The Power of Validation

I’m kinda angry but we’ll call it “passionate” to lighten the mood.

This year I’ve been thrust into some roles that could be classified as care-taking. Though I haven’t assumed any big responsibilities, I’m living with my aging grandmother after my grandfather recently passed, looking after my childhood kitty who’s on year 17 and not doing so hot, and I am close with a handful of friends in their own unique chapter of A Very Dark Place. Life can be a heavy place. But I love all of these souls so dearly that I don’t mind the situations even though they’re certainly not full of rainbows and butterflies.

I’ve received feedback about how significant my role is and what a big help I’ve been. But by and large- I have done so little. They say “oh you just don’t know how much being there is helping.” While yes, being there is important, it drives me crazy that my “being there” that is put on a pedestal when it requires so little effort and no skills whatsoever. I’m just the one that does it. Maybe the only one. But it’s nothing special, just giving a shit about other people.

I remember the moment in my teens when I learned what the word “validation” meant and I remember the epiphanies that followed. As soon as I realized how easy it was to make a difference simply by listening to someone and letting them know that “yes, this sucks but I feel for you,” I put it into play. It was so easy and seemingly making a difference. Having a few intense grown-up years under my belt now, I know the impact it has when someone lets you know that everything you’re feeling has a right to be felt because being a human is hard. Here, watch:

You. Yes you. Think back to the last time you cried in public. I’ll wait. Or maybe just those thoughts that were keeping you up last night or what made you anxious on the way to work. It’s insane that people expect so much of us and seem to care so little about our time and hardships. The world demands a lot from us and doesn’t offer credit when it’s due. You may be working harder than anyone you know and getting no acknowledgement or you may be incapable of doing anything right now because everything is too painful and hard and overwhelming. That’s all okay. You can do this. Remember that last time you did the really hard thing when you felt like you didn’t know what you were doing, but it worked out? That can happen again. You’re a capable human and you’ve seen storms before, even if they weren’t this bad. You got this. You know that you should drink some water and get some fresh air and wash your face. We can do this together. It’ll be hard until it gets a little easier, but life does that. Time does that.

How do you feel? I don’t know you but I know that those are some universal themes and I know that more than most other things us humans long to be seen. To be heard. To be felt. We long for connection. And when the world fills with money and politics and rules and it’s too easy for people to not connect. It’s easy to not care about the old person at the center where you work because caring more won’t affect your wages. It’s easy to see a depressed employee and follow the handbook of Covering Your Ass that says they must be sent to the ER immediately, so nothing’s on your hands. It’s easy to avoid eye contact with the homeless vet at the intersection.

But you know what else is easy? Validating. Letting the old person add their opinion despite the room full of relatives that “know best.” Asking your co-worker what you can do to make things a little bit easier, or offering a hug and some company if no answers are to be found. Making eye contact with the man on the median and show him that look that says “I am so sorry that I don’t have spare change, but I know it’s hard to stand out their all day.” I see you. I hear you.

A woman on Fresh Air today told a story of a hard life laced with abuse and prison and drugs. She mentions that the turning point in her life was when she was 46 and a nurse acknowledged her- said something to the effect of “That is so, so rough. It shouldn’t have happened to you, it wasn’t right.” The woman noticed the validation and was so touched and shocked- it was the first time anyone had said anything like that- that it lead to a life change and upward momentum. It wasn’t necessarily a counselor trained in crisis response or a human divinely endowed with intense compassion. It was someone who knew the power of validation and happened upon someone else with a desperate need to be acknowledged.

I am not skilled in validation. I simply know the word and harness its significance. I am not supremely talented when it comes to making people feel better, I just try to listen.

Here’s what I’m getting at: YOU are capable of empathy. Feel with someone that looks like they need to be felt. Or maybe you don’t know how to do the feeling part but you can practice saying the words “that’s a hard place to be in. is there anything i can do to make it easier on you?” Words are powerful. I am nothing special because I use them, or because I don’t. I am irritated that validation is so rare that I stand out as a Huge Help simply by sitting in the same room as someone. I am not doing anything hard, it’s literally the easiest thing to do. To make eye contact with the homeless man or nod acknowledgement at the crying lady in the next car over. Stop convincing empathetic people how great they are and start making the small steps to become more empathetic yourself. Validate your kids. Let them know that you know how fucking hard it is to be 13 and that you know they’re doing the best they can.

I can’t help but imagine a world where most people naturally offered validation, offered compassion and connection. That’s a world full of love and if I’ve become certain about anything at all it’s that love is the whole point. The cause, the reason, the answer and the experience. The only thing I know that is worth living for.