Validating Emotions: What Does it Mean?

January 29, 2020
Validating emotions is often the starting point when you set out to help someone. In fact, it's one of the main ingredients for this help to be effective.

Validating emotions or people’s stories is such an important and valuable resource that many therapists make it the focus of their therapy sessions. Many of the people who go to therapy do so feeling strange and out of place. They’re suffering an emotional turmoil, and are tossed around by the force of their feelings. In addition, they may not know how they got there or how to navigate through it.

The other day, Alicia said that she didn’t know why she felt sad, as she had a wonderful family and a job she was quite happy with. Fernando said he was angry with himself for not trying hard enough. Luke was eating himself up with worry because his schedule changed and his son got out of school before he could pick him up. He was also angry with himself for feeling this way because he knew it was okay for his son to wait five minutes.

A woman sitting on a bench.

It’s normal for you to feel this way

As therapists, one of the first ideas that we try to convey to Alicia, Fernando, or Luke is that it’s quite normal for them to feel this way. They aren’t “emotionally crazy”. What they’re feeling is consistent with the parallel reality they built for themselves. This is the world they created in the background and that influences their present-day reality.

Thus, when we’re validating emotions, the first important thing we’re able to achieve is to make sure they stop feeling that they’re strange in some way. We may or may not have to intervene, to a greater or lesser degree, but in no case is the person “defective”. They may be very sensitive, have a greater degree of neuroticism, or work with a whole truckload of irrational ideas. However, a “fault” in their makeup is causing it.

This is the starting point, and we tell the patient that they’re capable of doing better. How? By managing their emotions or setting priorities, for example. Therefore, validation also helps to give them back some of the control they think they lost.

Validation in your relationships

In this sense, validation is also a wonderful resource for looking after your relationships. If you do it right, it’ll be a first step, something that’ll never create rejection. And, at the same time, you’ll let the other person know that you’ve listened to them carefully. This is called active listening.

You have to be careful here, though. By telling the other person that what they’re feeling is normal doesn’t mean that their problem isn’t serious. Neither should you let them think that it’s helpful for them to live with such emotional intensity.

You won’t achieve much by telling Luke that it’s fine for his son to wait for a bit, as he already knows that. However, he’s still punishing himself for it. By telling him this, you’ll only make him feel worse, and the same goes for Alicia.

That’s why saying things such as “Stop feeling sad” or “There’s no reason to be sad” is counterproductive. These statements never make a person feel better. They simply add more pressure and obligation to a battle they’re already fighting. What the person actually needs is the opposite. They need others to recognize their effort and to know that they’re fighting that battle.

Two friends having a coffee.

Validating emotions: the best starting point

Thus, validation helps a person express themselves emotionally, without fear of being judged or reprimanded. In addition, as we’ve already said, you also give the other person back the control over their emotions. They’ll feel that you really are a person who’ll help and understand them. They’ll feel that you caught the rope they threw you, meaning it’s more likely you’ll be able to help them.

As you can see, validation is one of the essential elements of any relationship. However, it’s especially important in therapy contexts. In addition to this, it’s also essential in urgent, serious situations.

For example, a person could be very disconcerted if they don’t feel a great deal of sadness about having lost several family members in a tragedy. In fact, they may even think that maybe they didn’t really love them and start to feel very guilty about it. In this situation, the guilt and the sadness can have much in common.

As therapists, we need to understand these factors because we won’t be able to help our patients if we don’t know truly understand their situations.

Linehan, M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York: NY: Guilford Press.