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.