Is There Such a Thing as Well-Intentioned Invalidation?
We can easily recognize abusive, mean-spirited, or hostile interactions that fail to validate our feelings and, sometimes, purposeful attempt to be sarcastic or hurtful. But well-intentioned invalidation can be a bit harder to discern.
Because we understand that recognizing and acknowledging feelings helps others to feel understood, valued, cared about, and important, most of us attempt to listen more carefully when we are living our of our centered personality tendencies. But well-intended exchanges among well-meaning people can also miss the mark on validating feelings and can cause people to feel a lack of support. Even during conversations where we feel a great deal of compassion and want to help, it can be all too easy to unknowingly or unintentionally minimize and invalidate what another person is trying to convey. This unintentional dismissal of someone's feelings can ultimately create conflict, frustration, hurt, anger, and even feelings of rejection.
In theory, acknowledging feelings is easy. By the way, did I mention, in theory? But listening and acknowledging feelings can be difficult if we associate our listening as meaning that we accept or agree with the other person’s position. Listening is our best tool for gathering information, and feelings are a great source of information. However, rarely if ever, are feelings FACTS, and too often that is exactly how we present our feelings, as if they were facts. When we make this huge communication mistake it can make our conversations a constant source of conflict. Why? Because no one likes to feel attacked and when we mistakenly communicate our feelings as facts by using statements like "You are ______." "You always _________." "You never __________." the person we are communicating with can feel attacked and accused. If we want our feelings to be heard, we must share them as feelings. "I feel when _______ happens that you do ________." When shared in this fashion people can hear that you are sharing a feeling, instead of attempting to state a fact that they will almost always disagree with.
There is a secret to listening which helps people feel validated. It is called Active Listening. The process is simple. We simply repeat back what the person says to us. When we simply repeat back to the person we are listening to what they have said, it shows them that you care enough to actually acknowledge what they are saying. Of course, you have to repeat back what they are saying with empathy and never with sarcasm, in order for Active Listening to work at its best. Listening and repeating back a feeling someone has shared with you does NOT mean that you accept, agree with, or assume that their feelings are factual, especially when they are accusatory while expressing them.
Let’s take the following simple example and explore six ways unintentional failure to validate can occur. Imagine you didn’t get enough sleep last night and you feel utterly exhausted today. You complain to someone—your partner, parent, friend, or coworker—by saying, “I am completely exhausted!” Consider how you might feel if any of the following reactions occurred:
1. MINIMIZING OR DENYING
“No problem. The day will be over soon and you can take a nap.”
Many people are uncomfortable with feelings, especially negative ones. They don’t want to accept them, or give them any power. People sometimes believe that by ignoring feelings they will diminish and maybe even disappear. However, this is rarely the case. Ignoring, minimizing, or denying feelings can cause them to multiply and amplify. When we don’t feel listened to, we can easily increase our negative feelings by adding feeling hurt, isolated, or rejected on top of the original feelings we were expressing.
2. BLAMING OR SCOLDING
“You shouldn’t have stayed up so late playing games on your phone!”
People look for the reason behind negative feelings. They assume pointing out what they believe to be the cause of you feelings of being tired, may lessen the negative feelings because you earned them in some way. No one wants to be taught a lesson at the very time they are busy feeling something else. Just because there might be validity to your point, does not make it a welcome point that you’ve made.
“You really need to get more sleep. Not getting enough sleep is bad for your immune system!”
We can unintentionally state our concern for others in a way that feels more like a lecture. Without first offering empathy, our message comes across as preachy and judgmental rather than well-intended, helpful, and supportive. Also, it is always better to phrase these lecture feeling statements as questions. “I’m sorry you are feeling exhausted. Do you think you need to get more sleep? Not getting enough sleep can be bad for your immune system.” The simple fact that you asked instead of stated as fact can make all the difference in whether they feel validated or not.
4. UNSOLICITED ADVICE
“You should start going to bed earlier. Try a relaxing bubble bath and stop looking at your iPad that late in the evening.”
People want to be helpful, are often compelled to look for the solution, fix a problem, or do what they can to remove any discomfort. But, delivered in the absence of validation, these approaches often backfire. However useful the guidance may be, providing it too soon, prior to someone feeling as though you have actually heard what they said, can wind up feeling judgmental. It makes the messenger appear superior and can feel like there is an underlying implication of ignorance and incompetence.
5. SHIFTING FOCUS
“I was up so late last night because …”
We often connect with others over shared experiences and we tell our own stories as a way to relate to one another. However, shifting the focus to your own experience before first listening and validating the experience of the other person can make you seem self-absorbed and can create distance.
“Oh, my gosh, I know what you mean. I bet I am more exhausted than you.”
Similar to shifting the focus, we sometimes respond to somebody’s experience or emotions by sharing our own feelings. While the intent may be to connect over a common occurrence, such sharing can feel like a comparison that ultimately minimizes the person’s feelings and makes them feel ignored rather than understood.
I’m not saying any of these things are wrong in and of themselves. Too many times we make things about right or wrong. I am simply saying that if you want someone, especially someone you love to feel important and heard by you, you must learn to listen to feelings in a way that feels more validating than invalidating.
All of the above examples are all perfectly fine and useful approaches when delivered with appropriate timing, empathy and in appropriate circumstances. The problem lies in jumping to these things too soon without first acknowledging (simply by listening and repeating) the other person's feelings. All of the above responses would likely be better received if they were prefaced by something to the effect of: “Being tired in the middle of the day is the worst!” Or, “I’m sorry you are so tired!” or even, “Can I get you something like a cup of coffee or soda to help?”
Listening to a feeling and repeating it, then offering validation prior to advice, motivation, wisdom, or sharing helps the subsequent message to come across as caring rather than dismissive.
It can be incredibly frustrating and unhelpful to 'feel’ talked at versus understood when talking about personal emotions. Sharing feelings opens people up to being vulnerable. And when we feel vulnerable, we desire validation, empathy, and understanding rather than tidbits of advice or “I have it worse” storytelling.
Validating involves ensuring your first response is one of acknowledgment and empathy. Hearing “That really sucks!” or “That sounds so stressful!” is often more helpful than any of the lectures, questioning, or unsolicited advice that may follow. It may sound silly or like unnecessary fluff, but we are hardwired to need connection, and only in feeling heard do we truly feel connected and supported.
In short, your feelings matter. Emotions serve an important purpose and shouldn’t be ignored. For example, feeling angry, afraid, or sad tells you that something’s wrong. You don’t want to miss these crucial pieces of information because they can help you to take care of yourself and make decisions to keep yourself safe. However take time to communicate lovely and loving feelings as well, such as appreciation. Make sure that you tell your spouse "We need to talk." And then sit them down and with great sincerity tell them how much you love and appreciate them. If negative feelings are important to listen to, then positive feelings must be twice as important to listen to.
Feelings aren’t right or wrong. They are a reflection of your thoughts, experiences, and perceptions, which is why two people can have the same experience, but feel differently about it. They perceive the situation or incident differently. They give it a different meaning that deeply effects their perception and reaction.
It’s also important to note that validation – listening so that someone feels their feelings are acceptable or worthwhile – isn’t the same as agreeing with their feelings. We can certainly feel differently, have differing opinions, even differing feelings, but make the effort listen carefully so that we can better understand and empathize with our loved one’s feelings.
Personality and relationship expert Dawn Billings is the author and architect of Primary Colors Relationship Personality Tests and RelationshipHelp.com training. Dawn is the author of hundreds of articles and executive director of the Relationship Help Resort in Arizona where she leads private couple's retreats and intensives to strengthen, empower and heal relationships.