Happily, above the flood of books about whatever the author decides to call—or accepts as defining—”mental illness,” with traditional recommendations about what is helpful, usually these days amounting to psychiatric drugging, a humane, nonpathologizing, truly useful volume has appeared. It is psychologist Evelyn Sommers’ book, Acceptance: The Defining Voice of Validation, whose writing is clear as a bell and whose voice is consistently of one who walks with the reader who wants to move past earlier, upsetting matters and become “unstuck” in order to get on with a more productive, forward-looking life.
As with her previous books—Voices from Within: Women Who Have Broken the Law and The Tyranny of Niceness: Unmasking the Need for Approval—the writing of Dr. Sommers, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist, is an easy pleasure to read and is deceptively simple. In her new book, she identifies a universal problem that at first glance might seem too minimal to warrant serious consideration but that in fact often causes emotional troubles ranging from transitory discomfort to an inchoate uneasiness that can last decades to major psychological paralysis and confusion about what is real.
This is no goody-goody book but one that compellingly draws our attention to what in our hurried, overburdened lives too easily gets lost, that is, the essential human need for acceptance and validation. Validation, she says, “is a joining with the distressed person to reflect or give voice to that person’s feelings accurately.”
Early in the book, Sommers writes that a great deal of necessary attention is being paid to the role of trauma in creating emotional suffering, but she makes a powerful case for also focusing on what may seem like minor events that in fact constitute powerful barriers to self-acceptance, self-confidence, and an ability to focus on the future and make choices rather than being stuck because of an event or a comment that the world hasn’t recognized as hurtful.
Better yet, Sommers offers thoughtful solutions that are easy to understand and begin to practice. She makes us notice things we need to see, that we might have overlooked, and that, once seen, we can use to help ourselves and to avoid causing unnecessary harm to others.
Some of the examples in Sommers’ book are about children, and one might be tempted at first to think that we cannot create perfect worlds in which no child ever has to navigate dealing with an incident of invalidation, but it is crucial to recognize that one of the few things that psychologists know for certain is that acceptance through validation is what helps developing human beings grow a core of strength and resilience.
Furthermore, surely few of us even as adults can say honestly that if, in a work meeting or family gathering, someone is dismissive or demeaning of our point of view, our reactions don’t range from feeling unsettled and unsure of ourselves to feeling humiliated and inclined either to silence ourselves or to lash out. And anyone who has lost a loved one or returned from a war zone can give examples of the devastating—though of course clueless—exhortations some people have offered them to “Move on with your life. You can’t grieve forever.” Or, as a well-meaning friend urged me about six weeks after my dear father died, when he saw that I was grief-stricken, “You’re still so upset. Don’t you think you should see someone professional about this (as though the grief were not normal and only a professional could help) and get a little something (psychiatric drugs, of course) to take the edge off?”
Precisely because people who speak the invalidating words are rarely aware of their harmful effects and often consider themselves to be doing something for the other person’s benefit, it may never strike the person whose reality was upended that that is what has happened. The invalidated person often just feels somehow insecure, ashamed, confused, or frightened and cannot figure out why.
Sommers starts with an example from her own life that may at first strike the reader as too trivial to think about: At eight years of age, when spring had arrived but snow had fallen, she one morning resisted her mother’s reminder that she put on her boots before heading to school. The child felt clumsy and confined by the galoshes and longed to don lighter shoes and run freely outdoors. When she said, “I hate the snow,” her mother, whom she hastens to describe as loving and having good intentions, responded by saying, “No, the snow is pretty” and reciting a poem about it.
She doesn’t take the easy and too-common way out of pathologizing or even blaming her mother, instead speculating that her mother was “trying to help me accept what couldn’t be controlled.” But the child not only was not comforted but felt angry at her mother, with the dual consequences of creating tension between them and doing nothing to help the child come to terms with her disappointment and go on to enjoy the day. Had her mother said, “I know you’re sick of wearing those boots, but I’d hate for you to sit all day in school in wet sneakers and socks,” the child would have had her feelings validated. It wouldn’t have taken much to do that, but Sommers acknowledges that, as a parent and grandparent herself, she understands the various pressures of time (have to get the kid to school soon) and emotion (I don’t want her to be upset) that can get in the way of stopping to think about how—quickly—to validate the child’s feelings and then move on.
If that seems like a trivial example, consider that it’s never pleasant to feel tension in a relationship that is the most important in one’s life, and when one is a child, having the adored adult act as though one’s feelings are just plain wrong can—especially if it happens more than once and perhaps even more when it is clear that the adult’s intentions are good—make one start to doubt one’s perceptions and consider one’s emotions and thoughts to be weird or even bad… or invisible to those who matter most to them. Furthermore, children, Sommers writes, “are often unable to articulate what is happening to them, and so instead act out their suffering in ways that make no sense to adults who expect them to be rational.” At worst, she says,
Lacking validation of their basic feelings, children learn to view the world as a place dominated by denial of their reality, and they begin to see their worth as conditional on social acceptance. In reaction, they either over-comply with or resist adult demands and then grow into adults who cannot move out of those stuck ways of relating. As a result they may never feel free to make up their own minds about their lives. Still others unconsciously resign themselves to the belief that they can never have validation and give themselves over to the demands of others.
Being seen for who we are, especially by those closest to us, is essential to developing a core sense of ourselves at any age. Sommers writes that “Validation is an inferred sense of being seen.” In fact, even when we feel joyful, if those around us seem not to share our joy, we can feel uneasy, “overly expressive,” embarrassed about our legitimate feelings.
Importantly, Sommers broadens the view of sources of invalidation beyond parents, siblings, teachers, friends, and other individuals, writing:
Governments that create programs and structures that fail to meet individuals’ needs are guilty of invalidating people who require them. Similarly, corporations that create myths about people’s needs in order to market their products effectively are also guilty of invalidating individuals. The media cannot be forgotten in this list because messages abound in “news,” advertising and promotion that lead people to doubt themselves. The corporate source of invalidation is not accidental. Instead, although corporations or governments would not express it in these terms, the implicit intention is to create enough invalidation, self-loathing and insecurity to weaken people in order to then convince them that they will be better off (and validated) by following the advice, programs or pitches that each entity might propose.
Helping us to recognize the various, common forms invalidation can take, and reflecting how her approach ranges from the individual to the societal, Sommers names and discusses clichés (e.g., “She’s in a better place”); trivializing of suffering (“Don’t cry. You didn’t fall that hard.”); diminishing of the person; diversion from real problems (politicians who claim that gun violence is due to “mental illness”—my example); certain comments presented as “jokes”; established, unquestioned practices (doctors who implement “treatments” that have no proven usefulness and may even be dangerous, because that is the standard of care); and celebrating of diversity while perpetuating in-groups (dominant groups endorsing festivals to celebrate racial and ethnic diversity but being more likely to accept people who look like “the Caucasian ideal”).
Because she cares about making the world a better place, Sommers packs her book with eminently do-able solutions, beginning by pointing out blind spots that make it hard for us to notice when we commit invalidation and roadblocks to validating another’s experience. In that connection, she quotes a client who sent her this note about how she helped him identify his blind spots:
One of the most striking recent discoveries I’ve made […] in the process of working with you, has been to realize the absolutely awesome power and responsibility a parent has to quietly validate the most microscopic of emotional wounds in their child, and to do this in real time. Critically, these wounds are healed by the child itself, not the parent—and the child possesses equally awesome power to heal itself […] All that’s needed is one critical gift from the parent: to strengthen the child’s emotional immune system by providing the recognition that the wound actually exists […] Wounds that are not validated by the parent […] accumulate, get infected, fester […] grow in proportion and severity, and can gather unfathomable destructive momentum as the child ages and becomes an adult. If only the parents realized that they, too, just like their children, inherently deserved to exist in a state of healing.
Once Sommers describes the common roadblocks to our validating others, it’s much easier to catch ourselves committing invalidation. One roadblock is difficulty in staying present, “both physically and emotionally,” and she makes useful suggestions for staying present under difficult circumstances, such as when the other person is crying or yelling.
Other roadblocks include but are by no means limited to the use of psychiatric diagnosis, which nearly always leads to the discounting of the experiences of people who are so labeled and even overlooking of their real physical problems such as terminal illnesses; sexism that leads to the dismissive treatment of women’s and girls’ reports of sexual harassment and assault; ageism that leads to the ignoring or minimizing of old people’s suffering; and the unresolved presence of the invalidator’s own “fears, preconceptions, and needs.”
Throughout the book, Sommers reminds the reader that “validation, understood to be acceptance of feelings, is central to being able to progress emotionally by moving through distress,” and lack of validation produces “stuckness.” Her avoidance of jargon and obscuring verbiage is combined with her deep exploration of nuance and variation in how people can learn to recognize invalidating tendencies quickly and how to correct for them.
Should readers wonder whether validating someone means always agreeing with them and supporting them in their choices, she writes that “Validation is at once simple and complex, an acceptance of where someone is in the here and now” and explains that “If you believe someone is misguided you can simply and clearly express your disagreement” after you make clear that you see and understand how they feel. “If you believe someone is doing harm by acting from their beliefs you can still validate [their] being without endorsing or validating views and attitudes with which you don’t agree or that cause harm,” she says.
I cannot do justice here to the depth and subtlety of the insight and guidance Sommers provides, but I can say that after reading Acceptance, I have become more aware of how many times each day I notice that have many chances to validate, ignore, or invalidate the experiences of others—including people who do repairs in my building, cashiers at the grocery store who are often the butts of customers’ frustration when the self checkout machines fail to work, family members and friends of all ages—and find that Sommers’ suggestions about how to provide validation add to my own enjoyment of life.
Near the end of her book, she writes:
The mechanism for validating someone is rather straightforward, hinging on acceptance of the other’s emotional state and allowing time for the distressed—or sometimes the happy person—to take in your words. The real challenge is to manage your own emotions and to tolerate others’ beliefs or ways of seeing a situation and feelings that differ from your own.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.