Common Therapist Mistakes Part 7: Over-validating
Updated: Feb 23, 2019
Sometimes validating our clients may not actually be in their best interest! In the first blog of this series, I wrote "Although therapists are usually skilled in empathy and validation skills, we need to avoid validating patients' distortions or projections because to do so could leave them stuck in personal narratives or beliefs that my be ruining their lives. Consider the following definitions of the word validate:
to make legally valid: ratify
to grant official sanction to by marking: validated her passport
to confirm the validity of
to support or corroborate on a sound or authoritative basis
to recognize, establish, or illustrate the worthiness or legitimacy of
to make something approved, especially after examining it
to prove that something is correct
Synonyms: Accepting & agreeing
Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary
Wow! Validation carries with it a heavy burden. Unless we’re doing forensic psychology, most of us don’t ratify, prove, officially accept or establish the legitimacy of the things we hear. However, one thing most of us take great pride in is our ability to validate our clients. Validation can be very therapeutic when you are actually witnessing the thing that you are validating: “You have a right to be frustrated that I was late” Or “I see that you are grieving deeply for your loss." But if you aren’t a witness, validate with caution - if at all. A common therapist mistake then, is unknowingly validating a distortion. When people tell us things that someone else did or said, there is almost always a measure of distortion in their perspective. We all distort because we only have our own perspective. Therefore, you really can't believe what you hear. A story will help illustrate this point.
Mary and Martha are riding the elevator at work. Joy, whom they both know, enters the elevator without speaking to them. Martha reacts by re-tracing recent conversations she’s had with Joy to figure out what she’s done wrong to offend her. In contrast, Mary begins to wonder if Joy is feeling okay. As they head to their offices Martha avoids Joy, going straight to her desk. She is thinking about a conversation she had with Joy a while back in which they had what, she thought at the time, was a friendly difference of opinion. She begins to feel irritated with Joy for holding a grudge over something so minor. It makes her feel like she did as a child when it seemed that she could never express her own opinion without someone getting mad.
Meanwhile, Mary approaches Joy and asks if everything is okay. Joy explains that she was lost in thought about an upsetting phone call she just got from her son’s teacher and apologizes for not speaking. Mary offers support and their relationship strengthens while Martha continues to avoid Joy who is oblivious to the reason and never understands why their relationship seemed to have cooled.
We’ve all probably been in Mary or Martha’s position before. When our reaction to an event triggers old feelings, we are likely to interpret the event in light of the past situation and project our interpretation instead of sticking to the facts of the current moment. Our clients need to be aware of this process when it occurs and be taught how to consider what's actually happening in the present context. They need to become aware of their “trigger points” and habitual ways of interpreting events. These are related to the narratives that they’ve developed over time and may be operating unconsciously. Martha is feeling pain that occurred a long time ago and missing opportunities in her current life situation for new learning that could be healing.
Let’s consider the worst possible scenario in a situation like this - just to make a point. Let’s imagine that Martha had gone into a therapy session and told her therapist about the encounter in the elevator from her perspective. Martha could tell her therapist about how she was just expressing an opinion and now Joy is holding a grudge. She could present the conversation that she had with Joy in such detail that the therapist could hardly help but assume that Martha was correct in her interpretation. What if Martha went on to say that, in fact, she thinks her boss is the same way and is setting up an atmosphere that is unhealthy among the staff? Now the therapist may think it’s not healthy for Martha to continue to work there if it is causing her this much stress. Well, you can see where this is heading. To validate Martha at this point has the potential to perpetuate the old narrative with life-changing consequences. A better approach would be to gently ask Martha if there could be any other possible explanations (interpretations) for Joy’s behavior. This approach has the potential to help Martha start re-writing her old narratives.
My book A Clinician’s Guide to Pathological Ambivalence: How to Be on Your Client’s Side Without Taking a Side can teach you how to avoid this and other common therapeutic mistakes by developing skills to work directly on resolving ambivalence and rewriting old narratives. I would love to hear from you. Please scroll down to the bottom of this page (past the banner of recent posts) to leave a comment.