In another thought-provoking guest post, Sharon Hastings asks, ‘what is ‘validation’ and why is it biblical?’ Thank you so much, Sharon…
Mourning With Those Who Mourn
I suffer from schizoaffective disorder, a severe mental illness with symptoms of both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and between 2015 and early 2019 was hospitalised fifteen times with psychotic depression. In the year since, I have been relatively functional – writing, keeping up to date with housework, attending my appointments, and maintaining important relationships – but I still experience debilitating symptoms at times.
A couple of months ago, I found myself overwhelmed by depression and oppressed by a dark presence which seemed to lurk behind my shoulder. It felt as though psychosis was just a breath away. Yet when I tried to tell people this, they said things such as; “But you’re doing so well…” “You can’t be that depressed – you look great!” or (referring to the conclusion of my memoir, Wrestling With My Thoughts) “Don’t you find strength in God now?”
My thoughts and emotions were being rejected, ignored, or judged – I was left isolated and my mental health deteriorated further.
An Alternative Response
What I really needed to hear was: “It sounds like you’re in pain…I’m sorry you’re hurting so much…” I needed validation.
In a blog post for Psychology Today, Karyn Hall PhD defines validation as; “the recognition and acceptance of another person’s thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviours as understandable.”1 It is a concept associated with ‘Dialectical Behaviour Therapy’, developed by the psychologist, Dr Marsha Linehan, whose suicidal clients responded positively to this kind of careful affirmation2.
Validation is indeed powerful, and is not just for those with mental illness. As Kate Thieda, a Licensed Professional Counsellor, observes, ‘everyone deserves to know they have been seen, heard and loved, even when they are in pain.’2
A Positive Outcome
When I relapsed, invalidation of my feelings almost precipitated another hospital admission. People often respond to invalidation by suppressing their emotions, and these hidden feelings can manifest themselves in unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as disordered eating or self-harm3. Repeated invalidation can lead to long-term difficulties in managing emotions and is a factor in the development of Borderline Personality Disorder4.
Thankfully, a couple of key people came to my rescue, sitting with me and paying attention to what I was saying. They said things like, “I can see things are really hard for you…” “Given how ill you’ve been at times, I totally get why feeling so depressed is scary…” and “Anyone would feel terrified if they felt a dark presence surrounding them…”
As I listened to these validating responses, I began to feel a sense of relief and calm descend upon me; my mood seemed to stabilise; I felt ‘connected’. What’s more, I had options for moving forward: my need for enhanced support was recognised and I was empowered to address the roots of my relapse.
A Biblical Principle
Validation is profoundly scriptural. The apostle Paul tells us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15) The comment on this verse in my NIV Study Bible is helpful: “Identification with others in their joys and in their sorrows is a Christian’s privilege and responsibility.” We do not have to agree with someone to validate them; we can sit with their strong emotions and support them in their celebration or their suffering2.
If we believe that; “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him,” (Genesis 1:27) then people are deserving of dignity and respect (regardless of what we think about their choices or their histories).
Validation is Christ-like
We are told to; “accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you.” (Romans 15:7) Jesus famously said; “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) He did not say that people shouldn’t be weary, or that their burdens couldn’t really be that heavy; he acknowledged that life is difficult, and he did not promise to remove all difficulties…but he did promise peace.
When we validate someone, we show them something of Jesus. It is not always easy, but it’s worth the effort. As Karyn Hall writes; “Practice is the key to making validation a natural part of the way you communicate.”2
The Ultimate Validation
Of course, as I found, other believers will sometimes fail to provide the validation that we need.
Regardless of these experiences, we can find true validation from God himself, who accepts us exactly as we are (Romans 15:7), sees us as ‘holy and blameless’ (Ephesians 1:4), and loves us so much that he sacrificed his Son so that we might have life (John 3:16).
In Psalm 88, the writer describes a dire situation. He feels cut off, abandoned in the ‘lowest pit’ (v5-6). The Psalm ends with the assertion, “the darkness is my closest friend.” (v18) Some people wonder why this is in the Bible. Shouldn’t it end, as other Psalms of ‘lament’ do, with praise for God’s unfailing love (Psalm 13, 31…)?
No. I believe that it is there for a purpose. Unlike many people, God can sit with intense emotions. He doesn’t need to ‘tidy up’ our depression or our sadness; he can empathise with our weakness (Hebrews 4:15); and he wants to hear from us whether we are happy or troubled (James 5:13).
- Karyn Hall PhD. Understanding Validation: A Way to Communicate Acceptance. Psychology Today (2012) https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/pieces-mind/201204/understanding-validation-way-communicate-acceptance
- Kate Thieda MS, LPCA, NCC. Easing Partner Pain: Six Levels of Validation. Psychology Today (2013) https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/partnering-in-mental-health/201307/easing-partner-pain-six-levels-validation
- Allan Schwartz LCSW, PhD. Eating disorders, self-mutilation and unexpressed emotions: A deadly relationship. Mental Help. https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/eating-disorders-self-mutilation-and-unexpressed-emotions-a-deadly-relationship/
- Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault PhD. Emotional invalidation during childhood may cause BPD. VerywellMind.com (2019) https://verywellmind.com/emotional-invalidation-425156