“Just like children, emotions heal when they are heard and validated.”― Jill Bolte Taylor
The first time my emotions were heard and validated was in therapy. Before that, I walked around with a fake mask of false positivity pretending everything was normal.
For months I had been bottling up my emotions and was stuck in my complex web of thoughts but I kept telling myself everything was okay because as a hardcore follower of self-improvement giving way to negative emotions meant I was being ungrateful. I detested complainers so I wouldn’t share my struggles even with my own friends because a) I didn’t want to ‘whine and complain’ and b) I was pretty sure my feelings wouldn’t make sense to my friends because they weren’t going through what I was.
For an entire year, I resisted going into therapy. I kept telling myself my situation wasn’t ‘that bad’; I could handle it on my own. When I finally ran out of the lies I was telling myself, I found myself seated in my therapist’s office. It was then that my counterfeited armor fell and my true facade of a helpless child in dire need of help and validation revealed itself.
In the first few sessions, I kept playing mind games with my therapist, keeping her distracted from the real issue, terrified that telling the truth in its rawest form would strip me off naked. But with skill and genuine empathy, my therapist peeled off layers and layers of false positivity, strength, and fake confidence I had covered myself with over the years. I almost broke down crying but that little voice in my head said again, “C’mon it’s not that bad”.
As a child, I had read a line in Harry Potter that stuck with me ever since: “Fools who wear their hearts proudly on their sleeves, who cannot control their emotions, who wallow in sad memories and allow themselves to be provoked so easily — weak people, in other words”.
Being a kid I completely misunderstood the essence of this statement and interpreted it as experiencing emotions being equivalent to weakness and foolishness. So I would walk around pretending to be an emotionless robot.
When I was on the verge of tears my therapist said the most liberating words ever:
“I want you to know your feelings are valid”.
Those nine words were all my inner child had been desperately seeking all those years. Those nine words were all she needed to set herself free.
Why didn’t anyone ever say that to me before? I was angry.
Then it occurred to me that in the culture I grew up in where mental health was a subject often brushed under the carpet and you were often told you weren’t supposed to be feeling what you were feeling, people didn’t even validate their own emotions. How would they have the heart to validate someone else’s?
Empathy begins with self.
Those people whose validation I was seeking themselves were shunning their own emotions. They themselves were running away from their real selves. They themselves were desperately longing for someone to validate their feelings.
All of us have grown up listening to messages like these:
- Don’t be so sensitive.
- Stop this drama, you’re overreacting.
- Don’t be a wimp.
- Stop complaining, you have so much to be grateful for.
- And my favorite: It’s no big deal. It happens to all of us.
Invalidating statements like these make us believe that experiencing natural emotions like anger, grief, loneliness, confusion, resentment, and jealousy is weak, negative, and abnormal. On top of it is the toxic self-help culture. Millions of books have been published on positive thinking, gratitude, and happiness. These books teach you how to ‘fix’ negative feelings. Too many books have been written on self-improvement, very few have been written on self-acceptance.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against self-improvement. Being a hardcore follower of this movement, I religiously apply self-improvement techniques to my own life. The problem arises when you become too focused on ‘improving’ and ‘fixing’ that you deny acceptance. And when you deny accepting your real self including your emotions for too long that’s where things get messy.
When you remove ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, all that remains is emotions. And these emotions, in all their complexity, make us human. They are normal. They are valid.
What does emotional validation look like?
Ever since that therapy session, I’ve made it a point to validate emotions, both mine and others. This does not mean I agree with people all the time or justify their actions, it only means I make an effort to allow them to be human. It means I tell them it’s normal to be human and feel all these emotions that don’t make sense to anyone.
Emotional validation is pretty simple. It means recognizing and accepting someone’s internal experience without judgment. Yet, as simple as it sounds, it’s actually difficult to put into practice. Most of us are pros at invalidating emotions. We’re quick to judge, reject and ignore the other person’s emotions, especially if that person is us.
Why is validation important?
The word ‘validation’ gets a negative connotation. “I don’t seek external validation” is the modern self-help mantra.
Yes, it’s true that you shouldn’t depend on others to tell you you’re worthy and important but in the context of mental health, validation gets a different meaning. In fact, it’s important for mental wellbeing and fostering healthy relationships.
According to VeryWell Mind:
- Validation shows the other person that you accept them for who they are.
- It communicates that the other person is important to you.
- It can lessen the intensity of strong emotions. When someone tells you that what you’re feeling is normal, it feels like a heavyweight has lifted off your chest.
Begin by validating your own feelings. It will help you validate others’ emotions too. Like I said earlier, empathy begins with self.
How do you validate emotions?
An article published in Psychology Today suggests there are six levels of emotional validation:
- Level one is being present. This means being fully attentive and listening to the other person without judgment. Hold their hand. Sit with them while they cry. Use your facial expressions to express empathy and genuine concern. If this person is yourself, sit with your emotions. Take time to process them instead of pushing them away. Maybe journal about your inner experience.
- Level two is accurate reflection. It refers to summarizing the other’s feelings, a practice used in psychological counseling. Saying something as simple as “It must be so frustrating” or “Anyone would go mad in such a situation. It’s totally justified” can go a long way. Self-reflection can sound like “I’m angry. I’m hurt”.
- Level three is mind reading. Most people mask their real emotions and may not clearly express them. This level requires that you accurately label the real emotion.
- Level four is understanding emotions in the context of the person’s unique circumstances. If someone from another cultural or religious background finds your comments offensive, you wouldn’t say, “But there was nothing wrong with it. You’re overreacting”. Instead, you would try to understand that from where they come from their emotions are completely valid. Self-validation would mean that you show the same empathy to your own self.
- Level five is normalizing emotional reactions. Simply let the other person or yourself know that your emotional reaction is completely normal.
- Level six is radical genuineness. This is when you understand someone on a deeper level because your experiences are shared. For example, if you’ve had an abusive parent, you can genuinely understand the emotions of someone who’d had an abusive parent. At this level, self-validation can look like finding a community of people who share the same experiences as you. It’s liberating simply listening to someone who has been through what you’re going through describe their emotions.
Each situation is different and depending on the situation you would put into practice a different level of emotional validation.
Acknowledging and accepting your emotions is the first step towards healing. You can’t really heal if you live your life wearing masks and running away from your deep underlying emotions. Feeling them is a sign you’re human. Validating them is empowering, liberating, and brave.
When you self-validate you don’t have to spend a lifetime seeking external validation. You no longer have to live with the fear that someone will see through your fake exterior into your real self.
So allow yourself to feel. Allow yourself to be human.
The moment you allow yourself to be human, you set yourself free.