Validating emotion is communicating to another person that their emotions are heard, understood, and appropriate. We can validate through words, expressions or behavior, providing a clear message of understanding. Emotional validation settles insecurities and heals wounds, creating intimate bonds of safety.
We want to matter. Our world flows deep beneath our skin. Our sense of aliveness is the energy of emotion. What we feel is a significant part of who we are. We experience disconnection when our internal world of emotion is rejected, judged as wrong. Invalidation of our emotions stings, sending waves of shame. We experience the devastation of aloneness in our experience.
Do We Seek Advice or Validation?
Part of the problem is we often are painfully unaware that we our seeking validation. We reach out, asking for advice, when in reality we seek an empathetic ear and warm acceptance.
We may ask, “how can I put my life back together?” However, we don’t need a cold, unfeeling list of steps for recovery. Basically, we need the kindness of understanding that embraces our brokenness as a natural consequence of our trauma.
We are quick to invalidate, saying:
- There is no reason to be afraid.
- You choose to be sad.
- You are worrying over nothing.
- You think your life is bad, my life is much worse.
We can also invalidate in ways other than with words. An emotional message, disregarded whether by word or deed invalidates and isolates. Vulnerable confessions of emotional suffering met with disconnection hurts.
The Pain of Invalidation
Since validation fulfills primary needs of acceptance, invalidation strikes at our core, damaging self-worth. Children and adults continually invalidated struggle to find security. Invalidation shakes the foundations of mental health. When invalidated, expressions of individuality brings fears of rejection. The world feels unsafe. Emotional safety is strangled and we suffer in quietness.
Perhaps, repeated invalidation by key people in our lives may enhance traits associated with rejection sensitivity dysphoria.
Because of loss of safety, many psychological troubles arise, most prominently are episodes of depression and anxiety. Invalidation hurts mental health. We may recite endless mantras of self-autonomy but if er are the only one in our life that honors our personal individuality we will suffer. We need others. Belonging is a basic human need. Emotional validation signals to our souls that we belong.
Invalidation registers as threatening, giving rise to anger that easily morphs into more damaging depressions and anxiety. Rejection through invalidation is often addressed through psychological defenses to soothes the emotional pain. We naturally respond to pain. Rejection by primary people in our lives begs for psychological relief. Since changing other people’s behavior is nearly impossible, we adopt psychological tweaks to interpret and react to emotional rejections. Defenses serve a purpose, numbing the pain to allow continued functioning.
Unfortunately, many of these adopted defenses take hold, operate beneath awareness, and interfere with other healthy relationships. A common reaction to repeated rejection through invalidation is to limit vulnerable opportunities
How Do We Validate Emotions
Validating emotions is a process of acknowledging another person’s emotion, understanding the accompanying context, and validating the emotion as appropriate for the circumstances.
Acknowledging emotion requires attunement to the experience of others. Communication is much more than than words. Along with words there are accompanying emotions. Validation begins with correctly recognizing these accompanying emotions.
Anytime we perceive an emotion in someone else, we would be wise to check in with our perception.
“You look sad. Are you sad about this?”
Certainly, people can misperceive their own emotional experiences. However, validation of an emotional state that the other person doesn’t recognize fails to convey the desired supportive message. We gather additional information from a person’s perception of their experience.
“I’m not sad; I’m angry.”
Identifying triggering events often demands more than understanding the immediate set of circumstances that contributed the current incident of emotion. Our spouse may be upset over a tardy return from work. However, to understand the emotional discomfort, we must understand more than the precipitating event.
Widening Our View
We must widen our view. An emotionally upsetting event relies on perception of the event. Perception relies on past experiences. A young child abandoned by a parent may be more sensitive to possible threats to a stable relationships.
Biological sensitivities also contribute to emotional reactions. Many people are more sensitive to stimuli, being easily aroused. This, too, is an essential ingredient to understanding the surrounding circumstances to an incident of emotion. Biological and learned experience weave into the hardwiring of our brains. This process is referred to as epigenetics.
We are complex beings. To better understand the context of an emotion, we must stretch our understanding. As we do this, emotions make sense within the broader context.
We validate the emotion, not with memorized phrases, through understanding and acceptance. People don’t want to be patronized with carefully designed words that disguise rejection. We validate by accepting an emotion as appropriate for the entirety of the circumstances, including pasts and biological factors such as individual emotional styles.
Because of the trauma and because of the biologically inherited genes, the sensitivity makes complete sense. If I were in the exact same circumstances, I would react the same.
”I see why you feel that way. I would be angry too.”
Validating an Emotion Does Not Include Accepting Harmful Expressions of Emotion
Many people confuse feeling emotion with expression of an emotion. Our felt experience is a genuine happening. We are angry. Period. The anger is appropriate given our past, our biology, and the immediate event. However, how we respond has consequences. And those consequences may interfere with desired goals.
I may be insecure in love. An abusive childhood and an overly sensitive system may combine to create a grand fear of abandonment. The insecurity can be understood and accepted; however, behaviors that alienate partners and destroy emotional intimacy should not be validated as appropriate. Harmful behaviors must be addressed. Accordingly, protective boundaries must be erected.
Empathy and Emotional Validation
John Gottman, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle and world renown for his groundbreaker work on relationships explains, “empathy, when it works, is like this telepathic seeing of the situation (and feeling it as well) through the eyes of one’s partner. Empathic listeners become keenly aware of the distress and pain of their partner. This is a resonant experience of temporarily becoming the partner and experiencing the partner’s emotions. They then communicate empathy and validate” (2011, location 3690).
Accordingly, effective validation requires sufficient emotional intelligence to recognize and understand emotion.
Validation and Strong Relationships
Patterns of emotional validation contributes to strengthening relationships. Validation creates emotional safety, providing an environment where vulnerability is met with respect.
Validation has a soothing effect. When a partner openly shares private experiences of fear, sadness, and anger, there is the possibility of rejection. As a result, unintended hurts easily cut when we display our inner world. We may momentarily express disgust and recoil. A flash of surprise may signal non-acceptance or disappointment.
Chiefly, validation communicates something much softer. I understand. I accept. And I am here. Daniel Goleman in hos best selling book Emotional Intelligence suggests that validation soothes heightened arousal in a partner, building emotional capital in the relationship (2005, location 3026).
Emotionally Validating Communication
Effective communication is a two step process according to Alan Fruzetti. The first step “one person expresses him- or herself accurately, and the other person listens, understands, and validates. This two-step dance continues, with one partner leading (expressing or disclosing) while the other follows (listens and validates)” (2007, location 1169).
Generally, one openly expresses and the other validates. A no brainer, right? However, the process can fail on many fronts. We often are inclined to protect. Hedge our bet when communicating. Not purposely. Communication is decorated with fluff. Invisible defensive mechanism invade and contaminate emotional intimacy.
Validating hidden messages fails to build bonds. We only strengthen the protections by expressing love to the mirage. We often give misguided validation to the false persona hidden behind walls of passive aggressiveness or façades of strength. On the receiving end, we must be committed to openness. First discovering ourselves, then sharing the honest reality with those around us.
In his wonderful book Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar wrote, “to cultivate genuine intimacy the focus in a relationship must shift from the desire to be validated—seeking approval and praise—to the desire to be known” (2007).
In a compounding twist, those most in need of validation struggle the most to openly present themselves for validation. Perhaps, we best approach those struggling with unconditional positive regard as they slowly move from guarded protectiveness to vulnerable openness.
Books on Emotional Validation
Trust, Intimacy, and Emotional Validation
The ultimate achievement of a loving relationship is emotional intimacy. The entire relationship is validating. Repeated compassionate validation from a partner builds the security necessary for complete openness. Healthy relationships validateeEmotions whether verbally expressed or not. We know that we are accepted, appreciated, and understood in these relationships.
A Few Words on Emotional Validation
Validating emotions is both a mindset and a skill, requiring purposeful effort and practice. As we habitually validate others, our relationships grow. Lastly, As we surround ourselves with others who validate, we grow.
Ben-ShaHar, T. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment .McGraw Hill; 1st edition
Fruzzetti, A. E. (2007). The High-Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behavior Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy, and Validation. New Harbinger Publications; 1st edition.
Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Random House Publishing Group; 10th Anniversary edition.
Gottman, J. (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. W. W. Norton & Company; Illustrated edition.
Salters-Pedneault, K. (2021) What Is Emotional Validation? Verywellmind. Published 4-26-2021. Accessed 12-24-2021.
Emotional Validation. Psychology Today
Vahtra, Tuuli (2020). A Step by Step Guide to Validating Emotions and Feelings. Published 4-2-2020. Accessed 12-24-2021.