Obstacles to Validating Effectively: Fear of Validation Failing or Making Things Worse

Validation often works in bettering interpersonal relationships, and yet sometimes it does not for various reasons. Three major stumbling blocks in offering validation are the feeling that you are right (so why should you validate the other), your sense that it is the wrong step to take educationally (as it implicitly affirms the other’s position) and the fear that it is not going to work.

I have addressed the former two issues elsewhere. Here I would like to address the fear that it will not work and/or that it will even make the situation worse.

Validation Stumbling Blocks: “It’s not working!” and “It’s Making the Situation Worse!” 

(1) Since validation can come across as condescending or even manipulative when the validator fails to truly empathize with the validee, we need to work on attaining true empathy (See Brene Brown: and compassion (even if we do not agree). If you manage to channel these emotions and use the right tone, language, and facial expressions you are much more likely to reach your loved one, even though sometimes you may do everything right and not succeed (more about this later).

Tips to Increase Empathy:

(A) Work on Family Connection’s basic assumptions (1-3), so that you can increase compassion and validate effectively. They will help you break free of an unhealthy paradigm, so you can effectively validate. Remember to practice putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.

(B) Read Beyond Borderline regularly or repeat Marsha Linehan’s mantra about BPD sufferers being like third-degree burn victims whose sensitivity to any breath of air causes excruciating pain. These techniques may help you can remain in compassionate mind even in the heat of the moment.

(C) Ponder the following, “It is unbelievably arrogant to think that you can know another’s pain; how sensitive to stimuli someone else is and how great their pain is objectively are not something anyone else can know, even in a mundane case of “I am hungry.” So, making assumptions is terribly invalidating, especially if you downplay someone else’s pain. This does not mean that you should validate the invalid, but it does mean that you should definitely focus on finding the valid parts and validating them.

(2) The key to validating is demonstrating understanding of the other. Oftentimes we make erroneous assumptions about what others are thinking. So it is crucial to gently probe for information first, so you are validating what needs to be validated (say, the underlying emotion of fear, not the manifested anger). Validating the wrong thing just proves how much you don’t understand your loved one! But, remember that if you make the wrong educated guess about what your loved one is experiencing, you can always STOP: take a step back, gently apologize, and try again. (STOP = Stop, Take a Breath, Observe the Situation, Proceed Mindfully)

(3) Remember the different types of validation and try to use the most appropriate one. Sometimes people may prefer nonverbal validation over what seems to them to be an intrusion into their personal space. You can just leave some cold juice and some fruit out on the table for a grumpy child returning from school or a chocolate on someone’s pillow. Sometimes silence is the best option. These demonstrate your understanding and support without getting into the details they may not be ready to even admit to themselves.

Remember that you are trying this approach because the other ones you have tried have failed. It takes time to learn a new approach and truly internalize it. Give yourself the time. Try to trust the method, which has worked for so many others, even though you are in great pain and want a solution right now!!


(4) If your loved one is in emotion mind (now or always) and completely rejects the very notion of any implicit or explicit support, you may need to radically accept this and give her space. She cannot hear you now. Reiterate that you love her and that you need to leave the room now for the sake of the relationship, so that you don’t have a damaging fight, and then calmly walk out of the room with your head held high, empowered, knowing that you have done the most effective thing.

If your loved one’s emotional state is temporary, try again later or tomorrow. If you need to grieve over the intimacy you have just lost and the perpetual assault you are under, please do so. This is far more effective than ruminating over the injustice of it all and letting the anger course through your veins, so that you cannot think clearly.

Remember that validation may not work today or tomorrow, but if it becomes a way of life it will ultimately bear  fruit (in most cases), sometimes bushels full.

(5) Sometimes, your loved one may attack you as you try to validate them. Such a reaction (even if you do a clumsy job at validating) is very hurtful and is a clue to the fact that you have really hit a raw nerve. Instead of justifying your actions (getting involved in a fruitless debate about the content of your actions) or responding in righteous anger, walk away calmly and take some time to think about where this response is coming from. Be a detective. Perhaps by doing so, you will increase your empathy or enable yourself to realize what actually needs to be validated, so you can respond to the validee’s emotional content (not the factual content).

Alternatively, notice your own automatic response to his response. How might you react more effectively? How can you help yourself remain in wise mind, and perhaps change the tone or tenor of the discussion.

(5) The great validators (at least in therapy) manage to hang in there. As long as you can avoid taking it personally and remain in wise mind there is hope, but it takes great skill and stamina. As a therapist, this is easier to do, since you are not as personally involved and your patient usually has a greater sense of your limits. However, family members can still hang in there (sometimes). To get a sense of how to do this, watch Fruzzetti and Swenson’s role plays. Notice the complex dance they weave between acceptance and change (the fundamental dialectic in DBT), and how they repeatedly validate and gently return the conversation to where they feel it needs to be going.

(1)    Alan Fruzzetti and Emily Role Play:

(2)    Alan Fruzzetti and Alice therapy session:

(3)    Swenson and Katie introductory therapy session:

For a masters classes in validation, see the following webinars given by McLean Hospital clinicians:

(1) “Validation: Making Sense of the Emotional Turmoil in Borderline Personality Disorder”
Originally aired Thursday, October 13, 2016
Hosted by Gillian C. Galen, PsyD, Program Director, 3East Intensive and Step-Down Residential Programs

Dr. Galen reviews the critically important skill of validation. She discusses the ways in which you can either begin or continue to practice the skill of validation with those in your life, particularly those diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

(2) “An Open Discussion on Validation”
Originally aired Thursday, June 29, 2017
Hosted by Gillian C. Galen, PsyD, Program Director, 3East Girls Intensive and Step-Down Residential Programs

In a previous webinar, Dr. Galen discussed the critically important skill of validation. As part of our Open Discussion webinar series, in this webinar, Dr. Galen answers questions from participants about challenges that they have experienced when trying to use validation.

(3)“I Want to Understand: An In-Depth Approach to Validation of Your Loved One with Borderline Personality Disorder”
Thursday, June 7, 2018, 4-5pm EDT
Hosted by Candace K. Eddy, LICSW, 3East Boys Intensive Program

This webinar will provide an overview of the effects of validation vs. invalidation of emotion dysregulation. In addition, the speaker will provide education and examples of the various levels of validation.

See as well, the series entitled Open Your Mind Before You Open Your Mouth

A series of videos demonstrating how Dialectical Behavioral Therapy helps patients and their families; This series was developed jointly by NEABPD (Dr. Alan Fruzzetti) and the National Office for Suicide Prevention in Ireland (HSE), who very generously funded much of its production. Uses actor simulations; May 2014. The fifth video, “Validation Skills” is particularly useful.

For a more light-hearted approach to learning validation, see the ever-popular “It’s Not the Nail”: