When thinking about being nicer to and less critical of ourselves, people often hear about and gravitate toward self-compassion. There are many books and online resources for building in more compassion for yourself (check out resources here, here, and here). Self-compassion, different than having higher self-esteem, is about being kind to ourselves, recognizing that our struggles are part of a part of a shared experience of being human, and being mindful. Self-validation is another way to be kind and move away from the strong self-criticism and hatred people can experience. It includes being compassionate to ourselves, and focuses on some other points as well; it helps us find more balance in life. In a nutshell, self-validation is about acknowledging and accepting ourselves, especially our feelings and thoughts, for what we are. An expert in self-validation, Alan Fruzetti, PhD, focuses his definition of self-validation on thinking what we think, feeling what we feel, and so on, with acceptance and without judgment or second guessing ourselves.
When we invalidate (or are invalidated by others), often our emotions end up getting stronger and more intense. Our thoughts tend to turn to a place of judgment and criticism, and then this leads to us acting on our emotions in ways that do not serve us or are not in line with our goals in life. This can lead to even more unwanted feelings, pain, and more self-critical, even hating, thoughts. And, cue a continuing downward spiral. While self-validation might not take away a difficult situation, it can help break that spiral through observing it, focusing on facts and not judgments, and labeling what is true and valid.
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), we teach people how to validate others with the following 6 levels of validation:
Pay attention. Be aware of what is; look, listen, and observe
Reflect back without judgment. Communicate what you have heard, possibly ask if what you heard was correct
“Read minds.” Look for what is true but not being directly said
Understand causes. Connect the what the person feels or thinks with their history, state of body, current events
Acknowledge the valid. Communicate that the person’s current state makes sense because it fits the facts
Be genuine. Be yourself; show the person they have equal status
One important point to make is that in DBT, we validate things that are valid – meaning that we validate true facts about a situation, a person’s individual experiences, emotions, thoughts, opinions, and the suffering and difficulties a person experiences.
What does this look like if we were to turn each of these steps into self-validation?
Pay attention. Be mindful by noticing and observing; what are the thoughts or words in your head, sensations in your body, emotions, behaviors, situation, etc.
Reflect back without judgment. Separate these observed aspects of yourself and your situation from your judgments and worries
I am having the thought that…
Right now my worry thought is… and this is a thought in my head
Right now, what is happening is…
“Read minds.” Get in touch with what your emotions and the situation are telling you to do; get in touch with what your wise mind – the well within, or your gut – is telling you want to do or you need right now
In my gut, I really wanted… to happen instead
Understand causes. Remember that all things have a cause, which in turn makes them understandable
This emotion makes sense because…
Given each thing that happened up until this moment it makes sense that right now…
Acknowledge the valid. Stand up for yourself, even if others aren’t, if this is valid; empower yourself
It is valid that…
If in the same situation as me, other people would be doing/feeling… too!
Be genuine. Treat yourself with respect; see that you are human and equal
It makes sense that I feel… and think… and did…. It is all VALID.
Andrea Barrocas Gottlieb, PhD, is the DBT Program Coordinator at Sheppard Pratt. She completed her psychology internship and postdoctoral training at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts, where she learned to implement Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) with youth and adults. She has studied and published research on nonsuicidal self-injury and mood disorders in youth. Dr. Gottlieb helps Sheppard Pratt implement DBT more widely through program development and staff training.