Friday, December 16, 2011

Validation Letters for the Holidays

Want to give a gift that someone you love is likely to keep forever and will be meaningful to them for the rest of their lives? Regardless of the relationship, a validation letter is one of the most meaningful gifts you could choose.  Sending a validation letter each year creates a tradition that will serve as a chronicle of the person's life as shared with you.  Writing validation letters for young children serves as another way to communicate their importance to you and how much you love them.  When they are older they will enjoy reading about your experience of their taking their first step, for example.

Validation, according to Steven Hayes, means communicating that you respect, acknowledge and accept who others are and how they became who they are.  Validation is acceptance of the person, without judgment. Validation can focus on emotions, thoughts, or behaviors.  What a gift acceptance without judgment is!

Writing a letter of validation will likely take some thought and time.  Here are some steps to follow:

1.  Make a list of events that happened in the person's life this past year.  These events could be significant like your daughter's first day of school, birthdays, and  trips.  You could also use routine experiences you shared such as date nights with your husband, watching a television show you both enjoy, caring for children together, or

2.  Choose the events to include in the letter.

3.  Beside each event, write your memory of the emotions and thoughts they shared them with you and/or your best guess of their emotions and thoughts.  If you have a photo of the person at the time of the event, you could include that as well, and comment on what you would guess their facial expression means.

4.  Express your understanding of what the event meant to them, given their history,  values, struggles or their goals.

5.  If you experienced a emotional reaction to the event that occurred to them, write about your feelings of their experience--not your own experience of the event.

For an example, imagine that your husband ran his first marathon in 2011.  The paragraph about the race might read as follows:

"I remember when you decided this was the year you would run a marathon. It was Thursday, in March, I believe the 10th.  Your face looked so determined and you sounded committed.  That morning at breakfast you wrote out your training schedule.  Even though you'd never run more than a mile before, you seemed to know you could do this.  I admire that about you, your confidence that you can finish what you start.  Running became a regular part of your day for the next seven months.  At first, you often woke up with sore calves and thighs but as you got stronger you seemed to crave running, like your day wasn't complete without it.  You kept to your schedule regardless of the difficulty of balancing work and the demands of daily living.  When you crossed the finish line, you were breathing hard, dripping sweat, red in the face, and panting. You  couldn't talk for a few minutes, but you were smiling. I think I know what that marathon meant to you.  I can still feel how excited and proud I was when you finished, and for you it meant so much more."

Remember, validation communicates acceptance and acknowledgment of  thoughts, emotions, and behavior.  You don't need to agree--validation doesn't mean endorsement.  Validation is about communicating that the other person is important to you and their thoughts and feelings are important as well.  Validation strengthens relationships. For detailed steps on learning validation, check out The Power of Validation (December 2011, New Harbinger).  Happy Holidays!

Validation and Self-Compassion

 No one gets through life without experiencing emotional pain, whether it's the pain of losing someone you love, the pain of public speaking, the discomfort of being ill, or the disappointment of not achieving cherished goals. Despite the absolute certainty that we will experience pain, most of us do whatever we can to avoid difficult emotions like sadness, hurt and grief, though the difficult emotion for some may be joy or happiness. We numb ourselves with food, alcohol, shopping, work, the computer, sex, drugs, excessive exercise and walk through the world half asleep. Avoiding pain may sound like a great idea--who wants to suffer when you could be pursuing happiness?  The problem is that numbing yourself to difficult feelings limits your ability to get information about your world,  to be emotionally intimate with those you love, and to experience peace. Avoiding also is tiring and limits the energy you have to enjoy life.

 In his book  The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Christopher Germer, Ph.D. lists five steps in accepting uncomfortable feelings:  Aversion, Curiosity, Tolerance, Allowing and Friendship.  Aversion, the first stage, is when we try to deny the difficult feeling, resist feeling it, or ruminate about how to get rid of it.  Germer proposes a new way of relating to feelings, one that is more accepting and compassionate. He sees accepting feelings as a path to peace and freedom from anxiety and depression.

Those who have avoided feelings for long periods of  time may have a generalized fear of emotions, having forgotten what they were originally avoiding. Or perhaps they believe themselves to be unlovable, permanently flawed, or broken and cannot bear to look at themselves or have anyone else know their internal experience for fear their secret will be revealed. By continuing to avoid they never learn that they are simply human, like the rest of us.

Acceptance is fabulous. The bigger question for many is how to accept?  How do you accept anything about yourself when you can't list a single positive characteristic and on a very basic level you loathe who you are?

I think the answer is validation. Once a person is mindful of their emotions, validation gives the road map to acceptance. When you validate you acknowledge that whatever feelings and thoughts you have are the feelings and thoughts you have.  In addition, the levels of validation (Linehan 1993) give concrete ways to practice validation whether you love yourself or not.  Being present, Accurate Reflection,  Articulating the Unsaid, Validation in Terms of Past Experience or Biology, Normalizing, and Radical Genuineness are guidelines to looking at your internal experience in an effective way, without judgments. Being Present would mean not running from the feeling and accurate reflection is labeling and observing what you are experiencing.  Articulating the unsaid is making a guess about what you are experiencing when you aren't certain and checking the facts of that guess.  Validation in Terms of Past Experience or Biology takes into account that your temperament, current physical status, and the experiences you've had all contribute to your view of the world, sometimes in defining ways.  Finally, radical genuineness with yourself means knowing that others have had similar experiences and that your experience is understandable to other human beings.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Power of Validation

The Power of Validation is published!  While written as a parenting book focused on young children, the book teaches the steps of validation and can be used by anyone who wants to improve their relationships, by families of those with borderline personality disorder, and by anyone who wants to learn to validate him or herself.

When Family Members Don't Like Their Loved One with BPD

One of the most difficult feelings to acknowledge is not liking your loved one who has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).  If you have experienced these feelings, please know that you are not alone and it is a very difficult situation with many possible causes. How to manage these feelings is an important, complex question with many different possible causes and options.

First consider what has led to these feelings? Maybe you can pinpoint the one thing that if it didn’t exist you wouldn’t feel the way you do? Knowing the source of your feelings helps to clarify the options.  That is the first step.  I’ve listed some possibilities below:

1.   Can you remember what your daughter was like before her symptoms became more dominant?  Can you separate her personality from her disorder? Because the disorder is so difficult and overwhelming, sometimes BPD becomes all we see even though if we look more carefully we can see the person separate from the disorder.  Maybe take some time and list the symptoms of BPD and then list the behaviors that your daughter displays that fit the symptoms.  Then write down the her  personality characteristics that are not symptoms of BPD.

If what you don’t like is the disorder, maybe try to increase opportunities to interact with her when her symptoms are less prominent.  This may not be easy to do, but sometimes the disorder is so demanding that when someone is doing better families breath a sigh of relief that they can pay attention to other people and other needs.  Thus they don’t get to experience the person who has BPD when s/he is doing well.

While absolutely normal and understandable, interacting only when the person with BPD is experiencing difficulty sometimes leads to increased symptoms on the part of the person with BPD (not conscious) because they feel abandoned when they are doing better.  The connection with parents can become about discord. Feeling attached through anger is better than no attachment for the person with BPD.  This can be very wearing on parents and other family members.  If this is the case, then it is possible (though a lot of work) to change this pattern.

2.  Is it is a question of her behavior or choices being contradictory to your values?  If so, then is her behavior reflective of her values or her disorder? Do you understand the reasons she is behaving the way she does?  Understanding the reasons someone behaves the way they do sometimes helps us accept though not approve or support.  Is it possible to dislike the behavior but love the person?  And if her choices do reflect different values, can you find acceptance that she believes differently than you?

3.  Is it her behavior toward you that is the final straw?  As a behaviorist, I believe that all behavior has a purpose, even when it is part of a disorder.  Can you identify what purpose her behavior toward you might have? What does her behavior toward you accomplish for her (such as increased contact with you as noted in number 1)?   After the reason for the behavior is known, then changes in the results of the behavior can change  the behavior.

4.  Are you experiencing chronic stress or compassion burnout?  Not liking someone we used to like, someone we’ve given a lot of time and energy to, is a common symptom of both of these situations.  It may be that you need to set more limits, give yourself more breaks, and do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself.  Finding support that works for you, validating yourself and your own needs would also be helpful.  You might also evaluate whether you are giving too much and need to reconsider your limits.

5.  Could this be about sadness for you?  Are you feeling discouraged?  Are you feeling hopeless, perhaps like a failure?  Or afraid?  When you see your daughter is it painful for you because of your own feelings? It may be that seeing her brings up painful feelings for you and that could make you not want to be around her.  In this situation, taking a look at your feelings and how to resolve them or accept them might help.

6.  Are you constantly on edge, waiting for the next crisis? Are you attempting to control what you can’t control?  This can also lead to exhaustion and resentment.  Sometimes having a crisis plan, so that it is concrete and clear what you can do and what you can’t do could be helpful.

7.  One option is of course  that you don’t like her. It may be that completely accepting that fact will help you. What you think and feel is valid and self-validation would mean not judging yourself for your thoughts and feelings. Then, remember that validation is not a communication of love or liking, just as it is not agreeing.  It is acceptance and recognition that the other person has thoughts and feelings and has a right to her thoughts and feelings, whether it is someone you love or someone you don’t want to spend a single minute with.  I would say that every person in the world has a right to their thoughts and feelings. Maybe separating validation from love or liking would help. When you validate her thoughts and feelings you are not communicating that you like or love her.

Plus, validation of her thoughts and feelings could make your interactions easier which could lead to your feelings changing.  Or not.

Finally, you might consider talking with a therapist who is knowledgeable about BPD to help sort out your thoughts and feelings.