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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.