When someone we care about is in need, it is common to want to help or even try to “fix” the problem for our loved one. Though our hearts and heads may be in the right place, unsolicited advice or attempts to “fix” a perceived problem may actually lead to more distress for our loved ones when what they really need is to feel safe, understood, and accepted. As a psychologist, I am always trying to decide if my role in a certain situation is to provide ideas and problem-solve or to simply just listen and validate my clients’ experiences. More often than not, it is through listening, normalizing, connecting, and validating another’s experience that people are able to come to their own conclusions and take brave steps towards change.
In this day and age, we are accustomed to quick solutions and can forget that we are human…beautifully complex, flawed humans that do not need to be “fixed.” Instead, I believe one of our purposes in life is to learn how to navigate our own lives, internally and externally. While our friends and family may have plenty to say about how we manage our lives, it is up to each of us to determine what feels right and what does not. Through introspection we are able to explore how our thoughts, feelings, and actions are interconnected and learn how to better handle situations that trigger strong emotional responses. For example, many people turn toward distraction or simply shut down when confronted with a situation or task that seems overwhelming or challenging.
While there are times that distraction and taking a break are warranted and healthy options, these coping mechanisms can quickly become unhealthy if utilized too often. For a child who is struggling to complete an assignment and shuts down, the automatic response from parents may be to push them harder to get the assignment done; however, this only leads the child to feel even more helpless and overwhelmed. Instead, it would be beneficial to sit down with the child and validate their experience by saying that it seems like the assignment seems overwhelming to the child and that we all feel overwhelmed at times. It is through validation that the door opens for more constructive problem-solving, which breeds connection and the opportunity for personal growth.
As adults, we have more autonomy over our lives, but can still get caught in unhealthy patterns. Others may recognize our unhealthy patterns before we do and try to intervene with the best intentions. However, unless a person is ready to take ownership and is open to suggestions, advice may fall on deaf ears or create friction within a relationship if the receiver perceives that they are being judged. Instead, when confronted with a situation where a family member or friend is in need, it is best to empathize, validate, and normalize their experience and express your concern about their choices from a place of care and concern rather than from a place of judgment. When people feel understood and safe, they are more likely to be receptive to feedback and begin making positive changes on their own.
Validation is not saying you agree with what a person is doing or how they are handling a situation, it is expressing acceptance and understanding towards the underlying emotions that are contributing to particular choices. By validating a person’s internal experience you are communicating to them that you are trying to understand what they are going through and are not negatively evaluating them, which lessens the feeling of shame for the person being validated and increases empathy within the person validating. It is then that a collaborative approach towards positive change is more likely, which ends up being a win-win scenario for both parties.
Mary Kathleen Hill, Ph.D.
FamilyFirst Psychological Services, P.C.