The Life-Changing Magic Of Validating Your Own Feelings
“Feelings, once felt, begin to change themselves over time.”
A few weeks ago, I was in the emergency room with my little brother, who is 16 years my junior. He was getting his head stapled after an unfortunate fall in the locker room before a hockey game. I sat next to him, bloodied jersey and matted hair, when the first attending walked in with the materials she needed to irrigate the wound. She didn’t say what that word, “irrigate,” meant, but when a 9-year-old sees a big basin and bottle with a long nozzle heading toward his head wound, he’s going to panic.
I saw it coming. I said to him quickly: “they’re just rising it with water.” He relaxed for a second, but not before tensing his voice again and saying he was scared. My impulse was to say, “don’t be, it’s okay!” until I realized that’s an asinine thing to say to someone at this age, in this situation. If you weren’t scared in this moment, you would at minimum have a cognitive delay. So I said: “that’s normal.” That phrase was like a tonic. He nodded and changed the topic, and proceeded to calmly sit through shots and staples. By the end, I said to him: I’m not sure if you’re going to understand this, but this has made you a stronger. Next time, you’re going to know what this is, and you’re not going to be afraid. He smiled.
What is emotional validation?
That’s a very specific, subjective story that is intended to illustrate a very objective, broad point. If we want to be effective in therapy, in politics, in relationships, in teaching kids, in talking someone down from the edge, in keeping peace, making friends, fostering connection and making progress, there’s one specific technique we have to employ first.
It’s a little secret, and it’s one that requires very little effort. But it disarms people. It opens them, makes them receptive, willing to listen, and to adapt. It is healing, it is mind-altering, but most importantly, it is the first step to progress. It is emotional validation.
Validating someone’s feelings doesn’t mean you agree with them. It doesn’t mean you concede that they are correct. It doesn’t mean that those feelings are the healthiest, it doesn’t mean they are informed by logic. Validating feelings does not mean you make them more true, it means you remind someone that it is human to feel things they don’t always understand.
How often do we just need a partner to stop trying to strategize, and just say: that must really suck. How much of a weight is lifted off our shoulders when we think: yes, I really am stressed right now, and I deserve to be. How light do we feel when we see another person’s story splayed out across a screen, one that we can relate to, and understand, no matter how devastating it is. How much better do we feel when we simply allow ourselves to be aggrieved and pissed off and irrationally mad? A lot better. And when we let ourselves have it, the feeling, that is, something incredible happens: we no longer have to take it out on other people, because we are no longer relying on their validation to get us through it. We can be aggrieved and pissed and mad and do our own processing, without hurting anyone else.
When people are crying out or acting out in their lives, they aren’t just asking for help. They are most often just asking for someone to affirm that it is okay to feel the way that they do. And if they have to inflate and exaggerate circumstances in order for you to truly feel the weight and impact that they do? They’ll do it. They’ll do whatever it takes to get someone else to say: I am so sorry for what you are going through. This is not because they are incompetent or dumb. It is because in a world that does not teach us how to adequately process our own feelings, we must often rely solely on our maladaptive coping mechanisms.
When we cannot validate our own feelings, we go on a never-ending quest to try to force others to do it for us, but it never works. We never really get what we need.
This looks like needing attention, affirmation, compliments. But it also looks like being dramatic, negative, focusing disproportionately on what’s wrong in our lives. When someone is complaining about something simple — and they seem to be doing it more than the given situation would call for— they aren’t trying to get your help about a small issue. They are trying to have their feelings validated.
This is also a common root of self-sabotaging behaviors. Sometimes, when we have deep wells of grief within us, we absolutely cannot allow ourselves to relax and enjoy our lives and relationships. We cannot just “have fun,” because doing so feels like a betrayal. It feels offensive. We need to feel validated, but we don’t even know why.
Why is this effective?
Think of your feelings like water running through your ducts in body. Your thoughts determine whether or not the ducts are clean. The cleanliness of the ducts determines the quality of the water.
If you suddenly have a feeling that you dislike and don’t expect — a sudden rush of water, let’s say — it’s common to want to shut that valve off, and not allow it to pass. However, stopping the flow of water does not make the water go away. Instead, it begins to intensely pressurize, and create serious damage to the parts of your body that are no longer receiving flow. This begins to have a ripple effect on your entire life.
Sometimes, the water disperses itself gradually. Other times, it implodes and creates what we see on the surface as a complete emotional breakdown. When all of that water finally comes through and we grieve and cry and fall apart, we are going through a process of being reset. It is positive disintegration: we are gutted, we are cleaned, we feel calm and refreshed and relieved.
All that happened in that implosion was that your feelings became validated when you gave yourself permission to feel them — because you had no other choice. This is what we do in therapy. This is what we do when we vent. This is what happens when we experience a catharsis. A sad movie that we kind of enjoy being sad about allows us to feel sad in a world that otherwise does not.
But there’s a healthier, easier way, which is learning how to process our feelings in real time.
How to validate your own feelings
“Validating your feelings” sounds like a big term, but it really means one thing: it’s just letting yourself have them.
When you are healing past trauma, often a big component of it is allowing yourself to experience the full expression of an emotion. You have probably done this healthfully and correctly in the past. Think about the passing of a relative whom you loved but were not overly attached to. When you learned of their death, you were undoubtedly sad. But you didn’t attend their funeral, cry for an hour, and then carry on with your life as though nothing happened.
Instead, you probably experienced a bout of sadness then, and then maybe the next day, and then maybe a week later. The waves of grief came and went, in varying intensity. When you didn’t resist them, you cried and felt sad, maybe took a nap or a hot bath or a day off of work. And then, without much effort from you, the feeling passed, and you felt better.
Once we have and acknowledge an emotion, it will often go away on its own. If there is no course of action to take—if all we really need to do is accept it—then we just have to let ourselves be there. Feelings, once felt, begin to change themselves over time.
The reason we don’t do this more naturally is because obviously we can’t burst into tears at our desks every time we feel bothered by something. But turning off the water valve is perfectly fine, as long as we can go home, and let it out later. It is okay to control when and where we process, and in fact, it’s better when we learn to do it in a more stable, safe space.
This can look like taking a few minutes to “junk journal” each day, spending time by ourselves where we can simply experience how we feel, without judgment, and without trying to change them. It can be as simple as just allowing ourselves to cry before we fall asleep. We often think of that as a sign of weakness, when really, the ability to cry freely is a huge signal of mental and emotional strength. It’s when we can’t cry at what’s truly broken in our lives that we have a big problem.
Start from the outside in
Validating the way someone else feels is an exercise in radial empathy. It is starting the conversation with: “It is okay to feel this way.” Because when we point out how wrong someone is to feel the way they do, they shut down. And they shut down because they feel shame. They already know it’s not right to feel the way they do. If you start the conversation by heightening someone’s defenses or making them panic and suppress even harder, you make the situation worse.
But if you start with reminding them that anyone in their situation would probably feel similar to how they do right now, and that it is very possible that they can have strong, overwhelming emotions that don’t necessarily mean their lives are completely ruined, and that it is okay to feel devastated when devastating things are before us, we lighten their load. We know this because when we stop resisting feeling sad and just let ourselves be sad, we realize that it will not last forever. We see that sometimes, the biggest problem isn’t that we are devastated, but that in refusing to accept what is in front of us, we create so much more suffering than we would if we had just had a cry when we needed to have a really good cry.
Validating other people teaches us how to validate ourselves. And when we learn how to validate ourselves, we become stronger. We see that our emotions are no longer threats, but informants. They show us what we care about, what we want to savor, what we want to protect. They remind us that life is fleeting, and challenging, and gorgeous. When we are willing to accept the darkness, it is only then that we find the light.