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Validating & Invalidating


Sometimes it’s easiest to understand what a skill is when we know what it is not.  Validation is one of those skills. When I think of invalidation, there’s a scene in the Robert Altman movie, Prairie Home Companion that sticks in my mind.  Suicidal teenage Lindsey Lohan’s character is writing, ignoring her mother (Meryl Streep) and aunt (Lily Tomlin) gossiping.  Mom distractedly asks “what are you writing?”  Daughter reads her poem about committing suicide.  Mom says, “That’s nice sweetie” and goes back to her gossip.  That’s invalidation.

Examples of Invalidation

There are a host of things mom could have said that would have been equally (or more) invalidating.

“You’re not thinking about suicide again, are you?”
“Surely, you’re not serious.”
“Don’t let your father hear you talking that way.  He couldn’t handle it.”
“How do you think I’d feel if you committed suicide?”
“Have I been that bad a mother?”
“You should [insert advice].”
“I’m going to the grocery store after the show. Do you want anything?”
“You have a good life. Think about that why don’t you?”
“If you had only taken those medications like you were supposed to ….”
“Why don’t you call a friend?  You’ll feel better.”
“You know sweetie. ‘Smile and the world smiles with you.  Frown and you frown alone.”
“We don’t talk about things like that in this family.”
“You’ve had a rough few weeks BUT ….”

Examples of Validation

In this situation (and others), it may be easier to identify ways to invalidate than to validate.  You don’t want to appear to condone the act of suicide.  You want to understand but can’t fully.  Fortunately, validation doesn’t require agreement or an understanding of her motivation or what’s going on in her head.  It’s a starting place.  It doesn’t mean you won’t express your concerns, ask probing questions or disagree.  But that’s not where you start.

Validation communicates unconditional acceptance of the person. Validation demonstrates your support and strengthens the relationship while maintaining your integrity. It communicates that the relationship is important even when you disagree.  Validation recognizes she is an individual with the right to have her own thoughts and feelings and, yes, to make her own choices. Validation doesn’t mean we agree or approve.

So what are some things mom could have said to validate her daughter?

“I can hear the pain in your poem.  Do you want to talk about it?”
“I’m here with you.  I’m not going anywhere.”
“I know you are taking your medications.  It sucks that you’re still feeling this way.”
“You’re doing the best you can, sweetheart.  I know that.”
“I don’t have a magic wand but I’m here with you.”
“Please read your poem to me again.  I want to understand as best I can.”
“You’ve been through a lot these past few months.  I know it’s not been easy for you.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to keep going.”

It’s a relatively short list by comparison, especially when mom clearly doesn’t understand and can’t relate to her daughter’s pain.  Other situations are much easier to validate.  When a child draws a picture, you validate their effort.  You don’t call attention to their lack of talent.  When your partner surprises you with a candlelight dinner, you validate.  You don’t complain about the lima beans.  When a friend tells you her problem, you listen mindfully.  You don’ say “that’s nothing. Let me tell you about when I ….”

Six Types of Verbal Validation

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) identifies six levels of validation.

Being present

There are so many ways to be present:  Holding someone’s hand when they are in pain, listening with your whole attention or going to a friend’s house at midnight to sit with her while she cries.  Multi-tasking while you listen to your teenager’s story about his soccer game is not being present.

Being present means giving all your attention to the person you are validating.  It means sitting with them rather than “running away” or avoiding or trying to distract them when they don’t want to be distracted. Sitting with someone else’s intense emotion, whether positive or negative, is not easy.

Often one of the reasons other people are uncomfortable with intense emotion is that they don’t know what to say. Just being present, paying complete attention to the person in a nonjudgmental way, is often the answer.

Accurate reflection

Accurate reflection means you summarize what you have heard without judging either in words or through body language.  Self-awareness is required to summarize without coming across as artificial or awkward.  When done with the intent of truly understanding the experience without judgment, accurate reflection is validating.

Your friend comes to your house to blow off steam because her husband was late coming home from work again.  You might say.  “Your husband was late again?  I hear your frustration.”

Guessing unstated feelings

At level 3 you read between the lines to speculate about what is going on beneath the surface. Accurately guessing can feel especially validating and relieving for individuals who struggle to explicitly express their emotions to those around them. Even if you don’t get it exactly right, the fact that you care enough to be curious about the emotions underneath the surface may be enough.  That said, there is always the possibility that you will be off the mark entirely. So it is important to give the person you are validating the opportunity to clarify.  For example, you might ask “Is that close to what you are feeling?  Even if it’s not, the other person will likely feel validated because you tried and you did not force your interpretation on them.

Returning to the example about the husband who is late coming home from work again, you could say, “Your husband was late again. You sound angry.  Maybe you’re a little bit hurt too.”

Couching the guess in “maybe” invites the angry neighbor to clarify if she wants.  It also invites her to discuss the emotions underlying her anger.

Depending on how well you know the angry neighbor and what conversations you have had in the past, you might also ask, “are you a little bit afraid he might be having an affair?”  This helps her to sort out her emotions and invites her to discuss her fears as well.

Understanding the person’s behavior in terms of their history

Your past experiences influence your current emotional reactions. If your angry neighbor’s dad had an affair when she was a teenager, she is more likely to assume her husband might be having an affair.

Validating at this level you might say, “Given your experience with your dad’s affair, it makes sense that you are afraid your husband could do the same.”  With this validation, the angry neighbor may feel like it is safe to open up.  This could give you the opportunity to express your concerns about jumping to conclusions or to ask “what’s the evidence?” in a nonjudgmental way.

Recognizing emotional reactions anyone would have

Understanding that your emotions are normal can be helpful. Hearing that anyone would be upset in that situation is validating.  If the angry neighbor’s husband had an affair two years ago, you might validate saying, “Of course that fear comes to mind, it would come to anyone’s mind if they had gone through what you’ve been through.”

Radical genuineness

Radical genuineness is when you understand the emotion someone is feeling on a very deep level. Maybe you have had a similar experience. Radical genuineness is sharing that experience as equals.  Validation at level 6, you might say “Of course, I understand.  I felt the same way after my husband had an affair.”

Verbal Invalidation

There are six ways to validate but far more ways to invalidate.  Here are a few.

Assuming you know someone’s thoughts or emotions

Sometimes people think they know what you are feeling or thinking without having to ask. Close friends and family are most likely to invalidate in this way because they assume they can read your mind, that the present will be like their interpretation of the past. Strangers who invalidate in this way typically assume everyone thinks and feels the same way they do.  Either way, it’s invalidating.

There’s a fine line between guessing unstated feelings to validate and making a disempowering assumption. With validation, you explicitly allow for the possibility you could be wrong.  The other difference is implied judgment.  When you assume you know, there is an implied judgment that the other person can’t know for him or herself what to think or feel.

Misunderstanding what it means to validate

Sometimes people invalidate because they believe validation is equivalent to agreeing or condoning.  As the discussion above illustrates, validation does not require you to agree or condone.  This invalidation might come out as “You shouldn’t think [or feel] that way.”

Wanting to fix their feelings

“Come on, don’t be sad. Want some ice cream?” People who love you don’t want you to hurt so sometimes they invalidate your thoughts and feelings in their efforts to get you to feel happier.

Blaming

“You always have to be the cry baby, always upset about something and ruin every holiday.” “Why didn’t you put gas in the car before you got home? You never think and always make everything harder.” Blaming is always invalidating. (Blaming is different from taking responsibility for your own issues.)

Hoovering

When you attempt to vacuum up any feelings you make you uncomfortable, you are hoovering. Saying “It’s not such a big deal” when it is important to your partner is hoovering. Saying “No problem, of course you can do that,” when he is overwhelmed is hoovering.

Judging

“You are so overreacting,” “That is a ridiculous thought,” and “What you said is nonsense.” are examples of invalidation by judging. Ridicule is particularly damaging: “Here we go again, cry over nothing, let those big tears flow like you always do.”  These are just a few examples of the way we invalidate by judging.

Denying

“You are not angry, I know how you act when you’re angry,” and “You have eaten so much, I know you aren’t hungry,” You invalidate another person when you tell them they don’t feel what they are saying they are feeling.

Minimizing

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing, and you’re just going to keep yourself awake tonight over nothing” is usually said with the best of intentions. Still the message is to not feel what you are feeling.

Nonverbal Communication Can Validate

The good news is that communicating validation non-verbally is relatively straightforward.  If you are relaxed, your body is open and you are listening mindfully – your nonverbal communication will likely be interpreted as validating.  So you don’t have to pay attention to all the numerous ways of communicating invalidation through nonverbal voice, facial expressions, body language and behaviors (see below)..

When you catch yourself potentially communicating invalidation through voice, facial expression, body language or behavior – just relax, open yourself and listen!

Nonverbal Communication May Invalidate

Nonverbal invalidation can be just as hurtful as verbal invalidation. Like verbal invalidation, there are many ways it occurs.  You communicate non-verbally through the qualities of your voice, your body language, your facial expressions and your actions.  Nonverbal invalidation can be so automatic it often is more difficult than verbal invalidation to notice and change in ourselves.

It is important to note that nonverbal communication is very frequently misinterpreted.  Sincere, genuine validation can be interpreted as invalidation despite your best efforts. When this happens, you can attempt to explain what you wanted to convey but if your friend or loved one doesn’t accept your initial explanation let go of it. It is counter-productive to defend yourself or over-explain.

Here are ways we can communicate invalidation nonverbally.  Typically, it’s not any one of these that invalidate; rather it’s the whole package of voice, facial expressions, body language and behavior combined.

Voice

Volume.  The louder you speak you communicate frustration or anger.

Pitch. A higher pitch than usual communicates anxiety or discomfort.

Pace.  The faster you speak, the more anxiety you communicate.

Inflection. Raising your voice at the end of a sentence comes across as a question while lowering it implies a statement.  Implied questions may communicate disbelief or skepticism.

Sing-Song. When your voice is sing-song you may communicate a cavalier attitude, sarcasm or insincerity.

Facial expressions

Muscle tension. A clenched jaw or taut cheeks may communicate anxiety, frustration or rising anger.

Curling of lips. Raising one side of your mouth and rolling your eyes may communicate skepticism or disbelief.  Taut lips curled up may communicate impatience.

Eye lids. Half-closed eyelids may communicate boredom or disinterest.

Eye brows. A furrowed brow may communicate disagreement or judgment.   

Direction & intensity of gaze. If you are looking at the floor, you could be communicating discomfort or disbelief. If you are looking around the room or at your computer, you communicate disinterest, boredom or that the emotions being shared are unimportant.  If you are looking too intensely at your friend or loved one with a clenched jaw, you may be communicating anger or frustration.

Flare of nostrils.  If your nostrils are flared and taut, especially if you are sighing or breathing hard, you communicate impatience, judgment, anger or frustration.

Body language 

Muscle tension. If your back is stiff, your jaw clenched or your hands in fists, you may communicate anxiety, discomfort, a fight or flight level of arousal, frustration or anger.

Body position. If you are leaning away, pushed back or turned away, you might be communicating disinterest, boredom or lack of importance.

Stance.  If you are standing with your legs shoulder length apart and your hands on your hips, your stance may be interpreted as over-bearing or authoritarian.

Movement. If you bounce your leg or fidget, your movements may be interpreted as impatience.

Breathing. When you huff, sigh or breathe loudly, you can communicate impatience, judgment or frustration.

Behavior

Silence. Someone shares an emotion or difficult situation with you.  Instead of acknowledging and validating them, you look at them with a clueless blank stare or hesitate “too long.”  Perhaps you don’t know what to say or you mistakenly cling to the belief that validation equals agreeing with them. The remedy is to say something simple – “I hear you” or touch their arm as a gesture of understanding (if appropriate).

Nonverbal communication incongruent with verbal validation. You can say all the “right” things but if you non-verbally communicate anger, frustration or disinterest your body negates your words.  Your tone of voice gives away your true feelings.  If your words are clipped, the pace is too fast, the volume too loud you may come across as angry or frustrated.  If your voice is sing-song it my communicate sarcasm.  Or if your voice is flat, you will sound disinterested.

Body language and facial expressions may also be incongruent with your words.  If someone shares their joy, you verbally validate but your brow is furrowed in a frown, the appearance is that you don’t share their joy. If a friend or loved one shares a fear, your words validate but you are looking intently at something outside the window, you communicate disinterest or trivial.  If your fists are clenched and your stance looks like you could pounce at any moment, you communicate frustration or anger.

Multi-tasking. If you are reading the newspaper or working on your computer as a friend or loved one shares their emotions, your unwillingness to stop what you are doing to listen communicates disinterest or worse that their emotions are unimportant.

Parting Words

Validation is among the most powerful means to strengthen relationships.  When a friend, loved one,acquaintance or stranger feels validated, amazing things happen.  Trust grows.  Communication flourishes  And the relationship becomes more satisfying.

Sandra Miller, MSW, LCSW and sometimes blogger, sees clients at St.Louis DBT, LLC.  She is one of six therapists who provide a comprehensive DBT program incorporating CBT and Prolonged Exposure as well as treat trauma with EMDR and trauma-informed yoga therapy. 

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