Communication Skills - Don't Be Invalidating

R. Skip Johnson

When it comes to emotional intelligence, one of the most advanced skills is learning how to become more validating and  less invalidating.

Often, if we are experiencing a communication breakdown, or if there is a wall between us and someone else, it most likely has been built with the bricks of invalidation.

This is a powerful tool and life skill. Mastering it will greatly elevate your emotional intelligence and your "people skills".


Different People Have Different Validation Needs

We are often unaware of how we invalidate others. We can also  be insensitive to the fact that some people are invalidated more easily than others and some people need an "extra helping" of validation to feel good about themselves. The latter is particularly true of people experiencing difficult times or a loss and of people who are highly sensitive, insecure, have low self esteem or who are easily intimidated. 

This is a very necessary tool for dealing with people with Borderline Personality Disorder.


At Its Core, Validation is About Accepting, Not Judging Others

Validation of feelings is vital to connecting with others. The mutual validation of feelings is important in all phases of relationships including building, maintaining, repairing, and improving them.

To validate someone's feelings is first to accept someone's feelings - and then to understand them - and finally to nurture them. To validate is to acknowledge and accept a person. Invalidation, on the other hand, is to reject, ignore, or judge.

So what happens when this dynamic breaks down?  Let's say one family member has very high validation needs, or one member is invalidating, or both have high validation needs, or both are invalidating?

Often, unidentified or unrecognized and invalidated feelings are at the heart of relationship issues and problems. Understanding the fate of an invalidated feeling/experience is eye opening and can be a significant motivator to investing in learning to better validate.  

The fact is that problems in relationships are often a result of what individuals do with invalidated feelings:

  1. Dissociation - they can keep them out-of-awareness, a part of not-me, hidden.
  1. Projection - another option is to get rid of them, discard them, put them into someone else, project them.  

Unfortunately hiding (dissociating) or getting rid of (projecting) feelings is never the last of it. Invalidated feelings have a way of coming back to haunt the relationship over and over.   This is not an issue unique to Borderline Personality Disorder - this happens in all types of relationship - and we often do it, too.


Applying Validation in Your Life

The concepts of "not invalidating people" and the concept of "being validating" are really easy to grasp, intellectually. In practice, however, many of us fumble with this life skill. 

Invalidation is often very subtle - we don't even realize we are doing it. It can be as simple as negative body language, a look or not saying something when one would expect something to be said.

Validation, on the other hand, is not mindless submission to another person. "Yes dear, thank you for pointing out that I am wrong again, it's so wonderful to know you will correct me in front of others". We never need to validate the "invalid". Validation is not about weakness and submission. Nobody respects that.

This is an excellent video covering the nuances of validation and invalidation. Fruzzetti mentions (at 3:05 minutes) that validation/invalidation is not so much about facts ("yes dear, I always run traffic lights"), but is more about the other person's:

  1. wants,
  2. thoughts, and
  3. feelings.

These are the things we don't pick up on, misunderstand, minimize, and sometimes criticize and even pathologize.


Validation Sounds Simple Enough

If you're like most people, you probably feel that you are quite adept at validating others. Let's look a little closer at this.

We all know how to validate someone with whom we agree. However, where validation skills are most valuable is in dealing with situations where we disagree or are in conflict with someone.

In these situations, it can be difficult to find something to validate while remaining true and authentic to ourselves. It can be even more difficult to find the motivation to counter our own emotional instincts and our proclivity to reject, ignore, or judge.  And all of this may be further complicated by the fact that we are tired, frustrated, fearful, or holding onto resentments.

Even though we know that listening carefully is important in relationships, it can be very difficult to recognize when we aren't succeeding at it. We are often more aware of not being listened to (heard) than of our own shortfalls of not listening to others.   We may be reacting and resentful ourselves to a lack of being validated.  Self-awareness is key.

  1. People with BPD have high validation needs - often very high. People with BPD are also very erratic in their validation of others - they can be extremely validating (over validating) and flip over and become very invalidating -  sometimes resentful of the validation that is being sought or that they previously expressed.  And, a person with BPD can get extreme in the use of dissociation and projection.
  1. As relationship partners, we often have our own "above average" validation needs.  Let's face it, we were attracted to the uber-validation that was showered on us early in the relationship - it was a significant part of the attraction.   As a result, we often have our own struggles when we don't get what we feel we need and we then process it in unhealthy ways too.  It's human nature all around.
  1. And as parents we often have our own "above average" validation needs.  Let's face it, tendencies run throughout a "BPD family"; we often have above average needs for validation ourselves.   As a result, we often have our own struggles when we don't get what we feel we need and we then process it in unhealthy ways too.  

In a "BPD family" there are going to be validation issues.  As the healthier family member, it falls to us to try to achieve some level of working validation for the relationship; to be the leader.

That often means that we need to be very conscious of the high validation needs of a person with Borderline Personality Disorder and try to provide for them in a healthy and constructive way.

It often means that we have reacted in unhealthy ways to feeling invalidated by a person with Borderline Personality Disorder . We need to fix ourselves (the person with Borderline Personality Disorder isn't going to fix us) and we need to disengage a bit from the push/pull and invalidinng habits common to person with Borderline Personality Disorder.

Validation certainly isn't easy at first, but with practice it can  become second nature.  Very few people come to this naturally - it is a learned skill.


Remaining True to Ourselves

Let's first look at the importance of being true and authentic to ourselves. If we can't be true and authentic, we are sacrificing ourselves for the benefit of another, and we are most likely enabling another person's dysfunction. This helps no one.

For these reasons, validation is never about lying, it is not about being ruled by the emotions of others, and it is not letting people "walk all over us". We never want to validate the “invalid”.

Validating someone's thoughts, feelings, or beliefs does not necessarily mean we agree, overall, with what they are thinking, or feeling, or with their behavior.

So, the first thing to learn in validating others is to be able to identify something to validate in a "sea" of conflict that is both valid and important to the other person.


Finding The Validation Target

Finding a validation target and mirroring it back from the other person's perspective (empathizing) is the crux of effective validating. There are two critical steps here. Finding the target. Empathizing with the other person.

An ideal target is one that is close to the other person's emotional epicenter.  It could be as simple as validating how the other person feels.  It could be mirroring back the other person's rationale of how they are seeing things and why they feel the way the way they do. It could be picking up on secondary elements that they're experiencing which are true, and confirming that. 

Empathizing with the person when validating the validation target is extremely important. There is little empathy in saying “I'm sorry if not having the car tonight makes you feel bad”. It's much more empathetic to say "Wow, after telling your friends that you would drive everyone to the movie tonight, I can really understand how embarrassing not having the car is".

Your daughter is upset because her husband cut up her credit card. She says he's treating her like a child and is very controlling. When you probe further you discover that he cut up the cards because she bought expensive shoes that they could not afford.

You validate by saying, "I understand, you are upset because your husband cut up your credit cards without your agreement--that made you feel like he was acting like your parent."

You reflect her thoughts and emotions back to her, showing that you accept her feelings and internal experience and then ease into your conversation and explore a broader perspective.


Stop Being Invalidating

It's important to stop for a minute, and look at what we've been doing. Often, and without knowing it, we have been extremely invalidating and contributing to the conflict. If we're going to start validating, we need to stop being invalidating.

This often requires careful reflection on our own behavior.

It's very easy to invalidate someone. While ignoring, minimizing, name-calling, and blaming are clearly invalidating, subtle things like facial expressions, body language, and word choices can be equally damaging.

There are lots of reasons we become invalidating, we can be overwhelmed. We can be in a hurry. We can be protective/over-protective.

An "ounce" of invalidation can nullify a "pound of validation". The first step is to stop making things worse.


Other Helpful Tips

Marsha Linehan, Ph.D.,Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, has identified six helpful tips for validating:

  1. Be Present and Open
  2. Accurate Reflection
  3. Reading Between the Lines / Mindreading
  4. Understanding the Person's Behavior in Terms of their History and Biology
  5. Normalizing or recognizing emotional reactions that anyone would have
  6. Radical Genuineness

Be Present and Open Turn off the TV, step away from the computer, or stop washing the dishes, and lean forward and show you are paying attention and carefully listening. Hear the facts, nod your head, ask questions - take it all in before starting to form an opinion or evaluate (judge).

Accurate Reflection  Communicate back that you've heard the other person accurately, and without bias. This can be done by repeating what the person said, though it can be better to paraphrase so you don't sound like a parrot. Proves that you are listening to what the other person is saying.

Reading Between the Lines/ Mindreading  Create a hypothesis about what you believe the other person is trying to say but maybe "not" expressing well. You can narrow this down by asking a question - guessing and asking if ___________ is accurate.

Validating in Terms of Personal History or Biology  We are an amalgamation of what has happened in our lives. On some level, based on our history, our actions make sense. If we ever lived through a tornado, for example, we would have a higher response to the warning sirens than others. Letting the other person know that their behavior makes sense based on their past experiences shows understanding. Our physical problems also influence how we behave. A person who has a bad back has difficulty sitting for long periods of time. Making reference to their limitations shows understanding and empathy.

Normalizing  It helps to communicate that others would have the same response, where we can authentically say this. When we normalize what people are feeling we find a way to communicate that the experience is part "human", that anyone in the same situation would feel the same way.  We avoid shaming or giving the message of being defective. This is powerful. Of course, there are things you shouldn't normalize, such as suicidal behavior. Don't normalize behavior that is not normal.

Radical Genuineness  Be completely (radically) genuine. To be radically genuine is to ensure that we are not remedial and we don't marginalize, condescend, or talk down to the person you are trying to validate. And we don't want to treat them as fragile or any differently than you would treat anyone else in a similar situation.

Interested in reading more or commenting? 





Last modified: 
January 04, 2021