Updated: Apr 6, 2022
“Hey, do you have a minute?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Hey, I just really need to vent right now.”
“Okay, yeah go for it.”
*Friend talks for 10 minutes and I’m thinking hard about what I can say to make them feel better or how to shift their perspective about their problem*
Me: “Well, what about being positive? On the bright side…”
Them: “Ugh, no, you’re not listening. I just don’t want to be positive right now.”
Have you ever been in that situation where you can’t find the right words to say and you’re unsure how to respond to someone’s feelings and you just want to help, but you end up saying the wrong thing? That’s been me. Multiple times.
You’ve probably heard these common words and phrases that make our way into our daily vernacular, so much so, that we’re used to hearing them. They become a natural reaction and we say them without thinking twice.
“It could be worse.”
“Don’t think about it.”
In my desire to help out my friends when they were going through their emotions, I’d end up using phrases that invalidated their emotions. For example, telling someone to “calm down” is saying that they don’t have the right to be angry (but they do!). Telling someone “it could be worse” implies that their problem is not worthy of attention (but it is!). Telling someone “don’t think about it” makes them feel shitty for not being able to stop thinking about their problem (but that’s okay!).
By definition, invalidation is the “process of denying, rejecting or dismissing someone’s feelings.” By doing these, we can inadvertently send the message that “a person’s subjective emotional experience is inaccurate, insignificant, and/or unacceptable.” These can have dangerous and harmful effects, as they cause the invalidated person to second-guess themselves, feel like they’re not “enough,” or crazy.
I realized that although I had good intentions to help my friends feel better or differently, I was in fact invalidating how they felt and not giving attention and space to their emotions.
After some reflection on the language I use and getting feedback from friends who have been gracious enough to help me understand how to support them better, I present to you five common invalidating phrases to avoid:
“I know exactly how you feel.” This shifts the spotlight to you, minimizing their feelings, when you want to focus the attention on the other person.
“I’m sure it wasn’t that bad”/”Be positive!” This minimizes someone’s pain and also forces toxic positivity on them.
“Don’t be so sensitive.” This statement makes them feel like there is something wrong with the way they are.
“Don’t think about it.” Again, this trivializes emotions, and actually, emotional suppression can lead to physical stress in your body.
“I’m sorry you feel this way.” Ah, this can be a hard one to understand, but saying you’re sorry doesn’t make someone else’s pain go away and avoids accountability. According to Dr. Kindman, “I’m sorry you feel that way comes from a self-protective space that only lightly acknowledges their feelings while carving out room for you to defend yourself and explain away your actions.”
Instead of trying to solve their problem for them or prescribe our thoughts onto others, why don’t we start by helping those around us feel supported, seen, and heard? Why don’t we validate them? Note that validation doesn’t mean that we have to agree with how the other person is feeling; rather, we allow their emotions to exist and take up space and acknowledge that it’s okay that they feel that way.
I’ve now shifted towards more active listening and practicing validation.
Here are some tips about how to listen and validate:
Show curiosity: Ask questions that help you understand the other person’s situation more. Get the fuller picture in a non judgemental way.
How long have you been feeling this way?
Can you tell me more about…?
Paraphrase to show understanding: You can say it back to them to make sure you are understanding them correctly; this gives them the opportunity to 1) hear it from another person’s perspective and process it; and 2) correct you if you’ve misunderstood any part of it.
What I’m hearing is… is that correct?
It sounds like you're feeling… because… does that sound accurate?
Ask what they need from you: This means you are able to support them without prescribing your own assumptions on them. Sometimes they may need nothing more from you, upon which your role is to just listen. Other times, they will tell you how you can help.
What can I do to support you?
How can I help you?
Show appreciation that they’ve shared this with you: It takes a lot of trust for someone to be able to open up and share their emotions and part of their life with you. You can show your appreciation and acknowledge that it took a lot of courage on their part.
Thank you for trusting me to tell me this.
I appreciate you reaching out to me and know that I am always here to listen.
Validate and normalize: Let them know their feelings are valid and it’s okay to be wherever they are.
I want to validate how you are feeling. I see you, I hear you, I acknowledge you.
I understand why that would make you feel frustrated and angry.
It’s okay if you don’t know what to do or how to fix the situation; don’t feel like you have to give advice, feedback, or even your opinion. The only thing you really need to do first is be present and listen.
I hope that the next time someone shares something with you, whether your child, partner, or friend, you’re able to fully listen with the intention to understand before the intention to respond. The goal of listening is to step into their shoes to understand what they’re going through, and then validating is the act of letting them know their shoes are an okay place to be in.
By truly listening and giving space, I hope we can all live more authentically and be our true selves.