Nature vs. Nurture & Why Validation Matters


By Aliza Shapiro, LMSW

The debate of nature versus nurture has long influenced the way that we, as scientists, therapists, and people, understand our unique personalities and our mental health. Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), discusses the connection between biology (nature) and environment (nurture) in and illustrates clearly that it is the combination of these factors molds an individual’s experience of emotions, relationships, and life. More importantly, the transactional relationship between nature and nurture reveals an unexpected, yet crucial, link in the chain: The impact of validation.

Dr. Linehan explains that the experience of consistent, environmental invalidation can impact our biology, and the interaction of these factors can contribute greatly to emotional disorders (especially for those born with a natural predisposition towards emotional sensitivity). However, when we receive validation – when our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are affirmed as understandable and not judged – we can thrive even if we have a biological vulnerability for mental distress.

People who are raised in invalidating environments are not necessarily abused or neglected. Rather, they are subtly taught that their emotions are not important and should be ignored (or that their feelings “don’t really matter” or are “just plain wrong.”) No parents are perfectly validating, but when children experience invalidation on a constant basis they lose out on crucial learning opportunities to label, identify, and trust their emotions. Perhaps most importantly, they don’t learn how to cope with strong emotional experiences.

Importantly, validation does not mean that one necessarily approves of or agrees with what another person is saying or doing. Rather, validation sends the message that the way that someone feels is legitimate and valid and that the listener comprehends the level of pain/distress that the other is going through. Validation creates a space of emotional safety for the listener. This makes all the difference when experiencing strong emotional experiences; problem-solving and emotional support is made possible by increasing feelings of non-judgment, understanding and closeness/intimacy.

How do we validate? Once we recognize how important validation is, we can start to practice it in our relationships with friends, children, and partners. DBT outlines the six primary aspects of validation through which we can start incorporating this practice into our relationships and everyday lives:

  1. Pay Attention: Simply being present when someone is sharing a painful event is more challenging than it sounds. This first level of validation stresses the importance of putting our phones away and avoiding multi-tasking of any kind when we are in moments of an intimate or difficult conversation. Acting interested is a lot more powerful than saying we are interested.

  1. Reflection: The second level of validation is to understand what the other person is saying, without invoking our own interpretations, assumptions or judgments. Using phrases such as “it sounds like…” or “what I am hearing is…” without criticism can be highly validating since it is an effective way of communicating about emotionally charged topics.
  2. Read Minds: Emotionally sensitive individuals may have difficulty expressing the extent of what they are feeling. They may even have a tendency to mask their emotions because they are unsure if these emotions can be trusted. Tuning into body language, voice tone, and posture can be helpful when someone is in distress but having a hard time putting words to their feelings. Using phrases such as “I’m guessing you’re probably feeling pretty hurt,” can help someone accurately label their feelings (however, make sure you are open to being corrected if your interpretation is off).
  3. Understand the Cause: In level four of validation, we focus on how a person’s life history may contribute to their emotions and behaviors. What experiences have they had which shaped their current emotions? This can be communicated directly. For example, sharing “Given your history of X, how could you be feeling/experiencing anything other than Y?!” can validate a person’s distress and help them see where the emotion has come from.
  4. Normalize: For an emotionally sensitive person, hearing that it is perfectly normal to have a specific emotion in a given situation can be comforting. Try using a phrase such as: “If I were there, I would probably have felt the same way.” Keep in mind, emotions can be understandable and valid, but still ineffective. For example, it can make sense that someone feels angry towards a parent, but acting on that anger by running away from home may not be safe. We, therefore, focus on validating the “what” (feeling angry), but not the “how” (running away from home)
  5. Be Genuine: The final aspect of validation is showing a radical genuineness in communication with the other person. We focus on not treating the other as fragile or inadequate, rather we express that we can relate the other as an equal and that we believe in their capacity to execute emotionally healthy and effective responses to life’s challenges.

Validation is a powerful tool in all relationships: With children, spouses, friends, and work colleagues. When we use these strategies, we cultivate an environment that strengthens relationships, emotional resilience, and a strong sense of emotional identity both within ourselves and those around us, and everyone benefits regardless of their nature.

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I came to the Center for Anxiety for help in dealing with a family member who suffered from extreme anxiety. But I ended up getting a serious illness two months later and started having my own sessions. With the help of my therapist I got through my illness, learned to understand my habits that were making my major life stresses worse, learned to communicate better, taper my anger, and surprisingly I became more calmer even though my hardships in life worsened. Therapy is a lot of work and not easy, but nothing in life comes easy! I became a better and softer mom and (when I practice what I learned) and my kids and home are calmer and happier. I am still a work in progress and have more to work on, but I know I am on the right path. I wish I knew before how my communication style and anger were really impacting my life, how being softer you can accomplish way more then being harsh. I have been to other therapists in the past and I can hands down say that the Center for Anxiety’s approach is really effective. I have even referred a bunch of people to the Center and they have been really happy with the therapists and how much they really care for their patients.
I Tackled a Long List of Fears
When I first came to the Center for Anxiety, my list of anxieties/fears was long! I was scared of getting sick, getting stranded, driving, flying and more. With the help of my therapist, I immediately got to work and tackled every one of my fears. Now the world is open to me and I feel free! I can dream big and accomplish whatever I set my mind to! I am especially grateful that I was able to do all this without having to rely on medication. It was hard work – grueling at times! – but now I have the coping tools within me for life. In fact a family member recently said to me “You are awesome. You can accomplish anything you set your mind to because you don’t let fear stop you! ” Thank you Dr. Rosmarin and the Center for Anxiety staff for helping me get here. My fears no longer limit me and I love my life. Try it, it might turn your life around too!
Highly Skilled and Professional Treatment
When I sought treatment at the Center for Anxiety, the clinic was is in its incipient stages. However, by the time I successfully finished treatment, the Center for Anxiety grew and flourished into a world-class treatment center, offering cutting-edge, evidence-based treatment to countless individuals. The continued success of the Center for Anxiety comes as no surprise to me, with a team that contains such highly skilled professionals who display clinical acumen, empathy, and compassion. When I first entered treatment I was concerned that therapy would be similar to the experiences with past psychologists: a seemingly bottomless pit with no reductions in my anxiety symptoms, but was so relieved when I started to feel less anxious after only a handful of sessions. My therapist created a treatment plan that was tailored exactly to my needs and taught me practical skills to help me work through my anxiety that I still use and practice to this very day.
No More Panic
When I first came in, I was struggling with panic disorder and didn’t even know it, which only made dealing with it that much more difficult. After my first time sitting down with my therapist, however, I instantly started to gain perspective and look at the difficult situation in a different light. Our meetings helped me conquer the issue step by step and get my life back on track. I’d strongly recommend that anyone dealing with anxiety in a way that impacts their day to day life should visit the Center for Anxiety! I know it helped me tremendously.
Free of Obsessions
When I woke up one morning last June and didn’t want to get out of bed, I knew I needed help. The thought of getting through another day with all my anxieties, obsessions and rituals was just too overwhelming. After feeling stuck for years, I just couldn’t anymore. Thankfully, that’s when I found the Center for Anxiety. Dr. Rosmarin and his staff are experts at what they do, kind and professional. After just several weeks I accomplished my initial targets. The change I experienced in such a short amount of time was astounding that I stayed on for a while longer to work on more complex goals. I soon achieved those too. Now, I am free of my obsessions, know how to manage my anxiety, and love my life. My only regret: not having done this sooner. I wish I had known that you don’t have to wait to hit rock bottom to get help.
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I’m 26 years old and I’ve been suffering from terrible depression for 7 years. In the throws of my sadness I literally wanted to die. Soon after starting therapy at the Center for Anxiety, my depression lifted. My suicidal thoughts began to dissipate. I remember the feeling that came over me as soon as the dark cloud above me left. It was the most liberating feeling I have ever experienced. I actually shouted to my friends, family and anyone nearby me “I’m Happy! I am Happy!” I felt free.
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Over the course of four years I developed anxiety-like symptoms (tightness in chest, gut, back) that slowly but surely increased in duration and severity. The EXTREMELY uncomfortable nature of the symptoms notwithstanding, I still continued and managed to function. The effort required to do so, however, left me utterly drained. Having always been a very spiritual person I strongly felt that a course of therapy incorporating a spiritual component could potentially work well for me and decided to give the Center for Anxiety a try. Happily, I have achieved significant symptom reduction, tremendously improved emotional/mental health, and above all, Connection. Medication free. I’m no longer just existing, I’m LIVING. I’ve been given a second chance to become the unique human being that I was meant to be.
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I have wormed in healthcare for 36 years in many different settings, and I have been overwhelmingly satisfied with the Center for Anxiety. When staff says they are going to call, I get a call. From the first contact, I have been very impressed with the professionalism and efficiency. I had a situation and needed to have sessions more than once per week, and my clinicians worked out a schedule to accommodate my needs. I was astounded that they attended to me so quickly and effectively - they made my priority their priority. My clinicians were also excellent at what they do - they have a plan for me each session, and it's clear that they have thought in advance about each session, and that they are listening to what I say and observing what I do, even though our sessions have been conducted via Telehealth. Compassion is a quality that I have all too often found to be lacking in my experiences as a healthcare professional and patient, and this is not the case with the Center for Anxiety. Of all the websites I found on Google, I am so thankful that God guided my hand to yours.
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