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I Don't Have to Make Everything All Better
By Gary B. Lundberg
Penguin BooksCopyright © 2000 Gary B. Lundberg
All right reserved.
Principle 1 Be an Effective Validator
LET ME FEEL WHAT I AM FEELING
Everyday throughout the world, in nearly every situation, people are constantly trying to express their feelings to someone. Consider the following examples:
* It is a cold winter morning as you awaken your child. "I don't want to get up. It's too cold" the child says. You reply, "It's not that cold. You just need to get up and get your blood going and you'll be just fine."
* You come home from work and dinner isn't ready. Your wife, a stay-at-home mother of three, says, "I don't feel like cooking dinner tonight. I get tired of it day in and day out." You come back with, "You think you've got it hard. You just don't know how lucky you are. You get to stay home. I have to go to work every day."
* Your athletic son comes home looking sad and dejected. "I didn't make the starting lineup," he says. You reply, "Well, just keep doing your best and you'll make it eventually."
* Your young married daughter complains to you, "Married life is hard. There's just not enough money for anything extra." And you reply, Honey, you don't know what hard times are. When your dad and I were newlyweds we..."
* Your friend, a cement finisher, says, "Man, it's hot out here. Sometimes I feel like a piece of chicken in a frying pan." And you, a cement truck driver, reply, "You oughta be sitting in this truck, then you'd know what hot is."
Unfortunately, too many of us respond exactly the way the people in the above examples did. We fail to recognize the universal need within each of us to truly believe that I am of worth, my feelings matter, and someone really cares about me. This need begins to be fulfilled when you are able to recognize and express your own personal feelings.
Identifying one's own feelings is difficult for some people, especially men. Some of us, male and female, have not been allowed to express what is going on inside of ourselves. Sadly, when we were growing up, many of us were told by our parents, teachers, or friends that we have no right to feel the way we are feeling. One client told me that every time he tried to talk about his feelings his parents would say, "Children should be seen and not heard. So be quiet and go play." He explained that "I learned it was not safe to express my feelings or needs. If I did, they were used against me to embarrass me." He went on, "Sometimes when other adults were visiting our home one of my parents would say, 'Do you know what our son said?' Then they would repeat what I had said and make fun of it."
Another client said every time she started to talk about her feelings, she was told the feelings she expressed were not right and she shouldn't feel that way. Her parents would then tell her what feelings were right for the situation.
On an Oprah Winfrey talk show, two women were discussing their feelings concerning their childhood. They were explaining to their mother they often felt of little worth due to the way she had responded to their feelings when they were children. One daughter said that when she had shared a feeling with her mother, her mother had replied, "You shouldn't feel that way, you should feel this way" The daughter said, "I went away believing I didn't matter as a person and my feelings didn't count for anything" The daughter looked at her mother sitting across from her on the show and, in tears, said, "All I needed to hear was that you understood what I was feeling. Then I would have gone away feeling like I was worth something"
As I have seen the sorrow and lack of self-esteem that similar situations cause, I have wished to help people understand the principle of validation. The principle is based on the personal understanding that I am acceptable just the way I am, and you are acceptable the way you are. Too many people believe, "I am acceptable and you will be acceptable when you believe, see, feel, and talk like I do."
All of us want to be listened to and understood. We want to be appreciated for who we are individually. We need to be heard completely and not judged, corrected, or advised. When those who are meaningful to us will not take the time to hear us out by genuinely listening, we experience a profound negative effect much like the two examples above.
In many families, tradition has dictated that children, no matter the age, are to be seen and not heard. Parents are the possessors of all knowledge and wisdom. Children remain children until the parents die, and until that time the children are to look to the parents as all-wise and all-knowing. The children are to accept and follow the parents' counsel without question. These are extreme ideas and yet, to some degree, they exist in most families. This attitude is stifling to personal growth and does not show respect and understanding.
There is a parallel in interpersonal relationships. Much like the "all-knowing" parent, most of us want to be looked to as being wise. Most of us want to be able to help others solve their problems. We automatically think that when someone brings up a problem, we must immediately solve it for them. In fact, as the person is sharing a problem with us, rather than listening fully, our minds are racing ahead to find solutions for them. We can hardly wait for them to stop talking so we can tell them what they should be doing about it. We care about them and we think it is our responsibility to help them in this way. And yet, all this does is place a strain on communication between friends and family members that need not be there.
Similarly, the need to always have the answer also exists in some business situations. If I am the owner, or supervisor, I must have the answer for all needs or problems. In fact this may be necessary when it comes to policy or final approval, but in problem solving this can be a terrible burden for one person to carry. Some business owners believe workers are to do what they are told and leave the thinking up to the boss. Companies with this philosophy have been having harder times than those with more of a listening-ear approach. New ideas, which often come through the process of validation, are vital to success.
WHAT IS VALIDATION?
Starting with the first part of the word, "valid" some of its dictionary definitions are "well grounded or justifiable; being at once relevant and meaningful; appropriate to the end in view." Adding the second part of the word to make "validate," two of its meanings are "to confirm the validity of," and "to support or corroborate on a sound basis." Taking the entire word, "validation," one of its meanings is "an act, process, or instance of validating."
By using a combination of these definitions, we see that validation is the act, process, or instance of confirming or corroborating the meaningfulness and relevance of what another person (or self) is feeling. To put it more simply, it is being able to empathetically listen and understand another person's point of view without having to change it.
Another way of stating this is that validation is the ability to walk with another person emotionally without trying to change his or her direction. Robert Bly, an American poet and founder of the men's movement including retreats called "A Gathering of Men" was interviewed by TV commentator Bill Moyers on a PBS television show. He said, "In a conversation there are little turns, you can turn up or down. When one says, 'I lost my brother five years ago,' at that point, you can say, 'Well, we all lose our brothers,' or you can touch a hand, or you can go into the part of you that's lost a brother. You can follow the grief downward in this way" When we walk with another emotionally, we treat that person gently, kindly, and respectfully. In other words, we treat him like we would like to be treated, when a person is allowed to follow his emotions down as far as he needs to go with someone walking beside him emotionally, then he will bring himself back up.
(At this point, I must acknowledge that there is a wide range of emotional problems. Some will respond only to medication, some will respond only to counseling, while there are others that will require a combination of both medication and counseling. One widespread problem is clinical depression. This is a condition of deep, ongoing depression that needs medical attention. When someone is diagnosed as having clinical depression, that person may need to have medication to balance out his or her physiological system. In most cases, medication alone will not solve the problem, but it will allow the person the chance to develop coping mechanisms from which solutions are possible. Validation helps in the process of developing these solutions.)
WHAT ABOUT POSITIVE MENTAL
There is a philosophy called Positive Mental Attitude (PMA). We are told many ills are cured with PMA. We are taught to always look on the bright side of life. Therefore, the way to help another is to tell the bright side, give people a big dose of PMA no matter how they are feeling. While this may be appropriate at a certain point, we each need to get there in our own time. When someone tells you to "look on the bright side," inside you may be saying, "But you just don't understand. Right now I am not able to see the bright side."
Suppose you have just been diagnosed with an early stage of cancer. You call a friend to tell her the terrible news, adding, "I'm really scared. People die of cancer every day." How would you feel at this point if your friend said, "Cheer up. They caught it early. You probably don't have anything to worry about." How sensitive is your friend to what you are feeling? What is it that you need from her at this moment? Is this the time you need to be served a dose of PMA? How much better might you feel if your friend said, "Oh, I am so sorry to hear about that" and followed up with a question such as, "How did you find out about it?" or "What did the doctor say?" This then allows you to talk about it, telling your friend more about the problem, what's worrying you, how serious it might be, and what the doctor is recommending.
While there is an inherent desire and need directing each of us to the bright side of our own life, there is also a need to be able to acknowledge our own feelings before we can see the bright side, and to know it is permissible to feel what we are feeling. Once we deal with the emotion, then we are ready to go forward with a more positive attitude. And we are much more able to discover the bright side as we emotionally walk with each other.
One of my clients, John, told me that he was glad to have learned how to let a person go to the emotional depths necessary without using PMA's or trying to change him. His thirteen-year-old son, Bobby, came in one day upset and angry at his friend, saying, "I hate Jimmy!"
Usually John's parental side would react by telling his son not to use the word "hate" because he didn't really mean hate. Instead of standing in his son's way with such an invalidating statement, he used the small powerful word "Oh" (a simple statement, not a question).
Bobby went on, "Jimmy told me his parents talk about you and say you earn more money than you know what to do with and you waste it."
John simply said, "That must have hurt you to hear him talk about your dad that way."
Bobby said, "Yeah, I wanted to kill him."
John avoided this hook that Bobby used to get a reaction and said, "I can see you are really angry."
Bobby said that he really was angry and then began to pour out his feelings. John said all he did was listen and validate his son's feelings. The boy's anger subsided and he went out to play.
John reported that the more he listened and walked with Bobby emotionally the more open Bobby became. As a result his son was able to let the anger go and their relationship has grown to be more peaceful than it has ever been.
VALIDATION BEGINS WITH SELF
Validation is based on a strong belief in yourself and your own value system. This means you do not have to receive direction from outside yourself concerning the values, beliefs, and principles that direct your life. In other words, you are comfortable with yourself. If someone believes differently than you do, you do not feel threatened. It also means if someone behaves differently than you do, you do not need to change your beliefs or behaviors to fit theirs.
Who you are is who you choose to be. When you have a strong belief system, based on what you have learned, studied, and experienced, then you have developed a model of life which is used to evaluate everything you come in contact with. You can hear another viewpoint and can evaluate it on its merits and even ask the question, "Is this right for me?" Because you are comfortable with yourself and your own value system, you can listen and learn, and accept or reject what other people say or do.
VALIDATION IS NOT MANIPULATION
Each of us must determine our own view of humankind. If we believe that people are there for us to control and manipulate at will, then validation will not work for us. If we have a basic faith in the natural goodness of people, then validation will work for us.
It is important to ask ourselves: What is my motivation for what I do? What is my life paradigm (view) based on? If I give help to another person for what I think I can get in return, then maybe I am manipulating him like a puppet on a string. Do I feel manipulated much of the time? If so, then maybe I need to reconsider how I value myself and look at my own value system. If I see others as manipulative, maybe I need to look at what I do to see if I am manipulating others. Do I genuinely care about this person and want to help? Do I offer help so that when I need something I will not be turned down by this person? Do I help others so people will see what I am doing and will give me recognition? I am not naive enough to think everything is done with a single motivation. Sometimes there is a combination. However, everything comes back to your overall personal motivation, which is based on your value system. A value system is what determines your boundaries.
PERSONAL BOUNDARIES DO NOT HAVE
TO CHANGE WHEN YOU USE
Personal boundaries define you as an individual. They are statements of what you will or won't do, what you like and don't like, how far you will or won't go, how close someone can get to you or how close you will get to another person. There are many other statements that describe boundaries. To sum it up, they are your value system in action. Having a strong, comfortable belief in your own value system means you have choices and must take responsibility for your thoughts, beliefs, and actions. When you are comfortable with your value system, you can state your boundaries without having to defend or justify them. I believe boundaries need to have four attributes. They need to be (1) kind (2) gentle (3) respectful, and (4) firm. There is no need to yell, defend, or justify what they are. They are simply yours. Some people think boundaries need to be mean, nasty, ugly, and firm to be effective. When that tack is taken, the boundary is lost because an argument ensues over the unkind method used.
When you attempt to understand another person, it does not change your values or boundaries. All you are doing is walking beside another while trying to understand. For instance, as someone goes through the process of deciding on an action, he might make a statement like, "I would like to punch the person right in the nose." Your value system says, "I could not physically harm another." However, have you ever felt like you would like to punch someone, and because of your value system, you wouldn't do it? If you have felt that way, you can say, "I can understand that feeling. I have felt like punching someone in the nose, too." All you are doing is understanding. You do not have to agree to or condone the action.
Understanding the feelings of another allows that person to freely express his feelings and to effectively process internal struggles. If the feeling is validated, usually the person will come up with a responsible conclusion and action. The ability to indulge in a small personal catharsis by even contemplating something as crazy as a punch in the nose helps the person come up with a good solution. I have watched this happen time and time again in my office. Some silly or crazy action is considered as a person responds to an emotion, then he or she will say, "I really couldn't do that. But it felt good for a moment." Then comes the process, as explained in the next chapter, of helping the person find his own best solution, not your solution-his. Throughout this process no one needs to change his value system or actions.
THE UNIVERSAL NEED
The key to making validation a habit is to remember that every person you see has the universal need to believe inside themselves that: I AM OF WORTH, MY FEELINGS MATTER, AND SOMEONE REALLY CARES ABOUT ME. It would be well to memorize this statement so you can recall it whenever anyone begins to share personal feelings with you. It is through your recognition of their worth that others will feel loved by you and empowered to solve their own problems.
Excerpted from I Don't Have to Make Everything All Better by Gary B. Lundberg Copyright © 2000 by Gary B. Lundberg. Excerpted by permission.
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