Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Finding Calm After an Emotional Storm: The Power of Validation

We've all been in situations when a friend, family member or co-worker feels angry, disappointed  or upset and wants to vent.

Often our instinct is to problem solve or try to diminish their difficulties in the hope of calming the situation. 

We are often surprised that we have not brought them comfort through our suggestions, or by trying to put their issues into a perspective.

The truth is, that listening and validating their feelings rather than trying to solve them, is what is needed, to soothe and bring relief.

Here is an example of the importance of validation. It shows clearly how the lack of it can exacerbate a situation and the power of it can turn your loved one's storm into a calmer sea.

Joan told me the story about her latest checkup with the doctor, who had been prescribing her anxiety medication for a few years. 

These meds had helped to keep her on an even keel as all the crises in her life rumbled and exploded and calmed and returned.

She felt particularly vulnerable and fragile that Friday morning. Her mother had had a challenging weekend, falling and fracturing her hip and her son had been sick for 4 days prior to that, meaning that in a two week period she had hardly had a break from caregiving.....again. 

As Joan recounted both the new and on-going challenges, the doctor's response was to point to the July blue sky he was observing out the window and suggesting she should appreciate the sunshine. He reminded her how well her two children were doing academically and socially. He suggested she should focus on how wonderful it was that her husband had a job promotion. 

But she knew all that. 

She knew she was calmed by walks in nature, She knew that as a family, they had celebrated the good moments, and she had learned to try to take things day by day.

Joan needed someone to listen and validate that the past 4 years had been relentless. 

That her husband's desperate fight with lung cancer, her daughter's concussion last summer and her son's on-going learning challenges had taken their toll. 

That she was entitled to have a rotten morning or a tough day. 

That she'd done a great job of gluing her family together, advocating and shoring them up when illness had struck, finding doctors and oncologists and psychologists and learning specialists. 

That staying home for days and weeks and months at a time to nurse her family and remain the pivot, had enabled them all to spin around her axis and achieve their goals.

The doctor's response, in the strictly monitored ten minute appointment was NOT what Joan needed to hear. 

Joan needed the psychiatrist to "get-it" not solve it.

But no. The eminent psychiatrist  told her to keep admiring the sky, to marvel at her children's successes and move forward.

Tearful, angry and frustrated, Joan left his office clutching her new prescription. As she stood in the elevator, she felt more alone and emotional than ever.

That afternoon her friend Suzanne* checked in to see how Joan was doing. 

Joan recounted the week with her son sick, her mother's fall and the disastrous visit to the doctor.

Suzanne understood. 

She knew that Joan's situation has been endless, mind numbing and hard. And she said so. 

By acknowledging the tough moments, validating them and allowing Joan to feel them and express them, Suzanne gave Joan comfort and Joan was able calm her feelings. 

Although Suzanne did not know it, her instinctive responses were an excellent example of emotional validation.

In Psychology today Dr Guy Winch explains 'the recipe' for giving authentic emotional validation. ( The examples included, are mine). 

If you were able to listen like Suzanne did, you may have done the following.

1. Let the person complete their narrative so you have all the facts.
eg. Let Joan tell her story, without interruption. 

2. Convey you get what happened to them from their perspective (whether you agree with that perspective or not and even if their perspective is obviously skewed).

 eg. Show you understand that the doctor tried to problem solve and divert rather than listen and validate Joan's situation. 

3. Convey you understand how they felt as a result of what happened (from their perspective).

eg. Show you understand that Joan's  experience with the doctor was frustrating and unhelpful given her vulnerability that morning.

4. Convey that their feelings are completely reasonable (which they are given their perspective)

eg.Express that Joan's feelings of anger and frustration were completely reasonable.

5. Convey empathy or sympathy (not pity!) for their emotional reactions.

eg. Express how how hard and disappointing it must have been for Joan to get that reaction from her doctor.

Perhaps Joan  should visit Suzanne (who by the way, is an empathetic engineer) every 6 months for a checkup. She'd probably be in much better shape!

I hope you get the validation you need this week. And next time someone shares a problem with you, take a moment to consider whether they are looking for solutions or actually what they need, is to be heard and validated. 


* This is a true story. All names have been changed to protect identities.

You may also find these posts helpful:

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  1. Thank you for this Gilly.
    This is a great post. Sometimes I am maybe too quick at trying to 'help' rather than just say no wonder you feel down or anxious.

  2. Thanks Liz -I think you do a great job of validating. I think the order of how you respond to someone can make all the difference. By validating first, you have indicated that you understand what the person is feeling. Within that empathetic framework you can offer suggestions or solutions that may be more easily accepted. Gilly

  3. Maybe the skill of validation comes from your up bringing. If your feelings are validated as a child then probably you will know how to validate others when you grow up. For whatever reason I was bought up to "get on with it" and I did/ have done that. Like Liz, I tend to be too quick. Do you think you need to know how to validate yourself before you can validate others?
    This post ( along with others ) sit on my shoulder.
    Thank you Gilly.

    1. Such an interesting question Jo.

      I think one or two generations ago parents did not ask their children their opinions or how they felt about situations, like we do today. So validation was not part of conversation, to receive or to emulate.

      Dr Winch in the article I quote from, also explains that often those nearest to us are personally distressed themselves when we are in pain and want to diminish ( eg. 'it's their problem not yours', or ' don't let it get to you.') or problem solve quickly in the hope it will go away.So they may not be the best people to validate us.

      Finally, I also think there is a difference between self validation and validating others. The first is about self-esteem and the second is about empathy or sympathy for others.

      The good news is we can all learn to validate others, by staying quiet whilst they are telling their story and acknowledging their feelings BEFORE trying to problem solve.
      Does that make sense? Do any of these ideas resonate with you?


  4. certainly does.and certainly they do.