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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Pantazi

The 6 Levels of Validation


This post is the sequel to the post about invalidation. If you are interested in reading more about invalidation and its impact, you can read this blog post first.


Today we will focus on the concept of validation, its significance, and the 6 levels of validation- 6 different ways in which we can learn to validate another person’s emotions.


What is validation?


Validation is the act of recognition and acceptance of someone else’s thoughts, emotions and behaviours as understandable within their current life context or situation.


Why is validation important?


Validation is of uttermost importance in social interactions and relationships.


It gives the receiver the message:

  • that their experience is accepted and understood

  • that their feelings make sense within the context of their experience

  • that they are heard and listened to attentively and carefully


An underlying message that is then provided, is that their experience matters and their emotions are taken seriously by the person that listens to them, and eventually, that the listener cares about their emotions.


Feeling understood is pivotal in developing relationships. When we feel understood and accepted, we can move towards desirable change. Change can never come without acceptance first.

Some time ago, I had written an article about the Five A's of mindful adult relationships, according to psychotherapist David Richo. These are five words starting with an A that he considers a prerequisite, key element to the development of secure, loving, mindful, healthy and nurturing relationships (and I completely agree).


The five A's are Attention, Acceptance, Allowing, Appreciation and Affection.

Validation, in my view, is central in three out of these five elements: Attention, Acceptance and Allowing.


Validation signifies that you are given attention, that your experience and emotions are accepted, and that you are allowed to have that experience.


People often confuse validation with agreement and approval, yet these concepts are not the same. Providing validation to someone does not mean that you agree with their experience, or that you approve of their actions. It does mean that you recognize this as their own valid experience, even if you do not embrace it as your own.


Validation is essential in providing emotional support, so that the other person feels understood and listened to. After all, that is one of the main reasons that people may find meaning in the process of therapy- because during the therapy hour, they can feel listened to, understood, and accepted, no matter what they bring to the therapy room. For many people, the therapy hour is the only time and space that they may feel entirely able to just be themselves.

Perhaps the significance of validation is better elucidated by understanding the often devastating impact of invalidation.


In relation to the Five A’s that were mentioned above, invalidating relationships and environments may be refusing and withholding the crucial five A's, instead of providing them.



How to turn invalidation around: The 6 Levels of Validation


The good news is that there is a simple antidote to invalidation: validation!


If you have been found “guilty” of invalidating others and you would like to change this, or if you simply want to have more fulfilling, mindful and enjoyable relationships that radiate kindness, warmth, and compassion for the other person- you can start practising expressing validation instead, and replacing invalidating comments with validating ones.


Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, has specifically underlined the importance of validation, and the fact that chronically invalidating environments can be common as backgrounds of people that present with mental health issues. An essential element of this therapeutic approach is built on the premise of teaching clients skills, in order to improve the quality of their lives.


Validation is a skill that can be learned. In fact, it is one of the main skills that psychologists of all therapy modalities teach, and therefore one of the pillars of good therapy. People come to therapy for a variety of reasons, but a common point is that everyone benefits from feeling understood- and understanding others better, too.


Below you can read about what Dialectical Behavior Therapy calls the 6 levels of validation. The word “level” is used, because each one requires an extra step, and results in stronger validation.


I underline that I am just the messenger here, this is not my own work and findings, but I completely agree with all of them and try to apply them in my own work and personal life, too.


1. Pay attention


They say, energy flows where attention goes- and it is absolutely true.


When we pay attention to the Other, we give them the precious gift of our mental energy and our mindful presence.


As underlined in the Five Keys blog post, attention is one of the five A’s (attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection and allowing) that are -according to the author- the most important elements of good, healthy and fulfilling relationships. In my view, it is the number one requirement for those.


It starts when we are very young and powerless- we then completely depend on our caregivers to pay attention to our needs and respond to them.


When you pay attention to the Other in a conversation, you provide them with the message that what they are saying, is meaningful and matters to you. You make them understand that they are seen and listened to.


In contrast, when you don’t pay attention to the Other, when you ignore them, it is as if you tell them that you don’t care about what they say. There are of course instances that ignoring other people’s behaviour makes sense, e.g. if someone attacks you verbally, it may be better to ignore that than to attack back, in order to avoid a conflict or intensity.


Paying attention, same as validation in general, does not mean that you agree or approve of a person’s view and behaviours- it just means that the person who is talking matters to you.


But even when we disagree with the Other, we must still pay attention if we want to understand their point of view, even learn something new, that we hadn’t thought of before by ourselves.


It is the first and most significant element or level of validation, because without attention, you will not know what the other is talking about, at all.


2. Reflect back non-judgementally


The goal at the 2nd level of validation is to simply communicate that you have accurately heard what the other person said, without your own interpretations or judgements included in your reflection.


Think of yourself as a mirror to the words of the other person- simply reflect what you heard back to them, while at the same time staying open to corrections. That way you show them that you at least tried your best to understand what they said.


One example:


Your friend sounds desperate and panicky on the phone, saying that she did not do her assignment for her course that is in a few days, and therefore worries that she may fail the course. You happen to know that it is not the end of the world if someone misses one assignment, and that she still has a few days to complete it.


However validating on level 2 is only about reflecting, so it would sound something like: “You sound quite desperate and anxious that you did not yet do the assignment, worried that you may not manage to complete it and therefore fail the whole course”.


Done. Mirror did the work. In this hypothetical interaction, the panicky person may feel relieved that you understood what they were worried about, and proceed to seek reassurance or advice from you, about how they can deal with that problem.


If you would not simply reflect back, if you would for instance remind them that they still have 4 days, their panic right at this moment would not be acknowledged.


It needs to be underlined again, that reflection does not imply approval or encouragement. For example, you can validate that a person feels angry, without sharing the same views or agreeing on what they are angry about.


3. Interpersonal sensitivity- “Mind-reading” and “Seeing feelings”


Interpersonal sensitivity is your ability to be sensitive to understand another person’s emotions by observing the relevant cues and knowing about their situation, even without them stating directly and exactly how they feel.


This is understandably not very straight-forward ; this empathic understanding differs between people, as not everyone is skilled to “see” another person’s feelings in the same way. It requires the listener to pay close attention and observe all possible cues, in order to be able to see things from the other person’s eyes.


This level of validation could also be titled “mind-reading”, and it depends on active observation. The non-verbal signs that a person exhibits can tell us important information about how they are feeling. For example, the tone of voice, facial expressions, body posture, speed of speech, behaviour in general can be strong indicators of how someone is feeling, especially when combined with the specific situation of the person and what we already know about them.


Of course, you have to tread carefully when using this level of validation, and leave room for correction, as it is true that we may never be absolutely able to read another person’s mind, and clarifications of their own perspective may always be necessary.


Also, it is important not to use judgemental remarks, and it can be helpful to emphasize that you are still not sure, but rather guessing or assuming how the other person feels.


Some examples:


  • You seem really excited about this new project!

  • I am guessing that you were really disappointed when your friend cancelled again.

  • You must be wondering what happened, and they never texted you again.

  • You look very sad when talking about this.

  • I assume this must have been devastating for you.


4. Communicate understanding of the causes


The next level of validation is about communicating understanding the other person’s feelings, thoughts and actions, given the other person’s history that you know of and their current situation- even if you do not approve of or agree with them.


The goal here is to express to them that their behaviour makes sense within their context. Ultimately, all behaviour is understandable and sensible if we take the causes into consideration – from the doer’s perspective.


Some possible causes of one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviours are:

  • their learning history (even if the current events do not support what they learned in the past)

  • previous life events (even if present facts are different)

  • mental/physical illness (even if the current emotion/thought/behaviour does not make sense as based on facts)


So here, what is significant is understanding that the Past may have an influence on the Present- even if current facts may not be justify the other person’s emotions/thoughts/behaviours.


You may notice that I keep emphasizing the even if part- exactly to illustrate how validation is about understanding the other right where they are at this moment, without trying to change them, or project your own opinion or experience on them.
You communicate to them that, based on their current reality, it makes sense to think/feel/act how they do.

Some examples:


  • It makes sense to be afraid to trust a new romantic acquaintance, when you have repeatedly been hurt in relationships in the past – even if you know the new romantic acquaintance personally and believe that they are a decent and trustworthy person.

  • It is understandable if someone is very afraid to get sick, if a family member of theirs got severely sick recently- even if you consider the other person’s fear to be unreasonable based on their health condition and the actual risk of infection.

  • I understand you not wanting to walk alone at night, since you had gotten sexually assaulted at dark some time ago – even if where they currently live is considered to be a safe neighbourhood without assault incidents.

  • It makes sense that another person feels hopeless, if they are depressed – even if the situation as we look at it, is not hopeless at all.

  • I understand your feeling angry at me, because you thought I ignored your text on purpose – even when you know that the reason you did not instantly respond, was that you were drowned with work at the office.

  • It is understandable that you find it pointless and very difficult to start a workout routine, if all your efforts in the last months did not go as planned – even if this time, you believe it can be different.


5. Acknowledge what is valid in the Present


Validation on this level answers the question “How can this be true?”


It aims to communicate that a person’s experiences make sense because they fit the present facts, are logically correct, or effective for their ultimate goals -based on their own perspective.


This is the core of validation- it is about finding the truth in another person’s emotions, thoughts and actions based on where they are standing right now. It shows them that you understand how they feel right now.


Again, it is not necessary to agree with the other person’s perspective- just to provide understanding of it.


It is important to also act on what you regard valid in their experience.


To illustrate what this means, if a police officer is approached by a distressed lady who tells them that they have just been robbed, the police officer would ideally have to do something about her distress- not just validate her emotions by saying “I can see you are very distressed right now”. It would be crucial that they run after the thief or support her in going to the police station.


Similarly, we need to be careful here too. If we validate another person’s experience because of past causes or personal characteristics, and we ignore how it is relevant and justifiable by present circumstances, this can be actually insulting and invalidating to the person- exactly because it would ignore the significance of how they feel right now.


Some examples to clarify this:


A woman upset with their partner because of him disregarding her complaint that he was busy on his phone while she were telling him about a problem at work. The partner responds: “Well, you are just upset with me because you are on your period. You are overly sensitive and now it’s my fault, I am not playing this game with you”


While it may be very well true that this woman may be more emotionally reactive because of her menstruation, the partner’s comment here would not be taking into account the fact that he, indeed, was absorbed in the digital world of his screen while she was venting to him about something that was important to her.


The partner’s action was indeed rude, therefore there was a valid reason for this woman to feel upset with him. The partner would have deflected the importance of the woman’s complaint by bringing “that time of the month” into focus, thereby not recognizing what she was upset about right now, and acting accordingly (i.e. apologizing and putting his phone away, or telling her that he can be fully attentive to her when he finishes reading that important work email on this phone).


Another example:


A person is very sad because their best friend forgot about their birthday, and did not wish them well or got them a present. They cautiously express that to their friend. The friend gets defensive and says “You are now upset because your parents were neglectful to you when you were a child, it’s not such a big deal, I had it in mind to wish you later”.


So the friend here validates the emotion of the other, but then proceeds by placing the focus on past causes (neglect during childhood), instead of acknowledging that it must have felt quite terrible to the other person to feel forgotten on their birthday, by their very best friend. They finish by using the phrase “it is not a big deal”, which is utterly invalidating because it is clearly a big deal to the sad person.


6. Treat them as an equal


The last level of validation is passing on the message that you view the other person as an equal to you, in the sense that they deserve equal respect, even if you do not understand (part of) their experience, rather than implying that they are fragile, inadequate, inferior or superior to you.


This last level of validation answers the question “What if you do not understand them fully?”


Admittedly, it can be difficult to always find the truth into someone else’s experience and understand it as seen from their eyes. Maybe you really don’t understand where they are coming from, maybe their experience simply does not make any sense to you.


Yet the whole point of this blog post is how to be validating, even if one of the above is true.


The key here is to treat the other person as an equal that is entitled to your respect, and to show them that you do want to understand their perspective, even if you do not do so, yet.


What to do then?


You have two options:


  • You can validate the other person’s emotions, but not their actions

e.g. a friend tells you that they need to smoke a joint every evening, in order to wind down of that day’s stress. You may not agree with the use of cannabis at all, yet most behaviour that may be considered dysfunctional is a response to emotional pain or stress.


So you could just say “I can see how stressed you must feel in the evenings”, without passing any judgement about their use of cannabis.

  • You can admit that you do not understand them, but you really want to


If being authentic and genuine in your social interactions is a priority, it is better to be honest than to pretend that you absolutely understand something that you do not.

If you value your relationship with the other person, being validating can sometimes mean clearly stating that you do not understand- but you very much wish to.


“It is not clear to me what you mean, I really want to understand it but I don’t, right now. Let’s stay with it- can you please explain to me?”


It is better to acknowledge that you do not understand the other, than to react without compassion or in an invalidating way (i.e. you are exaggerating/you are too sensitive/you should not be feeling this way etc.)



Recovering from invalidation and self-invalidation


Throughout this article, our focus has been how to provide validation to others.


But what if you have been the receiver of invalidation from others, or even started invalidating yourself?

As explained in a previous blog post, invalidation can be traumatic when it has been occurring in a repetitive and chronic manner, or about significant issues, and from significant people (i.e. the family environment or a romantic partner) towards the person.

Invalidation can be traumatic and corrosive when your feelings have repeatedly been ignored, denied, misunderstood, dismissed, misinterpreted, and when you have been treated unequally or unfairly.

As an example, if we would have a snapshot of a family dinner table, when one child is sharing how their day was at school, and one parent interrupting them and turning the attention to the other child, that may be not catastrophic or invalidating for that child, if it is just an exception. This is something that can happen in any setting and any family, randomly.


Yet if that child has repeatedly been denied attention at almost every dinner table, because their parents would put their sibling in priority, then that child’s thoughts would be chronically ignored, thus invalidated, and they could grow up with a feeling that their thoughts do not really matter to their family.


Similarly, if a child would typically receive a lot of parental love and validation, and yet during one significant event that was not the case, then the impact of that single event could be quite substantial for that child.


For example, think of a little girl who confesses to her mother that her father has sexually abused her- and the mother does not want to believe the daughter, and instead accuses her of making things up, or tries to convince her that what she regarded as abuse was actually not a very serious incident to pay attention to. Maybe in this hypothetical scenario the mother had been quite supportive and validating until then, but failed to be there for her child in a crucial time of need. That single invalidating experience could have a major effect on that child, and leave a traumatic scar.


If you have been subjected to numerous and chronic small invalidating incidents, this can greatly affect how you perceive yourself and the significance of your inner experiences. The result can be that you are left with a chronic sense of self-doubt, endlessly second-guessing yourself, or feeling guilty and ashamed of your emotions, thinking that how you feel is not how you are supposed to be feeling based on what others have repeatedly underlined.


It’s worth noting though, that not all invalidation is toxic and harmful. Sometimes invalidation can be helpful, in the sense that sometimes our beliefs, emotions and behaviours are indeed based on inaccurate information, or our reality is distorted.

If the other person treats us non-judgementally and with respect, then invalidation can be turned into what we call corrective feedback- and it can prove to be a great opportunity for growth. Yet it hurts to be invalidated by others, even if their point is right.


Often the way we say something may be more impactful than the content of what we say.


How to cope with invalidation?


Let’s see what you can do if someone invalidates you, in order to turn this into a learning experience.


  • Stay open-minded and check the facts

Check the facts in a non-defensive way. Of course it can be hard to not get defensive when you feel attacked and invalidated, but it is beneficial for the interaction. Commit to just examine the facts, in order to realize what point the Other was trying to make.


  • Acknowledge your mistakes or invalid responses

If indeed you realize that your responses were incorrect, it is crucial to admit so and commit to change.


  • Self-compassion instead of self-criticism

It is crucial to abstain from self-critical, harmful statements, such as I am stupid/worthless/I do everything wrong, even if you did make a mistake.


Like underlined before, there are valid reasons for invalid behaviour, and all behaviour can be understood as a link of a longer chain of events. So there were triggers or causes for your behaviour too. Things rarely happen in a void - action brings reaction.


Instead, be gentle and compassionate with yourself.


Practice self-care, because it does hurt to feel invalidated- but trust in your ability to soothe yourself even when that happens.


  • Acknowledge the valid in your responses


Just like providing validation to others, you can do so towards yourself. Seek the truth in your responses, discover what was valid, question what was the chain of events that led to your response. Perhaps your response was valid under the circumstances, or past causes can explain your reaction.


You can claim responsibility for your actions and acknowledge the validity in them as well- one does not exclude the other.


After all, at any given moment, all of us are doing the best we can, with the resources we have available.


Turn the 6 Levels of Validation towards Yourself


Each level or step of validation can be utilized towards yourself.


Self-validation does not mean endlessly patting yourself on the shoulder, or adopting an I am always right attitude.
It also does not mean that there is no space for progress and improvement.

It does mean that you are striving to understand yourself and the causes of your emotions and behaviours.


Understanding means awareness, it can grow into acceptance, and then you may move towards desirable change.

So let’s close with self-validation in a nutshell:


1. Pay attention to yourself


Observe your own thoughts, emotions and actions


2. Reflect by describing what you observe to yourself


For instance: “I notice that I got agitated and angry because I felt that my friend insulted me”


3. Be mindful about what the situation may be showing you about what you really need


This is the equivalent of the “mind-reading” or “seeing-emotions” step of Validation.


Maybe there are underlying elements that were not apparent at first, but they are lying dormant under the surface.


Maybe there is an older or more significant reason for the way that you feel right now.


What is your reaction and emotions trying to tell you?

Can you read between the lines?


4. Understand the causes


Remember, all behaviour is caused and therefore can be understood.

Maybe a past experience has shaped how you are reacting now.


5. Acknowledge the valid


There is always some kernel of truth in our behaviour.

Dig deep in order to find the valid, even if it is not in plain sight.


6. Be compassionate and respectful towards yourself


Avoid using harsh judgements and negative self-talk.


If you catch yourself doing that, see if you can replace the criticism with some more gentle manner.


Think how you would talk to a friend of yours in a similar situation.


Treat yourself kindly, as someone who is deserving of attention and appreciation, not as inferior or inadequate.


You are enough, you are a work in progress.

Just like every one of us.


In conclusion...


Lastly, as a little gift, a wonderful video from The School of Life with regards to why validation is important.


A beautiful quote from this video:

Feelings get less strong, not more tyrannous- as long as they've been given an airing.


Enjoy watching!






References

Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. The Guilford Press New York.


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