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Validation is a top-down self-regulation opener
It’s possible to shift your state from the top down, from the brain to the body. The brainstem acts as the intermediary point for this two-way communication. Signals from the body come up to the brainstem and are sent to the brain; signals also come from the brain to the brainstem, then are sent down to the body. Porges uses an analogy of an upside down triangle to explain this, which you can read more about here.
You can shift your state from the bottom up or from the top-down, meaning from the body to the brain or the brain to the body.
Ways to shift your Polyvagal state from the bottom-up:
Shifting your state from the bottom-up means from the body to the brain. It means mindfully experiencing what is happening in your body while being anchored in your safety state. Some examples of body to brain regulation are:
exercise and movement
Ways to shift your Polyvagal state from the top-down
Shifting your state from the top-down means from the brain to the body. It means sending cognitive cues of safety from your brain downward. Some examples of brain to body regulation could be:
For example, when I remember my daughter squeezing my finger when she was born, this instantaneously brings me to my safety state and a soft smile spreads on my face as I remember and type these words for you.
It can be helpful to use top-down messages to help regulate your defensive state and even open the possibility of further Polyvagal ladder climbing (if the Polyvagal Theory is new to you, go here first for a free rundown).
I have three top-down self-regulation openers I want to teach you. These are not intended to bring you to a Polyvagal state of safety and social engagement in and of themselves. These are intended to provide a cognitive baseline to help you to attune with what is happening from the bottom-up, to align your cognitions with your felt experience. They help to open a path for self-regulation to occur.
Top-down self-regulation openers
There are 3 things you can do immediately to help open the possibility of self-regulation. This will help you to access more calm, relaxation, peace and connection with yourself and others. The three top-down state openers are:
Validation: the first of 3 self-regulation openers
What validation is
Validation is the act of recognizing and accepting what is happening within, without necessarily approving or liking it. It's an acknowledgement of the objective truth of an emotional experience, without judgment or evaluation. It's about allowing yourself to feel what you feel, without trying to change or suppress those emotions.
Validation is not explaining why you feel how you feel
Validation is also not explaining why. If you’re feeling sad, then you’re feeling sad. That’s it. The why of your sadness is generally important, but in that moment, simply recognizing the emotional experience is validating. If you go into why you feel sad or the history of your sadness, you’re no longer validating. These questions are important, but not for this step.
Validation could also take place through other experiential domains, like: your cognitions, sensations and impulses, but we're going to focus on the emotional experience for the time being. That's probably what's most noticeable for you.
Validation is just recognizing what is objectively true. Your emotions truly are there. You're not making these things up. They are real. They are important. And they are significant. That's validation.
Validation might be challenging
Acknowledging and accepting our emotional experiences can be a big challenge, especially if we haven't received validation from others or if we struggle to validate ourselves. If you were raised in a home that dismissed your emotions, then validating yourself may be difficult. If you’re been in relationships where you have been told how you feel, versus you recognizing for yourself how you feel, then this might be a challenge for you.
Ideally, you’re able to recognize what you are experiencing, express it to someone else and have them be in agreement with what you are experiencing. It could sound as simple as saying, “I’m feeling really down recently.” The other person may say, “Sounds like you’re sad.” Imagine if the other person said, “Get over it” or “There’s no reason to feel that way.” Those statements are highly dismissive and lacking compassion. These statements are invalidating.
Not everyone will be validating
In no way do I expect everyone in your life to be validating, by the way. Most likely, they won’t be and it’s unrealistic to expect that. However, ideally, you would receive validation from those closest to you: parents, caretakers, teachers, friends and partners. Ideally, these are the people that would be able to provide you with validation; meaning, they could name your feelings along with you or use similar language to describe what you are going through.
Lack of validation helps keep you stuck in defense
Invalidation can keep someone traumatized
Unfortunately, this lack of validation from self or others can contribute to your stuck defensive state, preventing you from moving towards climbing your Polyvagal ladder. Invalidation may lead to a misalignment between your thoughts and your emotions. Instead of cognitively recognizing what is emotionally true and currently happening, your cognitions may shift to what others have told you is true or what others have told you to do with your thoughts.
Pretend you live with a chronic feeling of aloneness. If you were to validate yourself, you would name it as “feeling alone” or maybe recognize you have a true experience of wanting to isolate yourself. Those would be validating. But maybe you were raised in a home that told you to “be strong” and “get over it,” so you instead focus on those types of dismissive cognitions, which invalidate your true emotional experience. What you are reflexively doing is focusing on what you have been told to do about the feeling of aloneness, versus just allowing the feeling of aloneness.
You're not trying to invalidate yourself
Are you purposefully invalidating yourself? Of course not. You - like so many other people - are probably reflexively using dismissive cognitions and behaviors that you were taught. And those have served a purpose for you up until this point. But it might be time to try out some validation instead.
In reality, you may be desperate for validation. Maybe frustrated with not having gotten it or being able to give it to yourself. If that's the case, it sounds to me like there is something you can give yourself validation about!
Your emotions are real
It's important to recognize that our emotions are real, significant, and deserving of acknowledgement and acceptance, even if they may not feel good or pleasant. Again, it's not about liking it, it's not about feeling good. It's just objectively accepting that it is what it is. I feel the way I feel right now at this moment. It is true. I do have these thoughts. I do have these feelings. It’s not easy, I can validate that.
How to validate yourself
If I were to ask you to validate somebody else's feelings, I think you could. If you were to see someone who was fidgety, didn’t make eye contact, was tense and pacing around, you might say, “Hey, you seem really anxious!” That person might be able to say, “Yeah, I’m really stressed out.” That’s validation. You’re recognizing what is true and naming it as best you can.
Now I need you to apply that to yourself. I know it’s not easy, but it’s generally possible. If you can’t validate yourself right now, that’s alright. But as you move forward, it will become important, especially if you are actively working on unstucking your trauma, like through the Polyvagal Trauma Relief System. Validation will be very important for the more direct self-regulation work, which is of course explained in great detail in phase 3 of PTRS.
It may help you to have a list of possible emotions, even ones that are broken into general categories. I created something called “SSIEC” that you can use. It provides you with vocabulary to help you name your sensations, impulses, emotions and cognitions, and also connects them with your Polyvagal state. The video below explains how to use it. You download it through signing up for my email list here.
Name your experiences as close as you can
If naming is indeed too much, you could also generally name what you are going through as close as you can. Maybe you don’t know you feel “nervous,” but you know you feel something in the realm of “anxiety.” So you could say, “I’m feeling anxious,” and that gets you a step closer to the true felt experience you’re having.
Practice validating before you're overwhelmed
I also highly recommend that you practice validating when your emotions are not too big, not too explosive, not too dysregulated. Practice throughout the day during mundane things or during transitions. How do you feel when you wake up in the morning? How about when it's hard to get out of bed? How about on the way to school or to work? How about when you're in social situations you'd prefer not to be in? How about in traffic on the way home? What can you emotionally validate when you impulsively want to have junk food?
Practice validating right now
You could try validating your present moment experience right now. What is it that you notice you are feeling? Anything obvious sticking out to you? Anything that is general more of a defensive or a safety state activation you are noticing? Do you feel calm, anxious, angry, numb, disconnected, irritated, worried, connected or something else? Is it something in the general realm of these emotions?
How validation can be helpful in trauma recovery
Essentially, it’s important to figure out how to genuinely validate yourself. The emotions and feelings that you have are real, and it may be the reason why you’re seeking help through a resource like this blog or therapy. In the trauma recovery process, it's helpful to acknowledge and accept your emotions for what they are and just what they are. No more, no less. Without evaluation or judgment, as best you can.
What to do after you validate yourself
Once you can do this, you can then move on to the next two self-regulation openers - normalization and giving permission. Validation brings your conscious awareness to what is truly happening in the moment. It begins the process of aligning your cognitions in the present moment with your bottom-up somatic experience.
Validation helps to reduce the reflexive thoughts that you tell yourself to make your feelings go away. And it you can successfully validate yourself, it may also lead to a reduction in behavioral adaptations to your stuck defensive state.
Validation connects mind to body
Validation is extremely important in laying a top-down foundation that helps you align in the present moment. To notice your emotions as simply what they are and to begin to allow for their existence. Once you are aligned in the present moment, you can then begin to directly experience your emotions as they are. As you mindfully attune to your feelings, Polyvagal ladder climbing can begin to happen as your natural capacity for self-regulation opens up.
Recommended further learning:
How to Know if You Are Ready for Direct Trauma Work
If you are interested in going further into working on your stuck defensive state, this articles teaches you how to tell if you are ready or not. Wanting change is one thing, but readiness is another.
3 quotes from this blog
"Validation is the act of recognizing and accepting what is happening within, without necessarily approving or liking it."
"Validation brings your conscious awareness to what is truly happening in the moment. It begins the process of aligning your cognitions in the present moment with your bottom-up somatic experience."
"Validation helps to reduce the reflexive thoughts that you tell yourself to make your feelings go away. And if you can successfully validate yourself, it may also lead to a reduction in behavioral adaptations to your stuck defensive state."
Q: What is validation?
A: Validation is the act of recognizing and accepting what is happening within, without necessarily approving or liking it. It's about allowing yourself to feel what you feel, without trying to change or suppress those emotions.
Q: Why is validation important for mental health?
A: Validation is crucial for mental health because it allows us to acknowledge and accept our emotions, which can help us move forward and find more peace. Without validation, we may struggle to recognize and accept our emotions, leading to a misalignment between our thoughts and emotions. And then nothing changes.
Q: How can I learn to validate myself?
A: Learning to validate yourself takes practice and patience. It may be helpful to have a list of possible emotions to help you name and recognize what you're feeling. Practice when your emotions are tolerable and can be noticed and when you have enough access to your Polyvagal safety state.
Justin Sunseri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach specializing in trauma relief. He is the host of the Stuck Not Broken podcast, and author of the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states.