Validating Feelings: A How-to... of Sorts.


It should come as no surprise to any of my readers that I am a highly emotional person. I feel lots of feels, and I love going to that space with the people around me. I am comfortable sharing about the aspects of life that don’t feel so good for me, and I also love to share when life feels amazing! I love knowing that I can move so freely through and around my feelings. This freedom is the backbone of all the work I do as a parent coach. Feelings, for me, must be validated and processed through. I learned a long time ago that when feeling are not validated, they become extremely toxic.

Recently, while I was teaching a Positive Discipline class, we talked about moments of encouragement and discouragement from when we were children. We were writing down moments when we felt encouraged by the adults in our lives, as well as moments when we felt discouraged by them. In addition to focusing on the actual encouragement and discouragement, everyone was asked to share what they were “thinking, feeling, and deciding about yourself” in the moment.

At first, the room was silent. Everyone, including myself, just stared at the blank sheets of paper in front of us. After a minute or two, one of the parents broke the silence, saying "This is really hard,” which was followed by a chorus of agreement from all of the other parents. Another member added "I feel it's easier to answer the question about feeling discouraged," which was followed by a collective sigh and a "Yes, it is!"

Members of the class shared times where their parents were quick to label and dismiss their feelings. One member even shared that when she was growing up, her parents said, "I don't even want to hear about your feelings about this,” which lead her to deciding that her feelings didn’t matter. Ultimately, this created a sense of distrust between her and her parents. 

Raise your hand if you can relate to this feeling? (My hand is definitely raised.)

Scenarios like these occur when parents don’t know what to do with feelings and emotions. I've written before about the difference between "emotion" and "feeling." Today is all about learning how to shift and move through those feelings, equipping you and your family for emotional resiliency.

Let me give you an example of why validating emotions is so important:

Imagine coming home from a terrible day at work. Your boss, who you've been battling with about some mundane task, stopped by to reprimand you again about said task. You lose your cool again and mutter something sarcastic, maybe even rolling your eyes. You’ve just had an overall shitty, low-vibe day, and now you've walked in to find your partner making dinner in the kitchen.

You: "Hi."

Partner: "Hi, honey! How was your day?"

You: "Shit. I lost my cool again with bossy pants. I am just feeling so frustrated."

Partner: "I thought we talked about this. You were going to calm down and not let them get to you. Why didn't you work harder to not let that happen? You know it's not going to get any better until you address it and change. Come on, let's eat."

What would you be thinking, feeling, and deciding in that moment?

Is it positive? Would you be feeling motivated and connected to your partner? Are you trusting in this relationship?

Now, what if the "you" in the story above was played by your child coming home from a tough day at school? Again, they talked back to the teacher. Again, they forgot to turn in their homework. Again, they got into a spat with their friend on the playground.

The totally made up scenario above is an example of emotional invalidation. In the same way that we want our partners to validate our feelings, children want us to validate theirs.

“Emotional invalidation is when a person’s thoughts and feelings are rejected, ignored, or judged. Invalidation is emotionally upsetting for everyone, but it is particularly hurtful for someone who is emotionally sensitive.” Karyn Hall, PhD

Emotionally invalidating interactions leave us feeling distant, frustrated, not worthy, and incompetent. Invalidation may come from positive intentions. We want to illuminate a missed opportunity to our loved one, or we hear their grief and quickly move on to fixing the perceived problem. However, the problem is that “fixing the problem” is not what the person is needs. It’s not why they are sharing their pain with you. Validating that pain is the first step to solving the problem.

“Validation is the recognition and acceptance of another person's thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors as understandable. Self-validation is the recognition and acceptance of your own thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors as understandable.” - Karyn Hall, PhD

I love how Dr. Hall points out that validation is all about recognition. It’s about seeing and mirroring back the feelings that are being expressed. Validation is not about agreeing or approving of the feeling. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that the feeling is being felt. Using the example from above, it would look like, "Oh, you sound frustrated with what happened at work. It sounds like you don't like how your boss is treating you. Are you having a difficult time keeping your cool at work?"

The goal of validating feelings is to make the other person feel understood. They are not looking for a solution unless they say "What would you do?" or "What do you think I should do?" If they aren’t looking for an answer, then don’t provide one. Just listen and let them know that they are heard.

Keep this in mind the next time your child comes home from school, after having a bad day. Shift from fixing to understanding and validating. Feeling connected and heard will encourage your children to open up to you more.

Now, I know what you might be thinking- this sounds like "girl stuff." Well, I hope to clear this up quickly! Validating feelings is essential for the feminine AND masculine alike. In 2015, The Representation Project released a documentary entitled “The Mask You Live In.” This documentary questions our hyper-masculine culture, arguing that it is hurting our culture as a whole.

The documentary interviews a retired NFL football player, an inner-city Assistant Principal, advocates, and prisoners facing lifetime sentences for murder. They all share that from a young age, they were all told to "man up" and "act like a man." What they heard was that they had to hide their emotions. The documentary goes on to explain how both parents and pop culture impress upon boys that they must not be emotional—boys are often told that being tough means never being vulnerable.

‘From a young age, we’re taught not to express our emotions,” - Tony Porter, anti-violence advocate

I share this documentary with most (::cough::) ALL of my clients. If you have Netflix, go watch! Like, now. Emotional health is imperative to moving through life, first through learning of their existence, then being fiercely intentional with validating and self-validating the feelings around us and our family. Highs and lows are going to come and knock us over. The true test is how we work with our loved ones to rise and grow stronger from the good times and the bad.

Becoming more comfortable with our own feelings is imperative for the success of our children. We will model and discipline them to feel and express their emotions in healthy strategies. No longer dismiss and denying their feelings, fiercely validating and equipping them with the correct coping tools. When you and you children can feel empowered to connect together, in difficult moments, life and parenting will become more fulfilling throughout your entire life.