How to validate someone’s experience

What if we’re going through a terrible time and someone lectures us to be positive? Sure, positivity is fundamental to a positive life, but demanding that we must always be positive hurts us and others.

How do we validate the feelings of a friend in distress?

How do we not invalidate our feelings when in distress?

Who among us hasn’t felt the pressure to become more positive? Motivational speakers and coaches know how to spark the belief in us that we must be positive. These speakers often have charisma and confidence to burn. There’s nothing wrong with confidence and positivity. However, it’s a fact of life that we can’t always be positive.

This leads us to the next issue. Negative thinking and positive thinking both have a role in psychology. However, many still view negative thinking as the inferior, unwelcome cousin.

We’d much prefer to focus on the positive than the negative, but excessive focus on positivity can be toxic! For example, if something awful happens to us, a friend might comfort us by demanding that we stay positive. While friends offer this advice regularly, it’s poor advice because it invalidates our experience.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a friend comforting us, but when they offer brotherly and sisterly love without understanding the broader forces at play, that means that our friend is invalidating our reality.

So what do I mean by this? Let’s say you’ve lost your job. Let’s also say a friend has tried to reassure you by telling you that you’re capable, terrific employee, that you’ll find something. While that’s undoubtedly true, your prospects depend on the economy, and not just on your skills!

So while the person made redundant who lands something else can breathe a sigh of relief, and think to themselves that ‘I am capable, I ‘m so lucky to have this new job.’ But what about the people that can’t find alternative employment? Let’s say a friend blames you for being made redundant.

For a person who can’t locate alternative employment in a lousy economy, to be told it’s all your fault has to be one of the most heartless experiences ever. So if a friend is trying to counsel you, look out for red flags of invalidation. Saying ‘you’ll find something else’ or inferring your friend is to blame for losing their job is not helpful.

Regardless of what your friend’s trauma is, you have to help them deal with their experience in a kind way.

Or let’s take another example. Let’s say your friend works somewhere with slackers and jerks. They’re the ones who’ve perfected the art of sucking up to management.

And let’s say your friend is complaining that these people keep getting promoted over them. Don’t lecture your friend about why they didn’t score the promotion. Instead, listen to your friend’s complaints about their horrible and happy work colleagues. Just validate their experience. We shouldn’t try to fix the situation for them. We also shouldn’t tell them to toughen up.

How to avoid toxic positivity when talking with a friend

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Listen to a friend complain about what’s bothering them. Really listen, and remember not to pass judgement. Here are some good ways to respond to your friend.

“I’m so sorry to hear that. That must be awfully hard on you.”

“That’s such a tough situation. You’re coping really well under the circumstances.”

“I know you’ve been through a hard experience.”

How can we be kind to ourselves?

We also must be equally kind to ourselves when we’re going through a hard experience. We must not deny our unhappiness nor think there’s something wrong with us if we feel unhappy. To deny ourselves the right to feel a certain way stings us, not the person who hurt us. Applying the tough love approach to ourselves is cruel and counterproductive.

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