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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.

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4 Responses

  1. May 10, 2010
    Tam An Tran

    After I submitted a comment last time, I realized that perhaps I should not write so much!

    This comment is about not validating feelings that happened to me only yesterday, after I organized a dinner party for Mothers' Day. In brief, it turned out that my mother had heard me say something I never thought I would ever say, especially when it would offend people - in this case immigrants. Fortunately, both my mother and I have now learned that we will not do things until/unless we know a more skillful means in listening deeply and responding in appropriate ways that do not make matters worse! So, the experience was beneficial to us both and we both benefitted from it.

    Of course, we all want and need to have our feelings validated so we can communicate better.

    After leaving a dinner party Sunday evening that I had arranged, because I thought my feelings were invalidated, I went to my Buddhist Sangha for an evening sit, followed by Q & A, during which one woman commented how she sometimes triggers negativity in people she is trying to help. I leaned over to her and whispered "Give yourself some empathy!"

    I am convinced that we cannot give others empathy and compassion when we are unable to give ourselves the same. Sometimes I think stating things like taking responsibility for the liberation from suffering of all sentient beings can be carried to the extreme by forgetting about ourselves. I am convinced that such a desire to liberate others from samsara depends equally on us not to blame ourselves for making mistakes, no matter how many!

    Tam An

  2. May 11, 2010
    Paulita

    Question for you . . .

    When you write, "As you sit, notice and say “that’s okay” to all of the feelings, sensations, and impulses that move through you." . . . what about thoughts? even mean, jackally thoughts? do I say "that's okay" to them, too?

    Thanks.

  3. May 18, 2010

    Dear Paulita,

    Yes to mean jackally thoughts. The purpose here is to notice them and not give them more energy by either resisting them or following with more of the same. Simply saying "I notice a jackal thought, that's okay and then returning to counting your breath or turns towards the jackal and offer empathy.

  4. Feb 24, 2013
    Debbie

    I read this this morning and thought I'd share. It's important not to invalidate your feelings. Your feelings are telling you something important. Do not rush to act on the first whim, but rather take time to hear the full message. Listen.

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