I was comforting my daughter yesterday. The kids are obsessed with “Beauty and the Beast” and the beast was being exceptionally rude. She was scared and squealed to be picked up and held. I continually soothed her by saying, “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Seems innocuous, right? Well my therapist brain began yelling “BUT SHE’S NOT OKAY! IT WAS SCARY!” True. What I said wasn’t “wrong”, but it also wasn’t completely validating of her experience. I could have told her a few other things. Phrases such as, “I know it’s scary, but I am here to help,” or “It is okay to be scared, you don’t have to look,” or even “It is going to be okay.”
It seems silly and maybe overkill, however, the more emotions are validated for kids and adults, the more we are able to trust our own feelings. This extreme example can be applied to more impactful instances of emotion validation. Here are few ways people unintentionally invalidate other’s emotions.
PLATITUDES ARE DESIGNED TO SIMPLIFY THE SITUATION
Emotions are complex. As a culture, we don’t do well with complex. We want to understand and conquer. When we don’t understand and cannot control, we get uncomfortable. In the south, everywhere I expect, but especially the south, people want to be polite. Being polite often means saying the right thing at the right time. A “yes ma’am” here, a “may I help you” there, or a “no thank you I don’t want any coffee when secretly I’ve been craving it since I walked in.”
When someone feels sadness or anger or fear, we are frozen with uncertainty. What needs to be said? Sometimes our words escape our mouths before our brain gives it clearance. Sometimes we don’t recognize our words for what they are, simplification. “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” Sweet words. There’s some truth. Platitudes always have some truth. However, it fills the silence in a manner that prompts the person to “get over it already” in a “nice” way. That may not be what was intended, but it is often what is communicated. There are way more like:
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“Don’t worry, be happy.”
One of the worst that is beginning to be rejected, “boys will be boys.” There are many situations where these phrases will stop someone from expressing their emotions and leave them feeling almost chastised. Silence is better than a platitude.
POSITIVITY IS DESIGNED TO DIMINISH THE INTENSITY
“It could have been so much worse,” or “look on the bright side” or “at least…” can be an attempt to comfort. So many of these phrases are an attempt to comfort. However, good intentions can still cause harm.
Processing emotions cannot be rushed. We can encourage someone to skip steps in the healing stages, but it is not helpful. People need to feel their disappointment, grief or even jealousy. Attempting to focus on the positive rather than experience the “negative,” can result in stuffing feelings.
People can feel shamed by the intensity of their emotions when encouraged to see the “silver lining” in a situation. Once their crisis has passed, they might enjoy discussing the positives that occurred due to the disappointment, but not in the moment. We need to let people feel sadness.
ENGAGING IN CERTAIN ACTIONS CAN BE DESIGNED TO SILENCE
Have you ever been crying and someone hands you a single tissue? Feels like a “wrap this up” a bit, huh? We can unconsciously send messages that are invalidating. It can be difficult. Feelings matter whether you agree with them or not. Your kid is losing their ever loving mind because their action figure fell apart? It’s trivial to us, but it is something important to them.
We can sigh and quote the reasons they need to pick up their toys (guilty), or we can empathize with how frustrated, disappointed and sad they are. Eventually, we can explore with them how to reduce the risk of their toys breaking, but when they are in the midst of their emotions, is not the time.
Pay attention to body language. It shows if you are waiting to flee the scene or you think their feelings are unimportant. It may be a struggle to understand. However, you have experienced that same emotion, remember the feeling and not the circumstances.
It is difficult to validate emotion that is not your own. Being unsure how to comfort can make us revert to unhelpful responses. However, we need to be aware of our verbal and non verbal cues that are communicated to the person struggling. It is important be present and let the person know that what they feel matters.
If you have been on the receiving end of these invalidations, I’m so sorry. I have been guilty of doing all of these at different times. Other people’s reaction to your feelings does not mean they don’t matter. It doesn’t mean they are unimportant.