Circumstances never wait for us to be ready. Some circumstances happen suddenly, and some, looking back, have been simmering for a long time. It’s not a surprise when they boil over and make a mess. Why do we then feel surprised? Is it denial? Is it avoidance behavior? Were we hoping that the situation would resolve on its own? Were we like one of those parents who assumes that their young child will grow out of their apparently autistic symptoms?
- “Oh, just leave it. She’ll grow out of it. She’s just young.”
- “Oh, I know he can’t read now, but he’ll catch up.”
- “Sure, he flaps when he’s anxious. All kids flap.”
I have learned that every circumstance provides an opportunity for personal development. It is one of the best ways to move through a situation that may be fraught with pain and actually get something out of it. I don’t want to feel helpless. I don’t want to feel like life is happening to me, and that’s often how I feel when I feel out of control. I can’t control anyone else even if I try to do so. I’ll only find myself manipulating them and violating my own code of relational ethics.
So, what are we supposed to do? Isn’t that a great question. I suppose that question needs a context. I’ll use my marriage as an illustration.
I’ve never had a great marriage. I can admit that now. I have a strong tendency to play the caretaker, and I am intimidated by strong displays of anger. Just read my blog and you’ll figure out why that is. I am by nature nurturing. I am hospitable. I enjoy serving people in my home. I do not like to see people suffer. I will go the extra ten miles to make sure people have what they need. Pair me with a spouse who is the least bit entitled and what might you get? Well, it ain’t good. It’s just that it was so much better in comparison to the relationships in my family of origin that I didn’t know that it wasn’t good enough. In retrospect, I should have done more than ask for more. I should have pushed harder sooner. Alas, I can only learn from the past now.
Passive aggressive behavior is toxic. Compare passive aggressive behavior to a raging, violent mother, and that passive aggressive spouse starts to look like Mr. Emerson of Room with a View. I simply didn’t recognize it for what it was until…
I began attending longterm therapy. I simply woke up one morning and realized that my head wasn’t screwed on properly. I needed a brain pan overhaul. Four extraordinary years later, I had new eyes. I was a completely different person. I wanted more, and I began to see that there were dynamics present in my marriage that were harmful. Seven years later? It’s worse, but I can see even more clearly than I could before. I also see that I am part of the problem.
Because I grew up with a borderline personality, I know that I left home with codependent tendencies. I am no longer codependent, but I do have caretaking habits. They are alive and well in my marriage. Reading this book has been eye-opening, and I recommend it to anyone who lives with a “high maintenance” spouse be it passive aggressive, emotionally unavailable, highly anxious, overly attached, not attached enough, or even high-functioning autistic. Recognizing where and how we caretake is the beginning of recovering ourselves. Learning how to stop is another step closer, and, boy, is that uncomfortable.
The other issue that I see in my life and the broader life experience is the notion of validation. I read this earlier today:
“Be faithful on the playing field God has given you, no matter how small, and let God validate you in His time and in His way.”
How many women have heard statements like these from well-meaning people? It inadvertently promotes feelings of helplessness and disempowerment. I propose that we are not meant to sit in painful circumstances and wait around for validation. We have brains. We can learn to validate ourselves.
Before we learn to do that, it’s important to discuss validation. What is it? Validation means “telling someone that what they feel, think, believe, and experience is real, logical, and understandable…it helps our relationships go better, and it calms intense situations so that we can problem solve. Validation is like relationship glue. Validating someone brings you closer.”
How do you validate? Well, the first thing to understand is that validating someone does not mean that you agree or approve of their behavior. Validation is a non-judgmental way of communicating that you understand their point of view. Here are some validation techniques:
- Focus on the inherent worth of the person, whether it is yourself or someone else.
- Observe by listening carefully to what is said with words, expression, and body. Listen with intention. Be of one mind in that moment. If you are self-validating, then honor your experience by sitting quietly with it, knowing it for at least a few moments. IF you are validating someone else, use good eye contact, nod, and focus on them. Don’t focus on what you are going to say next.
- Describe by non-judgmentally stating the facts of the situation.
- State the unstated by noting the presence of feelings, beliefs, etc. that have not been voiced: “You seem to feel angry but also hurt by what that person said to you.” If validating yourself, then identify your primary emotions. If anger is obvious, then explore your feelings of hurt, disappointment, or shame that may be hiding underneath.
- Search for what is valid and true about the experience and note it. Without feeling that you have to agree or approve of the experience, find a piece of it that makes perfect sense, and validate this. If validating yourself, then perhaps you realize that the thoughts you are having might be irrational; however, you validate that they exist and are powerful in the moment. If validating someone else, even if you disagree with their behavior, find something with which you can empathize: “When you get that angry, I can see that you want to strike out at someone. Your emotions are very powerful for you.”
Self-validation is vital because it tells us that all feelings are informational. Self-validation occurs when we are able to quietly reassure ourselves that what we feel inside is real, important, and makes sense. Emotions, thoughts, and sensations are all experiences that we sometimes doubt in ourselves so we ask:
- DO I really feel this?
- SHOULD I feel this way? (Does this emotion match the situation, even if it inconveniences someone else?)
Learning to self-validate quiets defensive and fearful emotions so that we can problem solve. It allows us to let go of the pain and exhaustion that constant self-justification and self-doubt require.
This part is important: Many of us may have grown up or grown accustomed to invalidating environments so we may habitually look around us and try to guess what other people in the same situation feel or what others expect us to feel. When we are told that we should not trust our inner experiences, we have been invalidated. We learn to trust other people more than ourselves. We have learned to self-in-validate. We spend a lot of time and energy trying to prove to others and ourselves that our experience is real and makes sense. This often results in conflict or crisis.
Learning to self-validate then becomes an exercise and practice in recovering yourself because self-validation teaches you to trust your inner knowing rather than making others your authority for what is right or wrong for you. You will regain your empowerment. You will learn to attend to your feelings and validate the information that your feelings give you which will give you a deeper sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Why? Because you are no longer beholden to others in the sense that others have to validate you. You can do this for yourself. Validating yourself is like glue for the fragmented parts of your identity because it teaches you to accept and understand who you are which leads to a stronger sense of self and better skills at managing intense emotions.
Self-validation puts us in our own metaphorical boat so that we can begin choosing which direction to take rather than being tied to someone else’s boat, which may or may not be sinking.
Is it easy? Hell, no, it’s not. It feels foreign and weird. We are made to receive validation from others because we are social beings. We are supposed to receive acceptance, understanding, and approval from the people in our pack, but we should not be held back in life and disempowered when we do not. That’s the point. Furthermore, I do not believe for one second that we were designed to sit and wait around for a visitation from God so that He could validate us. He is a creative force. He creates opportunities. If we are made in His image, then we were made to do the same thing. Self-validation does the same. It creates opportunities for us to move forward even if the very people that we love…won’t.
**Some of the material in this post was taken from handouts given in DBT Skills Group, but there are not source citations on the handouts.