The first time I heard the word come up in a therapeutic conversation was several months into my first role here at Walden. I was observing a staff meeting where team members were encouraged to share experiences with their colleagues to receive support, problem-solve on a particularly difficult case or simply take a well-deserved mental health break.
“It sounds like this week has been pretty awful for you,” our Program Director said to one of our clinicians. “What can we do to make you feel a little better?”
”Wow,” I thought to myself. “Way to make her feel even worse…”
To my surprise, the clinician responded, “Ugh, thank you for saying that. It really has. I feel much better just being able to talk about it.”
She looked around at the rest of her colleagues who were doing the “therapist nod” (you know the one). “I feel so validated,” she said.
Though I’ve had a therapist for the majority of my life, I never really identified that the sensation I experienced when I felt heard and supported was actually validation. I had never thought of “validated” as an emotional state.
There is a huge difference between listening and then validating, and listening and then offering a recommendation or a solution. The latter implies that there is something that needs to/or can be fixed. Here’s a standard example:
Me: “Ugh, Mary is so selfish. I’ve done so much for her and she can’t even make time to wish me a happy birthday. I’m just really disappointed.”
Person who shall not be named: “You know how she is, Natalie. She’s had a rough life so it’s not exactly innate for her to be a good friend. You need to stop being so surprised when she lets you down.”
Hm…okay I suppose I appreciated their advice, but it was super invalidating in the moment. Here’s what I wish this person would have said.
Person who shall not be named: “I’m sorry she let you down again. You are a great friend to her and don’t deserve that. I wonder if her upbringing has anything to do with her struggle to be a good friend.”
See the difference?
In eating disorder treatment, validation is used in a variety of ways. We use it to demonstrate the value of one’s feelings, with the goal being that this will create a trusting and supportive healing environment. If someone is constantly being told what to do, or how to do something differently, it can be easy for them to shut down, feeling misunderstood, invalidated and even shamed. We also use validation to help ignite communication and connectedness that those with eating disorders often lack. At its core, validation is meant to bring people together with a shared sense of mutual understanding. The more connected and understood a person feels, the more likely they are to feel safe sharing uncomfortable feelings and experiences with you again.
To demonstrate the value of our client’s feelings:
Client – “I just don’t understand why I’m so terrified to gain weight. I know I need to for my mental and physical health, and STILL can’t bring myself to eat what I need to. Am I crazy?!”
Therapist – “First of all, no you are not crazy. You have an eating disorder which is really good at distorting reality and convincing you that it knows what is best for you. I can see that this is super difficult for you, but let’s try to take another bite together.”
To help foster communication and connectedness back into an individual’s life:
Client in group: “I just feel like none of my friends or family understand why I do what I do. I realize that none of them are going through this, but they haven’t even tried to educate themselves on eating disorders. I just feel so lonely.”
Member of group: “OMG I totally get what you mean. My family does the same thing. They pretend that they know what’s best for me and say that they’re supportive, but then don’t know the first thing about Binge Eating Disorder, which makes it seem like they don’t even care enough to learn more about my struggle.”
Recognizing and accepting someone else’s internal experience is the fundamental piece of validation, and it’s not only for use in a therapeutic setting as demonstrated in the unfortunate conversation above.
The value of validation is powerful and it can be a great tool in improving the strength of all your relationships. We as humans are instinctively structured to crave social interaction. Learning how to effectively listen, communicate, support and be supported by the people in our lives will only improve our quality of life.
Let us know if you have any experiences with validation and how it has helped you in your recovery!
Remember, if you need extra validation or support, we are always here to help : )
Natalie Cohen is the Senior Marketing and Community Relations Associate as well as the Social Media Coordinator for Walden Behavioral Care. In this role, she is responsible for creating content and managing Walden’s social media platforms, cultivating relationships with providers in the community and planning educational events for eating disorder professionals. Her favorite part of working at Walden is being able to act as an advocate for clients suffering with mental illnesses and interacting with other eating disorder professionals in the community. Ms. Cohen earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism with a minor in Children and Family Interaction from the University of Maine in Orono. In her free time, Ms. Cohen enjoys practicing yoga and spending time with her dog, Bella.