What I actually learned in therapy

Growing up with a mood disorder, an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, occasional delusional thinking and frequent self-harming behaviors (and a family that could afford mental health care for me), I’ve been to my fair share of therapy. A grand total of one thing from therapy has actually changed my life. That thing is validation.

Validation is, in some ways, the point of therapy. Therapy is intended to be a space where feelings can be understood without judgment. Creating that whole space is tremendously useful in and of itself, but the validation I talk about here is a specific practice that comes from dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

In DBT, validation is a communication tool used to diminish tensions in discussing feelings with yourself and others. In my DBT sessions, they described to us the body and brain’s physiological responses to emotional stress. When you’re in crisis, or feeling any kind of difficult emotion, being told to calm down can physically increase your body’s response to the emotion. Being told you’re crazy or wrong or delusional invalidates the feeling, and the mind and body increase that feeling in response to the invalidation.

Validating the feeling decreases the physiological and emotional response. Elevated heart rates slow, sensations calm, the body and mind are physically and mentally relieved when the emotion feels understandable and allowed.

We practiced validation as a group. It was a lighthearted game. We said something we felt or even something completely fictional, and the other person did their best to validate our feelings. We said we understood, or we nodded and listened to each other quietly, or those of us who felt to made a longer effort of tracking back the feeling to its logical beginning, and mirroring each other’s own mental and emotional processes in coming to the feelings we had.

The thing is, emotions are logical. Entirely logical. This does not mean they’re rational, that they’re based in objective fact, that they are based in reality. They are logical unto their own process. Even psychosis, even delusions, follow a perfectly logical path for the person feeling them.

Thoughts about our feelings are an attempt to bridge a gap, between what is felt and what is understood about that feeling. The thoughts might often have nothing to do with the feeling being felt, but they are our best effort at making sense of our own emotional reality.

I may be convinced that you cheated on me because I feel insecure about something entirely unrelated. I may be convinced that the government is trying to brainwash me with toothpaste because I feel unsafe in my own body. The thoughts are not the point; the feelings are. Telling me that I or my thoughts are crazy has literally nothing to do with my feeling.

Validation is a tool to be used in communication with each other and with ourselves. Everything we think about what we feel is deeply logical unto our unique emotional logic.

When communicating with others, the amount of benefit that can come from tracking back someone else’s thoughts and feelings in your own mind is staggering. Doing so can be a profound tool for empathizing with others and resolving difficult feelings towards them. Even if someone comes to you with the most irrational-sounding list of thoughts, it all makes perfect sense to them. Even if they think their feelings and thoughts make no sense, there is still a logic there. Tracking it back, understanding each step in the process, allows the feeling to be felt within its own context.

Physiologically, validation reduces stress. Emotionally, mentally, it allows for space to breathe. Telling a feeling it makes no sense is an attempt to suffocate that which will breathe no matter what.

When someone comes to me with a tension that seems irrational, I used to respond with a profoundly invalidating response. “That’s not true,” that’s not right, that’s not okay, that’s not, that’s not, that’s not.

But it is. It is all of those things within the logic of the emotion. Understanding that logic is a crucial step to dealing with the feeling. Allowing the feeling to exist and validating its space to do so are essential.

Feelings will out, no matter what.

I’m trying to understand people better. To respond to their feelings only after I’ve taken the space to ask them or work out my own logical story behind an emotion or feeling they have. Feelings are a response to needs, and needs respond to feelings.

I feel cold, I need warmth. I need warmth, I feel cold.

I feel shame, I need acceptance. I need to feel accepted and don’t, so I feel shame.

I have all of my needs met in this moment, so I feel contentment and bliss.

They don’t all work on such an obvious dichotomy (cold/warm). What I need might be a sense of control, and the zillions of feelings attached to not believing I have control can spiral into a hundred thousand emotions and thought constructions. For me, those constructions can go so far as to radically detriment my life. They may lead me to conclusions that are utterly irrational, or broken from physical reality, but they still feel logical within my own, subjective emotional reality.

In DBT, they called it “checking the facts.” It is the step that comes after validation. After the feeling is understood within its own emotional landscape, then that landscape can be checked against the facts of the situation. Checking the facts is not the first step. Validation is.

There is no more loving or compassionate action in my mind than seeking to understand someone without judgment of them. When we talk about self-love, it’s the same principle. Letting ourselves feel without judgement. Seeking to understand the origin of our thoughts around our own feelings. Giving ourselves the space to feel before we start comparing that feeling to the world around us.

I can’t guarantee that validating yourself and others will change your life. It is a difficult empathetic process. It has changed my life, though. It has reduced the intensity of my mood swings. It has eliminated nearly all of my destructive behavior. It has allowed me to forge deeper, more mutually supportive relationships with the people in my life. It has given me the space to love myself.

Validation is nothing more than saying, “What you feel is allowed to be felt, and you are allowed to feel it.” It says, “What you are thinking makes sense in the context of your internal world, and in the context of your feeling. I do not hold you to any other logic, not now. I give you space. I accept you.” Then you can get to reality, whatever that is.

Try it, if you want. It is not always easy, but it truly can help.