I’ll never forget the first time Chris* came into my office. The only word that comes to my mind to describe his appearance is bedraggled. He looked like he had either just rolled out of bed and come straight in for his afternoon appointment, or like he hadn’t showered or changed his clothes in a week. He reported difficulty sleeping and symptoms of anxiety and depression. He spoke softly and I had difficulty hearing him, especially with his head down and no eye contact.
As we talked more about his anxiety, he shared that his symptoms started about two weeks ago, after his girlfriend of a year broke up with him unexpectedly. Chris said that since the break-up, he felt a lack of motivation to get out of bed and go to work, and repeatedly replayed the last month of their relationship over in his head, wondering where things went wrong and looking for any potential signs that his girlfriend had been unhappy.
During the first session, my main goal is to get to know my client, what brings them to counseling, and what they hope to get out of counseling. I usually don’t jump into the deep end, so to speak, of people’s problems until after a relationship is started. Therefore, the first session is a lot of validation. Pretty basic counseling stuff.
What is validation you ask? Dr. Karyn Hall defines validation as “the recognition and acceptance of another person’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors as understandable. Self-validation is the recognition and acceptance of your own thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviors as understandable.” Validation does not mean agreeing with or supporting particular thoughts and feelings. If a client tells me they are worthless and have no value, I will never agree with that. However, I also know that me presenting a case as to why they do have worth and value is not always an effective strategy either. Instead, I will ask more questions in an attempt to gain a better understanding of why they feel worthless, looking for a points along the way to indicate my understanding of their experience.
I didn’t give Chris any techniques to use to rid himself of sadness, because really, there are no such techniques – break-ups are sad. There’s nothing you can do to make yourself “unsad”. We didn’t talk much about things he could do (that he hadn’t already tried) to help him fall asleep easier or quicker. I simply said that break-ups are sad and it made sense for him to feel sad.
One week later, Chris came in for his second appointment and I did a double take. Chris was professionally dressed (as he’d just come from work), greeted me with a smile, and talked loudly enough for me to hear while making eye contact throughout the whole session. His change in appearance caught me so off guard, I felt I had to say something. I told him he seemed to be in a different place than when we had talked last week, and he told me that after he left our appointment, he felt “normal” for feeling sad over the break-up. He realized he had been bouncing back and forth between trying to figure out what caused the break-up and shaming himself for feeling so sad about it. He met a friend for a drink over the weekend and shared where he was at emotionally. Thankfully, the friend did not try to give Chris advice about “moving on,” but listened and shared that he could see why Chris was having a hard time. Chris felt validated, and therefore empowered, to go about his everyday life despite feeling sad.
Why is validation important? Dr. Hall writes that “validation communicates acceptance.” We all have a need to feel like we belong. Chris felt rejected by his girlfriend and isolated from others because of his rejection. During my first session with Chris, I indicated that his lack of motivation and thorough review of his relationship made sense, due to his feeling of rejection and his desire to not experience that level of rejection again. Chris felt understood and therefore, accepted in his current distressed state. He felt further accepted later in the week, after speaking with his friend. Chris said that after our session, he felt “normal” for feeling so sad. I had joined with him, agreeing that break-ups are sad and that he was having a normal reaction to the end of his relationship. As a result of feeling heard and understood by both his friend and me, Chris felt closer in his relationships to both of us and less isolated.
Dr. Hall also writes that validation helps regulate emotions because feeling heard and understood “seems to relieve urgency.” When we do not feel heard or understood, we tend to feel isolated, which can create a sense of fear or panic, since love and acceptance are basic needs for all of us. Validation provides understanding of another’s viewpoint, and shows the other person they are important. Validation can also help us persevere through difficult circumstances. Dr. Hall writes that “having the difficulty of the task recognized helps people keep working toward their goal. It seems to help replenish willpower.”
Validation is a powerful tool that anyone and everyone can use, not just therapists! It can be hard to put validation into practice, as it often reminds us of times when we felt isolated, misunderstood, or put down for feeling a particular way. However, validation is a powerful tool that can be used to strengthen relationships between partners, spouses, parents and children, and friends. If you would like to learn more about how to use validation, or if you’d like to process the ways you’ve felt invalidated in the past, send me an email or give me a call at 314-392-2895.
*all names and identifying details have been changed
K Hall. (2012, February 12). What is validation and why do I need to know? Retrieved from: https://blogs.psychcentral.com/emotionally-sensitive/2012/02/levels-of-validation/
K Hall. (2012, April 26). Understanding validation: A way to communicate acceptance. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/pieces-mind/201204/understanding-validation-way-communicate-acceptance.