Validation is conveying to someone that you understand how he or she feels, thinks, or behaves. It doesn’t mean you feel the same way or even that you agree, it just means that you understand why they feel, think, and act as they do. The inability to receive consistent validation in a relationship leads to chronic dissatisfaction, loneliness, and resentment.
When someone validates us, it makes us feel understood and valued. Despite our desire to be validated, many of us find ourselves being invalidated on a regular basis. In our frustration to be understood, we often inadvertently end up misunderstanding and invalidating others. It becomes a vicious cycle. The more we want to be understood, the more we make the other person wrong. The more we make the other person wrong, the more they invalidate us. We both end up feeling misunderstood, alone, and frustrated.
For many of us, invalidation started in childhood. We were frequently told that our feelings were wrong, silly, inappropriate, or unimportant. Instead of learning to trust our emotional responses, we learned to doubt them. Instead of turning inwards to understand how we feel, we turn to others to tell us what’s “right.”
The more we need others to tell us our feelings are justified, the more upset and angry we become when that doesn’t happen. When we can’t validate ourselves, we often become single minded in our attempts to get others to validate us. Often, without realizing it, we become invalidating ourselves. We not only feel dismissed and misunderstood, we often dismiss and misunderstand others.
Three Types of Invalidation
Marcia Linehan identified three common ways that people are invalidated.
1. Invalidating valid emotions that anyone would feel in the same situation: Anger, fear, sadness, embarrassment, frustration, and disappointment are all normal emotional reactions to normal life situations. If we are told that our valid emotions are wrong, silly, or stupid, we are being invalidated.
2. Validating the Invalid: Sometimes the healthy expression of emotions and thoughts are ignored and it’s only when we have an extreme reaction that we are heard. It’s our invalid or unhealthy reactions that get rewarded. This happens with children who don’t get attention unless they throw a tantrum. But in dysfunctional environments, it can happen to adults as well. You tell your boss that the work load is too heavy and it’s only after you take a stress leave that your boss listens, or you express unhappiness to your partner to no avail until you pack your bags and leave. People don’t feel validated if they are ignored until they reach a crisis point.
3. Oversimplifying Problems: When someone offers simple solutions to complex problems, it invalidating. When a woman complains to her husband about her job and his response is, “Just quit,” he is over-simplifying and dismissing the problem. When a parent tells a child to ignore a bully or to fight back, the parent is oversimplifying the problem. When we tell anyone who is anxious or depressed to just think or behave differently, we are oversimplifying the problem. Complex problems that are overly simplified send the message that the person should be able to figure this out quickly and easily, and if they can’t, the problem is with them.
6 Levels of Validation
1. Mindful listening or listening with your full attention. I was in a restaurant and a young boy, around six years old, was chatting away to his father who was texting on his phone. The child got really close to his dad and said in a calm, clear voice, “Look at me and listen.” I was struck by the simplicity of the child’s ability to recognize he was being invalidated and his ability to ask for what he wanted. He made it look so easy. Giving someone our undivided attention when they talk is the most basic form of validation. Ignoring or only half listening is invalidating. It sends the message “You are not important.”
2. Accurately reflecting what the person is saying and feeling. Too often we tell someone how we feel that they misunderstand or put a negative spin on it. Twisting our words or missing the point is invalidating.
3. Accurately reflecting the unspoken thoughts and feelings. Sometimes we need to look beyond what is being said to what is not being said. It’s okay to guess inaccurately because it shows that you are trying to understand and it opens the door for the person to clarify and expand on what is going on. Stating a negative assumption, such as “You just can’t stand being wrong,” is always interpreted as invalidating.
4. Understanding the person’s behaviour in light of their past or personality. Perhaps not everyone would feel the same way in the same situation. For example, not everyone is afraid of driving, but given that the person had a serious accident six months ago, it’s understandable that he or she would be afraid of driving. When not everyone would feel a certain way, it’s validating to express an understanding of the circumstances that cause a person to feel a way that is unique to them.
5. Acknowledging the person’s reactions, thoughts, and feelings as normal and understandable under the circumstances. The highest form of validation is to let the person know that anyone, including you, would feel the same way under the circumstances. We are all human and share the same instinctive emotional reactions to many events. We are all disappointed when something we are looking forward gets cancelled. We all are hurt when we are unfairly and harshly criticized. We are all sad when we lose someone or something important to us. We are all angry when we or someone we love is violated. Identifying with and normalizing someone’s experience is the highest form of validation.
6. Being radically genuine. The validation must be genuine in order to be validating. Saying it and not believing it is insincere and invalidating.
Validation is the most important skill in DBT. Validation starts with self-validation. The more we validate our own experience, the more we are able to accept and validate other people’s experience. Validation is the cornerstone of healthy relationships. Invalidation is the source of friction, loneliness, and hurt feelings in relationships. If you want to improve any relationship, whether with your children, spouse, or parents, increase your validation of the person. Relationships are interactive. You will find that the more you validate others, the more they in turn, validate you.
To learn more, or if you are interested in counselling services, please visit Validity Counselling's homepage,
Author: Jenny DeReis
Jenny is CEO and therapist at Validity Counselling in Prince George, BC. She has a Master's Degree in Counselling Psychology from the University of Calgary.
Jenny has intensive and advanced training in DBT from Dr. Charlie Swansen, author of several books on DBT . She has also received DBT training from the Behavior Tech Institute, and from DBT expert Sherri Van Dijk.