This guest post was written by Clair Happer, all views expressed are a personal view of BPD and Recovery and in no way should be considered professional advice. If you disagree with anything in this post, or have your own thoughts do let her know in the comments below. For all other questions and issues relating to BPD do use the Contact Us page. Take it away Clair…
The title of the article is purposeful on my part due to commonly observed patterns in communication that chronically and mercilessly exclude validation. I likewise chose the title because of the fact that many people enter therapy having never learned what validation is, when or how to use validation as a health maintenance activity, and most importantly when or how to use validation in the support of someone suffering with the BPD disease process. This “validation ignorance” I witness over and over again in therapy I believe informs me that there must be something culturally neglectful happening. It likewise informs me that validation as a way of being human (that perhaps once was normal and natural) now requires specialized training to be included in relationships.
As I mentioned in the other validation article noted above, there will be those that are open to learning and practising validation as a skill, and then there will be others that would probably be happier to mock and stomp on the concept. If you are one of the latter and associate with anyone struggling with BPD, then I invite you to strongly reconsider your position, or if possible and practical, distance yourself from the struggling person because you will probably more often than not be a perpetrator of great suffering. If you need access to scientific literature regarding the helpfulness of validation in BPD to alter your opinion of it, then I strongly encourage you to do just that. Click here to access one such study that validates the use of validation in BPD if you so wish.
Now on to the “meat and potatoes” of the article… how to practice validation! Please do keep in mind that validation requires practice just like anything else, but you can become more or less of an expert if you like. It might not be easy at first, but it is so worth the effort required! Once you do get the knack, it can mean the difference between thriving and dying, harmony and chaos, loving and abandoning, real and superficial, relational repair and relational despair.
Be curious – When it seems like someone is starting to get emotional or upset about something, gently ask the person what is happening for them. Ask her an open question (questions that start with “what”, “how”, or “what”). For example, you could simply ask “What is wrong?”.
Be non-judgmental – When the suffering person responds to your curiosity, don’t assume you instantly know what is happening or inform them of what you think you know. Don’t defend yourself or anyone else. Shut up. Let the person speak. This can be difficult if you are anxious to solve problems or want to make difficult emotions go away. Again, shut up and listen.
Listen for feelings – See if you can notice any of the feelings the struggling person might be having. Sometimes a person will say it in her response to you; sometimes she won’t. Either way you need to try to pick these feelings out. For instance, she might be feeling frustrated, upset, hurt, guilty, rejected, ashamed, worthless, etc. etc. There can be so many feelings. If you don’t have an emotional vocabulary to pick from, then you must get one by accessing some resources. You can’t validate without having emotional words to use.
Reflect the feelings back – Let the person know you are trying to notice her feelings by asking if your impressions of her emotions are correct. For example, you might say and ask “It sounds like you are feeling really upset about this situation; is that right?” If you are wrong, you will no doubt get a corrective response letting you know where you were off. Again, shut up and listen to her.
Reflect more feelings back – After you have listened some more, give the person an indication you are still trying to notice her feelings. Make more statements that are for the purpose of confirming your impressions about her feelings. For example, you might say “Oh sounds more like you’re saying that it might be about feeling rejected because of the way she said that thing to you”. Notice how a helping response is always tentative until she confirms that you are on the right track. If she says something like “yeah, that’s exactly how it is!” then you know you are validating her. Congrats! But wait…
Wait to see if there is more – Be advised that being validated feels good and your loved one might like to receive a little more (maybe a lot more). You may therefore get a lot of ongoing verbalization and emotion that you could help her capture and stabilize by following steps 1-5 a few more times. None of her outpourings means you are a bad partner; it just means she needs and appreciates you. It’s probably about time this kind of listening has been made available!
Once you are emotionally on track, up the validation ante – There are different levels or qualities to validation, and improving the quality of the validation feels better. So once you are on the right track, you can enhance the validation experience by slightly modifying your approach. For example, you could say something like “anyone hearing words like that might feel rejected”, or, “now I can see how you got to feeling that way”, or, “that really makes sense now”, or, “feeling like that would be so hard; I get it completely”.
Stay non-judgmental – While validating there can be an ongoing urge to start giving corrective advice to the struggling person, or otherwise start judging others you might believe were being harmful to the struggling person. Be careful not to go there as it can take away from all the good you just did by getting the person worked up again. More often than not, a struggling person will start a problem-solving process on their own once they are feeling calmer. If there is a problem that involves you (the listener/validator) then just be sure to wait until your partner is ready to problem-solve before ending the validation exercise.
There is an art to practising validation, and as you make attempts you will notice it isn’t something that can be concocted or feigned. People can tell when it isn’t coming from the heart, or lacks genuineness Of course it takes some time and purposefulness to implement, and therefore isn’t for those that might believe relationships simply take care of themselves as you pursue life’s activities, or that emotions don’t really matter that much in the grand scheme of things.
Hopefully you will see that taking 20 minutes to practice validation is much preferable to the hours that conflict and drama can consume as emotions go neglected and invalidated, never mind the other harmful behaviours and situations that can arise when people are upset and without emotional resolve. But where there continues to be a lack of skill, there can be insurmountable and stubborn clinging to acts of neglect and abuse in communication (a total lack of validation) that goes unnoticed and even rationalized.
I challenge anyone that reads this article to start practising validation as listed in the eight steps above. Even if you are horrible at it in the beginning, it is a step in the right direction and will likely yield better relational and problem-solving results than what you have been getting so far without it.
To anyone that doubts their worth as an individual and partner; please take my advice that you are most certainly worth being on the receiving end of loving validation. I would even go so far as to say you are entitled to receive this kind of love whenever you are part of a human pair or family. However please be advised that everyone has emotional needs and worthiness sufficient to experience validation for themselves, and so whenever possible validation must go in two directions (that is, you must give and you must receive).