There’s a shortage of validation for mental health. For most people, the advice they get when they are struggling is generic, archaic, unhelpful, not relatable, or all of the above. If you’ve been through this yourself, or have tried to help someone else, you’ll know it’s often hard to know what to say outside of the cliches. And at the same time, it doesn’t make sense why the cliches don’t work. They often sound like good advice on paper, so why does it feel so painful and inappropriate in practice?
First, most of the advice is optimistic as default. However, misery loves company, and can be a form of comfort,”better the devil you know” style. In that mindset, optimism and hope can appear threatening and invalidating. Instead of help, it appears like being asked to pretend to not have problems. The alternative of avoiding this type of help, and trying instead to submit to hopelessness, is not entirely illogical.
Validation in mental health care is the missing ingredient. When you’re helping someone, validation needs to be at the top of your list. Someone hiding in their misery cocoon of hopelessness will need to find a way out, but they have to be the one who makes that decision. Inadvertently questioning their right to make the decision will only make them feel more unsafe. Logically, people need to feel accepted in their misery so they can have the confidence to start moving towards recovery.
So what action is a safe and responsible way to help someone trapped in misery?
- Provide evidence of hope
Lead by an example, and equip your own air mask first. You can’t help someone else when you neglect yourself. If you are more concerned with helping someone else out of misery than your self-care, it will have a negative effect on your well-being, because it is outside of your control. Not only this, but it adds further pressure to the depressed person. They are still unable to feel better, and now feel responsible for your emotional-well being too. This could cause frustration and a loss of trust, where you need to be building trust and keeping the relationship strong. Your self-care will model healthier behaviours for the future.
- Validate the emotions
Society is changing, becoming more isolated and more complicated, yet our support skills are still the same. We have an easier time fixing physical wounds and problems than healing emotional damage. Our response is often to try and help the person to control their emotions, which unfortunately isn’t actually how they work. This accidentally teaches people to hide their bad emotions, and that they are wrong for having them. To validate, we can say stuff like “that sucks, how can I help?” or “you seem to be really struggling with that, and I want to help”. We can recognise the negative emotion and offer support without being judgemental. This helps build trust, and safety.
- Don’t buy in to the narrative
This is not a contradiction! You can validate emotions without validating the narrative built around them. Many negative statements are constructions of a low mood, not based on reality. Agreeing can make the situation feel more inescapable than it truly is. The priority should be accepting and moving through the low mood instead. Accept that the person feels bad, but try to remain neutral about the narrative of why this has happened.
- Don’t directly challenge
This appears like another contradiction, but the issue is nuanced. It is important that you respect the narrative being true for the person, even if it is not true from your perspective. Challenging the narrative head-on will feel like you are challenging the person as a whole, and make them feel threatened when they are already feeling vulnerable. Again, the focus should be on seeing and respecting the person’s feelings.
- Encourage alternatives to the narrative
People don’t like to feel low and hidden. If their sadness has become escapism, there is a part of them desperate for a safe way out.
Try to gently build their confidence up. If they say something positive, match their interest and try to help them to feel safe. You can consciously validate for the other person whilst they are feeling delicate and finding it hard to believe in the future. They need to be in control in their recovery, and need support in those hardest steps.
- Pick your battles carefully
Anything positive, whilst good, might not always be realistic. However, when you are in an emotional well, the act of throwing up grappling hooks is an important move that should be encouraged. It doesn’t matter so much how realistic the ideas are, so long as they point in a forward direction, and can start to help lift the mood. When you’re low, it’s far easier to knock everything down than it is to find a ray of hope. Once the mood is stronger, the person will likely have energy to find more realistic steps for themselves.
There’s no easy solution to depression, anxiety and psychological damage, but there are options. If we all keep learning and practicing empathic listening skills, it can make a huge difference when it is needed most. I hope one day validation is widespread, and that everyone in our society will be able to mentally support each other as we deserve.
Thanks for reading, and please search for more articles about validation techniques if you found this interesting! A little listening can go a long way and make a world of difference to someone in crisis or otherwise low mood. ^_^
Disclaimer: I am not a therapist and do not have any counseling qualifications, this post is based on my experience as a support worker, internet research, and on personal experiences.
Video I’ve been listening to this week: