This essay is for people who don’t understand each other. Specifically, it’s for people who are going down a path towards seeing themselves as the cause of their own pain, and anyone else who feels pain about someone doing that. The lessons of this essay can be applied to any relationship where understanding and empathy have broken down, but they certainly don’t have to be applied to anything. All of this is voluntary.
Introduction: So You Had A Bad Day
To start all this off, we need to talk about validation. My understanding of validation comes from dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT); it was one of the first things I learned in therapy, and it’s the cornerstone of creating genuine understanding between people. Validation is the act, the active practice, of explaining to yourself (and perhaps the other person) why that person’s experience is valid.
Why does their perspective make sense? Why do their feelings make sense? Why does their personal experience of the situation make sense for them to be experiencing? Rather than judging whether or not someone’s perspective, emotions and experience are right, you are understanding why they are valid.
Invalidation is essentially the pain of feeling like you live in like a different reality from someone else. It’s like they’re telling you, “Your feelings aren’t okay. They’re not allowed. You’re not allowed to be feeling them. Your perspective is wrong, and you’re not allowed to have it. Your experience of reality is incorrect.” And it happens all the time, in major and minor ways.
For example, you know that feeling when you’ve just had a bad day? When in general, life might be totally fine, but today was just bad? And you tell a friend about all the things that went wrong today, and they say, “Oh come on, your life is great. Cheer up! You’ve got nothing to be upset about.” They may say this with the kindest of intentions, just wanting to help you feel better, but it comes across as pretty damn unhelpful and invalidating. So you’re left thinking: “I just told you all the things I’ve got to be upset about, and yes, I am perfectly aware that my life is otherwise fine, but at the moment, I’m feeling crappy about a crappy day. Is that not allowed?”
At best, their reaction doesn’t help you feel better, and at worst, it’s another reason to feel worse, because on top of your crappy day, you’re now being invalidated about it.
Part 1: Two Guys Walk into an Old Catholic Lady
To understand why someone else’s experience is valid, there are two places you can look. The first is in understanding that person’s history: their particular past experiences, beliefs, traumas, treasures, and patterns. The second is in understanding that behavior and emotions always come from somewhere. In order for someone to be feeling what they are now, there had to have been something that caused it, or it wouldn’t be happening. No emotion comes from nothing; emotions are responses.
For example, let’s say Bill had an abusive mother who was Catholic. Later in life, Bill talks to an older woman who’s Catholic, and experiences her as mean and judgmental, her overall demeanor as threatening. Bill’s friend Kevin meets this same woman, behaving the same way in the same situation, and views her as perfectly nice. Kevin might not understand whatsoever why Bill would have the reaction he’s having. To Kevin, Bill’s perspective on this woman is downright wrong. But understanding Bill’s history with his abusive Catholic mother might explain why he’s having such a negative response to this Catholic woman now.
Regardless of whether or not this Catholic woman is actually nice, it makes perfect sense that Bill might be perceiving her as mean and threatening, because he’s associating this current situation with past trauma. The feelings he’s having right now, of fear or discomfort or wanting to get away from this woman — these feelings make perfect sense. They’re valid. And to add insult to injury, let’s say that nobody believed Bill as a child when he told other people that his mother was hitting him. They told him that his experience of what was happening wasn’t really happening. And now, Kevin, you’re gonna say that his experience of this Catholic woman is invalid? Did you listen to her? She was clearly mean, and cruel, and scary. Do we even live in the same reality, Kevin?
In a way, no. Even though Bill and Kevin were in the same conversation with the same woman, they were in entirely different experiences of it. The particulars of the situation meant entirely different things to each of them, impacted them in entirely different ways, led to entirely different emotional experiences. Both of their experiences are valid.
In DBT, the next step after validation is to “check the facts.” After you validate someone, and their physiological and emotional response calms down, then you’re supposed to look at what’s really happening now without the cloud of reactive pain confusing it. I find that this approach can sometimes be unhelpful, because people, by and large, aren’t great at telling the difference between fact and judgment.
The facts of the situation are: this Catholic woman exists and said stuff. The fact of the situation is not that she’s nice, or that she’s mean. She is, she acts. Those are the facts.
The judgments that those facts indicate that this woman is nice, or that she’s mean — those are interpretations of the facts. They are perspectives to have on a situation whose meaning we can’t say for certain. How do we know that the meaning isn’t certain? Because we’ve already got two different people experiencing it in two different ways, giving it two entirely different meanings, both of which feel completely real to them.
Rather than try to determine which meaning is correct or better, we can say that they are both valid.
The question to ask Bill and Kevin (once they’ve both calmed down a bit) is this: Is there another possible perspective on the situation that can be valid too? Bill, can you understand why it is that Kevin views this woman as nice? Can you validate Kevin’s experience and perspective? Can you see it, too, Bill?
Kevin, can you understand why it might be that Bill views this woman as mean and cruel? Kevin, can you understand Bill’s perspective without judging it, even in your own mind, as wrong? If your view of Bill’s perspective is, “Yeah, it makes sense that he misjudged this woman as mean because he’s projecting his past trauma,” then you’re not really validating Bill’s perspective, are you? Remember: the facts are just that the Catholic woman exists and says things. Your perspective is that she’s nice. You’re working on validating Bill’s different perspective: actually understanding why it actually makes perfect sense. You can come back to judging it later, but for now, we’re just validating it. So, let’s try again, shall we?
Part 2: If the Shoe Fits
Validation is ultimately an act of empathy. It is about stepping into someone else’s shoes for a moment, trying to see the world through their eyes. Sometimes, stepping into someone else’s shoes makes you reflect on your own shoes and want to change them. Sometimes, it’s just an act of empathy with someone else, and you can carry on afterwards with having your own different perspective, saying, “Well, to each their own.” Sometimes, stepping into someone else’s shoes feels impossible, because how could you possibly want to wear those shoes? Even want to step into those shoes? Those shoes could never possibly fit! It’s entirely possible that they don’t, but have you ever tried them on to check?
When we love people, we tend to want to understand where they’re coming from, and want them to understand us. We typically want to make sense of them, and we want to make sense to them. We want to be able to relate to one another, have shared experiences, so that we don’t live in the continuous pain of mutual invalidation.
Validation can be applied to any interpersonal conflict where there is no shared understanding. You do not have to apply it to anything. All of this is voluntary. There may be conflicts in your life that just don’t seem worth resolving, or perspectives that don’t seem worth validating.
For example, to obey Godwin’s law as we all seem to invariably do, I don’t personally particularly want to spend my time empathizing with the perspectives of Nazis. However, if I were a therapist whose job was focused on de-radicalizing and rehabilitating white supremacists, you bet your ass I’d be doing that. Why? Because the only possible way someone is going to step into a shared reality with you is if they believe that it’s possible for them to do so. The only reason they’d have to take that step is if they start thinking that your perspective might be better for them than the one they’re currently having.
You can’t really explain to someone how to get from where they are to where you are, let alone why they might want to, until you understand where they are. At least, you won’t be able to explain it in a way they’ll likely believe. And for good reason, because from their view, you clearly don’t get where they are, you clearly don’t understand their perspective, you clearly don’t validate their experience, so how on earth would you be able to tell them that their experience can or should change?
What would you know about it? Why should they trust you?
Part 3: Becoming the Cause of Your Own Pain
Now that we’ve dug into validation and invalidation, trust and empathy, let’s pivot back to what happens when someone’s perspective on the world changes so dramatically that, to even entertain the idea of viewing it as a hypothetically valid perspective, feels invalidating to your own experience.
Particularly, today we’re talking about when one person starts experiencing themselves as the cause of their own feeling, and another person doesn’t experience that — when one person sees their mind as creating all of their own suffering, and another person sees suffering as happening to them from the outside.
To be clear: I am really not talking about any semantic difference between pain and suffering. I am talking about all of it: anger and grief, shame and loneliness, misery and stubbed toes, fear and trauma, lower back pain and cancer.
I also want to clarify that I am not debating any facts. I am not saying that the mind does, in fact, cause all pain and all happiness. I am not saying that pain and happiness do, in fact, happen to you from external causes. I am not debating facts. I ask that, just for the rest of this essay, you put aside determining which one of these is “right.”
What we have here are two different perspectives.
We have one perspective that says: “I experienced pain and suffering and trauma at the hands of people and events in my environment. My pain is caused by those external circumstances. My pain is not my fault; it’s the fault of what happened to me. Yeah, sure, whatever, maybe I could have hypothetically done this or that differently, but that completely misses the point by pinning blame on me where it does not belong. I obviously didn’t know any better at the time, or I wouldn’t have ended up in an experience of trauma. You really think I’d cause trauma to myself willingly? Please stop blaming me for my own trauma; it’s bad enough as is having been a victim of it.”
Is this perspective valid? Of course it is. Listen to the damn perspective. You suffered pain and trauma, and it was not your fault. That’s completely valid. Of course you’d have that perspective. Of course your perspective is allowed. Of course you’d never bring that trauma upon yourself, and yes, it really is bad enough, and I would never add insult to injury by blaming you for it.
We have another perspective that says: “I’m experiencing myself causing my own pain and causing my own happiness. My perspective is changing from what it used to be. I used to experience pain and suffering as caused by people and situations beyond my control. What I experienced in the past hasn’t changed, it can’t be now… but what’s happening now is that I am finding myself able to make different choices. I can now think different thoughts, and notice that those thoughts change my feelings. It does not seem at all like the external factors cause my pain… or, when it does, I notice that. I notice the patterns I fall into, and I can begin, here and there, to pull myself out of them. I have experienced releasing myself from emotional pain by changing my judgments. I have experienced releasing myself from physical pain by changing my judgments. None of this has anything to do with blame, or even with the past. It’s a present, current experience I am having now.”
Is this perspective valid, too?
Remember, the question is not, “Is this perspective correct?” We’re not assessing if these are the facts. The question is, “Can you validate this perspective?” Even if you don’t share the experience, can you understand that someone else is authentically experiencing it? Can you take, in good faith, that they are experiencing it for valid reasons? Truly, can you? Are you able to? There isn’t a wrong answer here; it’s an honest question.
Part 4: Oui, et…
Okay, rewind. Instead of talking about the experience “I cause my own pain,” let’s talk about the French. Specifically, the French language.
Now, I believe that the French language exists. I read about it as a child, and I heard people speaking it. Well… I’d heard of people speaking it. I really wanted to learn French, so I put my mind to it, studied all the vocabulary, learned the grammar, and many years in, I made some strange gurgling sounds that sounded a bit like French. I tried them again. I said: Je suis. And I recognized it— oh my god! I just spoke French. I tried another sentence: Je m’appelle Anna. Ya, I think that was French too! It definitely is!
Day by day, I learned more French. Finally, after a lot of work, I was able to go through a whole morning in French. When the sun rose, I saw le soleil. I heard les oiseaux chirping in an arbre outside my fenêtre. When I spoke to myself, I spoke to moi même, and actually, I didn’t speak; j’ai parlé. From a morning in French, it became a day, then a week. The more I practiced, the longer I could sustain it.
Now — can you speak French?
In the hypothetical “you” then yes: it is possible for a person to speak French. At least some people clearly have the capacity to learn French. Will all people learn French? Probably not. Does the fact that it is possible for a person to learn French mean that you personally can speak fluent French right now? Not on its own, no. Maybe you can speak French right now, but the simple fact that speaking French is a possibility does not alone make you able to do so right now.
I had certain experiences in my life that made learning French fairly easy for me, at least compared to some people. I started learning it fairly young. I liked French stuff, so learning the language made me feel good. I had the great privilege to study French in high school and college, to travel to French-speaking countries and prioritize my French studies. There are people without my same privileges who have also learned French, and people with those privileges who haven’t, but for me: I have privilege, and I speak French.
Are you a bad person if you don’t speak French? Of course not. It’s just a language, a way of labeling the world, describing experiences, speaking and acting differently. English, Spanish and Wolof are all languages too. I’m learning French because I prefer the way my life feels when I live it in French. I’d like to be a French teacher, to teach other people who want to learn French how to speak it.
Learning French is obviously not the only thing a person can do with their life. You can learn to fix cars or tend gardens, heal the sick or care for animals or do brain surgery or trade stocks or write books or sell drugs. These are all possible things a person can do in their life. Does the fact that I’m learning French right now have anything to do with what you do with your life?
I’m really asking: does it?
Part 5: Couldn’ta, Didn’ta, and Therefore Shouldn’ta, but Perhaps, Now, Could?
Let’s get back to our two perspectives. In the first, someone has experienced pain that they did not cause. In the second, someone is experiencing that they personally have the power to cause or end their own pain. The second perspective does not actually make any judgments on the first. Nowhere in the second perspective has it been said that, if you don’t share this perspective, you’re evil and bad. You’re not being blamed for your own suffering.
And yet — I really could understand why it might feel like you are. It makes sense to me that that might be your perspective on it, because in general, most people don’t view “ending pain” the way we view “speaking French.”
We typically view pain, and ending pain, with judgments in mind. We take certain perspectives on pain, for completely understandable reasons. We don’t want pain. Pain sucks to experience. That’s kinda what pain is, what makes pain pain — this experience of bad, unwanted, toxic, unhealthy, awful, horrible, maybe even traumatizing. A painful experience is, by definition, painful.
So if someone says, “Your mind creates pain, and can therefore stop pain,” it makes perfect sense how that might translate as, “Your mind can stop pain, and therefore, should stop pain.” It makes perfect sense that the statement, “You can end your pain with your mind” might translate as, “You should end your pain with your mind.” In light of the way most people experience pain, the way we tend to view pain, the meaning we give to pain, the perspective we have on pain — it makes sense that we’d receive a declaration of ability about ending it as a judgement. That perspective is valid to me.
It also makes sense to me that someone could take it a step further, and turn the judgment into a self-worth judgment. If your mind should stop pain, and you can control your mind, then you should stop your pain, and you can, so if you’re not, then you’re doing something wrong, right?
This perspective is valid too. It makes perfect sense to me, in light of everything we know about how most people view pain. It truly is valid, and I’ve just validated it to prove that it can be validated.
Now, let’s check the facts. The statement is, “Your mind can stop pain,” not, “Your mind should stop pain,” and certainly not, “You can and should stop your own pain right now and if you don’t you’re bad.”
And yet — it makes perfect sense to me why the first statement would be interpreted as the second and the third. How could it not be? How could there possibly be any other way to take that? Pain feels bad. Feeling pain feels bad. Ending pain feels good. I want to feel good. Everyone wants to feel good. So don’t tell me that the reason I don’t feel good is that I’m doing something wrong here, because I’m not.
You’re right — you’re not. You’re not doing anything wrong.
But how can I say that, when I could end my pain right now? That’s what we’re talking about, right? The ability to just snap your fingers and not feel pain anymore? Anyone would want that ability. I wouldn’t possibly keep myself in this pain, this suffering, this misery, this trauma, by choice. How dare you suggest I would. So how can it be possible that I cause my own pain?
I don’t know. I’ve just been speaking French these days. I spent years studying French, and eventually, I started living in it. I know that’s what I’m doing, because I studied it, I learned what it was— it’s this language I’m speaking. I’m speaking it now. I learned because I had great teachers and a lot of practice. I had the privileges of great teachers and a lot of time to practice.
Part 6: Asdfilese Grammar and My Pet Bunny
Imagine you’d never heard of the French language. In fact, I’m not speaking French, I’m speaking Asdfilese. What, you haven’t heard of it? You haven’t heard of Asdfilese? It’s this language I’m studying. Yes, it exists — I’m studying it. I’ve heard of people speaking it. I’ve spoken it. It’s real.
So you want to know how to say “How are you” in Asdfilese? Well, it doesn’t exactly work like that… see, in Asdfilese, we define things by the energy of spaces between them. So in English you could say, “I stand beneath the tree,” but in Asdfilese we’d talk about the experience of the space made between me and the tree which changes based on my relationship to it, so I guess the closest cognate might be… “flibijiboot Rarf raf Gersnuffins”? But that doesn’t really capture the essence of it, y’know?
I might sound to you like I’m insane — I’m delusional, crazy, hallucinating. You know… maybe I am. Maybe my perspective on this is a hallucination. We can take that as a metaphor, too.
The question is — what am I hallucinating, and how is that changing my experience? Well, let me tell you, I’m definitely not hallucinating that I’m being hunted by aliens who want to kill me every night. It’s more like… I’m hallucinating that I have a Flemish giant bunny who sits on my shoulders and helps me be happy.
When people say mean things to me, my pet bunny nuzzles my face and I don’t mind the mean things so much. I’m able to respond to the mean things by being nice now. When I see people in pain, I feel more able to care for them because I have my bunny by my side. All those things I was so afraid of? Well, I don’t feel so afraid now, thanks to my bunny. All those hurtful things I did that I couldn’t take responsibility for? I don’t feel so much shame now, so now I can actually be accountable. All that pain of my past? It’s healing. It’s really, really healing. My bunny helped me.
Maybe my bunny is a hallucination. Maybe I’m crazy. But if the only impact my bunny is having is to make me healthier, happier, kinder, more compassionate, more peaceful, and more loving… well, what, exactly, is the problem with it?
Maybe the problem is that I believe my bunny is real when it’s just a figment of my imagination. If I understood that it isn’t actually real, then sure, I can go forth and enjoy adventures with my imaginary bunny, no harm done. But the thing is… the bunny power only works for me when I believe it is real. Maybe someday, I’ll be able to call it imaginary without that limiting its power to positively impact my experience, but right now — I need the damn bunny, okay?
Is that okay? Is that okay with you?
For me, the problem with my bunny is that look you get in your eyes when I talk about it. The fear you have for me — Am I crazy? Am I going to hurt myself or others? The fear you have for you — Should you have a bunny? Are you bad and wrong for not having a bunny, for not speaking fluent Asdfilese, for not speaking French? The judgment in your eyes —that you must be bad. Or I must be bad. It must be my privilege. It must be your fault. How dare I invalidate your experience of not having a bunny?
And how dare I equate having an imaginary bunny and speaking a made up language to your real experience of real trauma?
I understand why you could feel that way. Your experience of pain at this, at that, at all of it, is perfectly valid. Your perspective makes sense. It even makes complete sense that a part of your perspective is, “This is the only perspective a person could possibly have.”
So yes, it is falsifying to that claim about objective reality, and therefore probably invalidating to your perspective when I say mine is actually different. I can imagine that would be painful, confusing, and maybe even capital-T Triggering to your very real and valid experiences of very real and valid trauma. I know. I really know how that feels; I’ve been triggered to. Capital-T, PTSD Triggered, too. I’ve felt pain and anger, powerlessness and guilt, shame and loneliness, eating disorders and bipolar disorder and so much lower back pain. It wasn’t long ago that I felt that way, too. I still feel like that sometimes, here and there. It’s happening less frequently, though. I feel much more able to stop it from happening.
Conclusion: Maybe We’re All Just Bad at This
Most people aren’t very practiced at explaining themselves while also empathizing with and validating other perspectives. The journey from judging everyone all the time to not judging anyone ever… let’s just say, that journey does not happen overnight. It happens in steps and jumps, back steps and meandering paths, and most people haven’t reached the end of the path yet. I know I haven’t.
As a result, when some people talk about their experience of ending their own pain, they might do so in ways that are actively judgmental of you. They might be blaming you for your pain. They might think that your pain is your fault because you could be ending it. They might think that you’re bad and wrong for not ending your suffering right now, in this minute, because they ended their pain. From their perspective, why the hell won’t you do it?
Wow. I mean — look at them. This person who says they can end their own pain themselves — they are clearly in so much pain about this. They’re seeing you in pain, when they think you don’t have to be, and that’s putting them in pain. They want to have the power to stop your pain, because it hurts them to see you in pain. They believe that ending your pain would end their pain, so they believe that they must end your pain.
What’s actually happening for them is this: they want to get out of their own pain, but they feel powerless to do that, so they blame you for it. They want you to change so they don’t have to feel so much pain. It’s sad really, because if they really are so adept at stopping pain, then why don’t they snap their fingers and get out of this one? They’re taking their own feelings of powerlessness out on you, and they authentically believe right now that their pain is your fault. They think they can’t get out of pain unless you do something that just isn’t going to happen.
I know. It’s infuriating, isn’t it? Your feeling of fury at that judgment… it’s valid. But hey, you’ve read this article now, so you know that their judgments aren’t really about you; they’re about them. From that perspective, maybe it’s kind of tragic instead. They’re so mad at themselves for feeling powerless, and so, they’re pinning that all on you. It’s so unfair, I know. The unfairness of it all is causing everyone involved such pain.
Right now, maybe you can’t stop them from having that perspective. So, do you need to feel pain right now because that person feels pain? Their pain here blatantly is not your fault, so you’d be doing nothing wrong to leave it behind you. Do you want to leave it behind? Can you?
I don’t know if there’s anything I can say that will help you feel less pain about this right now, but we could try one more time:
We have two perspectives here.
In the first perspective, you are bad and wrong for not ending all of your pain. I’m truly crazy when I say it’s possible to cause and end all pain, because it isn’t, and also, you’re terrible for not having the same crazy delusion that I do. In our own ways, we are both bad and wrong and invalid and awful, and there’s no way to ever get out of this pain.
In the second perspective, your experience is completely and utterly valid. None of your pain is your fault. None of it was ever your fault. I’m just learning a different language, and I’m happy about the language I’m learning. I’m happier because I’m learning it. I’m happy because life feels better when I speak this new language, because I have the power to make life feel better by speaking it. My learning this language is not a value judgment on you. You are valid. You are valued. I have a different perspective now; that’s truly all.
Now, which of these perspectives causes you less pain?