Intention Isn’t Everything: 7 Ways to Inadvertently Invalidate Feelings

Two people sit at table in cafe, one upset, the other offering comfort and supportMany of us are aware of the importance of validating other people’s feelings. We know recognizing and acknowledging feelings helps others to feel understood, valued, cared about, and important. We can easily recognize how abusive, mean-spirited, or hostile interactions involve a failure to validate feelings and, sometimes, purposeful attempts to be hurtful.

But well-intended exchanges among well-meaning people can also miss the mark on validating feelings and can cause people to feel a lack of support. Even during conversations where we feel tremendous compassion and want to help, it can be all too easy to unknowingly or unintentionally minimize and invalidate what the other person is trying to convey, ultimately creating more conflict or strong feelings of frustration, hurt, anger, and rejection.

In theory, acknowledging feelings is easy. Validating feelings doesn’t mean you accept or agree with the other person’s position; it simply means you acknowledge what they are saying. Yet, effectively acknowledging the emotions and experiences of others can at times be a challenge.

Let’s take the following simple example and explore seven ways failure to validate can occur. Imagine you didn’t get enough sleep last night and you feel utterly exhausted today. You complain to someone—your partner, parent, friend, or coworker—by saying, “I am so tired!” Consider how you might feel if any of the following reactions occurred:

1. Minimizing or Denying

“The day will be over soon enough!”

Many people are uncomfortable with feelings, especially negative ones. They don’t want to accept them, give them any power, or allow them to exist. People sometimes incorrectly believe that ignoring feelings will help them to diminish and ultimately disappear. However, this is rarely the case. Ignoring, minimizing, or denying feelings either causes them to amplify or results in other negative feelings, namely those of being hurt, isolated, or rejected.

2. Blaming or Scolding

“You shouldn’t have stayed up so late watching that movie!”

Sometimes people look for the reason behind negative feelings or difficult experiences. They assume pointing out the cause or giving a rationale may lessen the negative situation or, perhaps, prevent it from reoccurring. Attempting to teach a lesson has its place, but doing so without acknowledging present feelings typically closes off the person to hearing the message.

3. Lecturing

“You really need to get more sleep. Not getting enough sleep is bad for your immune system!”

Sometimes we unintentionally state our concern for others in a way that feels more like a lecture. Without first validating feelings or offering empathy, our message comes across as preachy and judgmental rather than well-intended, helpful, and supportive.

4. Unsolicited Advice

“You should start going to bed earlier. Try a relaxing bubble bath and stop looking at your iPad that late in the evening.”

People often want to be helpful, thus they jump to providing suggestions and advice. However useful the guidance may be, providing it too soon, prior to acknowledging feelings, can wind up feeling judgmental. It makes the messenger appear superior and can feel like there is an underlying implication of ignorance and incompetence.

5. Questioning

“Why were you up so late last night?”

While asking questions can be helpful to get more information about the situation, asking them without first acknowledging feelings can come across as critical, uncaring, and dismissive. Intentionally or otherwise, questions can imply blame, which may ultimately make the person feel resentful, misunderstood, and more inclined to shut down.

6. Shifting Focus

“I was up so late last night because …”

We often connect with others over shared experiences and we tell our own stories as a way to relate to one another. However, shifting the focus to your own experience before first validating the experience of the other person can make you seem self-absorbed and can create distance.

7. Comparing

“Oh, my gosh, I’m SO exhausted.”

When people want to be helpful, they are compelled to look for the solution, fix a problem, or remove any discomfort. But, delivered in the absence of validation, these approaches often backfire.

Similar to shifting the focus, we sometimes respond to somebody’s experience or emotions by sharing our own feelings. While the intent may be to connect over a common occurrence, such sharing can feel like a comparison that ultimately minimizes the person’s feelings and makes them feel ignored rather than understood.

I’m not saying any of these things are bad in and of themselves. They are all perfectly fine and useful approaches when delivered with appropriate timing and in appropriate circumstances. The problem lies in jumping to these things too soon without first acknowledging the feelings or empathizing with the situation. All of the above responses would likely be better received if they were prefaced by something to the effect of, “Being tired in the middle of the day is the worst!” Or, “I’m sorry you are so tired!” Offering validation prior to advice, motivation, wisdom, or sharing helps the subsequent message to come across as caring rather than dismissive.

When people want to be helpful, they are compelled to look for the solution, fix a problem, or remove any discomfort. But, delivered in the absence of validation, these approaches often backfire. It can be incredibly frustrating and unhelpful to feel talked at versus understood in the heat of the moment or when talking about personal emotions. Sharing feelings opens people up to being vulnerable. And when we feel vulnerable, we need validation, empathy, and understanding rather than tidbits of advice or storytelling.

Validating involves ensuring your first response is one of acknowledgment and empathy. Hearing “That really sucks!” or “That sounds so stressful!” is often more helpful than any of the lectures, questioning, or unsolicited advice that may follow. It may sound silly or like unnecessary fluff, but we are hardwired to need connection, and only in feeling heard do we truly feel connected, supported, and understood.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Megan MacCutcheon, LPC, therapist in Vienna, Virginia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 6 comments
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  • Patsy

    Patsy

    October 25th, 2017 at 9:41 AM

    umm so I guess this mom of the year (not!) really needed to see this list today.
    Thank you for showing me the ways that even unintentionally I could be wounding my children.

  • Judi

    Judi

    October 26th, 2017 at 2:48 PM

    I respect your open mindedness!

  • Brett

    Brett

    October 26th, 2017 at 8:06 AM

    But why don’t those who are receiving the advice see that in more cases than not this is advice and information given out of concern and love, not out of trying to get the upper hand over them. I think that we have all been “guilty” of doing this but good grief, it isn’t to be ugly, it’s simply to try to be helpful.

  • Judi

    Judi

    October 26th, 2017 at 2:51 PM

    My husband thinks “trying to be helpful” is an excuse not to be accountable. Believe me, this article reveals a relationship busting truth.

  • Megan MacCutcheon, LPC

    Megan MacCutcheon, LPC

    October 27th, 2017 at 3:35 AM

    I agree that generally the advice giving, etc. is meant to be helpful and is coming from a place of genuine care. But the problem is, in the heat of the moment, people aren’t capable of hearing it.  It has to do with how our brains work:

    The dynamic I’m describing usually occurs during moments of somebody expressing negative emotions—being upset, angry, stressed, overwhelmed, etc.  During these experiences of distress, the limbic region of our brain is activated (the “flight, fight, or freeze” response) and the prefrontal lobes, the area responsible for higher thinking (logic, analysis, problem solving, judgment, reasoning skills, etc.), go offline.

    Until the limbic system is calmed, we are unable to reason, so the advice and logical information won’t be helpful. Validation is what calms the emotional reaction and limbic system so we are again able to engage in effective thinking.  Hence, why validation BEFORE any advice giving is so important.

  • Martin

    Martin

    October 27th, 2017 at 11:18 AM

    So I guess I have always gotten upset with my kids about being too sensitive and taking things too personally. But from what you describe, and it does make sense ifI take a step back and look at the situation logically, is that there will always be those times when we are actually just not in control of those emotions and feelings. The brain and the body take over and determine what those responses will be, so even if I’m telling my kids that they take it too much to heart, they might not in the end be able to control most of that. Huh, and I always thought it was just teenage angst and drama. This is good to know.

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