If you’re anything like myself, you value and consider the opinions, ideas, dreams, and beliefs that others hold. You want to present the best parts of yourself for others to see. You want recognition for when you do something right, gentle advice for when you find yourself deterred from your own life’s path, and constructive criticism for when you make an honest mistake.
I would consider the above as basic human desires: The desire to feel heard and seen. The desire to feel validated by others, which serves as a degree a reassurance for many people. I, myself, am a huge advocate for validating others. Whenever possible, I make room to listen to someone, allow him or her to exhaust a feeling, thought, opinion, or story before I begin to offer advice (when asked for). In doing this, I am practicing validating the other person–letting that person know that what he or she is saying matters, is real, and valid.
Why do I bother doing this? Because, for many, many years, I was the person who felt invalidated. I would confide in someone–a family member, for example–only to regret divulging my inner workings and struggles because I felt judged, misunderstood, and ostracized. I was told that my thinking was “irrational,” “abnormal,” and “wrong.” After awhile, I began to associate those adjectives with my very identity: If my thoughts and feelings are irrational, abnormal, and wrong, then I must be irrational, abnormal, and wrong. It just made sense, right?
Wrong. But in the heat of an emotional moment, I felt that I needed to chastise myself for having the thoughts and feelings I did, and hearing those very thoughts vocalized by those whose opinions and beliefs I value highly only served to reinforce those negative thoughts I had about myself. That’s the thing about emotional states; oftentimes, we find ourselves saying things we don’t mean, come across as more cross than we intended to, or find ourselves on the brink of shutting down entirely. I am one to shut down, which became a defense mechanism, guarding myself from feeling invalidated and misunderstood. I found myself in this pattern of offering validation to others, but avoiding open communication to seek validation for myself. It became a very painful, isolated pattern of existence.
I didn’t begin this emotional shut down overnight; it took years of feeling invalidated by others to learn that shutting down was the most effective way that I could manage my emotional states at that time. If someone was angry or upset with me, I would let them let me have it; I would absorb every criticism hurled in my direction, taking it inwardly and letting it fester, altogether feeding into the shame-cycle I was in. Shutting down was easier than trying to be vulnerable; it was easier than trying to advocate for myself in asking for the validation I needed and wanted. Blow by blow, my self-esteem, mental wellbeing, and motivation for life spiraled downward.
I didn’t start my decline because of what others said or how they felt about me. My decline began as soon as I was entered “shut down mode,” retreating inwardly with my feelings and thoughts rather than giving them the air-space they so desperately needed. I told myself, “I’m fine, I can deal with these feelings on my own,” and “It’s really not a big deal; I’m being overly dramatic, anyway.” I truly believed that if I could convince myself that I could continue forward despite this inescapable, looming feeling of invalidation, it would eventually dissipate. Days, weeks, months passed by, and the internal battle I was having with myself grew louder, more violent, and more painful. I wasn’t quite sure where to turn, other than continually inward, beating myself up.
Looking back at this time in my life now, I realize that I still struggle with feeling invalidated. I still struggle with defaulting to “shut down mode.” I can recall distinct memories of family members dismissing my feelings and thoughts, friends brushing things off as fine, professionals insisting that what I was experiencing was nothing out of the ordinary, and even telling myself that there was nothing wrong with me. In further analyzing this narrative, I realized that by shutting down and retreating inwardly, I was no different than my family members and friends who I felt invalidated by; I was invalidating myself, too. By closing myself off from others, refusing to speak anymore about what I felt or what struggles I was facing, I was distancing myself further from my desire to be validated.
This isn’t a post to criticize my family or my friends for our past interactions and how they communicated with me over the past few years. This post is simply addressing the importance of validating others, as well as our ability to validate our own feelings, thoughts, and experiences. If we close ourselves off from the world, from our support systems, how can those supports possibly be aware of how they could help us? How can we begin to even know what we need and want if we aren’t willing to look outside of ourselves and our cycle of internal and external suffering?
Human beings are not mind-readers, despite our expectations and assumptions that we are somehow capable of this power. In order to receive validation, we must be willing to seek it and ask for it; we have to show up and be vulnerable in that emotional moment, advocate for ourselves, and ask for what we need. If we just need someone to offer an open ear to let us vent, we have to relay that information to that person; if we want advice, we have to ask for someone’s input (and vice versa!); if we want to be validated, we have to offer validation, too. Validation is a two-way street, and if we aren’t willing to offer it to ourselves or others, how can we possibly expect to receive validation in return? It’s just not possible.
So what do we do when we try to be vulnerable and ask for what we need, but the other person still shows up as invalidating and judgmental? Good question. Quite honestly, I’m still working on figuring out the definitive answer to this question to this day. There will always be people in our lives who react in ways that we wish they wouldn’t, who hold firm beliefs and opinions that aren’t easily swayed, and who speak more from emotion-mind or rational-mind as opposed to the middle ground, wise-mind. With these individuals, it’s important to remember the very basic fact that we cannot control anyone outside of our own selves. Regardless of how much we may want to change a person to fit a mold of what we expect them to be for us, it’s just not possible. The only reactions, responses, and actions we are responsible for are our own. It’s a sobering fact, but a fact nonetheless. With this knowledge, we are able to change how we communicate, react, respond, and interact with these individuals. This takes away the power that we’re giving these people over our emotions and self-beliefs, and redirects it back into our own hands. And when the power is in our hands, we can give ourselves the validation that we can’t obtain from these particular individuals.
I know what it’s like to feel invalidated. I would argue that it’s one of the hardest emotions to experience, especially when you’re holding it inwardly and letting it manifest in a negative manner. It wasn’t until I began to find my voice again that I was able to lessen the intensity that debilitating emotional experience. As I began communicating with my family and friends in a more effective, confident, open manner, I found validation in places I had once never thought possible. I was no longer in “shut down mode,” but instead was now slowly waking up with the realization that I could only seek validation from others when I offered it to myself. And that, my friends, was one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in my twenty-one years of living.