Individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD) can have very strong emotional responses to events that seem minor to outside observers. As a result, people with BPD frequently experience emotional invalidation, that is, others react to their emotions as if those emotions are not valid or reasonable.
Frankly, if you are the friend or family member of someone with BPD, it can be very hard to have a validating response to emotions that seem out of proportion with the situation. But invalidating your loved one’s response probably doesn’t help.
Even if you don’t have BPD, you probably have experienced this yourself. For example, imagine a friend of yours does something that annoys or frustrates you, like failing to return your phone call in a timely manner. Now imagine that when you bring this to their attention, they say, “Why are you making such a big deal about this? So what, I didn’t return your phone call.”
After this exchange, you would probably feel even more upset about the situation —- your friend has not only failed to return your phone call, but now has suggested that you should not have had any emotional response to it. Emotional invalidation may paradoxically heighten our emotional responses.
One key to learning to validate others’ emotions is to realize that validating an emotion does not mean that you agree with the other person, or that you think their emotional response is warranted. Rather, you communicate to them that you understand what they are feeling, without trying to talk them out of the feeling or shame them for the feeling.
Step One: Identify and Acknowledge the Emotion
When you validate an emotional response, the first step is to acknowledge the emotion that the other person is having. This can be hard if the other person has not clearly communicated their feelings, so you may have to either ask them what they are feeling, or guess and then ask them if you are right.
Imagine that your loved one is angry with you. You come home from work, and they are behaving angrily (even if they are not explicitly stating it).
If your loved one has already communicated that they are feeling angry, for example, you can just acknowledge that they are feeling that way: “I understand you are angry.”
If they haven’t communicated this, but they seem angry, you might say, “You seem really angry. Is that what’s going on?”
Step Two: Acknowledge the Source of the Emotion
The next step is to identify the situation or cue that triggered the emotion. Ask the person what it is that is causing their response. For example, you might say, “What is it that is making you feel that way?”
You loved one may or may not be able to communicate this clearly. They may not even understand themselves what is going on, or they may be unwilling to articulate what triggered the emotion. In this case, you may just need to acknowledge that something seems to be making them upset, and that you’d like to know what’s going on, but that it’s difficult to without a clear sense of the situation.
Step Three: Validate the Emotion
Imagine that your loved one is able to communicate the source of their emotion: They respond that they are angry because you are 15 minutes late coming home from work. And perhaps to you, their level of anger seems unwarranted given the situation. You can still validate their feelings by communicating that you accept what they are feeling (even if you don’t follow their reasoning).
For example, you might just say, “I know you are feeling angry because I was 15 minutes late coming home. It was not my intention to anger you; I was stuck in traffic. But I can see that waiting for me made you upset.” You do not need to apologize for your behavior if you don’t feel you did anything wrong. But by acknowledging the feelings your loved one is having, you may actually diffuse the situation.
Validating is Not Resignation
Keep in mind that validating someone’s emotions does not mean that you resign yourself to be treated poorly. If your loved one is behaving inappropriately or aggressively, removing yourself from the situation is your best bet.
Tell them that you want to be able to talk with them about the situation, but that you can’t do that productively until they can communicate with you more calmly, so you’ll return later when it seems like the right time.
Validating Won’t Make the Emotion Go Away
It is also important to keep in mind that validating your loved one’s emotion usually will not make the emotion go away. It may diffuse the situation, and it will rarely make the situation worse, but that doesn’t mean your loved one is going to feel better right away.
Remember that it is not your job to make the feeling go away, although you may choose to be supportive. Rather, acknowledging and validating the person may help them to find their own way to regulate the emotion.
Fruzzetti AE, Shenk C. "Fostering Validating Responses in Families." Social Work in Mental Health,6(1):215, 2008.