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Showing understanding for your feelings could help you feel better

By Dr. Daniel Farrant, a senior clinical psychologist and Mentemia’s Clinical Product Specialist

It’s human to experience a full range of emotions – some pleasant, others not so much.

What you do with these emotions is what makes all the difference.

Taking the time to notice and show understanding for your feelings – a process called validation – is a foundation for mental wellbeing.

When we validate ourselves, we show understanding, and recognise that our thoughts, feelings, and urges make sense (Miller et al., 2006).

They might not be nice. They might not feel appropriate. They might be uncomfortable. But, they are what they are.

It helps to understand our thoughts and feelings – to validate them – rather than judging them or immediately looking for solutions.

To truly understand the importance of validation, let’s first look at its opposite: invalidation.

Invalidation: Why feeling your feelings matters

Imagine you’re telling a friend about a problem. You begin to express your thoughts and feelings, but they immediately start telling you what they think and what you should do.

What is this like for you? Do you feel heard, understood, or accepted? Do you feel closer to this person? Does it help you to see your issues more clearly?

In most cases, the answer to these questions is no. When someone reacts this way, it feels invalidating.

When we invalidate ourselves the same process occurs. We have not taken the time to acknowledge and understand our own thoughts and feelings. When we immediately jump to judgements or solutions, we are telling ourselves our thoughts and feelings are not okay.

The validation phase: How it works

Therapists try not to be invalidating. We ask questions about people’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations. We try to understand first.

By doing this, we help people to see things more clearly, including how their thoughts or feelings make sense given their experiences and their current situation.

We work out the lay of the land before plotting the course ahead.

This does three things:

  1. It lets a person know that having thoughts and feelings are okay.

  2. It helps to reduce layers of reactions and judgements someone might have about their own thoughts and feelings.

  3. It helps to get better insights into what is actually going on, and therefore to make a more well-informed plan.

Therapists offer a validation phase, and we can do the same for ourselves and those around us.

The validation phase is about making space to notice our thoughts, feelings, and urges without jumping in to judge them, push them away, change them, or act on them immediately.

By validating ourselves, we stop adding layers of judgements and reactions to initial thoughts and feelings.

Validating ourselves

Here are some steps that can help us to validate ourselves:

  • Slow down physically.

  • Breathe.

  • Notice your surroundings (what you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell).

  • Notice your thoughts – and name them. Briefly describe what is on your mind.

  • Notice how you are feeling emotionally – and name these emotions.

  • Notice any strong urges – name these.

  • Remember it’s okay to think, feel, and to have urges.

  • Ask yourself “Am I struggling against these experiences, or being open to them?”

  • Over time, try to develop helpful attitudes to yourself and your thoughts and feelings, including openness, acceptance, patience and self-compassion (being actively kind to yourself).

  • If you are experiencing strong feelings, and have strong urges to act in a way that might cause problems, try to slow down, breathe, and make a decision that will help in the long term.

Validating others

To validate other people, remember the same ideas we use to validate ourselves, and add these things:

  • Use eye contact to show you are listening (Miller et al., 2006).

  • Don’t invalidate / judge what they say with your facial expressions or movements (scrunching up your face, reacting with fast or frustrated movements). (Miller et al., 2006).

  • Try to sit or stand calmly and listen.

  • Ask questions to understand what they are thinking and feeling.

  • Empathise vocally. Observe how they are feeling, and say “I understand”, or “it makes sense that you feel that way” (Miller et al., 2006).

  • Say you can understand how they think or feel given their past and the situation. If you can’t understand - try to communicate that you are trying to.

  • Avoid telling them they shouldn’t feel this way, or should feel another way, or should see things differently.

  • Saying ‘harden up’ or ‘get over it’ is very invalidating!

  • After validating, ask if they would like any opinions or suggestions.

Remember, if you try to offer opinions and solutions in the validation phase, it probably won’t work, no matter how great your advice or opinions are! Listen and understand first – solutions can come later if they are needed.

Validation in conflicts

If someone is acting in a destructive way, you do not need to validate this. However, you can validate the valid underlying thoughts, feelings and urges that may have led to the actions (Miller et al., 2006).

Remember that validation doesn’t mean you agree with what they feel, either. Rather, ‍‍‍you understand that however they are feeling, that is how they are feeling; it is what they feel, and on some level you can understand why they may feel that way.

While you might be judging the other person, slow down, and listen. Try to understand, and let them know you are trying to understand. You might find that you both calm down and talk more constructively. In arguments, the earlier we validate, the better.

Final thoughts

In my opinion, validation is one of the most important tools for mental and emotional health. It’s also essential for healthy, happy relationships.

You might wonder how not jumping into judgement and problem solving can change anything? When we take the time to understand ourselves and other people, we show respect and see more clearly what might help.

I have seen people learn to express their thoughts, feelings, needs, and wants more accurately. They do not get so caught up judging their human thoughts and feelings, and by not getting caught up, they don’t waste a lot of time and energy, and are more flexible in what they choose to do next.

This can lead to significant positive change over time. I believe in this very much, so I can talk about it all day. But validation is experiential; it needs practice, so please give it a go. Good luck!

References

Miller, A. L., Rathus, J. H., & Linehan, M. (2006). Dialectical Behaviour Therapy with Suicidal Adolescents. Guilford Press.

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