When you validate your emotions it means that you acknowledge how you feel and remind yourself that it’s okay to feel that way even if it’s uncomfortable, confusing, or painful.
Your spouse says something sarcastic and you immediately feel annoyed and a little hurt. Validating your emotions would mean telling yourself that even though you didn’t like what happened (the sarcasm) and you don’t like how you feel as a result (annoyed, hurt), it makes sense that you would feel that way and it’s okay.
While seemingly simple, the ability to validate your emotions is arguably the most important skill you can learn to improve your emotional health and resilience because it addresses the fundamental mistake most of us make with our difficult emotions: We try to avoid them.
In the rest of this article, we’ll look at why the habit of emotional validation is so helpful for creating a calmer, more peaceful emotional life. And then we’ll break down the process of emotional validation into 3 simple steps you can use to get started.
Why It’s Important to Validate Your Emotions Instead of Avoiding Them
Of course, it’s natural to want to avoid or get rid of painful emotions because, well, they’re painful!
But here’s the problem:
When you avoid painful emotions, you train your brain to be afraid of them—and that only makes them more frequent and intense in the long run.
- 😔 Sadness. Sadness can’t hurt you. But if every time you feel sad you make a joke and brush it off, or numb it out by distracting yourself with Facebook or a bottle of whiskey, you’re teaching your brain that it’s not okay to feel sad. This means the next time you feel sad, you’re going to feel anxious or ashamed on top of feeling sad.
- 😬 Anxiety. Anxiety can’t hurt you. But if every time you start to feel anxious you immediately call someone and ask for reassurance, or try to make it go away by doing a bunch of deep breathing exercises, you’re teaching your brain that anxiety itself is dangerous. This means the next time you get anxious you will be doubly anxious because now you’re anxious about being anxious!
Avoiding painful feelings leads to temporary relief in the present but chronic emotional pain in the future.
The only way out of this vicious cycle is to teach your brain that all emotions, however painful, aren’t dangerous. And to do that you have to stop avoiding them and start welcoming them.
That’s right: In order to feel better emotionally, you need to welcome your painful emotions willingly.
Because when you are willing to experience painful emotions, you teach your brain that difficult emotions aren’t a threat. And in the long run, this is where true emotional stability and resilience comes from: When your brain isn’t afraid of feeling bad.
So how exactly do we do this?
How to Validate Your Emotions: 3 Simple Steps
I arranged this as a step-by-step guide to reassure you that it’s practical and straightforward. But that also makes it sound complicated, which it really isn’t.
Validating your emotions simply means being willing to have them instead of avoiding them.
Ultimately, whatever helps you do that is fine. The following steps are a simple framework I use myself and with my clients because it’s memorable and gives a little structure.
Step 1: Acknowledge that you’re feeling bad
For most of us, avoiding painful emotions has become a habit. This means it’s often something we do without much awareness. It just sort of happens automatically.
So, the first thing you want to do is to be more conscious of when you’re feeling bad emotionally.
I recommend that you start with one class of emotions first instead of trying to do it all the time with every difficult emotion you feel.
For example: If anger is something you struggle with especially, then just focus on acknowledging when you feel angry. You may also get sad, anxious, etc. But in the beginning, just focus on one.
Of course, within that general category or family of emotion that is anger, there might be lots of specific shades or variants of that emotion. For example: Annoyed, irritable, frustrated, and mad might all be specific variants of anger that you want to try and be more aware of.
If it helps, keep track of where and when you feel those emotions in a little notebook or file in your notes app on your phone. Like tracking calories or spending, there’s something about literally writing things down that helps improve your awareness.
Step 2: Label your emotions with ordinary language
One of the sneaky ways a lot of us learn to avoid painful emotions (and so, teach our brains to fear them) is by intellectualizing them.
Intellectualizing your emotions means that you use overly intellectual, metaphorical, or conceptual language to describe how you feel.
This serves the function of making those feelings a little less painful in the moment. But it also lowers your emotional self-awareness and increases your brain’s fear of those emotions because at core it’s an avoidance strategy.
After a long stressful day at work, you get home and because your spouse can see that you’re upset, they ask what’s wrong. So you say, Oh nothing, I’m just a little stressed.
Now, it may be true that you are under some stress. But if you’re using the word stress to cover up or avoid talking about some other painful emotion, then it’s an intellectualization.
For example: While you’re certainly stressed, maybe you’re also really afraid because you’re worried that as a result of your performance numbers being low again this quarter you’re at risk of being laid off.
But literally saying, I’m afraid feels more painful and vulnerable, so you intellectualize and say I’m stressed.
To summarize: Once you’ve acknowledged how you feel, it’s important to get in the habit of describing how you feel using plain emotional language. This teaches your brain that, however much you dislike a feeling, you’re not afraid of it.
To make sure you’re not intellectualizing, ask yourself this question anytime you feel bad emotionally:
How would a 5-year-old describe this feeling?
Little kids usually don’t have sophisticated enough vocabularies to use big fancy words to intellectualize and avoid describing how they feel. So they use what they have: plain, ordinary feeling words like sad, afraid, mad, embarrassed, etc.
The other way to think about labeling your emotions plainly is this: Use I Feel Statements.
When someone asks you how you’re feeling (or you ask yourself) constrain yourself to answering with I feel…
- I feel anxious.
- I feel annoyed.
- I feel mostly sad but also a little relieved.
Step 3: Show yourself some compassion
Compassion is one of those words that seems bigger and more complicated than it really is.
If you’re feeling bad, being compassionate with yourself just means that you:
- Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel bad. In other words, it’s a reminder that just because you feel bad doesn’t mean the feeling is bad or you are bad for feeling that way.
- Remind yourself that your feelings are at least somewhat understandable and make sense. Don’t confuse what you wish were true with what is true. You might think you shouldn’t feel so anxious. But whether you think that or not, what’s true is that you are in fact feeling anxious.
Here are a couple examples to illustrate:
I hate feeling afraid. But I know it’s okay to feel afraid. Everybody does sometimes and in certain situations. And even though I wish I felt confident, it makes sense that I would feel afraid before giving this talk—after all, public speaking is most people’s number one fear!
I don’t like feeling sad. It makes me feel weak. But I know that’s just leftover baggage from the way I was raised. It’s normal for everyone to feel sad sometimes. In fact, that I feel sad when I remember losing my old dog is really just a reflection of how much I loved him.
A few things to note:
- It’s okay to keep it brief. You don’t have to give yourself a therapy session here. We’re talking a few sentences max. Remember: the point of validating your emotions is not to dwell on them or fixate on them. In fact, the whole point of getting good at validating your emotions is so that you’re not held prisoner by them and can get on with your life instead of being consumed by them!
- This is not about naive positivity. The idea here isn’t to try and fool yourself with a bunch of overly positive self-talk about how everything will be fine or whatever. Compassion isn’t reassurance or self-indulgence. Compassion is about acknowledging your emotional reality and reminding yourself that it’s okay to feel bad and probably understandable on some level.
- Just because you don’t fully understand an emotion doesn’t make it irrational. You may think that because it’s been 30 years since your dog died, it’s irrational for you to still get so sad about it and experience grief. Maybe, maybe not. But whether it’s totally rational or not, it’s at least somewhat understandable that you would still get sad—even after all this time.
- You already know how to be compassionate. Chances are you’re already pretty good at being compassionate with other people when they feel bad emotionally. This is just about being willing to apply that same skill set to yourself.
- Validation is a practice, not an argument. A lot of people resist the idea of validating their emotions because it seems silly. I already know that it’s okay to feel however I feel why do I need to say it to myself. Here’s the thing: Simply knowing something theoretically is different than experiencing it. Your kids probably know that you love them. But it’s still a good idea to tell it to them regularly because the experience of it matters! Similarly, you may know that it’s valid for you to feel whatever it is you’re feeling. But there’s a lot of power in the experience of reminding yourself of what you already know conceptually.
If you want to learn more about self-compassion, here are a few articles to get you started:
- 5 Habits for Greater Self-Compassion
- The Skeptic’s Guide to Self-Compassion
- How to Quiet Negative Thoughts with Self-Compassion
Keep It Simple
I’ll wrap up with a final piece of advice:
Don’t overcomplicate this.
Validating your emotions means that you acknowledge them, label them with plain language, and express a little compassion for yourself for feeling that way.
The whole process can, and probably should, be relatively brief—like less than a minute.
To summarize the big idea:
- When you avoid your painful emotions, you unintentionally make them stronger in the long run because you train your brain to fear them. As a result, they exert more influence over you in the long run.
- But when you’re willing to validate your emotions, even briefly, you lessen their hold over you in the long run because you teach your brain that, while uncomfortable, they’re not dangerous.
You can’t eliminate painful emotions but you don’t have to be a prisoner to them.
Learn to validate how you feel so you can be free to live your life.
47 CommentsAdd Yours
Great article Nick. Is it the exact same 3 steps when validating others or do you deviate in some way?
I’d say it’s a pretty good start!
This is a very well-written and perfectly structured article.
I really enjoyed reading every word of it.
Thanks, Nick 🙂
Thank you, Hanan 🙂
I admit to being a chronic worrier but your articles are very helpful for me in dealing with this issue. Very thankful for this article!
So glad they’re helpful, Rey!
I’m really enjoying your articles .They are really helping me to build a positive mindset
An awesome read in this moment as I feel the anxiety mounting just looking at this week’s ‘to-do’ list! It’s been a pattern of Monday Morning Misery for years. I have a chat with it, and thank it for showing up, because it motivates me to stop looking at the whole week and focus on what I can do today, this morning, this hour, this moment. Perspective brings peace. Thanks for the timely read.
That’s a great approach, Craig!
I find that my weeks go best when I start the week off in a narrow mindset and end it in a broad one.
Thanks so much. Embracing reality makes sense. Never be afraid of feeling what our emotions it should be
Great article nick totally believe in valididataing your emotions. Is there also a need to deal with the underlying cause of your emotions especially the ones that keep recurring
For sure. But more often than people realize, the “root” cause of our emotional struggles is the fact that we struggle with them and try to avoid them.
Nicely written, but continued anxiety can and does have physical side effects that can “hurt” you. I also believe you have to take a look at what is causing the anxiety and deal with the problem rather than just the symptom of anxiety.
I’d say that long-term stress (which is often associated with anxiety) can hurt you physically, but I’m not sure the emotion of anxiety itself can.
In other words, I think it’s possible to experience painful emotions without physical stress.
Wow! Great idea. Another expanded learning for me
Great article nick totally believe in validating your emotions. Is there also a need to deal with the underlying cause of your emotions , especially the ones that keep recurring. Would love to hear back on how to deal with this issue thanks.
Yes – I agree. We avoid emotions because we don’t want to deal with what is causing them. It’s easier to push my anger into overeating/drinking/pouting/yelling then it is to deal with (i.e.)regretting my role as a mother or hating my own mother…..or whatever dilemma is making me run away from how I feel. What if feeling an emotion makes me examine a relationship I don’t want to look at all that much?
You don’t have to examine the relationship. The emotion is just a messenger suggesting that you do. Whether you choose to or not is up to you.
Makes Sense. Simple. In a nut shell ideas. Achievable. Why not practice three steps when you can.
This is excellent and really helps to acknowledge and confirm the obvious.
But here’s one I think many of your readers could benefit: validating your emotions as reactions to one’s significant other’s behavior, especially if it’s emotionally abusive.
In other words, asking yourself things like: “ I’m feeling my boundaries are being violated,” or “her yelling is really hurtful and I don’t deserve this.” “ Is it me or her?” My point is that we may have emotions that are reactions to abuse. But because we’ve been in a relationship so long, we acclimate to these negative emotions and even blame ourselves.
Nice points, Ben. Thanks!
You are absolutely amazing. You are one of the best out there in the way that you explain things and put emotional health into perspective. I have been reading mental health articles for close to 25 years and seen countless therapists and you’re at the top!
That’s very kind of you to say, Danielle 🙂 Much appreciated!
You should be pleased with this article. It is really hel[pful as well as being easy to read Thank you
Thanks, Carolyn! That’s my favorite kind of compliment for my writing 🙂
Can this be about positive emotions also that we feel we shouldn’t have? Love for another?
Yeah, I think it probably still applies. Even if you don’t want to indulge or act on a particular feeling, you can still validate it.
Nick, in light of this article, what advice do you have for this very common social scenario? Let’s say you are feeling very sad because a beloved pet is very ill, and will likely die soon. Throughout the work day, people unaware of the situation ask you how you are. How should one respond? If you don’t acknowledge the sadness , you aren’t validating the emotion, but does the casual “how are you?” from an acquaintance really merit the full on truthful answer? This must happen to us all frequently. Thanks for the great article!
I think as long as you’re acknowledging it with yourself (sometimes), there’s no need to talk about it all the time necessarily.
If you think it would be helpful to say that you’re feeling a bit sad because of the situation, go for it. But if you’d rather not, that’s okay too.
Thank you Nick for an excellent and comprehensive review of a difficult subject. I experienced step 2 to be particularly helpful – relating to emotions with greater granularity and depth. Thank you for sharing. Malou
You’re very welcome, Malou!
It’s always easier to be said than done. I’ll try to embrace my negative emotions, I still struggle to deal with my numerous regrets. Yes, you just brought out the brute truth that it may be easier to be compassionate about others but not ourselves. This is a good reminder call.
Glad it was at least a little helpful, Wei 🙂
Thanks! So I can stop looking at my flash cards now (I am happy, the universe supports me, etc.)?
I’ve been trying to identify and be ok with certain emotions for years. And years. I recently ran across the Emotional Freedom Technique, commonly known as tapping. It’s been phenomenal! I’ve been able to identify AND effectively process emotions in ways that I never have been able to.
That’s awesome, Shu!
Thanks, Nick, for the article. As a fellow therapist, I’ve been using some of your work with success as topics for group therapy. They’re always helpful and my clients get a lot out of the discussion. I definitely appreciate the ACT bent too!
You bet, Brett! And glad to know they’ve been helpful — I guess on some level we’re all re-mixing each other’s stuff, right? 🙂
Thank you Nick, your articles are really great and helpful 🙏 they’re not too long and really easy to understand. Great start to the week ☀️🙌
Been dealing with a lot and having to apologize to everyone about being stressed even though I was using stress as a umbrella term for all of my emotions. This article is really helpful because thank God I do have few people in my life that want to help me but if I don’t tell them what is actually wrong then how can I get the help I need.
Nick, I suffer from continuous anxiety. My youngest daughter is a brittle Type 1 diabetic who has been hospitalized about 30 times in the last 10 years. A friend of mine summed up what I feel this way. Instead of living in a posh neighborhood where there is no crime, I feel like I live in Compton — with the possibility of daily drive-by shootings! How am I to deal with that level of anxiety on a daily basis?! Never knowing when my phone is going to ring with someone telling me that she is being taken to the ER?!
Amazing article, as always. The only missed mark (a super rare find in your writings) is the idea that deep breathing exercises are a way to simply brush away anxiety. The way I learned it and experience, deep breathing actually allows you to sit with whatever is making you anxious and understanding that – as you mentioned- it is ok, and won’t kill you. Deep breathing allows for you body to get out of that fight or flight mode, and into a it’s ok to feel discomfort in this situation… I can take it as an emotional warning of sorts and move forward with that information without disregarding it but also without being consumed in panic by it.
Just thought I would share my perspective since I have seen a lot of positive come out of deep breathing that is very much aligned with everything else you say.
Thank you for continuously sharing your fantastic ability to put complex ideas into simple and clear words!
I like this comment and agree with this.
Thanks for keeping it simple enough to use and practice. Excellent!
I’ve definitely been training my brain to fear uncomfortable emotions . . . sigh! Thank you for helping Nick!
Thanks so much Nick. You’ve helped me in a moment where I really needed it!
Do you have any posts on physical abuse? Or any advice on how to deal with it in an environment you can’t immediately escape from? Thank you 🙏
When validating the emotions- acknowledging them and giving them that gratitude, do you then just continue doing what you’re doing and “move on” in a sense if that makes sense. Instead of letting it consume you and take hold of you. Acknowledge then move onto something else?