All human beings want to feel that they are, at their core, acceptable, even lovable.
We all want to feel that other people see us, acknowledge who we are, and generally find us to have value. When you practice the art of validation, you learn how to give this experience to others. When we validate people, we accept them for who they really are. What better way to be a good friend, partner or parent?
When you validate someone, you give them real support, letting them know that they are not alone. Life can be confusing and difficult for all of us, but when we are genuinely validated, we can feel reassured that we are on the right path, and that our experience is normal.
Willpower is great, but any single person only has so much of it. Haven’t you felt stronger and more capable when you had the support of many other people behind you? Picture someone who is working really hard to overcome a food addiction and lose weight. They may feel completely defeated and alone when, months later, nobody has even noticed their progress. On the other hand, having work colleagues check in regularly, acknowledge the hard journey they’re on, and even recognize the results can make it so much easier to carry on.
In today’s world, people are arguably more isolated and divided than ever before, with many having little to draw on in terms of family or community. But if we don’t have fellow human beings to accompany us through life’s challenges, to acknowledge our presence and even enjoy it, to reflect back to us who we are and the effect of our actions—well, we can soon start to feel like we don’t really exist at all. You can probably remember a time when someone paid you a really thoughtful compliment about who you were as a person, and how great it made you feel. Compare that to the crushing sense of alienation you have when a person you thought knew you well buys you a completely bizarre gift that you hate!
Of course, it’s not just about how many people are in your life; without real validation and acceptance, it’s possible to feel completely alone and unseen in a room full of people. We may feel lost or out of place, even in our own families, or like foreigners even in our own countries. An absence of genuine validation is behind someone who, after twenty years of marriage, can look at their spouse and say, “I have no idea who you even are.”
Being seen and heard, on the other hand, gives life a solidity and a sense of meaning. It adds richness, color and depth to our days. When others witness and confirm our experience, it’s as though it becomes more real and manageable for us. If you can learn to really see and validate people as they are, you are simultaneously giving them and yourself a wonderful gift that’s in pretty short supply in today’s world. When we are validated, we feel more resilient to life’s problems, and can regulate our emotions more effectively.
We feel like ourselves; when others see and acknowledge us, it is as confirming to our identity as looking into a mirror and seeing an image look back at us. Through others’ sincere response, we learn about who we are. We see them react to us, care for us, listen to us, and in so doing it seems like our persona takes shape, and we can see the outlines of ourselves more clearly.
It goes a little deeper, too. When we validate someone, we not only see the person in front of us, but accept them, completely. We communicate, with our nonjudgmental attention, that they are worth knowing, and they are important. Even if we don’t fully comprehend what it’s like to be in another person’s shoes, it’s still wonderful to show that we care enough to try and comprehend it. Many parents, for example, cannot really get inside their teenage children’s heads, but sometimes all that’s needed is for that teenager to feel that their mom or dad cares enough to make the effort in the first place.
This isn’t to say that validation is only beneficial for the person receiving it. When validation flows from one person to another, both benefit. The shared relationship instantly becomes more authentic, more trusting and more honest. When people feel seen and accepted, they are more able to return the kindness to others, strengthening those connections. In fact, there may now be evidence that being validated by someone can literally cause changes in the neurotransmitters released in your brain.
Validation is about affirming someone else’s emotional reality, but it’s also about recognizing that they live in a completely different world to you, and inhabit a perspective entirely separate from your own. If you can undertake any conversation with the spirit of validation, you are able to respect and honor the fact that the other person is not you, and doesn’t think like you. Validation encourages deeper understanding. Not only will this make you a better communicator, but it will expand your world view, and you may even learn something in the process.
Isn’t validation the same as empathy?
In reading about the virtues and benefits of practicing validation, you might have wondered whether it’s the same thing as simply being kind and compassionate. In many ways, these concepts do overlap to some degree. A person with good validation skills may on the surface be indistinguishable from someone who is empathetic, nonjudgmental, or simply skilled at showing interest in others. But there are differences.
Showing sympathy is acknowledging someone else’s experience, but as seen through our own frame of reference. For example, knowing that someone else is nervous giving a speech because you yourself would be anxious doing the same thing.
Showing empathy is looking inside someone else’s experiences and feeling what that feels like, from that person’s point of view, and not your own. For example, you can imagine what it feels like to be the person terrified of giving a speech even though you yourself love public speaking.
Showing validation, however, is a little different. This is where we communicate that we have seen or heard the other person’s experience, and that it has inherent validity. So, we can listen to our friend telling us how scared they are to give their speech and acknowledge it, and take that at face value. Our own feelings on public speaking don’t matter at all, and in fact, nobody else’s opinion matters either.
When we acknowledge the inherent validity of someone else’s experience, we are doing something a little different from having empathy. When we are sympathetic or empathetic, we are shifting or expanding frames of reference to better understand another person’s experience. But with validation, we take their experience as the only frame of reference that matters. Someone’s feelings or thoughts might not be pleasant, or sensical, or popular, or permissible, or even understandable. But they are nevertheless valid, because they are there, and they exist.
As you can see, it’s a subtle point that can make rather a large difference when put into practice. Empathy can often lead people to feel validated, but not necessarily. For example, someone might feel very sorry for a friend who is having difficulties, and empathize completely, while still believing that their experience is not completely valid—i.e. “I genuinely feel bad for you, but I still think you’re just overreacting.” We’ll explore how to combine empathy and validation later on in the book.