Comforting the Depressed - Validation

jny published on
7 min, 1205 words

Categories: Mental Health

This is part of a series and I would recommend starting from the beginning if you have not done so already. You can find all the posts in the series under the tag "Comforting the Depressed".

This piggybacks off of Listening in that it is generally the next chronologically, but not always. And the problem is that a lot of people absolutely don't understand the basic concept of validation.

Here's validation in a nutshell: accepting that things that are being experienced are being experienced. That if I say "I'm feeling sad today and I don't know why", to accept that, yes, I am feeling bad, without trying to dive into the "why". And very importantly passing no judgment.

A lot of people are immediately turned off from the word "accept", so let's get some stuff clear:

  • Acceptance does not mean giving up.
  • Accepting something is not condoning something.
  • Accepting something does not always mean that it is factually true.

The last one trips people up a lot; if I'm trying to help someone, why lie to them? But it's not a lie. Validation is internal. You validate yourself internally and other people validate what's internal for you. What you are experiencing.

"Experience" is another word that trips people up because they tie it to facts and evidence. And that is a legitimate usage; if I say "I experienced my coworker being mean to me," it's not absurd to ask questions like "What did they say? Did they have a mean demeanor when passing you in the hall, or 'accidentally' do something to make your life more difficult?" Those are valid questions for the experience of our shared reality.

But, regardless of the answers to those questions, there is one absolute truth: I experienced those thoughts and emotions. I could be factually wrong on the most simple of things but my own personal internal experience was there; I felt attacked, disliked, unwanted, etc. Validation is saying: "Yeah, you had those feelings. You had those thoughts. And you know what, that really sucks. It's difficult to feel those things."

It's my hypothesis that most people don't understand or express validation because "That's so should be obvious, what's the point of me saying it?"

Because they need to hear it. It's that simple. You don't have to understand it logically.

And this is another crucial point. Validation is not trying to change the other person's mind. Just like listening, it's giving the other person space; it is validating their emotions. And while you can offer things like similar experiences from your own life, the conversation should be focused on the other person; going "off-topic" can a way of invalidating the other person.

Which brings up an important point: invalidation. Everyone is invalidated and everyone invalidates others in their life, often without any ill intent from either side. Invalidation is really a topic that could take a whole post on its own, but here are some examples:

  • Minimizing: basically saying or implying "that's not so bad". It usually takes other forms that aren't so direct: "It could be worse", "Well at least you have X", "Have you tried not thinking about it?", "Don't be so dramatic", or possibly the worst: "You're just doing this to get attention". Sometimes it's in ways that are much more subtle and even unintentional, like trying to find some common ground can be perceived as minimizing if it sounds like you're turning the conversation back to you or perhaps that you're "one-upping" them. Avoiding being minimizing is more than just not saying certain things, it's about the attitude that you bring to the conversation: by your end goal being the other person feeling understood, not necessarily "better".
  • Fix it: I always use the analogy: invalidation in this form feels like they see me as the car and they are a mechanic. I'm merely something broken that should be troubleshooted to solve. That is not what Validation is about. That's the opposite of Validation. Offering advice is not always bad, but it really doesn't fall into the category of "Validation". Why? Because you're inadvertently negating their feelings. You may think that you're helping them vis a vis reaching a solution to what they're experiencing, but it's so very important to provide Validation before attempting any type of advice. Sometimes start sentences with "First off, I just wanna validate your feelings. Those are real, and they are valid", and from there, I can go onto the other steps in this series that are yet to come. (Footnote: please don't just copy word-for-word what I typed, or do anything that you read of as rote. It's got to come from your heart, goddamn it.)
  • Saying "I know exactly how you feel": This is usually very well intentioned, but I assure you, 99% of the time it is ineffective. Because do you? Do you really? Even if you've been through very similar circumstances, the word "exactly" isn't a comfort. There is a massive difference between this and "I understand". Or at the very least, I usually preempt it with "I haven't been in your exact situation, but I've had a similar situation where X happened. It really sucks." (Notice how it brings it back to the validation of experience at the end?) In fact, saying something along the lines of "I might not understand exactly how you feel right now, but I want to help you" may feel too wishy washy, but it's you being truthful while being supportive. And like I said about calling out people with insincerity, truth can go a long way.
  • Saying what you think they want to hear: It's sad I even have to mention this. The amount of times I've heard "Things will get better!" is staggering and doesn't help because, quite frankly, you have absolutely no way of knowing that. And I totally get it: you want to be a positive voice; you want to try to leave the conversation with the other person feeling uplifted. But lies can feel extremely invalidating and are the extreme opposite of actual sincerity. (And consider that maybe, just maybe, that desire to feel like you helped the other person may be more centered on how you want yourself to feel because of our propensity to feel uncomfortable when seeing someone else suffering. If you think this is too harsh, consider this then: what's more caring ultimately, sticking only to the harsh truth of Validation or flat out lying to the person with the great chance that -despite momentary repose- the person you're talking to will come to a situation wherein they discover that it was in fact a lie? But I digress) That's the core concept of Validation: things are as they are. And sometimes that means giving the person the most comforting support can still mean that they feel like shit at the end.
  • Just plain malevolence: Blaming, ignoring, misrepresenting what was said, denying, and the big daddy of them all: judging.

Here's what I think most people find confusing about Validation: don't be afraid to state what appears to you to be the obvious. And, as always, be sincere and invested.