Friday, December 16, 2011

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.

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