Recall a situation where you were hurt, sad, scared, or angry and shared your feelings with others. How did they react? Was their response supportive, or did it make you hurt more?
Unfortunately, sharing our worries is often met with sentences that are more detrimental than supportive. For example:
- “Don’t be so sensitive!”
- “There’s no reason to be afraid of that.”
- “It’s a waste of time worrying about that.”
- “The situation could be much worse.”
- “What is wrong with you?”
- “Get over it!”
Does that sound familiar to you?
Also, many people take another person’s dissatisfaction as a personal attack and then blame the person. However, the latter can bring the person who shared her worries even more down. Given all this, it is no wonder that many people no longer dare to talk about what is happening to them. They suppress their feelings or withdraw from social encounters.
So what do we really need in a situation like this?
When I share my sadness, fears, or other feelings, the first thing I need is to be heard. Perhaps it’s also something that you and your loved ones need? Seeing that you were listened to and understood makes it much easier to move towards a solution and a better feeling. A crucial part of active listening and understanding someone, is validating the person’s feelings and emotions. In this article, I will write more in-depth about validation and invalidation, so that you could better support the people you care about.
As a side note. To bring examples, I use quite a lot of “she” because women tend to need more emotional validation than men. But men also need validation, and their feelings shouldn’t be dismissed.
What is validation?
Validating is giving another person a direct and clear message that their experience is understandable, real, and logical, given what has happened. By validating people’s emotions and feelings, you can prevent conflicts, create more mutual understanding, and develop harmonious relationships. In my experience, empathy and sincere validation are some of the most connecting powers in a relationship. Moreover, it is also essential to validate yourself. Self-validation helps to reduce internal conflicts and increase your sense of inner security and wellbeing.
You will find more detailed validation examples in the following sections of the article.
Validation reduces emotional pain and helps to end suffering
We all experience sadness, pain, fears, and other feelings from time to time. However, having these emotions or feelings is often not the hardest part, but rather when we are alone in this experience. In general, people who are alone in their suffering and their perceived reality suffer the most – and at the same time, no one sees what is really happening to them.
When a person is in emotional pain and feels isolated, it usually doesn’t help when someone satisfied with his life comes to her and emphasizes the need to look on the positive side. An anxious and isolated person first needs to be noticed for her pain, suffering and isolation. The person needs to be seen with her reality. And when someone joins her in her reality, listens to and validates her feelings, healing, and reduction of suffering can begin. This person is no longer alone and invisible in her distress.
A big step closer to a solution and a sense of security
When someone shares their hurt and feelings with you, they want you to notice and pay attention to how they feel. Validating feelings allows the person to feel understood, to experience relief, and then, if necessary, look at the situation with a new perspective. Validation makes the person feel that you are on their side, and they are no longer alone with their feelings. Validation creates a safe space for discussion and, if necessary, for finding a solution as a team. Sometimes, however, validation is the only thing the other person needs to start feeling better.
Validating someone’s emotions is a great way to prevent and reduce conflicts. It also increases intimacy and security, as the other person appreciates that you listened to her and tried to understand her.
Emotional validation is especially important when raising children because the child’s perception of herself is largely formed through reflections in communication with other people. By reflecting back the child’s emotions and feelings and supporting her in regulating them, the child learns to listen to what is going on inside her. This will continue to help the child maintain a good connection with herself. A supportive environment for the child’s emotions, feelings, and reactions develops the child’s emotional competence and teaches her, step by step, to react adequately to her surroundings.
How to validate emotions and feelings?
When validating emotions and feelings, try to be as real as possible. Don’t just use memorized words and sentences that you don’t mean. Try to use wording that is natural to you and be flexible according to the current situation.
1. Start by being present and listening. When a person shares their experience and feelings with you, try to listen from her point of view. Also, use your body language, turning yourself towards the speaker. You can look in the person’s eyes once a while, but be mindful so that it does not cause her any discomfort. Remember that you are already supporting by listening to her.
2. If you are not sure what else to say, you can use simple nods and phrases like “I am listening to you,” “mhm.” If necessary, ask additional questions. For example, if another person told you a story that visibly concerned her, ask:
- “Do you want to talk about how it made you feel?”
- “I wish to understand you better. Tell me more about what happened to you.”
- “What do you think of all this?”
- “What does this mean for you?”
3. After you have listened to another person’s sharing of thoughts and feelings, reflect on what she said. In addition to reflecting on the situation, show that you understand her by using sentences such as:
- “I appreciate that you shared it with me.”
- “It’s okay to feel that way.”
- “It’s perfectly natural to feel that way.”
- “I understand how the situation made you feel that way.”
- “Your feelings make total sense.”
- “I see that there is a reason for your feelings.”
- “I think everyone would feel the same way in this situation. It makes perfect sense that you felt that way.”
- “I see it is hurting you.”
- “It seems you’re really terrified of this person.”
- “I’m here with you.”
To make it even more personal when validating an experience, you can replace the words “this” and “the situation” with a brief description of what the person just shared. You can also repeat/mention the feelings that the other person mentioned. For example,
- “I understand how it made you sad that your loved one just walked out in the middle of an important conversation. When someone does something like that to me, I feel the same way.”
4. If it seems appropriate, you can also add a short example from your own experience, but do not go deep into it or tell your story for a long time. Otherwise, the person may start to feel left alone with her situation or unimportant. In general, it’s best to listen more and talk less. For example, you can briefly mention a situation where something similar happened to you and how you felt the same way. It shows that you understand the other person’s experience even more deeply. It is also a great way to make the person feel like her feelings and reactions are normal – the person sees that she is not the only one who has been in such a situation and felt that way.
5. Be prepared that once you have validated the person’s feelings, she may want to add something to the story or share her feelings even more deeply as you have provided a safe space for that. For example, she might add, “Yes, it hurt me so much because of this, and because of that…”. Then you can listen, reflect, and just validate again..
6. With active listening, reflection, and validation, the person feels more and more understood, and this will likely bring her some sense of relief. That may be enough support for her, and she may be drawn to change the subject. However, if the topic goes even deeper, you can also support the speaker with the following questions:
- “What do you need right now?“
- “How can I support you in this situation?”
- “Do you want to hear my thoughts on the situation?”
- “I see that this situation is difficult for you. Do you want us to look for solutions together?“
7. If the person has shared her hurt caused by your behavior, address your role while validating her feelings. Notice your influence and show your readiness to discuss this topic in more detail and find suitable solutions for both of you. For example:
- “I see that it bothers you when I am too loud in the kitchen in the morning and wake you up with that. I understand that it affects your wellbeing, and I am sorry that this has been the case. And I see you want me to stop doing it. Let’s talk more about it to find a solution that works for both of us. “
- “Thank you for expressing your feelings. I understand that you were hurt when I interrupted your talk and didn’t listen until the end. I do value what you speak, and it is important to me. I will try to be more attentive in the future.”
8. If you feel that the discussion is about to be completed, check how the person feels. Ask whether she wants to add or ask something more before moving on to a new topic. If she feels that enough has been said about the subject, then perhaps she has already changed the topic on her initiative.
Invalidation (what not to say)
When a person shares their feelings or experiences with you, don’t respond by embarrassing, blaming, or stigmatizing her feelings. The person opened up and showed herself, and if you don’t listen to her and don’t respond in a supportive way, she may feel that you do not understand her and feel alone. This will lessen the likelihood that the person will come to share something vulnerable with you in the future. Invalidating can also shut the conversation or cause conflict because the person can stay stuck in that feeling, feel not understood, and this makes it difficult to move together towards a better feeling state or solution.
If you don’t want to hurt another person and want to prevent conflict, then try to avoid invalidation, which is the opposite of validation. Emotional invalidation means that a person’s feelings and thoughts are rejected, ignored, or negatively judged. Invalidation is also expressing that the person’s feelings and thoughts are not justified, valid, or understandable. Invalidating sends a message that the other is overreacting or has an incorrect reaction. This type of response is especially hurtful to someone who is emotionally sensitive. When someone is continually in an emotionally invalidating environment, she may become confused and begin to doubt herself. Such emotional violence has a detrimental effect on a person’s self-esteem and mental health in general.
Examples of invalidating expressions (try to avoid them):
- “Don’t be so sensitive!”
- “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
- “There’s no reason to be nervous right now.”
- “I think you’re overreacting.”
- “You’re making a big number out of nothing.”
- “The situation could be much worse.”
- “Don’t think about it; just move on.”
- “Crying doesn’t solve the situation right now.”
- “I’m not afraid of that.”
- “I would have done everything differently if I was you.”
- “You’re the only one who feels that way.”
- “There’s no point to worry about that.”
- “Don’t worry.”
- “Get over it.”
- “Anger is not allowed in our home.”
- “Why are you constantly whining?”
- “Why is there always drama with you?”
- “There’s always something wrong with you.”
By avoiding the invalidating sentences just listed, you can prevent hurting others and many conflicts.
What validating someone’s feelings doesn’t mean?
Validating emotions or feelings does not mean giving up one’s own experience, agreeing to what is said, accepting harmful behavior, or pitying.
Validation is not:
Giving up your own experience. Seeing another person’s perceived reality and validating her feelings does not mean giving up your own perceived reality. We can hold space for and notice polarities at the same time. The same situation can cause some feelings and reactions in you (for example, joy) and in another person, different feelings (for example, disappointment). And these feelings are the reality for both of you, although they are opposing. We can have our feelings and experiences and, at the same time, notice and understand the feelings and experiences of others. The latter, even if they are contradictory. For example, by being happy yourself, you can try to understand how and why the other person is sad – and that doesn’t mean you should give up your joy.
Agreeing with the other. Some people are afraid that validation means agreeing to everything the other person says. Validating does not mean agreeing, but simply that you see the other’s concern and understand what the other is feeling at the moment. For example, if your friend says, “I feel like no one loves me,” don’t answer, “Yes, no one loves you,” but say something like, “I see that you feel that way, and this topic is important to you. Do you want to talk about it?”
Acceptance of harmful behavior. Validating the feelings of a child or other adult does not mean that any behavior is allowed. You can validate how the other person feels, but that doesn’t mean you approve their actions. For example, if someone hurts another person while being angry, you can explain how, despite being angry, it’s not okay to behave like that and hurt others. Your feelings and wellbeing are also important, and the feelings and reactions from others do not mean that you should abandon your own needs. Don’t let someone hurt you, even when their feelings are valid.
Taking pity on someone. When validating emotions and feelings, we should not pity another person. Depending on the situation, you can, of course, express your regret and sadness when something terrible happened to another person, but don’t say, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” because that means that you feel sorry that the person feels this way not sorry for what happened. Also, avoid phrases like “poor you” and “things like that always happen to you” that send a message as if something is wrong with the person. Taking pity on someone generally does not support the person.
Barriers when validating emotions and feelings
Limiting beliefs. For example, if a parent believes that it is not okay to experience anger, he or she may embarrass or punish the child who feels angry. This sends a message to the child that anger is not okay, which can lead to him suppressing his anger in the future. In the long run, however, repressed feelings can start harming us. For example, repressed anger can lead to sudden, intense outbursts of anger, depression, or self-harm. A child who feels angry needs understanding and support from a parent. The parent can reflect the child that he is angry and validate his emotions and then help him to regulate the emotions if needed, for example, by teaching healthy ways to express anger.
Focusing on positivity. If a person tries to focus on the positive at all costs, he may automatically attempt to ignore all negative feelings. Unfortunately, this type of approach sends a signal to the other person that she is okay and can be accepted only when she is feeling a certain way. Focusing on the positive is generally a good idea in life and helps us to notice more opportunities and be more grateful. However, pushing positivity to someone who is experiencing a strong negative emotion can have the opposite effect. As a comparison, I ask you to imagine someone having a bone fracture. When the bone is broken, it doesn’t help us to start singing or trying to find all the positive around us. First, we need to pay attention to this fracture and likely surround the foot with cast. Then we can start healing and moving towards a better feeling state. In the same way, when you have a strong negative emotion or feeling – first notice and validate it, and then you can start moving towards a better feeling state and a more positive state.
Is it always necessary to validate feelings?
Of course, it depends on the situation, whether we should validate someone’s emotions and feelings or not. Sometimes validating is not necessary. However, I suggest validating when a person is hurt, upset, and clearly needs some support. You could bring such a difference into this person’s life by being there for her.
Also, I don’t recommend validating in a situation where it could go against your personal boundaries and affect your wellbeing. For example, if someone has very strong negative feelings, it is natural that you may be afraid to lose touch with yourself when going to offer support. Check-in with yourself and see if you are ready to support that person. Or, if you feel down and not well yourself, this may also not be the best time to provide support and validation for someone else. In the latter case, you can express softly and clearly that you need time for yourself at the moment, and you cannot offer presence or support. Just try not to make the other person feel that they did something wrong when coming to you with their painful experience.
There is also an option that you feel you cannot listen to or validate one specific person anymore. We do not have to validate another’s experience if we cannot or don’t want to do that. This can be especially true if it hurts you that the person has not yet moved towards a solution and repeatedly raises the same painful issue. You have the right to set your limit, but try to do so with respect. You can also help the other person to find someone who could validate and support her.
Seems complicated at first? That’s okay
Unfortunately, most homes and schools do not teach active listening, reflection, and validation. So it’s completely understandable if you don’t master the art of validating yet. I also didn’t know much about it at first. I started practicing emotional validation years ago, together with a close friend of mine. At first, it came a little bumpy. There were moments where we just laughed at how artificially our answer sounded. By now, validating someone’s feelings is a natural part of the conversation for me. For some people, it will be easier, for some, it will take a little longer, but we can all learn and move towards more understanding and better support in relationships.
Tips for expressing your emotions and feelings
When we wish to receive validation from others, then it’s also essential to learn to express our emotions and feelings healthily. When your message sounds like an accusation or complaint, then the other person might get into defensive mode and have a hard time validating your feelings. It is wise to choose your words and tonality so that it would be easier for others to understand you.
When expressing your emotions and feelings, it is crucial to be able to recognize them first, give them names, and then express them non-violently. It’s often suitable to start with “I feel…”. Marshall Rosenberg, in his book “Nonviolent Communication,” provides valuable advice on this subject.
By validating another person’s emotions and feelings, we signal that we listened to her, understand her, and what she experienced. Emotional validation helps us to understand each other better, prevent conflicts, move towards a solution, increase closeness, and a sense of security.
Of course, it is not necessary to validate absolutely every emotion, feeling, or experience. At the same time, I invite you to recognize those critical moments when your loved one, friend, or acquaintance shares something vulnerable with you and may need understanding and validation. We can also notice and reduce our automatic invalidating responses, which can send a message to someone that their concerns and feelings are somehow wrong.
And my last thought. In this article, I focused primarily on validating emotions and feelings that we perceive as negative or painful, but we can also validate positive feelings, such as, “I see it makes you happy,” “Of course that makes you excited,” “Awesome you had that experience.” etc.
Let’s notice, listen, and support each other. ❤️
What have been your experiences with emotional validation and invalidation? Is validation something you would like to be better at? I would love to hear your thoughts on my Facebook page Tuuli Coaching 🙂