When Validation Makes Things Worse
It’s not enough to validate, you must also push forward
Validate, validate, validate. This is a word I heard a lot in my counseling program. Validate emotions and validate experiences so your student feels heard; you can build a relationship and you can then help the student move forward. I am a big fan of validation. It does not indicate agreement or approval, it simply (but effectively) creates a bridge between you and the student when they feel singled out, awkward or alone. I never realized, though, that validation could also have a negative impact until my psychiatrist validated my anxiety.
WHAT IS ANXIETY?
Stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably but it is important to note how they are different. Stress is a heightened level of physical and mental tension as a result of your immediate circumstances (i.e. an upcoming exam, moving, meeting a deadline, etc). Anxiety is this same heightened level of physical and mental tension but around perceived or possible outcomes (i.e. failing that exam, making friends after moving, missing the deadline, submitting inadequate work, etc). We all experience both but people who struggle with anxiety worry so much about possible negative experiences that it impacts their daily life. Research shows that two of the most effective ways to manage anxiety are cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is based in the theory that your thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all interconnected so by changing one, you are able to make an impact on the other two. For example, if someone speeds past you on the highway and you assume they are just being a jerk, then you get mad and perhaps drive in a way to make their life more difficult or storm into work and yell at the first person to ask you a question out of continued frustration. However, if you instead assume that they must have an emergency, you feel sympathetic and perhaps make sure you are safely out of their way and go into work calm and ready for the day. Same situation but your reaction creates vastly different outcomes.
Exposure therapy aims to show you that the worst case scenario is rare by pushing you to face the situations that scare you the most, a little at a time. For example, if a student has significant school anxiety, they might start by just walking into the building, then another time coming into the office and staying for a longer period of time, then going into a classroom, etc. Each time, they would use strategies like mindfulness or positive self-talk to decrease their anxiety in the space until it decreases enough they can move into the next space.
No matter what path people take towards addressing their anxiety, research is clear that completely avoiding the people/places/experiences that cause anxiety does not help decrease a person’s anxiety in the long run, in fact it has the opposite effect.
VALIDATION AND ANXIETY
So why do validation and anxiety clash?
I have been seeing a psychiatrist for about two years regarding my ADD. In these short, check in sessions, I talk about the ups and downs of work and my personal life and we discuss how to continue improving areas where I struggle. Usually she just lets me ramble and gives the typical shocked response at the crazy stories I bring from my job. This routine was consistent, until recently. She started noticing that my ability to tell a story in a detached, matter-of-fact way did not indicate the emotional response that story truly triggered nor the amount time it took me to stabilize my internal response following the situation. Finally one day I asked her, “Is that related to my ADD?” Her response, “No, that sounds more like anxiety. There’s medication for that!”
All of a sudden, my mind turned into a whirlwind. For many years I wondered if my anxiety was beyond a “normal” range, but I embraced the idea that I was simply an introvert and no one ever commented on anxiety as an issue for me so when it was screened out as part of the ADD assessment, I tried hard to let those suspicions go. Now, my anxieties about having anxiety were validated.
In the past, I always shoved my anxieties into the back of my brain as unfounded, forcing myself to continue to put one foot in front of the other. My most frequent mantra was, “If I’m meant to die today, there’s nothing I can do about it so just accept it and keep going.”
As soon as the psychiatrist validated my suspicion of anxiety, though, I gave her several examples of situations and she confirmed, “Yes, that definitely sounds like anxiety.” I left in a haze, thinking about all of the things in my life that made me anxious and how it impacted me, even if other people were oblivious. As a result, anxiety became a legitimate excuse in my mind because someone told me it was real. She validated my feelings and it certainly made me feel heard but it also unraveled the coping skills that I had inadvertently developed.
Taking Power Back
Now I’m relearning how to take my power back from anxiety:
- I recognize that the reason I work so well with my boss in such a high stress, overwhelming job is because she laughs at my anxiety (literally) and the times she doesn’t, I can be stuck in an emotional hole for much longer.
- I realize that by allowing myself or anyone else to use anxiety as an excuse for my emotions, I give it power. That doesn’t mean the anxiety doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t impact my emotions, but I try not to give it the space to influence them any deeper or longer than necessary.
- I give my friends and family tools and information so they can be an even more amazing support system by saying things like, “I can’t talk about this yet, it’s too much of a trigger.” or cuing them that I need help moving past an intense emotion by prefacing a complaint with, “I know this is unreasonable…” and ask that they provide a way for me to reframe my thinking.
Working with Students
Validation remains a critical piece of my work with students. It is important for people to feel a sense of normalcy and feelings are normal. However, I take extreme care when validating anxiety as a feeling, trying to avoid the trap that acknowledging it takes the onus off the student to learn how to manage it. Research shows avoidance to be detrimental which is why CBT and exposure therapy are so common. A student’s anxiety may be a real part of their experience, but it does not have to have such a severe impact and should not be allowed to hold them back from success.
Here is what I stress constantly with both students and parents:
- If you do not face the things that cause you anxiety, they will just get worse
- You don’t have to take on all of the things that cause you anxiety at once, but you should also pick some piece of it that you are working to overcome
- You can overcome your anxiety but it takes work and there will be hard days for everyone
- Just talking about it can make it worse. Make sure you are talking with the purpose of problem-solving or finding a positive way to reframe the situation.
- It is important to tell the supportive people in your life what they can do to support you in not running from your anxiety (i.e. if an assignment is too long, ask them to break it down, if the classroom is too overwhelming to start, ask to work in a back room, etc)
- Avoidance does nothing to help in the long run!
We all face anxiety but the more power we give it, the more it will consume our lives. Validate thoughts, feelings and experiences but know that they should never be able to keep you from being successful. Validation should not become a reason to wallow but rather a reason to start fighting harder.