With the proliferation of therapy-speak in the public lexicon, people are more aware than ever of the need to validate the emotions of others. “Your feelings are valid” and other variations get thrown around a lot these days as a result. I must admit that I cringe when I see “valid” being thrown around as often as “lol,” as if emotional validation is sufficiently served as a punctuation mark. While it is encouraging to see people striving to engage in healthy and supportive dialogue with one another at a collective scale, I can’t help but notice that often enough people seem to misinterpret what is meant by the concept of emotional validation.
What does “valid” mean?
I think where wires begin to get crossed is in the word “valid.” I believe in general, most people learn about the meaning of this word within the context of evaluating the merit or accuracy of data and information. When conducting a scientific investigation, we test the validity of hypotheses. Tests used to measure and assess data can be rendered invalid due to shoddy methodology or malfunctioning technology. Logical arguments can likewise be valid or invalid. In these settings, valid or invalid become synonyms for true and false. So what does it then mean to say, “That’s totally valid,” in response to a loved one’s statement, “I’m so sick of my spouse, they don’t care about me”?
While the intended purpose of emotional validation in such an example is to essentially say, “It’s understandable that you are frustrated,” often people instead take it (or even mean it) as, “That’s true, they don’t care about you, no wonder you are sick of them – screw them!” In the latter interpretation, the emotional statement has been treated as a statement of fact about a situation rather than as a piece of data about a person’s emotional state. This is where the trouble starts.
What are emotions for?
When it comes to understanding where the trouble is, it helps to clarify what the purpose of emotions are. Emotions help alert us to our psychological needs, much like hunger tells us when it is time to eat food to fuel our bodies. Emotions often arise in response to environmental conditions, such as conflict with another person or major life changes, but the cause is internal: disrupted or unmet psychological needs. There is a tempting tendency to confuse the cause of emotions for external sources, leading to blame and reactivity towards others. When we give in to this tendency, we are at greater risk of self-abandonment and spiritual bypassing because we neglect to face and name the true problem. Instead, the focus gets placed outwards on variables that fall outside of our control, such as the behavior of others.
Now, I’m not saying that external forces are always blameless when we experience emotions. What I am saying is that emotions aren’t for determining objective facts about situations, they are for prompting us to address our psychological needs for security, intimacy, self-actualization, acceptance, and so on. An emotion does not indicate what date it is, how many people live in your city, or whether or not someone was present at the scene of a crime. Likewise, emotions do not indicate whether someone harbors ill-will towards you or intentionally betrayed you. Emotions DO indicate that you felt hurt by something someone did, or that you are under stress, etc., but that’s different from establishing facts about another person’s intentions or events that occurred. Where does that leave the act of validating the emotional experience of others?
The Purpose of Emotional Validation
The purpose of emotional validation is not to give credence to assumptions about the motivations and moral character of other people. It’s not about giving total affirmation to someone’s interpretation of reality. Emotional validation is simply saying that it’s natural and understandable to experience emotions and that the needs they represent are real needs deserving of attention – regardless of the precipitating situation. We don’t control our emotions, so there is no reason to feel ashamed of them or the psychological needs they represent. We all deserve to take action to satisfy our emotional needs so long as we are respectful of the boundaries and needs of others. That means we also have to be understanding if someone is unable to give us what we need from them. If that is the case, then it is up to us to soothe ourselves through the experience – and if we don’t know how to do that, that’s where therapy can be really helpful for learning new coping skills.
I know it can be very tricky to grasp the subtle difference, especially with everyone on guard about being gaslit these days (that can be a whole other article on its own). I think it is easier to understand this clarification in the context of anxiety. Most people would agree that anxiety is often irrational. Anxiety represents the emotion fear, which arises when we feel under threat and our survival instincts are triggered. These instincts, the fight or flight response, are useful when we are facing serious threats to our life – like being chased by a bear. Not so much when we are worried about what everyone is thinking about us, like with social anxiety.
Does anyone question that the presence of social anxiety is in no way an accurate indicator of what people actually think of us? Most sufferers I’ve known, myself included, generally understand that their fears do not represent reality. In fact, one of my favorite mantras when I am suffering from a bout of anxiety is the gentle reminder that in all my life, almost nothing I have ever been anxious about has ever been true. Experiencing social anxiety isn’t in itself evidence that a thought like, “Everyone secretly judges me and thinks I’m stupid” is true. What it’s pointing to instead is a need for reassurance, because one’s self-esteem or confidence has been challenged in some way. The purpose of emotional validation in this example is to essentially communicate that it’s okay and completely understandable why someone might feel that way, and that they deserve to be reassured that their fears aren’t true. This leads into our overarching question:
Are emotions valid?
Emotions are valid in the sense that they simply are what they are and we do not control when they arise (do you control when you feel hungry or sleepy?) However, emotions do not represent objective truth about our external environment or other people – they represent OUR truth, about what we feel and whether our needs are satisfied. The fact that we feel an emotion at all validates the psychological need or experience it represents, just as feeling hunger is sufficient enough reason to believe we need sustenance. Feeling grief validates that we have experienced a loss, feeling anger validates our need to be respected, and feeling fear validates that we are vulnerable – but all these things can be true contrary to reality. People are messy, and needs and boundaries can be neglected or violated for completely innocuous reasons, and sometimes the triggering event we experience can be entirely abstract! That is why emotions are not sufficient evidence on their own to indict people in the court of law.
Ultimately the lesson here is that we all benefit from trying to understand what our emotions are trying to tell us about ourselves. When you shift the focus away from the external and bring it back to your needs, it becomes a lot easier to identify and create solutions. This is what emotional validation is for. If emotions represented the truth of reality, then us neurotic folk would be hopeless. However, knowing that they instead signal us to address our needs and that those needs are real and important, we become empowered.