Last week I was co-leading a DBT skills group and we were spending a fair amount of time discussing the concept of validation. In my opinion, it seems to be a concept that sounds simple at first, but it is incredibly important and challenging to implement at times. So what do I mean by validation? When we validate someone’s feelings we reassure them that what they feel inside is real, important, and makes sense. Furthermore, validation is non-judgmental and does not indicate that you agree, approve, or disapprove of a particular behavior. Self-validation can be particularly difficult for people who grew up in invalidating environments. They may often ask themselves, “Do I really feel this way?” or “Should I feel this way...is this the ‘right’ thing to feel?” Such a pattern may lead one to trust other’s feelings more than his/her own inner experiences. An individual may even spend significant time and energy proving to himself or others that his experience is real and should be taken seriously, which at times results in further conflict or crisis (e.g. self-harm).
As you can imagine, validation is very important for the therapeutic relationship and is an important intervention in itself. From my perspective as a clinician, I try to be very intentional about validating client’s emotional experiences while also implementing interventions that involve examining thoughts in alternative ways. This isn’t always effortless of course. Now and then I have to catch myself when I recognize a new client catastrophizing an event because there is a pull within me to jump right in and help them problem solve or reappraise the situation right away before first taking a moment to acknowledge and validate their emotional experience. I feel I should mention here that by no means am I implying that validation and cognitive restructuring (or let’s say defusion, for example, if you’re coming at it from an ACT perspective) are in any way incompatible scenarios. My intervention will depend on the context. Of course if this were a new client and we hadn’t established a good rapport yet, my well intentioned actions could be perceived as quite invalidating if not done tactfully. It is in moments like these that I might bookmark in my mind where I see maladaptive thought patterns or behaviors and shelf them for later while focusing on helping the client feel understood.
Sometimes I find it useful to use an analogy that provides a rationale for change and recognizes that clients are doing their best. I’m sure there are probably many other variations of this analogy, but this is what I use: “If you were in a shipwreck in the middle of the sea it could be perfectly reasonable and effective to use the top of a piano to keep afloat. However, let’s say at some point later in life you go swimming at a pool with a friend. Although a piano top would technically keep you afloat in the pool, it would likely cause unnecessary burden and there are many other more effective ways to stay afloat. Although the piano top worked before, it may now be best to try something else that better suits the situation.” I like this simple analogy because it takes into account one’s learning history and recognizes that at one point the behavior of interest served a purpose for coping in a stressful situation. When faced with a similar situation (water) but with different contexts (pool instead of sea), it’s understandable that we would look to what worked in the past (piano top) and use those behaviors although we come to find now that those behaviors aren't working like they used to since the context has changed (you’re no longer at sea). I’ve found this little analogy to be helpful for both clients and myself for stimulating non-judgmental insight, validation, empathy, and motivation for change. Likewise, when my empathy is running low and I notice thoughts of frustration with someone’s behavior, I try to step inside their shoes and pick out the various reinforcements that may have shaped their behavior along the way, and I find that doing so deepens my understanding and empathy.