A few weeks ago, I was in the emergency room with my little brother, who is 16 years my junior. He was getting his head stapled after an unfortunate fall in the locker room before a hockey game. I was sitting next to him, with his bloodied jersey and matted hair, when the first attending walked in with the materials she needed to irrigate the wound. She didn’t say what “irrigate” meant, but when a nine-year-old sees a big basin and a bottle with a long nozzle heading toward his head wound, he’s going to panic.
I saw it coming, and quickly said, “They’re just rinsing it with water.” He relaxed for a second, but not before tensing his voice again and saying he was scared. My impulse was to tell him not to be frightened until I realized that’s an asinine thing to say to someone at his age in his situation. If he wasn’t scared at this moment, he would at minimum have a cognitive delay. Instead, I said, “That’s normal.”
The phrase was like a tonic. He nodded and changed the topic, and proceeded to calmly sit through shots and staples. By the end, I said, “I’m not sure if you’re going to understand it, but this has made you stronger. Next time, you’re going to know what this is, and you’re not going to be afraid.” He smiled.
What is emotional validation?
This very specific, subjective story is intended to illustrate a very objective, broad point. If we want to be effective in therapy, politics, relationships, teaching kids, talking someone down from the ledge, keeping the peace, making friends, fostering connection, and making progress, we first have to employ one specific technique.
This technique requires very little effort, but it disarms people. It opens them up and makes them receptive, willing to listen and adapt. It is healing, it is mind-altering, but most importantly, it is the first step toward progress. It is emotional validation.
Validating someone’s feelings doesn’t mean you agree with them. It doesn’t mean you concede they are correct. It doesn’t mean those feelings are the healthiest or informed by logic. Validating feelings does not mean you make them more true, it means you remind someone it is human to feel things they don’t always understand.
So often we need a partner to stop strategizing and simply say, “That must really suck.” So much weight is lifted off our shoulders when we think, Yes, I really am stressed right now, and I deserve to be. We feel light when we can relate to and understand another person’s story splayed out across a screen, no matter how devastating it is. We feel so much better when we allow ourselves to be aggrieved and pissed off and irrationally mad. When we let ourselves experience our feeling, something incredible happens: We no longer have to take it out on other people because we are no longer relying on their validation to get us through it. We can be aggrieved and pissed and mad and do our own processing without hurting anyone else.
Validating feelings does not mean you make them more true; it means you remind someone it is human to feel things they don’t always understand.
When people are crying out or acting out, they aren’t just asking for help. They are also asking for someone to affirm that it is okay to feel the way they do. They’ll inflate and exaggerate in order for you to truly feel the weight and impact of their circumstances—whatever it takes to get someone else to say, “I am so sorry for what you are going through.” This is not because they are incompetent or dumb. In a world that does not teach us how to adequately process our own feelings, we must often rely solely on our maladaptive coping mechanisms.
When we cannot validate our own feelings, we go on a never-ending quest to try to force others to do it for us. But it never works. We never really get what we need.
This looks like needing attention, affirmation, and compliments, but it also looks like being dramatic, being negative, or focusing disproportionately on what’s wrong. When someone is complaining about something simple — and they seem to be doing it more than the given situation would call for—they aren’t trying to get your help about a small issue. They are looking for you to validate their feelings.
This is also a common root of self-sabotaging behaviors. When we have deep wells of grief within us, sometimes we cannot allow ourselves to relax and enjoy our lives and relationships. We cannot just have fun because doing so feels like a betrayal. It feels offensive. We need to feel validated, but we don’t even know why.
Why is this effective?
Think of your feelings as water running through the ducts in your body. Your thoughts determine whether the ducts are clean. The cleanliness of the ducts determines the quality of the water.
If you suddenly have a feeling you dislike and don’t expect — a sudden rush of water, let’s say — it’s common to want to shut that valve and not allow it to pass. However, stopping the flow of water does not make the water go away. Instead, it begins to intensely pressurize and create serious damage to the parts of your body that are no longer receiving flow. This begins to have a ripple effect on your entire life.
Sometimes the water disperses itself gradually. Other times it implodes and creates what we see on the surface as a complete emotional breakdown. When all that water finally comes through and we grieve and cry and fall apart, we are going through a process of resetting. It is positive disintegration. We are gutted, we are cleaned, we feel calm and refreshed and relieved.
Your feelings became validated during that implosion because you gave yourself permission to feel them. You had no other choice. This is what we do in therapy. This is what we do when we vent. This is what happens when we experience catharsis.
But there’s a healthier, easier way, which is learning how to process our feelings in real-time.
How to validate your own feelings
“Validating your feelings” sounds like a big term, but it really means one thing: Letting yourself feel.
When you are healing past trauma, a big component is usually allowing yourself to experience the full expression of an emotion. You have probably done this in a healthy way at some point. Think about the passing of a relative you loved but to whom you were not overly attached. When you learned of their death, you were undoubtedly sad. But you didn’t attend their funeral, cry for an hour, and then carry on with your life as though nothing happened.
Instead, you probably experienced a bout of sadness then, and maybe the next day, and maybe a week later. The waves of grief came and went in varying intensity. When you didn’t resist them, you cried and felt sad, maybe took a nap or a hot bath or a day off work. And then, without much effort, the feeling passed and you felt better.
Once we acknowledge an emotion, it will often go away on its own. If there is no course of action—if all we really need to do is accept it—then we just have to let ourselves be there. Feelings, once felt, begin to change themselves over time.
We don’t do this more naturally because obviously, we can’t burst into tears at our desks every time something bothers us. But turning off the water valve is perfectly fine—as long as we can let it out later. It is okay to control when and where we process, in fact, it’s better when we learn to do it in a more stable, safe space.
This can look like taking a few minutes to junk journal each day, spending time by ourselves where we can simply experience how we feel—without judgment and without trying to change anything. It can be as simple as allowing ourselves to cry before we fall asleep. We often think of this as a sign of weakness, but the ability to cry freely is a huge signal of mental and emotional strength. When we can’t cry about what’s truly broken in our lives, we have a big problem.
Start from the outside in
Validating someone’s feelings is an exercise in radical empathy. When we point out how wrong someone is to feel the way they do, they shut down because they feel shame. They already know it’s not right to feel the way they do. If you start the conversation by heightening someone’s defenses or making them panic and suppress more, you make the situation worse.
But we lighten their load when we remind them that anyone in their situation would probably have similar feelings and that strong emotions don’t necessarily mean their lives are completely ruined or that it is okay to feel devastated when devastating things are before us. When we stop resisting feeling sad and just let ourselves be sad, we realize it will not last forever. Sometimes the biggest problem isn’t that we are devastated, but that we refuse to cry when we really need to cry.
Validating other people teaches us how to validate ourselves. And when we learn how to validate ourselves, we become stronger. We see that our emotions are no longer threats, but informants. They show us what we care about, what we want to savor, what we want to protect. They remind us that life is fleeting, challenging, and gorgeous. When we are willing to accept the darkness, it is only then that we find the light.