September 25, 2017

Mental Health Monday: The most important tool I've learned in psychotherapy

When I started seeing my current therapist a little over a year ago, my expectations were very low. I had seen therapists before (maybe three or four?) and I had just ended the relationship with one--we didn't click at all, and I was getting nowhere. A friend recommended "C", my current therapist, to me, and I am so so so grateful that she did.

While my previous therapist loved to use the "awkward silence" trick (not saying a word until the awkwardness was overwhelming and one of us would finally talk--and it was always me), C talks as much as I do in our sessions. It's not awkward at all. When I'm talking, she listens very attentively, and then I love to hear her thoughts and advice--I've learned so much from her.

The most important tool that I've learned from her actually came about from our very first session. I honestly can't even remember what I talked about that day, but I certainly haven't forgotten what she taught me: validation will get you everywhere in life.

Before you roll your eyes (like I did on the inside when I first heard that word), there is so much more to "validating someone's feelings" than I ever thought. That little phrase is so cliché that it loses its meaning. Once C explained it to me, it was like a lightbulb went on in my head. It was so enlightening! I started practicing it every day, and now I feel that I am a better mom, wife, friend, family member... even writer.

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Whenever I'd heard "validating someone's feelings" before, I thought of what we were taught in middle school: repeat part of what the person says and then state your opinion. "So you're saying that you don't want to hang out with Jenny because..." and following it with "...but Jenny is really nice and there is no reason not to give her a chance." (Or something like that--maybe that was a dumb example.)

The way C explained validation to me was much clearer: People want to be heard. When they state an opinion, they want to know that people actually HEAR it and take note of it, rather than just nodding along until they can give their own opinions.

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Here is an example that I just used on Saturday, when my cross country kids had a race. One of the girls said, "I'm SO nervous!". A likely response would have been, "Oh, don't worry--you have no reason to be nervous! It's just a race. You're going to do great!" Or something like that. A more validating response (what I told her) would be: "I know the feeling--I get nervous before every race! It's totally understandable that you'd be nervous, with all these people around, but I bet that as soon as you start running, you'll forget your nerves and have a great race."

The first response was a kind response, trying to reassure her; but it doesn't validate that she's nervous. To her, the race is definitely something to be nervous about, and she wanted someone to hear that. By telling her that there is nothing to worry about, we aren't validating her feelings about it, and it may make her feel insignificant. Does that make sense?

validation


Here's another example: My friend told me that her mom kept making her feel really guilty for spending time with her new boyfriend. Her mom was used to seeing her much more frequently, and once she started dating someone, her mom was hurt, and started saying things to make her feel guilty.

A reasonable response to her mom would be, "I know I'm not around as much, but it doesn't mean I don't love you. I'm just really excited about dating (so-and-so) and it's harder to make time for everyone. But I'll try to be around more." Not bad. However, a much more validating way to explain it to her mom would be this: "Mom, I know how much it means to you that we spend time together, and I'm so sorry that my time has been split between you and (so-and-so) lately. I miss you, too, so why don't we make a standing lunch date every week? Then we can both look forward to it."

By saying "I know how much it means to you that we spend time together", she is validating her mom's feelings about how important that time is together.

Validation works wonders to calm down an angry person, too. When people are angry, they simply want everyone to know that they are mad, and WHY they are mad. And that they have a reason to be mad about it! A great example of this is actually from when Noah had the largest splinter imaginable in his foot, and we were terribly mistreated at two emergency rooms (in the same health system). Here is the whole story.

After we were dismissed from the first emergency room, I was really pissed off that nobody took us seriously. They talked to me like I was an ignorant mom who had no clue what I was talking about. A little better at the second ER, but still dismissed without the care we needed. After those two visits, I was VERY angry at that health care system. I wrote a letter, explaining what had happened, and I got a call from the director of the emergency department at both hospitals.

I have to say, this woman was VERY good at her job, because as angry as I was, she had me speaking calmly and rationally by the middle of our conversation. She could have said, "Our doctors are trained well, and they know what they're doing. They didn't want his foot to get infected, so they did what they were taught to do: nothing. Let it come out on its own. I'm sorry you're mad, but that's our policy."

However, she validated my feelings by saying things like, "I am so sorry for what happened to your son. I am a mom, and I would have been livid if I was dismissed like that when I knew something was very wrong with him. You must have been so frustrated trying to get care for him, and I'm so sorry that you didn't get the care you needed from us. That was our mistake, and I'm going to talk to the staff about it to make sure nothing like that happens again."

That's all that I wanted--I wanted someone to admit that they could have done a better job and that I have every reason to be angry. Once I knew that she really heard what I was saying, I felt so much better. Calm. Glad that someone got it. Even though I KNEW she was validating my feelings, it worked perfectly.

validation


I could go on and on and on about this topic, but I'll just list one more example. When it comes to parenting, validation has been the most valuable tool I wish I had known years ago! If my kids ask me for something and I say no, all I have to do is validate their feelings and it stops the arguing/whining. Example:

Let's say that Noah wants to spend the entire evening playing video games (a common theme in our house).  Before learning about validation, I probably would have said, "No--it's time to turn off the video games. You need to do something else. Go outside! Play catch with Eli! Throw Joey's ball for him!" and there would have been a lot of back-and-forth arguing.

With validation, I would now say, "I know that you have fun playing the games with your friends online. I get that! There are a lot of times that I'd rather watch TV than do the things I need to do around the house; but I have to do things I don't want to sometimes, just like you. So right now, it's time to turn off the games. I know it sucks, but you'll be okay. And the game will be here later."

Saying it this way lets him know that I know it's not fun to quit playing games with his friends. But we all have to do things we don't want to before we can do the fun things we do want. He just wanted me to know that he didn't just want to "sit on his butt all day and play video games", but rather than he was having fun with his friends. When I told him that I understood that, it satisfied his need for validation.

This is turning into the longest post ever, but I have loved using this validation technique in all sorts of ways ever since I learned it, and I can't even count the number of times it's helped me save an argument.

This works wonders in a marriage, too--C actually had Jerry come in for one of my therapy sessions, and she explained validation to him. She told him that when I am feeling anxious or depressed, and I tell Jerry about it, I just want him to validate the way I'm feeling--not try to convince me to feel otherwise. "I know you're feeling anxious, and I'm so sorry that you're feeling that way. Is there anything I can do?" Rather than trying to solve things. This helped so much! Sometimes, I just wanted him to really hear me when I told him how bad I was feeling.

The whole idea of validation boils down to this: People have feelings that they can't control, and whether we agree with their feelings or not, they just want to be heard. They want us to validate that their feelings are real. Whether we agree or disagree with them, we should just accept that they feel the way they do.

Anyway, I just wanted to share this "tool" that I learned and that has worked wonders in my own life. Hopefully it'll help someone else to prevent some conflicts as well!


27 comments:

  1. Really insightful post-- it applies to so many different situations and has given me some food for thought, thank you for sharing.

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  2. This article is eye-opening. I've been handling things wrong for years (so is my husband ^^ ). Thank you so much for this one.

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    1. My first reaction when this finally clicked for me was that I have been a terrible mother all these years! My therapist assured me that isn't the case, but I wish I'd know all this sooner so I could have applied it years ago.

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  3. Great post and thank you for sharing... lots of wisdom there. Need to work on implementation!

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  4. Excellent post! Thanks, Katie!!

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  5. Such a great post, Katie, thank you!

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  6. What a great post! I need to do this more in so many relationships in my life!

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  7. Wow, this makes so much sense to me. Very enlightening! I never really realized it but I really don't validate people. Just the other night, my husband was angry about something going on with his work and I told him something like, "Its okay, don't be mad, things will work out" and whenever I tell him "don't be mad" or "don't be sad" about things, I don't mean it to sound like a bad thing. I genuinely don't want him to feel bad about anything! But after reading this, I realize that he wants me to listen and understand why he is mad at work. And he probably wants to talk to me about it more.

    Thanks so much for posting! I'm going to re-read and definitely use these tools in my life. I appreciate it!

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  8. This was such an awesome post! I need to learn to incorporate this with parenting my daughter! She has issues with anxiety and it's hard for me because I'm not an anxious person, so I just don't know what it feels like for her going through it. But honestly think this would work wonders obviously! Now training myself to validate vs our normal almost trained way to respond to people! Thanks for sharing!

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  9. What a great post! I often use this method when working with clients/the public, and I hadn't even realized it but I use it with my toddlers all the time! When they're angry or upset I confirm back to them what they're telling me and ask questions that will get a positive response. Like if they're upset because I won't let them wear their muck boots in the house - "You want your boots on?" "I know you want to wear your boots but we can't wear them in the house because..." "Your boots are muddy aren't they?" ... Things I know they will answer with a positive (Yes vs no) and validating what they want 99% of the time will stop the arguement/tantrum.

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  10. Oh my gosh, I'm going to try this on my toddler! We struggled AGAIN this morning to get him to go potty and get dressed but he wanted to watch Curious George (side eye to my husband for turning it on in the first place.) Maybe tomorrow if I say I know it's hard to get dressed when you want to watch cartoons, I wish I could stay home and watch TV too it will go smoother.

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  11. I've heard of this, I know what it is; but your way of explaining it is great. I need to change my way of things to include this. THANK YOU!

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  12. Great blog and wonderful advice. Sometimes my husband complains to me about someone or something and I try to validate the actions of the situation. He even told me once that he just wanted me to "be on his side," and not try to justify what they had done to "wrong" him. He wanted validation. I will remember and use this.

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  13. My mom taught me a similar thing...the "feel, felt, did/do" statement.
    I know how you feel, I have felt that way too, and this is what I did/do, we did/do...

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  14. SO good. I even wish you gave more examples! This does not come naturally to me AT ALL. I am a direct communicator who loves efficiency. This doesn't bode well for validating communication. AND I would like to do better. Did you therapist recommend any books on it?? I need more tools in my tool box :)

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  15. Woah. Mind blown. That makes so much sense!! Another tool in the toolbox for how to help my husband when he’s anxious. Thank you for sharing!!

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  16. I'm so glad I read this today, Katie! Princess is having a major meltdown at college and I know there is really nothing I can do about it from here. I know she is depressed and anxious and I didn't want to brush that off, so I just told her that I realize things are difficult for her right now, and that it really sucks, and that I love her to pieces and will always be there for her. I'm hoping that was helpful. On my way to my weekly therapy appointment right now where I hope to get some validation of my own!

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  17. Great post! I'm definitely going to try this thing at work and in my personal life too.

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  18. I also found this helpful and plan to start trying to use some of these techniques at work and at home with hubby and kids. My kids are both grown and out of the house, but I'm sure they could still use a little validation from Mom anyway! Thanks so much for sharing this with us!!!!

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  19. I love this! Great explanation. I might validate on occasion but I definitely should do it more often, in all areas of my life. I will be reading this blog post a few more times for it to sink in.
    Thanks so much for writing it!

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  20. I did a dialectical behavior therapy program and that was one of the skills I learned. It is so helpful! They also taught us to do self validation. I'm so glad you are getting treatment that is helpful. I just got diagnosed with bipolar after having been treated for depression and anxiety for over 12 years and needing treatment long before that. I'm hoping I can start feeling better soon too.

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  21. Loved this post and I recognize I have some work to do.
    Thank you.

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  22. Love this post! I’m going to try to incorporate it in daily interactions.

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  23. An awesome post and one I so needed to read today... My oldest loves playing games online with his friends or face time with them and it always ends in a mad battle when it's time to get off of them and do other stuff. Do believe I will be trying the validation ideas tonight!

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