by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC
The other day I was talking to a good friend on the phone and she was describing an incident that had occurred the night before. She had recently unearthed some disturbing memories from her childhood, brought about by a show she had watched. She was feeling desperately angry with her parents. She had called her mother and let her unbridled anger fly, hurling accusations and insults. She had tried desperately to get a reaction out of her, more specifically an apology. Her mother responded as she always did: with a bit of minimization, an attempt to deflect the problem, a few justifications, and absolutely no apology.
One might think that the call to me that followed would have been one of fury and outrage, one of her desperately trying to convey her anger to me. However, this just wasn’t the tone of the call at all. In fact, the call was a somber one. In her voice, behind all of the words of her story, I could hear the faint whisperings of grief. There was anger there, of course, but there was resolve in her that was new. She was feeling grief because she had finally realized that she would never have the relationship that she wanted with her mother and that, for her own sake, she had to let go of that dream. In reality, I understood what her grief was about immediately because I have known her for many, many years, and for many, many years she has been desperately seeking to receive from her mother what she has always failed to: validation.
What is Validation?
Validation from others is often what brings about relief from our emotional distress. When we cry out in pain, when we share our deepest disappointments and sorrows, when we are outraged about something that happened to us: in all of these things, what we desire most is simply validation. We long for the other person to receive everything that we have disclosed to them, to take in our words, our expressed feelings, our heart, and we long to hear them say, “that makes sense.”
It seems like it would be easy enough to provide validation to those close to us. After all, we want to be good friends, family members, partners. Yet, we often fail to do so for one reason: validation often requires ownership. Often, what someone is sharing with us is deeply personal, often they disclose that we did something to cause their pain, we disappointed them, we upset them in some way. To say, “your reaction makes sense”, requires ownership from us. We must own up to the fact that we may have done something wrong or made a mistake. It requires that we have the humility to own our impact on others.
” To say, ‘your reaction makes sense’, requires ownership from us. We must own up to the fact that we may have done something wrong or made a mistake. It requires that we have the humility to own our impact on others.
Many times, very well intentioned individuals respond to others in a way that essentially says, “I didn’t intend to hurt you and therefor my intentions are of greater value than my actions.” I’m sure that, not only have each of us been on the receiving end of someone dismissing our feelings with “I didn’t mean to”, but that at some point each of us has also been the one who has dismissed others. Because we are often aware of our inner thoughts and desires, we often assume that others are also able to perceive the same. However, this just isn’t the case. Our behaviors speak infinitely louder than the voices in our heads, the knowledge that we have about ourselves, or our own feelings. In order to mature, and grow our ownership of our
“Because we are often aware of our inner thoughts and desires, we often assume that others are also able to perceive the same. However, this just isn’t the case. Our behaviors speak infinitely louder than the voices in our heads, the knowledge that we have about ourselves, or our own feelings.”
impact on the world around us, we must learn to prioritize a response that regards our behavior as more important than our intentions. We must thoroughly own our impact on those around us.
Dealing with Individuals who Fail to Validate Us
What happens, though, when we get to a place where we understand the difference between intent and impact but an individual close to us repeatedly fails to take ownership or validate us? How do we handle people who, no matter how many times we plead, yell, stomp, kick, and cry, are simply unresponsive to our protests? Eventually our endurance runs out and we walk away. Either that, or we try so hard to force them to acknowledge the ways that they have hurt us that we completely lose control of our ourselves. Once this happens, what follows is an overwhelming sense of shame: we have lost control, we have failed, we have behaved badly or said something we didn’t mean. All of it was a desperate attempt to receive validation and all of it has failed.
I often think of my many attempts to receive validation from someone incapable of giving it, as me standing before a wall and banging my head into it over and over again. Inevitably, the only damage really being done is to me. At some point, when all of my repeated attempts have failed, I am simply damaging myself. I am failing to value myself, love myself, and protect myself. I am also putting myself in a position to lose control of my own behavior again and to fall into a pit of shame. The only way forward, at that point, may be to walk away from the wall.
Steps to Amping up Validation in Relationships
If you relate to this, and you can recognize the walls that have injured you, perhaps it is time to walk away from them. Understanding the repetitiveness of your behavior and the futility behind it, can be the beginning of you being empowered to change. Walking away from walls may just allow you to see a pathway around them, and on the other side might just be someone capable of providing the validation that you need.
Tips for addressing conflict in relationships:
First, notice those in your life who often cause you to lose control of your own behavior.
Secondly, see if you can identify exactly what it is that you need from that person. Sometimes it takes quite a bit of self-reflection and awareness to respond to your sadness or anger productively. If you can be mindful of your feelings, and pinpoint exactly what it is that you desire or need from someone, then you can come up with a respectful way to ask for it that just might work.
If you believe that this person may respond to you positively if you are vulnerable with them, then come up with a plan to carefully disclose to them what it is you want. It can be extremely helpful to frame your request starting with your own feelings, in order to prevent stirring up defensiveness in them. Start by saying something like, “I feel __________ when you __________.” Perhaps you can even follow that up with a statement of owning your own potential misunderstanding of their motives. You could say something like, “I know that you might not intend to impact me in this way, but this is how I feel.” This really helps you to practice taking ownership for your own feelings. If you have the self-awareness to share why the behavior makes you feel badly then you could share this. Perhaps it reminds you of behavior that hurt you in the past, and so it triggers bad memories for you. Perhaps, in your perspective or culture or family, the behavior is simply rude or disrespectful. Whatever the case, sharing why you feel the way that you do may help incite empathy in the other person. Lastly, make sure to have a game plan for what you’d love to see happen differently in the future. State what you desire as directly as you can, such as saying, “In the future, it would mean so much to me if you could __________.” If you know that the person cares for you but is simply failing to demonstrate that, providing them with tips on exactly what you need and want may enable them to give it to you. Not only that, but it might also help them to learn to ask for what they need from you.
If you recognize that you need to make better boundaries with people in your life and want some tips on improving this skill, see my post on Boundaries and Enmeshment.