Our need for validation
20 September 2020
We all have a need to feel validated. By this I mean that what we feel, or how we are at some deeper level, is essentially ‘okay’.
Many of us have not received that validation as children. Or maybe we received validation for certain things (eg academic achievement, being responsible) and not for others (eg being sensitive, feeling angry).
It is often liberating when someone enters therapy to have ‘forbidden’ feelings or behaviours validated. Typically these include anger, sadness, vulnerability.
Essentially, what I’m saying to the client in these interactions is: “I can understand why you might feel angry/sad/vulnerable about that situation, and it’s okay to have those feelings sometimes.”
In the case of anger I’m not necessarily making the person the client is angry at wrong or bad. I’m simply saying that the emotion the client is feeling is understandable. For someone who perhaps was shamed as a child for feeling angry, or sad, to be told it’s ok to have those feelings is very powerful.
There is also validation of how we are in the world, but it is important that this validation is of our authentic self rather than a persona we have taken on in order to win approval. In this context I think validation is more like admiration or approval than the earlier examples concerning emotions, which are more about feeling heard and acknowledged.
Psychologist Alan Downs talks about authentic validation in the context of gay men’s development, but I think it can also apply to many straight people. Downs argues that when we are validated for something that is not a reflection of our deeper interests or values, it feels hollow.
He gives the example of the man who feels shame deep down but who pursues validation through sexual conquests. “Unable to satisfy his own needs, feelings of rage begin to emerge. His tolerance for invalidation becomes dangerously low and his hunger for validation becomes all-consuming.”*
Ultimately, argues Downs, we all need to learn how to self-validate, rather than seek it from our environment.
*Downs, Alan, The Velvet Rage, Da Capo Press, Philadelphia, 2005, page 31.