Support Guide: Acknowledge & Validate
The second, but arguably most important point of my Support Guide is to Acknowledge & Validate.
When I did my survey earlier this year, I asked participants to anonymously answer some free text responses to the question What do you wish people would say to you when you are feeling vulnerable? Overwhelmingly, I read the same desires over and over. Almost every one of the 250 respondents just wanted people to acknowledge their pain. They didn't care whether people understood or couldn't help per se, they were solely interested in people validating whatever they were going through. They wanted to know that people cognitively understood things were difficult for them, even if they couldn't emotionally understand.
Here are some of their responses.
"I wish people would just tell me it’s okay to be sad, and that I’m not crazy for feeling so depressed or anxious. I wish people would kind of validate me being so down."
"Your feelings are valid."
"You are doing whatever you can."
"That's shit...or basically anything that acknowledges the fact that you are in a horrible place that is hard to get out of whilst offering support and affirming your worth. No unhelpful, meaningless platitudes, cliches or 'advice'."
"Your feelings and struggles are just as valid as anyone else's."
"It's different for everyone I'm sure, but as a person who's very insecure, it's so important to have validation."
"Your feelings are valid, it's going to be okay."
"That it's okay to not be okay"
"I just wish that people acknowledged that it is a constant daily fight to be here. A fight that I know that I will win."
"It's okay. You're allowed to feel this way."
"I mostly just wish they would listen and validate whatever it is I’m going through."
"An acknowledgment of the situation."
"That’s shit. You have every right to feel like this."
"Wow, it sounds like you have been really struggling..."
"More than anything I want people to listen, to acknowledge what I’ve said, and to just give me a hug."
"That it is real and not imagined."
"It really helps me when people acknowledge and validate the pain I feel without overly pitying me or acting afraid of me ‘exploding’."
"I’m sorry you’re struggling."
"In general, I really appreciate it when people validate my concerns by saying they can see where I’m coming from before they try to provide a solution."
"Say you believe me, and mean it."
"Just talk it out with me because that helps the most."
"Everything you’re feeling is valid."
"I wish they would just listen to me and make me feel as if what I was saying is important."
"It’s okay that you’re feeling this way and your feelings are valid.”
"I wish people would acknowledge the problem and say “it’s okay to feel how you feel” and that I shouldn’t feel ashamed or hide the fact I have mental health issues."
"That life can be shit."
When you, or someone else is vulnerable, a number of things happen. But some of the most common things I see, experience and hear about is that people might be uncomfortable discussing emotions or they are afraid of upsetting someone further. Unfortunately this means people feel ignored, and silence ensues.
The second thing, is that people tend to want to be positive, or encouraging rather than realistic. This seems natural, but it's something that often ends in someone feeling invalidated.
When trying to find a way to be there for someone and support them, remember that it's okay to acknowledge what they're going through. Yes, sometimes things are hard, and by your trying to gloss over this, you aren't convincing them otherwise. Instead, consider how powerful it is to tell someone that of course they feel how they do. You're validating them. You're telling them it's okay. They don't need to punish themselves or force themselves to be different.
A common misconception is that mental illness is a choice. The fact that people still think this, disgusts me. No one chooses to be mentally ill. You cannot think yourself out of mental illness. It is not a choice. This is the greatest invalidation of someones emotions and ultimately elucidates your lack of understanding as to what someone is going through. Remember that the greatest support you can give is to acknowledge and validate, not to tell them how to live or behave.
Please reflect on the quotes above. They are a small sample of hundreds of comments from people who struggle with all kinds of mental illness; depression, anxiety, personality disorders, eating disorders, bipolar disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, post traumatic stress disorder, post natal depression, trauma from childhood abuse. They tell us exactly what we need to be doing when we support each other.
Acknowledge. Never ignore. Validate.