Who needs to be validated?
Two views on the subject of emotional validation have recently caught my attention. They can be summed up as
- “Validation is for parking.” People should have the self-worth or self-esteem to not need validation from others.
- Validation from others is essential. Is it too much to ask for a little support or for a sounding board that doesn’t criticize? After all, everyone wants to feel accepted for who they are.
This has been confusing for me because these two different perspectives seem to be saying two very different and opposing things, but at the same time they both sound right. How do we navigate these seemingly opposing views on validation? How do we emotionally position ourselves in relation to others?
A Closer Look
In defense of the first point of view, anyone who puts all their self-worth into emotional validation from others is making a mistake. It doesn’t take long to see how this plays out. Someone puts all their cards into being validated and eventually they are emotionally torn down because their entire system of emotional support and self-worth is external. These people have no self-confidence. Sometimes they place too much trust in the wrong people, handing over their sense of self-worth to those who use their trust as leverage or as a tool to manipulate or harm. Relying entirely on others for validation is unsustainable and will inevitably lead to a massive meltdown.
But I think the opposite of this scenario is also unsustainable. In defense of the second point of view, anyone who decides to never rely on validation from anyone is overcompensating. I think being on the receiving end of validation can be really important to emotional health. People who don’t rely one anyone can be too hardened to truly let anyone in. These people emotionally isolate themselves, and I suspect they do this because they have been hurt by someone they trust and don’t want to risk that happening again. My brother Adam who is a professor in the field of marital relationships and family dynamics put it this way, “some people are dismissive of the need for emotional bonding. This is often the result of inconsistent and unreliable caregivers growing up; they learned they had to take care of themselves because no one else was going to. These people tend to not have very long-term or successful relationships. That doesn’t sound like a very fulfilling life to me.”
Isn’t empathy the real issue? Validating someone’s emotions by feeling with them? Not everyone is strong all the time, after all. In the ideal situation, we have people who we trust that we can come to when we aren’t strong, people who we can confide in and rely on for emotional support.
When your spouse comes to you after a really awful day and starts telling you how they feel, and instead of listening and validating their grief you tell them how they should change their behavior in order to fix their problems, you have missed a chance to empathize with them. Your spouse may even trust you less with whatever ails them in the future because they keenly observed how you respond sans empathy when they try to confide in you. Is it your spouse’s fault for relying too much on you for validation? Should they always be expected to have the emotional fortitude to not have any need for validation? Are they weak when they look to you for strength? Should you respond to them with, “validation is for parking” and tell them to toughen up?
There is a time and place for rugged individualism, but this situation is probably not it. When someone close to you asks you for empathy and you tell them to toughen up, you are essentially teaching them to conceal their pain and not trust it to anyone, which does not resonate with me as a healthy way of life. John Gottman, a relationship researcher, talks about scenarios like this as bids for attention and turning towards your partner. He says that turning toward your partner’s bid for validation strengthens the relationship by showing love and a willingness to share burdens. Ignoring a bid for attention or being critical causes a divide, eroding the relationship.
A Caveat on Asking for Help
One point I feel necessary to make at this juncture—especially in the age of social media—is that if we need emotional support we need to look for it in the right places. In case that wasn’t clear enough, I think social media is the wrong place to find emotional validation. If you find that you are in a low place, go to someone close to you, someone you trust, and talk to them in person. I have witnessed many cries for help on social media websites from people who really needed someone to talk to. It is a sad thought to realize those cries for help may have been responded to with little more than “likes” or sad-faced emojis. Social media has built its success by tapping into each individual’s desire for validation, but it is a cheap imitation of real human interaction.
Who is Strong?
As for myself, I want to receive empathy as well as give it. And besides, I crave connection like anyone else. Should closing oneself off to emotional validation really be seen as strength of character? Should all the strength I ever need come from within myself? I don’t think so. I’m not that strong. Or perhaps a more accurate definition of emotional strength would include knowing who to confide in and rely on for support, shifting the perception of what is strong from the individual to a network structure. For example, I am strong on my own only because I have friends and family who I trust to help me when I need it. I choose to be vulnerable with them which fosters trust and meaningful relationships. Maybe this is what it means to be emotionally strong.
I have to admit that I feel like I am barely scratching the surface of this subject. But from my observations it would seem that validation via empathy is beautiful and essential to emotional health so long as one’s self-worth does not hinge upon it. Perhaps the true answer to this riddle is balance. Balance between finding or developing inner strength and confidence and relying on those we trust for empathy when we need it. Balance between the solace of solitude and the strength of solidarity. Interestingly enough, inner strength and resilience of self could likely be measured by the strength and resilience of past relationships.
The Gospel Angle
The person who needs help can feel like an outcast. Whether the kinds of help needed are spiritual or temporal, shame is usually the primary factor keeping people from asking for help. Do we want to be the kinds of Christians that perpetuate that shame by telling people to suck it up or stay quiet? Or do we want to be the kinds of Christians who are willing to listen and support each other, as per the promises we make at baptism and renew weekly? The reality of empathy is that your pain becomes my pain, your problems with addiction become my problems with addiction, your , etc., etc. This is the idea behind the scripture in the Bible where Jesus teaches that we are all a part of a body. One part cannot tell the other it is not needed. When one part suffers, the whole suffers. This doesn’t necessarily mean we over-expose our personal lives to everyone and expect others to solve our problems, but it does mean developing relationships of trust by having the courage to be vulnerable. It means leaning on others for support when we need it and being a support when others need it.