Validation What is it Exactly?

PART #1:  Validation vs Invalidation:

“I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show and they had one thing in common: they all wanted validation” – Oprah

What is Invalidation???

While I haven’t been a therapist for very long, I have noticed that Oprah definitely has a point.  Every individual I’ve seen thus far simply seeks validation.  In fact, it appears to be a critical factor in the development of a therapeutic relationship.  From the outset, it seems my clients are asking themselves: “does this lady get it at all?” So with this in mind, I find myself asking the question, how can I learn to effectively communicate validation with my clients?  However, before I can answer this question, it may be essential to first start with defining the concept. Here a few useful quotes that tell us what validation “is not”:

Pervasive invalidation occurs when, more often than not, caregivers treat our valid primary responses as incorrect, inaccurate, inappropriate, pathological, or not to be taken seriously. Primary responses of interest are persistently squelched or mocked; normal needs for soothing are regularly neglected or shamed; honest motives consistently doubted and misinterpreted. The person therefore learns to avoid, interrupt, and control his or her own natural inclinations and primary emotional responses. Like a creature in a chamber with an electrified grid for the floor, he or she learns to avoid any step that results in pain and invalidation. (Koerner, 2012, p28-29)
How others understand your feelings when reacting with invalidation

How others treat your feelings when reacting with invalidation

Linehan, (1993), adds that invalidating responses cause us to feel others are ignoring, minimizing and/or punishing our inner emotional experiences. What are the consequences of emotional invalidation? A pervasive distrust of one’s own emotions, thoughts, and perceptions are inherently flawed. From within this preconceived vantage point it is nearly impossible to develop any sense of personal agency or sense of worth.  The predefined lens through which one enters life is defined by shame and self-invalidation. “self-invalidation refers to the adoption by an individual the characteristics of the invalidating environment” (71-72, linehan, 1993)

“in Invalidating Environments a person learns to avoid, interrupt, and control his or her own natural inclinations and primary emotional responses.  Like a creature in a chamber with an electrified grid for the floor, he or she learns to avoid any step that results in pain and invalidation…we avoid personal thoughts, sensations, or emotions that put you at risk of experiencing an invalidating event with someone else….”(Koerner, 2012, p. 6).

“Pervasive invalidation creates exquisite sensitivity. The slightest cue can set off emotional pain, the equivalent of touching third-degree burns…Because the individual cannot control the onset and offset of events that trigger emotional responses, the person can become desperate for anything that will make the pain end” (Koerner, 2012, p. 7)

Click here to read my post titled, “Shame, Invalidation & a Little Baggage”

So what is validation then?

validating responses teach us to use emotion to understand what is happening within and outside our skin as a moment-to-moment readout of our own state and our needs with respect to the environment. In an optimal environment, caregivers provide contingent, appropriate soothing for strong emotions. They strengthen and help the individual refine the naturally adaptive, organizing, and communicative functions of emotions. None of us get the perfectly optimal environment, of course. (Koerner, 2012, p. 28-29)

The essence of validation is this. The therapist communicates to the client that her responses make sense and are understandable within her current life context or situation. The therapist actively accepts the client and communicates this acceptance to the client. The therapist takes the client’s responses seriously and does not discount or trivialize them. Validation strategies require the therapist to search for, recognize and reflect to the client the validity inherent in her response to events. With unruly children parents have to catch them while they’re good in order to reinforce their behavior, similarly, the therapist has to uncover the validity within the client’s response, sometimes amplify it, and then reinforce it (Linehan, 1993, pp 222-223)
How others understand your feelings when reacting with validation

“A validating response occurs when a person expresses his or her private experience to another person and this expression is met with understanding, legitimacy, and acceptance of this experience (Linehan, 1997). A validating response does not directly seek to change or alter a person’s emotional experience. Instead, it seeks to highlight the emotional experience in order to facilitate an individual’s acceptance and experiencing of the emotion. This validation can influence individual emotion regulation in several ways. First, validating responses are believed to minimize the frequency, intensity, and duration of an emotional reaction, especially those involving negative affect, making regulation more likely. Second, validating responses promote the learning of skills for regulating emotions because they promote more disclosures of emotional states which facilitate the experiencing of an emotion and consequently its expression and regulation” (Fruzzetti & Shenk, 2008).
Validation promotes learning of emotional regulation skills.

Empathy vs. Validation.

“Whereas empathy is the accurate understanding of the world from the client’s perspective, validation is the active communication that the client’s perspective makes sense (i.e., is correct). To validate means to confirm, authenticate, corroborate, substantiate, ratify, or verify. To validate, the therapist actively seeks out and communicates to the client how a response makes sense by being relevant, meaningful, justifiable, correct, or effective. Validating an emotion, thought, or action requires empathy, an understanding of the particular or unique significance of the context from the other person’s perspective. However, validation adds to this the communication that the emotion, thought, or action is a valid response. Were the client to ask, “Can this be true?” empathy would be understanding the “this” whereas validation would be communicating “yes” (Koerner & Linehan, 2004, p. 456).

Empathy, What is it?

What is DBT?

Part #2: How to Validate…

In part one , I provide a “Cliff’s Notes Overview” to know about validation and information from various sources that can help us discern what validation is not.  In this section, I would like to review information from another resource that describes how we do validate others…

QUESTION ONE:  “What do we validate???”

Based on information reviewed thus far, its certainly clear that validation is a critical component in the therapeutic process.  However, the question which naturally arrises is “what should I validate?”  As a therapist, it would be a disservice to my clients to validate everything they say without question.  So what does it mean to validate?

With this in mind it is important to consider what we should validate as therapists.  Koerner & Linehan provide the following clarification:

“Validation means the acknowledgement of that which is valid.  It does not mean the “making” of something valid.  Nor does it mean making validating that which is invalid.  The therapist observes, experiences and affirms but does not create validity.  That which is valid pre-exists the therapeutic action” (Koerner & Linehan, 2004, p. 477).  
In other words, therapists affirm those aspects of a client’s experience that hold validity.

Treating invalid perceptions as correct and accurate is a disservice to our clients.  So how can we uncover and discern the grain of truth in a client’s viewpoint?  In the next section I will review a few suggestions from Koerner & Linehan (2004).

QUESTION TWO: How do we find  valid elements in a client’s exeriences?

Something can be valid based on an assessment of the empirical facts.

For example, I’ve had always had conflicting feelings about being biracial.  I don’t feel I’m accurately perceived am, due to the random characteristics that define my meat suit.  I also have quite a bit of baggage from my childhood due to racist and ethnocentric attitudes in my extended family. I try to validate my own personal sense of identity as a biracial person by reminding me of the empirical facts.  I have a Filipino mother and a white father.  Therefore, I am biracial.  Nobody’s opinions can render these facts invalid.

Sometimes a client’s perspective can be valid in terms of the pre-existing causal factors they describe.

One day, my sister and I were talking about various childhood memories and she made the observation that I could have handled the bullying differently.  I was too sensitive and isolated myself.  At the time she said this I was quite hurt, (this was several years ago). Based on an objective empirical assessment of facts – my sister certainly had a point.  However the problem with empirical assessments is that they are based on logic and external observation.  Left out of the equation were unique pre-existing causal factors that she overlooked.  Failing to understand my own subjective experience is failing to understand me.

Sometimes a client’s perspective can be valid in terms of their long term goals and the observed consequences of their actions.

“The client’s response may be valid in terms of past learning history…or current circumstances.. But her response may be simultaneously invalid in that it may be ineffective to her long-term goals” (Koerner & Linehan, 3004, p. 458).

QUESTION THREE:  When is validation contraindicated?

“The only true contraindication is that therapists should not validate invalid behavior. That is, the therapist does not want to validate responses that are dysfunctional and incompatible with progress toward the agreed-upon therapeutic goals” (Koerner & Linehan, 2004, p. 459),  Keep in mind, validation is a form of reinforcement.  It is a form of communicated acceptance that can act as a counterbalance to any chance strategies that are utilized.

QUESTION FOUR- How does one validate?

Step #1:   Know your client.

Know your client’s biopsychosocial history and the nature of their psychopathology.  Be aware of what is valid and invalid for the specific client with this information in mind.  “Does the response move the client toward his or her immediate or ultimate goals?” (Koerner & Linehan, 2094, p. 479)

Step #2:  Telling it like it is.

If something is valid affirm this fact to be client.  If something is not valid address this issue at the appropriate point in time, (depending on the quality of the therapeutic relationship.

“Step 3: Validate at the Highest Possible Level” (Koerner & Linehan, 2004, p 461).

What does this mean? Koerner & Linehan, (2004) are alluding to the idea that it isn’t just what you say but how you say it.  In other words, actions speak louder than words.

  1. The first step in validation is the listening to and observing what the client is saying, feeling, and doing as well as a corresponding active effort to understand what is being said and observed” (Linehan, 1997, p. 360)
  2. The second level of validation is the accurate reflection back to the client of the client’s own feelings, thoughts, assumptions, and behaviors” (Linehan, 1997, p. 360)
  3. ”In level three of validation, the therapist communicates to the client his or her understanding of aspects of the client’s experience and response to events that have not been communicated directly by the client.” (Linehan, 1997, p. 364)
  4. “At level four, behavior is validated in terms of its causes. Validation here is based on the notion that all behavior is caused by events occurring in time and, thus, in principle, is understandable…feelings, thoughts, and actions make perfect sense in the context of the person’s current experience” (Linehan, 1997, p. 367)
  5. ”At level five, the therapist communicates that behavior is justifiable, reasonable, well-grounded, meaningful, or efficacious in terms of current events, normative biological functioning, and the client’s ultimate life goals.” (Linehan, 1997, p. 370).
  6. “In level six, the task is to recognize the person as he or she is, seeing and responding to the strengths and capacities of the individual while keeping a firm empathic understanding of the client’s actual difficulties and incapacities” (Linehan, 1997, p. 377).


Gilbert, P. (Ed.). (2005). Compassion: Conceptualisations, research and use in psychotherapy. Routledge.

Koerner, K (2012). Doing dialectical behavior therapy: A practical guide. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Koerner, K., & Linehan, M. M. (2004). 68 VALIDATION PRINCIPLES AND STRATEGIES. Cognitive behavior therapy: Applying empirically supported techniques in your practice, 456-462.

Leahy, R. L. (2005). A social–cognitive model of validation. Compassion: Conceptualisations, research and use in psychotherapy, 195-217.

Linehan, M. M. (1997). Validation and psychotherapy. Empathy reconsidered: New directions in psychotherapy, 353-392.

McKay, M., Wood, J. C., & Brantley, J. (2010). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, Emotion regulation & distress tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications

Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and identity, 2(2), 85-101.

Newell, J. M., & MacNeil, G. A. (2010). Professional burnout, vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue. Best Practices in Mental Health, 6(2), 57-68.

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What would they say?

 How am I supposed to respond????

To my immediate family:

Please know my intention is not to hurt anybody.  I just cannot abide by the rules of this happy family game anymore.  The price this comes at is just too high.  I simply wish to heal and move forward…  This demand for an apology at a time of healing & growth has been both painful and perplexing.  I just hope you can appreciate that I’m not trying to hold onto the past.

To my high school classmates:

I struggle to find a valid reason for your extreme dislike of me.  I was that quiet girl in school who never talked to anybody. You don’t really know me at all but treated me like the bubonic plague. You’ve been blinded by a pluralistic ignorance that defines high school social politics.  You main goal is to come out on top, or at the very least survive unscathed.  I was just an unimportant casualty.

To my cousin:

I suspect you have no idea how much I have been hurt by your treatment of me.  My differentness truly offended you and made you ashamed.  It left me feeling like a scarlet letter was tattooed indelibly in my forehead 24:7.  Thank’s so much for that.

Last but not least, to “IT”:

I was a means to an end & nothing more.  Your actions were driven by purely narcissistic motives.  I was your ego boost you were my band-aid.  It was all part of your grand plan to break me down & build me up to your own specifications. Your abusive behavior left its mark on me.

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Shame, invalidation, & a little baggage

“I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show and they had one thing in common: they all wanted validation” – Oprah 

So what exactly is invalidation, and why is it so important? Marsha Linehan, Phd., founder of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, defines invalidation as trivializing, punishing, judging, or ignoring a person’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and identity (Linehan, 1997).  In order to understand the importance of this concept it helps to know how its definition in the field of psychology is unique.  A quick review of Merriam Webster’s online dictionary yields the following definition:

Invalid:  “being without foundation or force in fact, truth, or law…logically inconsequent.” (invalid, n.d.)

In laymen terms, when we call something valid, we are pointing out its logical and factually-based nature (invalid, n.d.).    In contrast, when used in the field of psychology, validation means acknowledging and accepting another someone’s thoughts and feelings.   It is a way of communicating to someone else that you understand them, it’s okay to feel the way they do, and you respect their viewpoint. While this may seem fairly straightforward, it is often easily overlooked.  Especially, for those who have never experienced it before.   In fact, attempting to explain this issue as a critical need in past relationships, has been a source of great frustration.  Before discussing this concept further, I’d like to delve into the nature of emotions a bit…

What Are Emotions?

Emotions are mental states, experienced as physical sensations in response to our perceptions.   These perceptions are byproducts of the brain’s ongoing mental efforts to interpret sensory information. It is through this ongoing effort that a mind-body connection is created.  Our body responds to the quality of our thoughts by producing symptoms that provide feedback on the nature of these thoughts.  In this respect, emotions are signals from the body that tell us how it is affected by our thought processes.   Beliefs and past experiences play an interesting role here, by instilling emotional schemas: internal templates for how we regulate and respond to emotional experiences.  For example, a parent’s emotional philosophy determines how they handle their child’s expression of feeling.  This in turn has a tremendous long-term impact on a child’s overall emotional intelligence.

“Some parents view the child’s experience and expression of emotions…as an event that must be avoided…[others see] these ‘unpleasant events’ as an opportunity for intimacy and support” (Gilbert, 2005, p185).

Consequences of Invalidation

Problematic emotional schemas develop as a result of chronic invalidation in childhood. A belief that one’s feelings are incomprehensible and flawed produce an array of negative responses to an initial feeling including shame, avoidance, and rumination. In his book Compassion, Gilbert (2005) describes an emotionally feral child in the following quote:

“Let us imagine the following: a child grows up and never experienced any validation of thoughts or feelings. He is an emotionally feral child, but lives within a community of other people who ignore validation. His parents have a radical behaviorist approach…adhering to the strictly behavioral position that emotions and cognitions are meaningless constructs” (Gilbert, 2005, page 199).

The long-term consequences of emotional invalidation like this are a pervasive distrust of your emotions, thoughts, and belief that you are inherently flawed. From within this preconceived vantage point, it is nearly impossible to develop any sense of personal agency or worth. The predefined lens through which you enter adulthood is shame and self-invalidation.  A quick preventative remedy to this is validation: experienced as an acceptance of one’s feelings that excludes attempts to change them.   This response allows you to openly share what you feel and facilitates emotional regulation.  When you communicate that someone’s emotions make sense in light of their own life situation, you respect the legitimacy of their perspective. On the basis of this shared understanding, emotions can be processed.

According to R.D. Laing, “When we invalidate or deny people’s experiences, or how they see things, we make mental invalids out of them.” (Steiner, 2003, pxxvi)

Self-invalidation – reliving others’ worst opinions of you…

The consequences of receiving very little validation in childhood are a pervasive distrust of your own emotions and belief that you are inherently flawed. From this vantage point, self-worth is an impossibility. Instead, life is viewed through a lens of self-invalidation and feelings of shame: “an intensely painful feeling that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of accepting and belonging” (Brown, 2006, p45).  It’s taken me a while to overcome this issue.  Until I acknowledged my own shame-based orientation, it ran my life like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’m ashamed to admit that this tarnished self-image has haunted me well into adulthood.  It wasn’t until I entered counseling in my late thirties that I began to understand why I felt like a “walking sh*t magnet”. The seeds of my own destruction came as I decided to put too much stock in others opinions. With no sense if inherent value in my being, the only feelings of worth I experienced were based on the scraps of approval I garnered from others.  This measuring stick of self-worth became a conglomeration of any negative messages my childhood bullies beat into me.  I failed to measure up, and I had to pay.

As a bullied child I had few, if any, friends.  I was the girl with cooties that nobody wanted to sit next to. I struggled  to understand why I was unworthy.   Why did my sister have such an easy time making friends?  Was she really better?  Watching her enjoy the acceptance and belonging I desired, made my loneliness unbearable.  I spent middle school and high school alone, depressed, and suicidal.  I walked thru life with a deep well of pain and anger.  At times, it was almost enough to make me go postal…That is, until I came to understand that the only acceptable person to take these feelings out on was myself.  I consider myself very lucky to have survived this.

My family, in the meantime, was blissfully ignorant of my struggles and unknowingly contributed to matters. As an INFP, Myers Briggs type, I was always very sensitive and lived in my own rich and imaginative inner world.  My parents had a hard time understanding me.  As college professors, they lead with their intellect.  The Jungian thinking function defined our home and objective pragmatism was preferred over the chaotic nonsense brought about by emotions.

You see, as fate would have it, my ESTJ mother also grew up in the Philippines.   The cultural, temperamental, and generational gaps produced by this, left an ongoing miscommunication that took a while to resolve itself.   We couldn’t effectively express what needed to be said or hear what the other was telling us.  My father, the INTP, was immersed in his latest intellectual pursuit.   Preferring to let my mother be the “bad guy”, he adopted a laid back and hands-off approach.  Aware of his inability to handle my problems, I kept them to myself.   I hated to cause distress.

looking beyond self-invalidation

When I reflect on these memories as a mother, I have an appreciation for the my parents’  humanity.  You see, children do not come with instruction manuals and we are left to make things up as we go along.  Your imperfections and shortcomings end up spilling into all efforts to raise your kids.  There’s definitely a grain of truth to the notion that we give to others on the basis of who we are.

Through the eyes of 20/20  hindsight I have gained some perspective on these childhood experiences.  When I recall all the significant individuals throughout my life, multiple perspectives from which I am able to view myself, unfold.  Each is a window into others’ interpretations of “me” and  contains a unique set of divergent distortions….liked an “f’d up hall of mirrors…

I’ve since learned to recognize this self-invalidation as a tendency to hold myself up to a measuring stick of preconceived worth.  This self-judgment has been a sadomasochistic form of control. Underlying this judgmentality, is a desire transform myself into what I believe “good enough” means.

Turning things around…

As a self-help junkie, this information has been lurking in my mind for quite some time.  When I decided to start a blog, I ran across a few old journal pages on this subject matter.  My thinking at the time was: what am I doing now to invalidate myself and how can I stop? What follows is a expounded version of these journal pages with insights on how to stop invalidating yourself.

Step one – Pay attention to how often you judge yourself & the quality of your own self-talk

“Validation – finding the truth in what we think and feel – stands as the fulcrum between empathy…and compassion…Finding the ‘truth’ even if the truth is in a distorted thought….allows us to bear ‘witness’ to the fact that the other person’s suffering means something to us.” (Leahy, 2005)

All too often, I find myself running on mental auto-pilot.   I focus on the tasks of the day and all the responsibilities I am left to juggle. The first step to cutting this bad habit of shame-addiction was to pay attention to my own self-talk and the sorts of things I’d say to myself.  I decided to record videos of myself just before a nap like a mini-confessional/brain dump.  I thought it would be best to do so after a long night shift when the kids are at school and I would be alone to record my thoughts.  Any ability to edit my thoughts would also be worn down.

What I discovered was my self-talk is laden with negative messages from an array of sources that are largely untrue based on the current state of affairs in my life.  It appears my mind has chosen to fill itself with negative self-talk, set at auto rewind.

Step two: Seeking the grain of truth & your distortions of them.


After several weeks, when the fog of exhaustion had dissipated, I decided to watch these videos.  I then asked myself the following questions:  (1) What sort of shame-based messages are contained in your self talk? (2) Are these judgments based on a desire to win or gain approval? (3) Where is the grain of truth and how are you distorting it?

After taking time to reflect upon these questions I came upon the realization that I had a real “hot-air [problem]” (Wiley, 2003, p507).  I allowed valuable self-knowledge to fall to the way-side as I made others’ opinions a priority.  In reality, my problem wasn’t what I saw about myself, but how I was choosing to view myself.  This perpetual stuck-ness was a byproduct of a new kind of rose-colored lenses with huge sh*t stains on them.  A parting question to chew over as you consider these thoughts: “who has the right to tell you who you are supposed to feel about yourself?”

Step three:  Create a new truth.

imageAs I stop and reflect upon the insights from this exercise, I find the experience to be reminiscent of the Hans Christian Andersen’s fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.   The truth of who I am, has been foresaken for a lifetime of shame-inducing messages based on complete bullsh*t.   What I love about this fable is it effectively showcases the notion of pluralistic ignorance.  Everybody assumes the group is correct in failing to recognize the king is naked.   Nobody wants to be the first to point this fact out and be the oddball out.  Therefore, everyone pretends not to notice.  As a result,  in the context of the social situation at hand, truth becomes bullsh*t and bullsh*t becomes truth.  As that boy who yells to the king: “put some f*cking clothes on you retard!”, this is a truly crazy-making experience.

A big lesson I learned learned the hard way, pertains to how one might begin wading through all this perceptual baggage:

You can change an opinion with the mind but facts exist independent of  what your thoughts are on the matter.

In other words, truths and facts must be sifted through and put into proper perspective.   Facts require radical acceptance, since to ignore them is willful ignorance.   The serenity prayer is very pertinent here.  In contrast, for an opinion to hold truth it must first be believed in.   They exist in the realm subjectivity and reflect the meanings we imbue our experiences with.  An opinion without basis in fact is bullsh*t.  What’s truly pathetic is I chose baseless opinions over undeniable fact as key reference point in the building of my self-esteem.  It’s like my husband recently noted: “if self-esteem is a ‘self’ issue why do we blame others for it?” My bullies have called me mean names but I believed them.  The same goes for a severely dysfunctional relationship in college.  He did what he did, but I stayed and put up with it.

Parting thoughts…. You can’t change a bad situation with the same mindset you used to get yourself in it.


Brown, B. (2006). Shame resilience theory: A grounded theory study on women and shame. Families in Society, 87(1), 43.48.
Gilbert, P. (2005).  Compassion: Comceptualzations, research, and use in psychotherapy. Routlege.
Invalid  (n.d.). Merriam-Webster Online. In Merriam-Webster. Retrieved August 7, 2015, from
Leahy, R. L. (2005). A social–cognitive model of validation. In P. Gilbert (Ed.), Compassion: Conceptualisations, research and use in psychotherapy, New York: Routledge, 195-217.
Linehan, M. M. (1997). Validation and psychotherapy. (pp. 353-392) American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10226-016
Steiner, C. (2003). Emotional literacy: Intelligence with a heart (illustratition ed.). US: Independent Publishers Group.
Wiley, N. (2003). The Self as Self‐Fulfilling Prophecy. Symbolic Interaction, 26(4), 501-513.

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