I remember when I was a teenager how frequently I felt misunderstood. It was a time in life filled with emotions and unknowns and I was bursting at the seams to “figure it all out”. Looking back I see clearly now that what I was really looking for was just to be understood, to have someone listen to me and say, “I hear what you are saying”. So many of us get stuck emotionally at different times in life and it is easy to revert back to a young place and a young feeling of wanting to be heard and needing to be understood. How many times have you talked to a friend, acquaintance, or family member and had them offer advice or had them tell you their story in response to yours? It can leave you feeling angry and even more confused than when you started out. The reason being, you weren’t looking for a solution. Most of us understand that it is up to us to solve our problems. What we are looking for in connection, in relationships, in life, is just to have someone listen and validate what we are feeling.
This holds true in therapy as it does in the rest of our intimate relationships. People come to me to share their story . Whether these stories are heartbreaking, tragic, pathological, or just about a bad day, it is not up to me to place judgment on them. It is up to me to not only hear the story but hear the emotion behind the story. What most of my patients are looking for, whether it be because they have been starved of it their entire lives, or because they just need to hear it coming from an unbiased and professional perspective, is validation. I see you. I hear you. I understand the difficulty of the emotions you are experiencing right now.
I was eating dinner at a restaurant the other night with my husband. In the midst of our dinner I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation two women eating near us were having. One said to the other “I just don’t understand why she wouldn’t just end it, it’s ridiculous. All she does is complain about him but she doesn’t do anything to change it!” My interpretation of this is that one of these women’s friends is in an unhealthy relationship that she talks about often to her girlfriends yet she does nothing to change her situation. This story sounds familiar to so many of us. The question can always be asked in a situation like this: is that friend talking to her girlfriends about her relationship for them to change it or just to have them hear what she is saying and to hear what she is feeling? The latter is always true. Understanding that we as humans need to be emotionally validated comes with another important lesson, we all have stages of motivation to change that we go through. This unknown woman in the unhealthy relationship that just “won’t end it” is clearly not ready to end it. I don’t know this woman, I don’t know the relationship, but I can guarantee this is the case. She is emotionally stuck. While it is easy for an outsider to judge this and look at her as being “crazy” for not ending it, if we validate her feelings and understand she isn’t ready to end it yet, we might provide her with exactly what she is looking for.
Change is uncomfortable and can be painful and challenging. We cannot expect people to change overnight, and we cannot expect it to be easy. Often times change pertaining to difficult emotional relationships and situations in life means untangling patterns and behaviors that have been present for ones’ entire life. That takes time, patience, motivation, and professional help. When your car needs a repair to run properly you don’t think twice in taking it to an auto mechanic. The same should be true when you need an emotional tuneup. None of us are free from the need for help every once in a while in getting unstuck.
The next time someone you love is talking to you, practice active listening and validation. Active listening means not only hearing the words the person is saying but also recognizing the feelings that come with those words. When they are finished, fight the urge to give them advice or to relate what they have said to something you have been through. Validate what they are saying, allow them the space to be supported by your understanding, and then if you feel you have something to offer–ask if they are open to hearing it before you speak. If you practice this in your relationships I promise they will become richer. And while you will be giving more, you will also end up getting much, much more.