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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