Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Manhattan Clinical Director Kelsey Fisher, LMSW endeavors to support and challenge people to enliven their potential and forge a way out of the problematic cycles in which they inevitably find themselves. As a social worker, she takes a particular interest in understanding the individual in the context of their environment.
“The response to ‘You hurt my feelings’ is not: ‘No, I didn’t.’ (They’re her feelings. She should know.)”
This pearl of wisdom came from a New York Times advice column that caught my attention. “Why is my daughter such a drama queen?” the reader asked, and the response was brief, perhaps blunt, but sound in concept.
In short, the advice-giver boiled down the dilemma to a core conflict: do you want to be right, or do you want to have an improved relationship with your loved one? Before we jump to an argument of slippery slopes, “…Then when does it stop, will we always have a one sided relationship?” etc., let’s look at the situation. You can read the article here if you want.
Initially the daughter requested acknowledgment and praise. The mother noted how privileged her daughter’s life was compared to her own, and questioned the appropriateness of giving praise where she felt it wasn’t deserved, sincere, or fair. When the daughter expressed hurt, the mom didn’t seem to understand why it was a deal, let alone a big deal. They are suffering a missed connection, and it seems disruptive and painful for each of them, in different ways.
I see situations like this in the families we work with at Monte Nido. Perhaps the take on a difficult situation in the past or present differs from the child’s point of view as compared to the parents’. Perhaps the child is more sensitive or reactive emotionally, and the parents are baffled and frustrated by these reactions, or vice versa.
What may end up happening is that each party invalidates the experience of the other, leading to further disconnection and suffering. When this goes on for a long time it can exacerbate relationship discord and, by extension, the Eating Disorder, which may be regarded as a disease of disconnection.
Invalidation may occur in various ways and we’ll look at a few. Please note that this is not about placing blame.
I repeat, this is not about placing blame on you or your loved one.
It is about examining what practices support emotional and physical health of families.
Read that one more time, take a deep breath in and blow out slowly, and completely, through pursed lips before you go on reading. Remember that even the most practiced fall short of our ideal when it comes to listening and validating another’s experience.
Invalidation might happen in the form of a “brush off,” e.g., when we try to explain our perspective in an effort to change or “fix” our loved one’s understanding of the events–before taking a moment to understand and appreciate what our loved one has expressed to us. Or perhaps we do take the time, but don’t effectively communicate that: “Yeah, BUT [this is why you shouldn’t feel this way]”. Perhaps we outwardly deny that the person feels that way, or tell our loved one what they are feeling instead. No you’re not ____ you’re just ____!
Perhaps we decline to treat our loved one in a way that is more congruent with our loved one’s experience. This might happen when a loved one asks for an accommodation in the early phases of recovery, like to stop food or body talk, and the family struggles to follow through, or if a loved one expresses that they are transgender or non-binary and we continue to use the pronouns that apply to their assigned gender at birth.
Another example of this might occur if we are eager to make sure our young adult doesn’t “fall behind” their peers, and may unintentionally minimize the severity of a problem, and may urge or support a return to college while our child is expressing in words and/or actions considerable ambivalence or apprehension.
For anyone who might sense guilt or regret creeping in as you read this, please review the message about blame, and repeat the deep breath. There are plenty of barriers to validation, to name a few:
Some people didn’t learn to validate in their families of origin so they may not understand it and may not be in a position to have someone return the favor.
We might worry that if we accommodate a sensitive child the world will not be as kind and the child would face a harsh and painful reality after leaving home. We might fear that validation will create an insatiable desire for more validation, placing our loved one at a disadvantage.
We might feel blamed and defensive. It can be incredibly painful to acknowledge that someone is hurting, let alone if it was in response to something we did, whether or not there was intent to harm.
The demands of supporting a sick loved one may have exceeded our emotional and physical resources: it requires patience and can be incredibly challenging to respond to loved ones with maladaptive emotional expression. Our loved ones may be reactive and intense, or withdrawn–either way the experience is taxing. Many times these problems have existed for years before the loved one seeks help.
To dispel some of the fears from the list above, validation is an essential ingredient in building self-esteem and secure connections. It helps a person build a foundation of trust in themselves and others, thereby increasing their ability to self-validate and have healthier and more effective relationships.
For any one of these barriers I would suggest that supporters seek their own therapy, but in the meantime there are some skills that are the antidote to a toxic pattern of disconnection that we can all learn, listening and validating.
It will be hard to validate without first listening. Good listening is a surprisingly elusive thing in our age of distraction. There are a few key foundational factors that I see families stumble with:
1. Pay attention limit distractions. And no, you, like all other human beings, cannot multitask while playing candy crush or answering a text.
2. Be quiet while someone else is speaking and take turns
3. Use affirming body language to indicate interest and that you are following, e.g. nodding head, posture oriented toward the person, eye contact.
4. Check to make sure you’re hearing right, restate without additional interpretation and judgments, ask for clarification if you don’t understand.
5. Practice non-judgment. This takes some work, but see if you can become aware of the your inevitable biases and opinions, and take a moment to take alternative perspectives.
6. Respond, don’t react. Take note of your reactions and/or judgments as they occur internally. They don’t have to set the stage for what happens next.
Validation comprises recognition, acceptance, understanding, and affirmation.
Find whatever kernel of truth you can and see if you can empathize. You may feel strongly that the reaction is disproportionate, or even inappropriate, but can you find something you can anchor into? Maybe your loved one is feeling upset, because you talked about food/body when they had asked you not to. Maybe you didn’t mean to upset them, but can you take some time to let sink in what the experience is like on their end? In validation, as in improvisational performance, it is important to employ, “Yes, and” rather than, “Yeah, BUT” or the least effective, “No.”
It can be an important starting place to validate someone’s emotional experience, it does not necessarily mean that you have to approve of their version of the story, or their behavior that followed, if it is not appropriate to do so. This is not about leniency or reassurance, it is about finding the connection to another person’s experience and integrating that into your own narrative.
From this space of shared understanding and connection we are able to begin to heal and engage in a dialogue. It may be apparent that someone has a distorted perception of reality and their reactivity is a result of this. We would want to be able to unpack what distortions are at work and see if we can help that person take in the missing information and behave effectively, however that person still has a need to be heard and understood as they are now. From a foundation of listening and trust we open up so many more opportunities to healing and communicating.
Galanes, P. (2017, September 7). Why Is My Daughter Such a Drama Queen. The New York Times. Retrieved September 9, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/07/style/why-is-my-daughter-such-a-drama-queen.html?mcubz=0