Consider how often, when someone shares a problem or a concern, the response by others is something like:
- “It’s going to be okay”
- “You’ll handle it just fine!”
- “You are so smart/capable/creative so don’t worry“
- “You always figure out problems – just give it a little time.”
Think about how often we jump into conversations where someone shares a problem or concern by giving some kind of reassuring statement that basically says, “It really isn’t a problem,” or “It really isn’t that big a problem,” or “You are so capable you’ll figure it out.” While the intention is genuinely caring with an underlying desire to be supportive, these statements can be experienced as discounts that put down how serious the problem is or the reality of how hard someone is struggling with something.
An article by psychologist Dr. Jamie Long entitled, “What is Invalidation? Five Things You Shouldn’t Say” describes these kinds of statements as invalidations. In the article Dr. Long states the following:
“By definition, invalidation is the process of denying, rejecting or dismissing someone’s feelings. Invalidation sends the message that a person’s subjective emotional experience is inaccurate, insignificant, and/or unacceptable.
Invalidation is one of the most damaging forms of emotional abuse and can make the recipient feel like they’re going crazy! What’s scary, it can be one of the most subtle and unintentional abuses. The invalidated person will often leave a conversation feeling confused and full of self-doubt.”
Dr. Long says that sometimes invalidation is a form of manipulation, an attempt to control, or even cause psychological injury. Sometimes the person who is invalidating someone has low empathy or compassion, or just doesn’t understand or value the importance of validating another person’s thoughts or feelings. Those who invalidate often are very well-intended, desiring to help someone feel better.
Here are some common invalidating, discounting statements Dr. Long shares:
- “At least it’s not…” -or- “It could be worse.”
- “You shouldn’t feel that way…”
- “Think happy thoughts. Don’t dwell on your problems.”
People can feel very uncomfortable when witnessing someone else’s discomfort, stress, or pain. Statements that are invalidations often come from a place of compassion, a desire to help somebody feel better.
The actual impact on the person on the receiving end includes feeling alone and misunderstood, dismissed, and/or devalued.
How can we respond when someone is hurt or struggling? We do the opposite of invalidation: we validate. We say things that acknowledge someone’s experience and feelings. We acknowledge their pain, their disappointment, their loss, and grief.
- “You are feeling so hurt because…”
- “You expected … and then when this happened instead. It made you feel…”
- “You were blindsided when…”
- “You are deeply grieving the loss of….trust, hope, security, a friendship.”
It’s hard not to rush in when someone is hurting and attempt to stop their pain by using reassuring statements. It can seem uncaring to stick with validating someone’s needs, feelings, or issues. That is, until you do it and see how people respond to being understood and appreciated, their relief, appreciation, and even the freedom to do some of their own problem solving once their feelings are validated.
I challenge you to become more aware of how you respond when someone is struggling and more mindful about validating their thoughts and feelings. At first it can feel very foreign. Over time and with practice, my hope is you will experience the other person’s relief and freedom to feel what they feel.
Once someone has been adequately validated, it is okay to throw in some statements that reassure and encourage them.
Invitation for Reflection
- Do you recognize that you often try to care for someone who is struggling by reassuring them?
- Do you see how reassuring can be invalidating and can do the opposite of what you were intending?
- Notice what happens when you respond to someone’s pain by validating that pain. How does that impact how you will respond in the future when someone shares that they are struggling?