This is me primping for a 50’s costume party.
For twenty years I sat on the overstuffed leather sofa in a pricey psychoanalyst’s office wondering how to be happy. I assumed it was to become someone else entirely.
Dr. Waddington didn’t ask what I actually wanted for my life. Instead, he jumped straight into how I could be better for other people. That would do. When his suggestions didn’t appeal to me, he offered words of encouragement like, “just fake it ’til you make it.”
That didn’t feel great. I might have received a better ROI if this guy had supplied the one thing you take for granted in a therapeutic setting:
Unless someone modeled this for you at some point, you may not really understand what it is. I just learned it in a class last week.*
Validation is acknowledging that another person’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors have causes and are therefore understandable. It is finding the kernel of truth in another person’s perspective. The end result is that you have allowed that other person to be fully human. Just like you.
If you totally disagree with them, how does that work?
First, it isn’t about agreeing with their seemingly wrongheaded ideas. Validation removes the pressure to prove who is right. That reduces negative reactions. By showing we have taken the time to recognize where the other person is coming from even if we disagree, it improves the relationship. We have demonstrated that they matter to us regardless. It makes closeness possible. In sum, it is a more peaceful, more human way to relate.
If you aren’t agreeing with them, then what are you validating?
The person’s experience. Their emotions, beliefs, opinions, or thoughts. Their suffering. You don’t have to agree with them to validate that they have a different life experience than you do.
Why is this so important?
We all have a right to exist exactly as we are. And we all want connection. That other person needs you to let go of your own ego and just BE with them. If not, it devolves. When someone finds herself in an invalidating social environment, it can be very difficult to regulate emotions.
I can vouch for this. When I feel strongly about something and don’t feel heard, my head feels like it’s going to explode.
When people do not allow you to have your perspective, you receive the message that they don’t care how you actually feel. Your feelings are weird, wrong or bad and you shouldn’t be feeling them. As a result, you feel invisible. It’s the worst. None of us wants to have that effect on another human being.
This sounds hard. I thought you said it was validation for dummies.
Fine. Here’s how you do it:
- Be Gentle. No judging, moralizing or skeptical facial expressions. No emotion negating statements like, “that’s silly, you shouldn’t feel that way.“ THEY DO so let them.
- Act Interested. Listen. Lean in, make eye contact. Don’t interrupt. If they want to talk about it later, respect that.
- Understand where they are coming from. With words and actions, show that you really get the other person’s feelings and thoughts, i.e., “I realize this is hard for you.” See the world from their point of view.
- Have an easy manner. Do not pressure them to perform for you or be what you need. Be light-hearted. Hold untroubled space for them to say what they need to say. And if it’s nothing at all, let that be okay.
That’s really it. But if you are like me and want to know WHY WHY WHY this is so critical AND possible, keep reading. This is the key to being able to validate literally anyone.
According to Dialectical Theory, everything in the universe contains the seeds of its opposite. In Chinese Philosophy it is the concept of Yin and Yang. In Western Philosophy it’s the idea that the world is ever-changing. Creative and destructive forces are both constantly in motion.
What does that mean in practical terms?
Two things that seem like opposites can be true. Here’s a list:
You can want to change AND you are doing the best you can.
You can be independent AND want help. (You can allow someone else to be independent AND also give them help.)
You can want to be alone AND also want to connect with others.
You can share some things AND want to keep some things private.
You can be with others AND be lonely.
You can be a misfit in one group AND fit perfectly in another.
You can accept yourself the way you are AND still want to change.
You may have a valid reason for believing what you believe AND you may still be wrong or incorrect.
Someone may have valid reasons for wanting something from you AND you may have valid reasons for saying no.
Because of this ongoing paradox, we must constantly balance opposites like these:
Accepting reality AND working to change it.
Validating yourself and others AND acknowledging errors.
Working AND resting.
Doing things you need to do AND doing things you want to do.
Working on improving yourself AND accepting yourself exactly as you are.
Problem solving AND problem acceptance.
Emotional regulation AND emotion acceptance.
Mastering something on your own AND asking for help.
Independence AND dependence.
Openness AND privacy.
Two truths! The idea that all truth is paradox helped me better understand how to be there for someone without feeling compromised myself. It is natural for others to hold an opposite truth and IT’S OKAY. It’s how this all works. Our differences make this big ole world go round and it’s actually beautiful.
Also. This insight landed as a relief in my role as a parent. I can be present to my kids’ perspective instead of focusing on bringing them around to my point of view. They actually hate that. I love that I can abandon this relationship-damaging communication style. Even twenty years into parenting. Better late than never, right? (Smh.)
I will give you an example of something that came up the other night that demo’s this two truths theory in practice.
We share technology quite a bit in our house. My husband Mark was on Facetime with one child and another was conducting a Google search on a connected device in the next room. The eye-popping search terms suddenly appeared on Mark’s computer screen. Needless to say, the subject was NOT something that child would have wanted his dad to know he was sitting around wondering about. It was a perfectly normal topic of curiosity but that kid would be totally mortified if the whole family were in on his private thoughts. Just a guess.
So, what are the two truths?
- The internet is chock full of information we want to shield our kids from—we are responsible to monitor everything they are consuming.
- Children need to be allowed to have their own inner world without their parents making themselves privy to every stray thought.
And in case you are in the camp of, ‘I really do need to know my child’s every move for their own good,’ there is supporting science that we have an epidemic of kids who do not feel any real agency in their lives. This could be causing a cascade of mental health crises. The theory is that it stems from being micromanaged every minute of every day by a well-meaning adult. https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2022/10/why-are-kids-so-sad.html
This opposing truth isn’t popular among us 2022 parents. Nonetheless, there are important considerations to keep in mind. Autonomy is essential for developing what psychologists call an “internal locus of control” — the sense that your choices and actions affect your life, that they matter — and that’s exactly what today’s young people lack.
So. Two truths! Leaving young people alone is a surprisingly radical idea. Remember how we were allowed to think our private thoughts and come home when it got dark?
Ya but we didn’t grow up in this crazy world with so many more dangers.
Let’s look a little deeper into that one too. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/04/14/theres-never-been-a-safer-time-to-be-a-kid-in-america/
wouldn’t hurt to wear a helmet for the morning wheelies ijs
Bottom line, validation and finding the middle path is essential to being our full selves while cultivating a healthy bond.
When none of us has to be right AND we can all be right, everyone feels understood. When we all feel like we matter, we get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.
WRITING PROMPT: What are some opposing truths in your life? Are you comfortable in conversations where you disagree? How do you handle those interactions? How do you feel afterwards? Can you give up the need to be right?
Ready to start doing some work on yourself? Email me to schedule a free Discovery Session at firstname.lastname@example.org. Curious about coaching? Learn more at https://elizabethheise.com/lucky-bird-coaching/ And if you are family or a friend, I have an amazing coaching community ready to partner with you.
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*Mark and I are taking a Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills class with the best DBT therapist in town and a group of parents. Yes, we have a kid in college and two more close behind. But we will be parents for a lifetime so it’s worth the TWENTY FOUR flippin weeks!