Invalidating Other's Feelings vs. Listening with Empathy
A common complaint I hear couples express is some version of "my feelings are never valid". In other words, needs for acceptance and being heard are not being met.
When you hear someone you love expressing difficult emotions, it's natural to feel uncomfortable and have the impulse to move away from the pain. You might do this by reassuring, giving advice, correcting perceptions, reframing an issue, redirecting attention, telling a story, offering analysis, etc. When you respond in these ways, the message often received by the listener is "my feelings (or my experiences) aren't valid" or "there is no room for my feelings here."
Of course, your intention is not to invalidate another's feelings. You want to help. When your partner complains about "being invalidated", you might feel confused needing clarity about what you are doing that your partner is reacting to.
Here are some examples of responses (in bold) that might be perceived as "invalidating". I have followed those with an example of a possible empathetic response.
Speaker: I just hate Christmas.
Responder: I worked so hard to make everything perfect for you and your family. I made the dinner. I . . .
Empathic Response: Something about Christmas really stresses you out, huh?
Speaker: I am exhausted and starving.
Responder: You shouldn't push yourself so hard.
Empathic Response: Ready for rest and food, huh?
Speaker: I am dying inside. I need some time to find me.
Responder: Couples who separate don't usually get back together.
Empathic Response: Sounds like you are feeling desperate to be more connected with youself?
Speaker: I am so shocked. I can't believe you said that.
Responder: Come on, it's not a big deal. I was just joking.
Empathic Response: Upsetting?
Speaker: I am a little spooked by our neighbor.
Responder: Ahh, he's just eccentric. Don't worry so much.
Empathic Response: Something about him has you unsettled, huh?
Over time, little comments like the ones in bold add up and block the lines of communication.
One of the biggest gifts you can give to someone expressing difficulty is your listening. To do this consistently for others means becoming aware of and comfortable with your own difficulty. The most direct practice I know of for learning to be with your own discomfort without reacting is sitting still. Whether you sit on a chair, on a cushion, or on your bed, sit still and upright for a pre-set amount of time each day. As you sit, notice and say "that's okay" to all of the feelings, sensations, and impulses that move through you. Little by little this still witnessing and accepting of your internal world helps to create a space between you and your reactions. When you have space, wisdom and compassion can flow through.
This week try this sitting practice. Start with an amount of time that feels do-able to you. It can be as
little as five minutes. Experienced sitters sit at least one hour a day.
Also, notice which of the types of responses (reassuring, giving advice, correcting perceptions, reframing an issue, redirecting attention, telling a story, offering analysis) you tend to give when someone expresses difficulty. Choose one relationship this week in which you will practice an empathic response as your first response to the other's expression of difficulty or celebration.