No One Can “Validate” Emotions, Not Even You.

No One Can “Validate” Emotions, Not Even You. July 18, 2023

emotions empathy validate
Credit: Pixabay

Words have the power to clarify and confuse. In our contemporary context, several words and phrases do more of the latter than the former. One way the church commits syncretism (i.e., conforming to culture in unbiblical ways) is by uncritically accepting how certain words are used.

In this series, I’ll look at two examples of words/phrases that undermine constructive social discourse. This first post explores the idea of “validating” emotions. I suggest that it is impossible and thus deconstructive to “validate” someone’s feelings.

While someone might contend that I just want to argue about words, here’s the truth: how were speak inevitably shapes how we perceived reality and therefore interact with others. Certainly, we can agree that these two things are very important to following Christ.

The Meaning of “Validate”

The word “validate” stems from the adjective “valid,” and refers to the act of confirming, verifying, or establishing something’s validity or accuracy. To “validate” is to provide support for a thing’s authenticity or legitimacy based on specific standards. When we validate an idea, we give evidence or logical reasoning that supports its validity.

However, in recent years, people have begun speaking as if we can validate one’s feelings. Drawing from definitions across the web, here’s a basic gist of what they mean:

“Validating” emotions means that we accept a person’s emotional experiences as real and legitimate without judgment or dismissal. It involves empathetically acknowledging and understanding their emotions, providing a safe and validating space for expression.

There are all sorts of problems with this common understanding. Words like “valid” and “validate” have deep associations with truth or reality. The contemporary meaning of “validating emotion” manipulates that association by using a partial truth to prop up an impossible, even harmful, idea. Let me explain.

Are Feelings Valid?

That question is fraught with ambiguity. Feelings have value, but value is not synonymous with “valid.” Even if we linked “valid” and “value,” we still haven’t explained how this or that emotion has value. My feeling of anger might have value because it reveals a problem in me, not because it shows that someone else is wrong (or vice versa).

At best, to “validate your emotion” is simply to acknowledge that your emotional experience is real, that it exists. In other words, if I say, “I am feeling anger,” your validating my feeling is nothing more than believing that I feel anger.

That’s about as useful as it is basic. Sure, basic things have value, but adding 1+1 doesn’t have much value until you combine it with a lot of other things.

validate emotions
Credit: Pexels

The most serious problem comes when we’re told that we’re supposed to “legitimate” someone’s feelings. What does that mean practically? An emotion is just a response to a real or perceived circumstance. A ball falling is just a response to gravity. I can affirm the authenticity of the statement, “A ball is falling through the air” but who cares? What really matters is why the ball is falling through the air and what comes from it.

What many people really want us to do when “validating emotions” is either to say, “You should feel this way” or perhaps “Your emotions accurately reflect some objective reality about the world.”

This is just not possible for anyone who cares about loving people who live in the real world. “Validation” is too often confused with empathy or sympathy. We should empathize with people, but empathy disconnected from reality is a formula for great harm.

Why We Can’t Validate Emotions

Emotions are primarily based on personal perception, our interpretation of events, rather than objective truth. They do not necessarily align with external or objective realities (historically known as “truth”). Emotions are subjective reactions that can be influenced by biases, assumptions, and misinterpretations. “Validating emotions” based solely on personal perception can lead to a disconnect between the emotional experience and objective reality.

Unlike factual statements, emotions have no inherent truth value. Why? Whereas propositions make factual claims about the external world, emotions are subjective reactions to situations and thoughts.

Likewise, different people have varied emotional responses to situations based on their perspectives, backgrounds, personalities, and character. The subjective nature of emotions makes it difficult to establish a standard truth value across different individuals or contexts. Feelings then reflect one’s personal interpretation of reality, not objective reality itself.

How does one even “validate” conflicting emotions? We can’t. The notion of validating feelings implies that there is an objective truth to be validated, which may not always be the case. Different individuals may interpret and express their emotions differently, making it challenging to determine whose interpretation is valid. This subjectivity can lead to conflicting understandings of what constitutes validation.

“Validating Feelings” Can Be Unsafe

Not all emotions are beneficial or accurate. People can experience irrational or harmful emotions, such as bitterness, envy, intense jealousy, or baseless anger. “Validating” these emotions uncritically might reinforce negative patterns of thinking or promote destructive behaviors.

In addition, if all emotions deserve validation, one may feel justified in his or her behavior, even when it harms others. Validating feelings without addressing the underlying causes or consequences will hinder personal growth and interpersonal relationships.

Therefore, talk of “validating feelings” can unintentionally prioritize emotional expression over constructive problem-solving. While it is essential to acknowledge and understand emotions, solely focusing on validation can limit the exploration of practical solutions to address the underlying issues causing distress.

Brothers and sisters, be empathetic. Listen actively. But for the love of others, don’t “validate” others’ feelings because the truth is, you can’t.

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