Please Tell Me I’m Okay:
You are with a small group from your tribe, hunting for gazelles on the grassland. It is a hot afternoon in east Africa, 200,000 years ago. Suddenly, a cheetah breaks out of the taller grasses, running rapidly toward you. Utter fear and panic flows through your body, until one of the younger men is able to shove a spear through the cheetah’s heart.
But what if you had been rejected by the tribe, and forced to hunt alone? Wherever or however you live today, your mind and body still has evolutionary ties to the men and women who hunted the grassland. And today, social rejection still triggers the fear and panic in their descendants.
Rather than scanning the environment for signs of cheetah and other predators, you and I scan the environment for any sign that others might find some part of us “not okay”. The bite that brings the blood does not pierce the body, but rather the mind: The pain we most fear is emotional, not physical.
Because we may believe that if there is any part of us that is seen as “not okay”, others will banish us forever. And, if several hours go by without someone in our anthropocene tribe reassuring us that we are “okay”, then we are certain that we are not. We know this about each other.
So, with the help of social science, we have learned the fine art of validating each other: Reassuring ourselves that we are a tribe, and you and I are emotionally safe in each other’s circle of care.
How Validation Works
Validation comes from the Latin stem val-: to value or strengthen. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, validation refers to strengthening the other by affirming their value. Every time we interact with another human being, we evaluate the relative value they place on us. So when we talk about the weather, or quantum physics — I am watching your face and listening to your voice to evaluate whether or not you think I’m “okay”.
My appraisal of your emotional reaction may prompt me to be cooperative, if I interpret you reflecting that you approve of me and value my worth. I will feel emotionally safe, and I will want to engage with you. But if I sense disapproval or criticism, my fight-flight system will kick in, alerting the nerves, organs and muscles of my body to defend myself by fighting back or avoiding you. If I become flooded with emotion, I may even shut down, and freeze like an vulnerable animal protecting itself by playing “dead”.
If your goal is to create cooperation and feelings of closeness with me, success will come from shaping your words, tone of voice, and facial expression to assure me that you value me and I am emotionally safe. When I feel emotionally safe with you, my internal “switch” for social engagement flips on. If your words and mannerisms threaten me, my switch turns off any desire to engage. You will most likely get either resistance or compliance accompanied by resentment.
To be fair, I must qualify that my body’s response is based on my interpretation of your attitude, rather than the attitude itself. If I have a habit of switch non-cooperation or pulling away, you may want to evaluate why I am interpreting interaction with you as threatening.
And one more thing: Please notice that I didn’t say that I need you to agree with me in order for me to feel emotionally safe. Rather, I need to know you think I am okay. If you smile and have a warm inflection in your voice, it will surely help.
Examples of Validation
Martha Linehan, a retired clinical psychologist from University of Washington, pioneered a treatment that uses validation to help persons better regulate their emotions and behaviors. You may find her strategies useful as you intentionally extend validation to others.
- Be present and attentive. Do not multitask. You have been “phubbed” or ignored by a person who plays on their cellphone or other device, rather than listen to what you are trying to tell them. When this happened to do, did you feel respected or that the other person was interested in what you had to say?
- Repeat or rephrase what the other said without adding interpretation. For example, you repeat what you understood your angry child said after he explains why he left the house abruptly when there was a disagreement about curfew: “So you needed some space to calm down before you could tell me your feelings. . .”
- Articulate what is not stated, but meant. For example, suppose while discussing the disagreement about curfew, you observe your child appears flustered. He is also speaking rapidly, so you guess he might still be angry. “You want me to understand why you left and you don’t want to get in trouble. But you still are upset that I don’t let you stay out an extra hour on the weekend.”
- Describe how the other’s behavior makes sense given the conditions and circumstances faced by the other. “It makes sense that someone your age wants to make their own decisions. We are both aware you graduate next year, and that even now, you are starting to take on some adult responsibilities.”
- Be genuine and respectful toward the person, not just the person’s ideas. “Johnny, I am so grateful that you value my feelings enough that you would come right home and tell me why you left. . . I’m so glad you are such a loving son.”
Examples of Invalidation
Invalidation is most likely to happen when your negative emotions surface. You are most vulnerable to invalidate others when you have been under stress, feel tired, or believe others have hurt you. Such a situation occurs when you have had a long day, and your teenager comes home late after a night out with friends — or even a romantic partner.
- Blame. For example, your daughter is trying to explain why she she is late. You believe she habitually makes excuses, and you present that idea to her as an attack: “You are just telling me another lazy excuse.”
- Denying. Denying is to override their explanation or feeling with your own interpretation of what you believe your person was really doing or feeling. “You didn’t forget the time, you just don’t care that I worry.”
- Mocking. Mocking is poking fun at someone or using humiliation to control them. “Not every eighteen-year-old still needs her mommy to monitor what time she gets home at night.”
- Over-talking. When your loved one is trying to tell you feelings you don’t want to hear, you interrupt them with your own feelings or agenda. For example, when your daughter counters your accusation that she doesn’t care, you don’t listen. Rather, your voice gets louder and you interrupt her with more attacks. The likely outcome is that she will escalate with you, and pretty soon, your home is a battleground.
- Shaming. Shaming is inferring that a person’s feelings or actions are disgusting. At some point in your conversation with your daughter, you intensify your expression of negative emotion to reflect disgust. You want to amplify your expression of her “badness”. “How can you live with yourself, knowing that you are such a liar?”
- Shoulding and Shouldn’ting. Your daughter counters with by insisting that you are a controlling and angry parent. You say to her, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” The inference is that, if she were a decent person, she wouldn’t have the opinion that you are a controlling and angry parent.
Validation Brings Emotional Safety
This conversation with your daughter could be validating, rather than invalidating.
- Suppose that instead of accusing of of making excuses, you told your daughter that you were glad she is home, and asked her if she had a good time.
- Instead of mocking or shaming her, you could recognize that she cared enough about your feelings that she checked in, even though she may have worried that you would be upset.
- You might even articulate what was meant, but not said. “You worried what my reaction would be, but you thought about how I would feel if you didn’t check in.”
- You can add, “Your understanding about how I worry means so much to me.”
- If your daughter started to get more intense and accusatory, you could bring your voice down, rather than get louder.
- And in case you just can’t forget that your daughter disobeyed the curfew rule, you could add, “I hope that next time you will call me if you are going to be late.”
Daughter can then go to bed feeling loved. She can even feel good about herself: She did not leave your room with oppositional feelings, ready to be even more assertive about her need for autonomy next time she goes out.
You can tell yourself that you are a good mom — that you turned potential conflict into a gain. You effectively monitored your daughter’s ventures in the dating world, and invited her to cooperate with you in monitoring her experience. Then ever so softly, you drift into a comfortable slumber.
Good Therapy. (2016). Marsha Linehan.
Koerner, K., and Linehan, M. M. (2003). Validation principles and strategies. In W. O’ Donohue, J. Fisher, & S.C. Hayes, Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Applying Empirically Supported Techniques in Your Practice. Chapter 68.