“Validation” and “invalidation” are words that are frequently heard these days. As happens with many technical terms that find their way into everyday language, these words are often used incorrectly, so that “validation” is frequently heard as just another synonym for “agreement,” “approval,” or “praise”; and “invalidation” is misunderstood as simply another word for “disagreement.” This is regrettable, because these terms actually have specific meanings that are quite powerful and important in relationships.
To take a simple example: Suppose I have somehow upset you, and you say to me, “I feel really upset about what you just said.” Notice how you would feel if I made an invalidating response, such as “I don’t want to hear it”; or “Well, you shouldn’t feel that way, so get over it”; or “It makes no sense to feel that way”; or “You can’t feel that way.” By contrast, imagine how you would feel if I responded with validation, perhaps by saying something like “Yes, I see that you’re upset,” or “I can see that you’re upset and I’d like to understand better,” or, if I have enough information to say it truthfully, “It does make sense that this is really upsetting for you.” Validating responses are those which indicate that what you said makes sense (irrespective of whether or not I agree with you), or simply that I am listening to you (with interest in what you are saying, not with criticism). Invalidating responses are those that belittle, criticize, deny or ignore your feelings, or that express disapproval of you for having them.
One does not have to approve of negative behaviors, or give in to demands, in order to validate. For example, “Although I cannot permit you to join your friends in an unsupervised all-night party, I can understand that this is disappointing for you.” Validation requires only that you communicate that you are listening, interested, and trying to understand and respect the sense in what the other person is saying.
Crafting a validating response to another person, especially when one is in conflict with that person, is one of the greatest challenges within relationships. In my next column, I will present some tips for improving one’s skills of validation.
Dr. Stone, a clinical psychologist, is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and Director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Program for Self-Injuring Adolescents at the Westchester Division of New York Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains, New York. He resides in Pawling with his wife, Susan, and their family.