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NYC Psychotherapist Explains Why Our “Help” isn’t Very Helpful: What’s Missing in the Generation of Fixing and Problem Solving?

Listening and Validation...

“Don’t worry about it, you’re fine!” says the well intentioned helpful, yet invalidating friend. When I teach Validation to my clients I start with a story: I am out with a friend having dinner, we order coffee at the end of the meal and when my friend goes to reach for her cup, she spills coffee all over the table, and herself. My friend starts franticly grabbing for napkins and says, “Oh my gosh, this is terrible, I want to go, I am so embarrassed, I can’t even believe I did that, oh my gosh.” I turn to my group and say, “Okay, if I want to validate my friend, what do I say? How do I handle this?” 90% of the time people will say, I’d say; “Don’t worry about it,” or “It’s ok, it’s just a little coffee,” or “It’s not a big deal” or “It’s not that serious, it’s totally fine.” Obviously, the intention behind these comments is to try and make my friend feel better, and less embarrassed. The problem with these comments is that they are quite invalidating. YIKES, your help isn’t helpful.

Validation is defined as “the act of making or declaring something officially acceptable; or recognition/affirmation that a person, their feelings, or opinions are worthwhile.” In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy it is the acknowledgment of another’s experience and feelings as having causes and therefore being understandable. In other words, validation is: that makes sense, YOU make sense; I see you. To say to someone, it isn’t a big deal, or don’t worry about it when they are really worried about it, and to them it is a huge deal, invalidates their experience.

Invalidation makes difficult situations worse. Validation would look like saying something like, “I am sorry you are embarrassed,” or “I bet, I would feel the same way if I were in your position,” or “I get it, it is embarrassing.” Usually, the person will very quickly come to their own conclusion if they notice they are overreacting or acting in an imbalanced way to the set of circumstances at hand. The big problem with invalidation is so much of the time it is unintentional, and in fact is meant to be helpful or make someone feel better. In my practice, people show me every day that they are doing the absolute best they can with the tools and coping skills they have, and if they had more effective strategies they would do even better. I think about validation like a magic bullet, I joke with my groups that once you validate someone’s experience you can pretty much say anything else, once people feel seen and heard, disagreements or challenges seem to land much softer.

I remember years ago, my now husband saying something that, to this day I was so shook by. We were having a conversation about something important and he finished saying his part, and without skipping a beat I immediately went into “helping” by offering suggestions, giving him ideas, action plans, etc. He said, “Meghan, you didn’t even acknowledge what I said.” I was so taken aback since I was right in the middle of my award-winning helping shining moment, and as a trained therapist obviously had no doubts about my listening or empathy skills. This moment was humbling. Of course, it mattered to me that my partner felt invalidated, and I realized in that moment that I often do a “silent” validation, meaning I reason a person knows I assume the best about them, and am on their team, etc… Then I go straight into the important part of fixing. Turns out, I had it backwards. The important part is the validation, the problem solving and fixing is secondary, and honestly people are much more capable of solving their own problems because they have a better handle on the big picture than others do. It is the worst when you are talking to someone about a challenge you are facing and they start throwing platitudes of low hanging fruit “solves,” things you already thought of days ago and passed over because they weren’t solutions or they were overly simplistic. “Why don’t you just…” Hey helper, that isn’t helpful!

So, one of the many important lessons my marriage has taught me: even if someone knows we care, assume the best about them, and always have their backs, sometimes they still need to hear us say it out loud. This happened before I was trained in DBT and learned that there is a significant difference between empathy and validation. Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. the researcher who developed Dialectical Behavioral Therapy as well as the 6 levels of validation believes it is impossible to overestimate the importance of validation.

Attention Helpers- What to try instead:

  1. Validation Level One: Being present. Listening to someone in a supportive nonjudgmental way. Staying present when someone is in pain is difficult, a lot of folks are uncomfortable with other people’s difficult emotions, sitting and listening to someone without trying to fix, change or control their experience is very powerful.
  2. Validation Level Two: Accurate Reflection: Demonstrate that you are listening and hear them by paraphrasing or repeating back their feelings, thoughts, assumptions or behavior.
  3. Validation Level Three: Mind reading: Reading a person’s behavior or your knowledge of this person to find the subtext or what they aren’t saying out loud but may be feeling. (Check in with them about it, you may be wrong.) “I am guessing that you may also be feeling” or “Underneath that I bet you may also be feeling”
  4. Validation Level Four: Behaviors based on history: We react to the world based on our life experiences and biological wiring, assuming if someone is having an emotional reaction there is a reason or a cause even when the reaction is not one you relate to or identify with. Identifying why it makes sense for this person given their history or biology that they may react in a certain way.
  5. Validation Level Five: Normalization: Reacting to the current situation as anyone in this position would. Identifying with someone’s experience because it makes sense to you, in other words if you were in this situation you would be having a similar experience.
  6. Validation Level Six: Radical Genuineness: Be sincere and mean it. This one required consistency and trust, this means treating someone like an equal and a human who is capable of figuring this out.

Validation level four is a sure thing, even if something doesn’t make sense to you, can it make sense to you knowing who this person is that they would be having this experience and it makes sense to them? I believe everything we do has a distinct meaning, we come by our beliefs and our world-views honestly, it doesn’t mean we are always right or justified in our actions or reactions but we have clear reasons that drive our human experience, everything is connected. It is possible to validate someone’s feelings without validating their behavior. For example, if Johnny threw a chair at the teacher because he was angry you can say, “I can see you are very angry, you have reasons to be feeling the way that you do and, it is not ok to throw chairs or act out our anger in violent ways.”

Originally published at www.meghanbreen.com

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