In previous posts we‘ve seen that many of the ways we try to deal with unpleasant emotions—such as trying to problem solve, control, or avoid them—don’t work. In fact, they tend to make our unpleasant emotions even stronger.
So what can we do when we’re experiencing difficult or painful emotions? Since emotions arise spontaneously and outside of our control we really have no choice but to practice acceptance of our emotions, be they pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
One of the most effective ways to help us accept our emotions is to validate them. In this post, we’ll look at why learning to validate our emotions is important, and how we can start doing it.
Learning to tolerate distressing emotions is one of the core components of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). In The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Using DBT to Regain Control Of Your Emotions and Your Life, Sheri Van Dijk explains:
There are two different kinds of emotions: primary and secondary. Primary emotions are those that you experience in response to an event. For example, you feel grief when someone dies or you feel happy when you go out with a group of friends and enjoy yourself.
On the other hand, secondary emotions are the emotions you experience in response to other emotions—how you feel about the way you feel. For example, you may not like to feel angry, and so you have a secondary emotion about anger. You may feel angry at yourself for feeling angry or you may feel guilt, anxiety, or sadness for feeling angry.
What this means is you either judge the emotion or you judge your self for having it—and this results in even more emotions when you invalidate your self for having primary emotions, you generate secondary ones.
It is these secondary emotions that often cause us the most distress. If it were just the primary emotion on its own, we could deal with it. But when the secondary emotion arises, that’s when our emotions can become overwhelming.
Have you ever noticed yourself saying things such as:
- I shouldn’t feel this way.
- There is no reason to be sad.
- It’s stupid to worry about this.
- I need to stop feeling so upset.
- Why can’t I just get over this?
When you do find yourself judging your emotions, how does it make you feel? It probably makes you feel worse. However, if you can learn to stop judging your emotions, and as a result, stop generating secondary emotions, your emotions will seem much more manageable.
When we judge our emotions, we’re invalidating them. The opposite of judging our emotions is to validate them. Below is a another quote from The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook, which describes how to validate emotions:
So how do you validate? Validating your emotions basically just means giving yourself permission to have them. It doesn’t mean you like to feel that way or that you don’t want the feeling to change. It simply means acknowledging the presence of the emotion and allowing yourself to have it. It is being nonjudgmental with your emotions.
It’s only natural to experience some sort of automatic negative reaction or judgement regarding an emotion like sadness or fear or anger and want it to go away. But if you are able to recognize this judgement as you’re doing it, you can then decide that, instead of continuing to fight the emotion, you’ll accept it; instead of continuing to judge the emotion, you’ll validate it.
Instead of saying things to yourself things like “Why am I always so sad?” “I shouldn’t feel this way” or “I need to stop feeling like this,” try to validate the way you’re feeling. Tell yourself that even though it’s not pleasant to feel sad or anxious, those are natural human emotions, and everyone feels them sometimes.
You might prefer to feel differently, but there’s nothing unusual or wrong with feeling sad or anxious or however you’re feeling, and just because you’re feeling that way now, doesn’t mean you’re always going to have to feel that way. Emotions come and go all the time without us having to do anything. In fact, the more you try to do something to get rid of an emotion, the longer it tends to stay.
The next time you’re experiencing a difficult emotion, instead of trying to get rid of it, try validating the way you feel. Validating your emotion will prevent even more distressing secondary emotions from arising, and makes the emotion you are experiencing more tolerable and something you can deal with.
For more information about how I can help you learn to deal with your emotions, or to make an appointment for counselling or therapy, please call me at 226-500-4086 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.