Please Note: The ideas contained in this FAQ are the opinions of the writer and are communicated without reference to supporting documentation in most cases. Other inspiration and influence for the writing came through consultation with other mental health professionals but the writer “Peter Quintano” is also fully qualified in DBT making him qualified to talk about the things discussed in this article.
If I had my wish as a therapist and person who has struggled with Borderline Personality Disorder, Persistent Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Panic Disorder, it would be that everyone in the world would develop a better understanding of validation. I wish to make such “a big deal” on this matter because of the way validation seems to make such a big difference in how mental health and relationship problems are experienced (or not), and even the extent to which they may (or may not) develop in the first place. It is also such an interesting topic in the sense that some people naturally view validation as a good and helpful thing to do, while others seem to find it more or less repulsive or unnecessary, or just haven’t really heard of it.
If you are coming to this article desiring to know more about what validation is and how it can be useful in reducing problems, then you will want some sort of definition. In the opinion of this writer, validation is an act of empathy in which a sincere effort is made to listen carefully for the purpose of understanding another person’s unique perception and associated feelings. It requires a temporary suspension of preconceived notions, of assumptions, and convictions about any given situation, and then remaining open to how another’s point of view can make sense (no matter how irrational or illogical it may seem on the surface). It requires being willing to take a moment after listening, to verbalize back to the person your attempt to understand their unique perception and feelings; and then finally taking an additional moment to find out if you understood the person correctly by waiting for a response.
Some might assume that an ability to communicate in a validating way (the way described above) would be commonplace and happen naturally, but unfortunately, it may actually be more reasonable to assume that validation skills are about as common as the ability to perform a handstand. In my own background, as well as the backgrounds of most of my patients, the “normal” pattern of communication in relationships involves instant assumptions and judgments followed by invalidating feedback. It is quite common to be told “not to feel” or “not to think” in a certain way as others hear about your distress or perceive that irrational perceptions have been made and require correction. The sad reality is that many of those that “listen” have a genuine desire to help, but in actuality end up hurting the struggling person more and more…
For instance, if I was having a bad day and proclaimed… “I feel so stupid; I’ll never be able to finish this project”, a caring but unskilled friend might feel inspired to immediately tell me not to feel that way, and then remind me that I have finished many projects in the past. There is potential caring in a response like this, but there is no real listening, allowing or validating of emotion. There is no inquiring or time taken to know how I got to feeling so stupid in the first place, and therefore it can actually FEEL like there is no caring whatsoever. An even harsher/more invalidating response might go something like… “There you go again! You’re always so negative and being hard on yourself! Why can’t you just get it together?” This time in addition to feeling like there is no care or interest for paying attention, there might also be shame feelings for having my thoughts as they are, and maybe even rejection as it seems the other person is mad at me. Now there is a really good chance I will go silent, but continue beating myself up and remain in fear for the quality of my relationship… “I’m such an idiot for thinking and feeling like that! My partner is starting to dislike me very much and maybe wants to leave”.
In conditions like Borderline Personality Disorder, the experience of emotions like worthlessness, shame, and rejection in an invalidating environment can be exceptionally painful. Perhaps it could be compared to putting one of your toes in a vice grip and keeping the pressure on. The pain can in fact become so intense that aggressive or passive-aggressive reactions start manifesting (e.g., yelling, accusing, controlling, intimidating, and stone-walling) and result in further escalation. Very often a Borderline person will end up going silent because he does not want to continue experiencing the emotional pains that get multiplied through interactions with significant others that don’t use validation. It can sometimes take a long time for a person with BPD to firmly realize and accept that he lives in an invalidating environment, and that he will not be able to get help with his emotions. The pain, therefore, goes unattended as self-neglect seems like the only option. A person with BPD will then probably get in trouble for being “too quiet”.
As you can hopefully start to see, validation as a skill can make a tremendous amount of positive difference in the lives of those that feel their emotions deeply and with intensity. Living without validation as a regular part of communication can make for a great deal of suffering for those that struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder. When there is a willingness to validate, it feels safe to be open and this results in thoughts and words flowing more freely. It is a loving action that can be chosen for inclusion in relationships, or otherwise ignored. Very sadly it is consistently not available to those that need it the most. In fact, many entering therapy for the first time have quite often never even heard of validation. Taking some time to learn and practice validation skills will almost certainly make an improvement to relationships and the ways disorder is experienced. As a final note, the practice of validation is not about taking over responsibility for the emotions of a struggling person, but rather a way to connect and relate in ways that are warm, supportive, and effective.
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