Two people talk at a table, hopefully using validation techniques. Validation, or listening to and appreciating others’ emotions, is an important way to help people take care of themselves. Illustration by Everette Cogswell

Content Warning: This article contains mentions of suicide and substance use.

In a YouTube video with more than 23 million views, titled “It’s Not About the Nail,” posted by Jason Headley, a woman complains to a man about a recent pain she’s been feeling. The camera reveals that there is a nail stuck in her forehead. Whenever the man attempts to bring up the nail, she reacts with frustration, telling him that it’s not about the nail. To many viewers, the woman’s request here–to be listened to without having the nail brought up–may seem ridiculous: Why should the man have to skirt around the obvious solution to her problems? But even if he’s right about the source of her discontents, it’s really not about the nail. What the woman in the video needs is not to be told how to fix the problem; she needs to be listened to.

Emotional validation is “the recognition and acceptance of another person’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors as understandable,” according to Psychology Today. It means acknowledging that it is okay for someone to feel the way they do, without necessarily agreeing with someone’s ideas when they express their feelings. Validation can be as simple as saying “that sucks” when someone brings up an issue, or acknowledging the emotion behind someone’s grievances. Doing so allows someone to feel confident in their emotions, stay safe and calm, and eventually approach a problem in search of a solution. On the flip side, being told that one’s emotions are unacceptable can lead to internalized invalidation. Franklin Mental Health Club Co-President Gena Roe (12) felt uncertain whether she’d had the “right” response to grief: “[I was] invalidating my own self, about how I was feeling and thinking that I was grieving the wrong way or I was not feeling how I was supposed to and I was doing it wrong,” she says. All responses to grief and loss are okay to feel, but in an environment where some emotions are unwelcome, grieving can become a doubly difficult experience.

I didn’t always know about validation. For much of my life, when I reached out to vent to people, to let out the negative feelings I had, I was met with advice on a few coping mechanisms and the conversation was over. It didn’t seem like the people I talked to had any ill will; they were all trying to help. But it left me feeling unfulfilled by the conversation, and for a long time I didn’t know why.

Validation has ample benefits that have been demonstrated by research: A 2022 study published in BioMed Central found significant positive emotional improvements when people feeling shame or sadness had their emotions validated. They also found that invalidation can exacerbate emotional issues or be a risk factor for mental health issues related to emotional dysregulation, such as mood and anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, suicidality, and others. People who experience greater emotional dysregulation are more likely to benefit from validation. It helps people feel encouraged to share their emotions, an essential aspect of emotional health, instead of repressing them for fear of being invalidated.

It can be tempting to provide advice when people come forward with their concerns. Often the solution may seem evident to the listener, and Emma, a Team Lead for the teen-to-teen mental health line YouthLine, points out that providing advice can be comforting to the listener. In providing advice rather than validating, Emma argues, “I think I would be saying that to make myself feel more comfortable because I’m worried about you, rather than really helping you.” Advice provides closure for the listener and makes the solution feel clearer. However, the benefits are smaller for the person being listened to, as Emma says: “I think advice giving is often actually not serving the person who needs it.”

Advice can be unhelpful if the advice-giver knows less about the situation than they think they do. Rushing to problem-solving prevents people from letting out negative feelings and presents the solution as obvious when it may not be.

However, there are times when someone is engaging in unproductive behaviors that they shouldn’t continue. People need to confront their issues in the long run, and well-meaning attempts at validation can instead lead to enabling, a less productive approach in which the listener empowers the speaker to engage in destructive or self-destructive behaviors. Many mental health challenges come from overwhelming feelings that can be incredibly difficult to battle, so validation is a valuable part of recovery, but the line here between validation and enabling can be thin.

This is why it’s essential to focus on the deeper emotions the person is feeling. Even if their perception of reality may be inaccurate, there is an issue below the surface that can be causing distress that can be validated. Miranda, who receives calls for the Multnomah County Behavioral Health Call Center, provides the example of someone experiencing paranoia. “I can’t say I agree with that happening, but I can align with how that makes them feel,” she says. “Like [telling them], ‘Wow, that must be really scary.’”

Sometimes a person’s feelings may appear to the listener to be an overreaction. However, all feelings are acceptable, even if they may seem out of proportion to an external situation. It’s good to validate all emotions and accept that they may not make sense to someone on the outside; the emotion itself can be an overwhelming problem to deal with. Similarly, it can be tempting to try to convince someone that a situation is not as bad as they may believe. This may involve offering a more positive interpretation of events than the speaker described, playing “devil’s advocate” and suggesting an alternative interpretation, or telling someone to “look on the bright side.” When I receive one of these responses, it often sends me into a confused cycle, unsure whether I have correctly interpreted the world around me, or whether I’m just overreacting. And when I feel that internal conflict, I tend to have little time for anything other than spiraling. Letting the person know that their feelings are okay to have is often the best way to comfort them.

It’s also critical that people feel welcome to discuss heavy topics, even if they are stigmatized. For example, social taboos can be a barrier to discussing suicide. But a review of existing research by King’s College London found that no study had shown a statistically significant increase in suicidal ideation when the topic was openly discussed. The more likely danger comes from not mentioning suicide at all, which can lead those experiencing thoughts of suicide to repress those thoughts without confronting them. When one suspects that someone may be experiencing thoughts of suicide, it is imperative to ask about what they are feeling and check that they can stay safe. Praising the strength of the person for talking about thoughts of suicide and acknowledging the overwhelming emotions that come with it, as well as providing resources for talking to a professional, can help destigmatize suicidality and help everyone stay safe.

While validation can be valuable to help people experiencing mental health challenges, it’s important that those who want to help take care of themselves as well. Difficult and sensitive conversations can be taxing, and it can be necessary to set boundaries in a friendship when one is unable or unwilling to provide emotional support. Everyone can benefit from self-care methods and therapy. It also helps to have a mutually validating relationship in which both people listen and are listened to; this helps create a welcoming space for both people in which all involved can speak honestly.

In many relationships the prospect of opening up can be daunting. Parents may not provide the space to vent; Emma recommends parents “allowing space for all emotions.” Friends can be difficult to talk to as well, especially in relationships where a vulnerable and welcoming environment has not been established. These less-intimate close friendships are especially common amongst men, who are less likely to talk to friends when they are experiencing problems, according to the Survey Center on American Life, and it can be scary, risky, or dangerous to admit to emotional struggles in such relationships. Still, everyone can benefit from vulnerable and intimate friendships. If you feel safe but nervous about opening up to a friend, that risk can be worth taking.

Validation is not easy, especially for those unfamiliar with the method, and it may feel less comforting or even less effective than advice or devil’s advocate. But it’s also an effective and caring way to ensure that people know their emotions are acceptable to feel.

For mental health issues, the phone number 988 is available at all hours and can redirect callers to local services. The number 503-988-4888 is also available 24/7 and provides similar services for those in Multnomah County; those outside of the area can be redirected to their local lifelines, according to Miranda. YouthLine operates from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. every day and gives teenagers peer-to-peer support from other teens; its services can be accessed via the number 877-968-8491, by texting “teen2teen” to 839863, or by chatting online via Other lines include the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which offers support for issues relating to substance use; the National Eating Disorders Association, which helps with disordered eating; Planned Parenthood’s sexual health hotline; and the Trevor Project, which helps with experiences relating to sexuality and gender identity. Long-term care through therapy is available via sites like Psychology Today.

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