how worthless we are. I don't think this is purposeful or conscious. "Story follows state," you know. But that's kinda the problem. It's reactionary and is very disembodied and not conscious.
Instead, to validate the self, we would simply notice the feelings we have inside and be with them for a bit. Not judgmental evaluation or judgmental labeling. Just noticing what is there and allowing it to be. Just like if a loved one were to be with us and notice our stress. The noticing, naming and being with it are validating. The feeling is there. It does exist.
This applies not just to the emotional feelings that we have, though that is often the start of it. But also to the polyvagal, somatic feelings. We can acknowledge the existence within ourselves of these internal discomforts, like a tensing of the jaw. We can identify it on the polyvagal ladder as sympathetic energy (probably fight) and give it a name like "stress." This is different than a judgmental label, like "bad" or "'weak."
Doing these little steps can help to provide some validation to the self. Simply bringing some of this to the self can help the feelings to alleviate or the stuck energy to continue to course through the system. No, it's not this easy. It never is. But these are pieces of the puzzle. I don't think anyone is going to be able to do something like meditation work without these pieces; of being with the feelings and noticing and recognizing.
To do so requires some curiosity. And being curious requires some level of autonomic safety; some ventral activation. This is typically where I see people lacking and needing more support before they can delve more into their defensive feelings. I can teach you how to be with your safety feelings in the Building Safety Anchors course. And through that course, you can identify what brings you ventral vagal feelings of safety. As you continue to develop the ventral pathways and the capacity to remain activated, the stuck energy will become more tolerable and the potential to validate your feelings will increase.
But the ventral activation - or enough of it - is key. BSA goes into six different potential paths to feel safety and be more grounded in the present moment. If you're ready to invest in your own change and can commit to thirty days of learning and doing in small doses, you might benefit from Building Safety Anchors.
Thanks so much for reading this week's blog. I hope it was helpful in understanding and applying the concept of validation in your life and yourself personally.