How to Offer Validation and Support
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
We have all been faced with opportunities to support loved ones who are struggling in some way. Sometimes we rise to the occasion, while other times we find ourselves at a loss for what to do or say. Our last blog post outlined 9 tools for effective listening, while this blog post dives into how to offer validation and support in moments of difficulty.
What is validation?
Validation is recognizing, accepting, and communicating that somebody's thoughts and feelings are understandable. It sends a powerful message, "What you're thinking and feeling is normal and understandable."
Why is validation important?
It occurs to me that pain is often a layered experience. As humans, we experience a wide array of emotions. We tend to categorize and judge our emotional experiences (and subsequently ourselves) as good or bad. We tell ourselves that we shouldn't be feeling negative emotions. What follows is shame and frustration at ourselves for having an emotional experience that shouldn't be occurring.
For example, a young mother may feel exhausted, frustrated, irritated (or any other "negative" emotion) towards her children. She then categorizes these feelings as bad. She tells herself that she shouldn't be feeling this way. She chides herself for not feeling more grateful, more patient, more... (you get the idea). She then feels guilt and shame over being the kind of mother who has negative feelings towards her children. Now, not only has she categorized her feelings as bad, but the thought is planted in her mind that maybe she is bad too. Her pain is now a layered experience, because she attacks herself for hurting.
Validation would acknowledge, accept, and allow for those "negative" emotions to exist. Validation would normalize her experience, and comfort her with the knowledge that many other young mothers feel similarly. Validation would compassionately acknowledge her feelings as understandable, and her experiences as a mark of humanity (not unworthiness). Validation eliminates that second layer of pain, freeing her up to process the first level of pain (in this situation, her exhaustion and frustration).
The Do's and Don'ts of Validation
Don't judge whether the person is right or wrong.
Don't offer unsolicited advice.
Don't try to fix their feelings.
Don't "one up" them with your own personal experiences.
Do talk less, and listen more.
Do reassure them that it's okay to feel the way that they do.
Do acknowledge how a person's personal history might affect their emotional experience.
Common Invalidating Statements
“At least it’s not…” -or- “It could be worse.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
You shouldn’t feel that way.”
“Don’t think about it, just get on with it.”
“You should be grateful that…”
“It can’t be that bad.”
How to Offer Support?
Once you have taken the steps to actively listen, understand, and validate someone, you are in a position to be able to offer them support. To do so effectively, ask permission to offer support or advice. Remember that not everybody who comes to you is looking for a solution; some just want an opportunity to vocalize their thoughts in a safe space.
Offer compassion. Compassion literally means "to suffer together." Compassion compels us to help; it requires action. But sometimes that action is listening non-judgmentally. Sometimes that action is being present. Facing our issues alone can feel lonely and isolating, which exacerbates our pain. The mere act of sitting with and holding space for someone's pain is an act of compassion.
Support them in the way *they* want to be supported. Ask questions to gain a better understanding of how you could best support them.
Examples of good questions you could ask:
1. “How can I support you right now?”
2. “What can I do to help you?”
3. “Can I help you find someone who can assist you with addressing your concerns?”
4. “In the past have you had any supports that you have reached out to you that were helpful? If so, do you think they might be helpful to you now?”
I believe deeply in the healing power of compassion. I have seen it work miracles in the lives of many people. Our relationships, and the world as a whole, will be greatly benefited if we develop the skills of listening, understanding, supporting, and empathizing. It isn't always easy, and it doesn't always come naturally. But being willing to learn and grow in these important skills will always contribute to deeper, richer, and more connected relationships.
Carrie Nicholes is a Maryland Board approved Licensed Certified Social Worker - Clinical (LCSW-C) and the founder of Cedar Counseling & Wellness. Recognized as one of the top therapists in Annapolis, she has a lifelong passion for teaching people tools to improve their lives.