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My Take

Mental Health and Validating Emotions

Hi guys, I hope you’re all doing well! I have an important foundational topic to cover today: Mental Health and Validating emotions. This doesn’t just pertain to you as an individual; it applies to the give and take of emotional needs in a relationship and can be helpful if you have a friend or loved one struggling with mental illness. I should actually say that it’s beneficial not only for mental illness but for anyone whose emotions are causing distress. Let’s get started!

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Validating Our Own Emotions

I’ve often written about how easy it is to get really hard on ourselves about how we feel. We can end up hating ourselves and become emotional about our original emotions which compounds everything negatively. A way to curb this is to practice personal validation. It does no good to judge ourselves harshly – we do that enough as it is!

I have a quick reflection exercise for you: When you feel depressed, anxious, sad, empty, angry, etc., what do you think of? How do you speak to yourself? Are you impatient and annoyed? Do you feel guilty, stupid, worthless or weak? I assure you that you’re not! Reminder: Humans experience a range of emotions all day, all the time and no level/intensity is ‘incorrect’ or ‘wrong’.

Statements of Emotional Validation

Here is a list of short phrases to keep in mind when you notice yourself beginning to judge and criticize your feelings. Even if it’s hard to believe, try repeating some of these and hopefully you’ll start to believe them. I employ these reminders and I find they help me tolerate…well…myself.

  • I’m allowed to feel this way.
  • I give myself permission to feel [sad, angry, anxious, … ] right now.
  • If someone is judging me for how I feel, it’s not my problem.
  • My feelings and thoughts are just as valid as anyone else’s are.
  • Pain should not be compared, which means that berating myself because “others have it worse” is pointless. (This is a big one!)
  • Ask yourself what triggered the emotion(s). Try to understand what happened and why it hurt you, and accept your reaction. This doesn’t mean you don’t need or want to work on the issue, but if it has already happened it helps to tolerate the situation in that given moment.
  • Remind yourself that just because you feel a certain way now doesn’t mean you will forever. You have the power to shape your reality even if in this moment things may have gotten out of hand.
  • If you feel bad because of something you said or did, try to understand what happened, what made you say or do that ‘thing’, and then forgive yourself with the knowledge that you’ll work on the issue.
  • Related to the above, if you’re feeling guilty about something try to validate your reaction. In this case try to view the guilt as a teaching tool that helps you learn what can be changed.

Helping Someone 

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We all know that to be supportive of someone we should listen and be empathetic, but do we know how to respond? Whether it be consoling a friend going through a difficult time or hearing about a continuous struggle against mental illness, it’s not easy to listen to these things and know how to best be there for the person. Emotions are complex; while comforting statements and suggestions can help, it’s not realistic to think that we can solve the persons’ problem. It’s tough to accept that we can’t simply take away a persons’ pain but it needs to be understood.

It can hurt you as the friend / loved one if you burden yourself with the responsibility of ‘saving’ someone. It can also hurt the other person if you try really hard to reason away the bad in an attempt to ‘make them see’. What do I mean? Well, I found through experience that with mental illness it can often be fairly easy for someone on the outside to listen and then gently (or bluntly) share an opinion.

When listening to someone suffering from depression and hearing their negative thoughts and views, the unaffected person can understandably not understand. From their standpoint they may see all the reasons a person should be happy and have a list of ideas of things that could help. The same goes for anxiety. To the person struggling with it their fears are huge and all encompassing. The person listening on the other hand can often put the fears into perspective and/or see that the fear pertains to an unlikely eventuality. 

Don’t get me wrong, an outside perspective can be an excellent thing. We’re often too much in the thick of it to see everything rationally. That’s no ones’ fault; it’s natural, understandable and it takes time to learn how to distance ourselves to view things objectively. The problem arises when a rift occurs between the person in pain and the person listening. Unfortunately it doesn’t always take much for this distance to happen. The result can be that the person no longer wishes to share with you. That’s because it can be easy for the sufferer to feel attacked and misunderstood.

Speaking from experience, it hurts when I try to share and then hear reason upon reason of why I shouldn’t be feeling what I am. Even well-intentioned comments can come across as dismissive, overly simplistic and occasionally patronizing. Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t share our thoughts, however as I mentioned at the beginning I want to cover something more foundational. It provides a framework upon which you can share your input in a way that prevents the rift as much as possible. Enter…you guessed it…validation of emotions!

The How

Here are some ideas of how to respond when someone is sharing how they feel with you:

  • If you don’t understand try not to pretend that you do. Instead try something like; “I can’t imagine how that must feel, but I can see how much it’s hurting you.”
  • Instead of trying to solve everything, demonstrate that you’re there for the person and that you will continue to be. “I’m here for you [insert name]. (Using a persons’ name makes a big difference in any conversation.)
  • If you have an idea, suggestion, etc., frame it in a kind and gentle context. Tough love may be tempting and it can be necessary in some circumstances, but it shouldn’t be overused.
  • If you have a suggestion try phrasing it like this: “I understand that you feel […]. Do you think [this] could help you?”
  • Don’t forget the power of this simple phrase when there isn’t much to say; “I’m really sorry you feel this way / are going through this.”
  • Ask the person what you can do to help them before jumping in.
  • If you have advice it helps to phrase things from your point of view. Example; “I don’t know exactly how you feel but when I went through [something similar or related], I tried doing […] and it helped me. Do you think it could help you?”
  • You’re absolutely entitled to your own opinions but try to remain calm, patient and don’t raise your voice.
  • A good way to encourage sharing is to simply listen and then ask questions.
  • Instead of telling the person what to do ask them if they feel ready to try the thing you suggest.
  • At the end of the conversation offer to be available if they want to talk to you again. “If you need to talk or vent let me know…I’m here for you and I want to help in any way I can.”

Thanks for reading Mental Health and Validating Emotions! In my next article I’ll be writing about reciprocal validation and specifically how it pertains to arguments and making compromises.

See you soon and take care everyone!

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