Providing emotional support to someone else is hard. Most people aren’t quite sure how to do it, and like most other hard things in life it is a concrete skill that requires practice. Most of us learn some of this through emulation. We see other people giving hugs, suggesting solutions, or telling us that things will be ok, and we learn that this is how to provide support when life is hard.
There’s one particular piece of useful knowledge that I learned in DBT that evidence seems to indicate is pretty universally helpful when someone needs support, but that very few people naturally pick up on. Validation. I’m about to say something that for some people sounds utterly ridiculous. It did to me at first. All emotions are valid.
This is a statement that is easy to misinterpret, so let me be specific. What I mean when I say all emotions are valid is not that all emotions make sense, all emotions deserve the exact same kind of consideration, or that we should act on all of our emotions. It simply means that there’s no wrong way to feel. It is telling someone “yes, I see your emotions. They are real and they are acceptable.” You can’t control your emotions, you can’t will your emotions away, which means that you feel what you feel. That’s valid. Being told that your emotions are ok and accepting that your emotions are allowed to happen regardless of what you then choose to do is a really big part of a healthy emotional life.
Validating someone’s emotions lets them know that it’s ok to feel. It lets them know that someone else gets it and can empathize. And it doesn’t diminish the scale of whatever they’re feeling by trying to talk about solutions or the bigger picture. There’s research that invalidation is a quick way to trigger emotional and mental problems in someone. I see it as a very subtle form of gaslighting, saying “no you don’t feel that way” or simply denying that you should feel that way, putting pressure on an individual to control their very thoughts rather than their behaviors.
So practically speaking what does validation look like in comparison with something like problem solving or comforting?
Validation at its core involves recognizing the emotion that someone else is having and then letting them know that it’s ok. Sometimes that can be explicit. “You seem really sad right now.” Sometimes it might be simply by expressing a similar sentiment, like agreeing when someone says they dislike someone, or hearing about their situation and opining “Yeah, that really sucks.” These are extremely little things, but fitting them in before you begin saying things like “what can I do?” or “it will be ok” tells the other person that you’re actually listening.
Sometimes it helps when you need emotional support to let another person know that you don’t want anything but validation. “I just need you to listen to me vent for a while.” Not every form of support needs to come in the form of concrete action. Sometimes it’s simply being with someone while they feel something, a form of reminding them that their emotions won’t drive other people away or make people think they’re crazy or bad.
But wait! Isn’t this just giving people permission to behave irrationally and hold other people hostage to their emotions? Sometimes people do get upset over nothing. Yes young padawans, it is true that not all emotions make sense, nor do they always fit the facts present. Most emotions exist for a few particular purposes, which means that if someone is all balanced and so on, those emotions will show up in pretty predictable circumstances. In a perfect world, people would feel angry when someone violated a boundary, sad when they lost something, and guilty when they did something that violated their own moral code. But that doesn’t always happen. So how can we actually validate emotions that are out of place, like being angry because your friend got sick and had to miss your birthday party?
Here’s the secret: emotions are not the same as behaviors. Even telling someone about an emotion is not the same as acting on that emotion or asking someone else to act on that emotion. It takes a lot of time to learn how to do this without adding in some subtle pressure that the emotion needs to get fixed, but it is absolutely possible to let someone know “Hey, I’m feeling upset in x way. I realize that your action y is related to it, but that it doesn’t really make sense for me to feel this way. I’m going to feel it for a little bit, and at some point when I’m less feely can we talk?”
After you’ve validated someone’s emotions they may then decide that their emotions make sense and they want to act on them, they may decide that their emotions make sense but there’s no good way to act on them, or they may decide that it’s more helpful to try to get past the emotion by distracting themselves, doing something soothing and enjoyable, or through some other emotion regulation technique. But none of that is because the emotion is wrong. It’s because an associated action might be bad or ineffective, and the emotion is causing pain or distress.
In no way is validating someone else going to cure all their problems. But it’s an incredibly small way to take real steps towards better community mental health. And even if it’s as simple as validating yourself and the people you surround yourself with, it helps smooth relationships and strong emotions. Validation: try it!