When you have a parking ticket validated, what does it mean? Validation means “Yes, you were here in this place, in this time. Yes, you were here. You stood in this place.” People in pain are often seeking validation. Unfortunately, what they often receive instead is unhelpful advice or platitudes.
For example, Tami’s son died in a car accident when he was only 23 years old. She lived in a very small town. For more than a year afterward she was reluctant to venture out to the grocery store for fear of running into someone she knew who would want to talk to her about Nate. And then one day, she was feeling better so she went to Wal-mart. And then it happened -- She ran into the well-meaning friend. The friend who had two young adult sons of her own and told Tami “You are better off because now you don’t have to deal with all of the problems of young men – drugs, alcohol, unemployment…” Seriously, she essentially told Tami, you are better off now that your child is DEAD. Giving validation would have been something like “Yes, you are here in this terrible space of grief at this time. And that is perfectly okay.” Validation.
My friend, Susie divorced after more than 30 years. She was absolutely shocked to discover that her husband had been cheating for a couple of years with his assistant. A woman she considered a close personal friend. Susie experienced a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for a few days. Friends told her she just needed to “get over it” and “move on with her life.” As if one can simply “get over” a 30 year marriage. This well-meaning advice was not helpful. All Susie wanted was someone to validate her devastation. Yes, you are here in this devastating place, the ruins of a long, happy marriage. And it is okay to feel devastated. Validation.
Sam is 33 and has been diagnosed with Hogkins Lymphoma. He is a successful film editor and had been in perfect health up until the shocking diagnosis of Cancer. Cancer is a bad word to the extent that we even call it the “C-word.” Sam has started chemotherapy for a very treatable form of cancer. But he can no longer go to his church on Sundays. His church, which should have been a place of emotional support, now must be avoided. Because his “friends” at church have been persistently asking Sam what is on his Bucket List – implying that he has Cancer and is going to die young. So he better get started on that List right away. And he has a very treatable form of cancer! But even if he didn’t, this question from friends would not be helpful. No one is listening to hear where Sam is – that he is a space of hope and optimism for his treatment. He wants his friend to validate his experience. He just wants them to reflect back – “Yes, you have cancer and that is scary but the chemo is going to treat it.” Yes, you are here in this scary place at this time. And that is okay. Validation.
As human beings in a social world, we often want to speak words to each other to comfort And we are often very anxious – for we don’t know what to say to those that we love. A loved one dies. A spouse leaves. A child goes off to college. And a well meaning friend says, just give it some time and you will feel better. Time? I don’t care about time?! I am hurting right now! Don’t tell me just to wait!
When my mother was dying, one of her closest friends, came to visit. And she told my mother that God had a plan for her in heaven, some job or task that he needed her to do. This was extremely unhelpful. Not only was it not comforting to my mother but it greatly upset her.
By contrast, when my mother said to me, “I don’t understand. I don’t understand why other people recover from cancer and I didn’t. I don’t understand why this is happening now.” I replied with “I don’t understand either. I know you have many things left that you want to accomplish. Grandma Iola died this year but she was 92. She lived a full life and she was ready to go. Her death made sense to me but I don’t understand your illness either.”
I didn’t offer an explanation. I didn’t try to fix anything. I didn’t tell her how great life would be as an angel. I did not offer any theology at all. I simply agreed with her. I validated her feelings.
So I’ve realized recently that this is the single most important thing I learned as a therapist. And I hope I can do it consistently with my friends and family. I VALIDATE their feelings. I go directly to where you are emotionally and say ITS OKAY TO FEEL THAT WAY.
There is no right or wrong way to feel, just like there is no right or wrong way to grieve. I hate it when someone says “He hasn’t cried about his wife’s death. He isn’t dealing with it properly.” Where was it written that one has to cry in order to grieve? That is ridiculous. We all cope with life and feelings in our own way. And the most powerful gift you can offer a friend in distress is simply to hear them. And say, yes, of course you are scared because your child has cancer. Of course you are angry that your wife cheated on you. Of course you are sad about your friend’s death.
In therapy, the first appointment is called the Intake. That is when the psychologist or therapist gets the story. And it usually takes all of that 1 hour appointment just to get the background and the story of why the person has arrived at the doorstep of therapy. Shockingly, more than 70% of people never return after the first appointment. Did the therapy fail? What happened? Research shows that those clients never return because they feel better. Imagine. They feel better after simply telling their story to someone who listens without judgment, or advice, or platitudes. Someone who just listens and validates where they are.
Next time you have a friend in pain, could you just listen? And could you do that without adding on a solution, or a platitude? Without saying “You should rush your child this specialist I know.” Or “Time heals all wounds.” Or “You are better off without a wife.” Or “She is in a better place now.” Could you validate where they are at this time in this place of emotional upheaval? Could you validate your friends and family? Could you just say of course you feel that way. That is perfectly normal. I hear you and I understand how upset you are.
What if that conversation in the grocery store were to end differently? When Tami said what a shock her son’s death was, what if her friend said “Or course it was a shock. 22 years old is so young. I can’t imagine how that feels as a mother.” And then they might have hugged. Her grief would have simply been validated in the moment. If you can do this for loved ones, you will begin giving those you care about a tremendous gift. “I validate that you are here, in this place, today. And that is perfectly okay.”