Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Validation: recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile.
Life is hard. Problems show up every day, and sometimes we feel like we don’t know how to fix them. Sometimes they aren’t fixable. This can lead to feeling overwhelmed. The body completely shuts down, and we stop taking action on anything. We may even disconnect from others.
The thing is, that doesn’t help. Not only does the problem remain unsolved, but we end up dwelling on the bad and making ourselves feel worse.
What if we could find strength in others? What if we brought empathy and validation into our relationships to ease the burden of struggle from our loved ones?
How would that feel, giving and receiving emotional support?
In my experience, it feels much less lonely. Sharing my struggle doesn’t take away the problem, but reminds me that my problem is more manageable because I’m not carrying a backpack of emotional burden alone.
Logan and I have made a point to practice empathy and validation in our relationship. It’s not a perfect science, but we are becoming more comfortable relying on each other when we are struggling. We agree that 9 times out of 10, simply talking about our struggles with each other and having our experiences and emotions acknowledged helps us feel better.
Gender Differences with Emotion
In my experience with relationships, it’s hard to find a man who not only understands the concepts of empathy and validation, but can also put them into practice.
Conversely, the female brain tends to stick with emotion longer, which is why women focus on how they feel about a situation and seek to have their feelings understood.
This biological disconnect can create barriers in relationships. It can also preclude empathy and validation, which should be cornerstones of every relationship. Empathy is valuable because it lets the sharer know that their struggle is heard and understood.
Validation says ‘your experience matters to me.’
While men can be uncomfortable with emotions, they, nevertheless, still experience them. The more familiar a man becomes with how he’s feeling at any given moment, the more he’ll be able to relate to a woman’s experience.
Not to say that women are perfect at this, but they tend to be more in tune with how their partner is feeling which creates a pathway for empathy and validation.
These biological differences don’t mean that men can’t be in tune with emotion or provide empathy or validation. Fortunately, unlike IQ, emotional intelligence (EQ) is a skill that can be cultivated.
When Empathy and Validation Show Up
Logan falls into the minority of men with a very high emotional intelligence. He can read my facial expressions and behaviors and discern my current emotional state. When he senses that I am upset about something, he often asks me what’s wrong.
It would be easy for Logan to ignore the signs that I’m sad, frustrated, or upset. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a pro-con list going on in his head before he says something, and I’m sure there are times when he chooses not to say anything. Like I said, our relationship isn’t perfect.
It can be uncomfortable talking about negative emotions, especially when they are tied to something that’s going on within our relationship. Because I trust Logan, I do my best to tell him what I’m feeling when he asks.
Logan is great about listening without interrupting me. I really appreciate this because it makes me feel like his only focus is on understanding exactly what’s upsetting me. Especially if my frustration is related to his behavior toward me, it would be easy for him to be formulating his rebuttal as I talk. It means so much to me that he typically doesn’t try to defend his behavior regardless of his intentions. He recognizes that he upset me, and even when he feels his behavior was justified, he tries to look at the situation from my perspective.
I try to do the same for him.
When the problem is unrelated to our relationship, we both rely heavily on empathy and validation. A perfect example happened while I was writing this article. Logan called me to discuss a client whom he’s been struggling to get on the same page with. I knew I couldn’t do anything to change the situation with his client, so I didn’t even try.
Instead I listened for about 15 minutes as Logan vented about the situation. When he paused, I validated his experience by saying that the disconnect with his client sounded very frustrating. That was it. With only a few words, I let him know that I understood his struggle and affirmed that his struggle mattered to me.
At times we all need is to vent, and it can help to make us feel better if we vent to the right person.
Who to Vent to?
The wrong person to vent to is someone who tells you that your problem doesn’t matter, that you shouldn’t whine about it, and that there are people who have it worse. Sure, perspective has its place and can be helpful, but in the moment, when we are wrestling with a problem, that struggle is personal and deserves attention.
The right person is someone who recognizes and affirms that.
LIFE IS FILLED WITH PROBLEMS THAT CAN’T BE SOLVED.
For many people, uncertainty that comes from unsolved problems leads to anxiety because the brain has a negativity bias which means that it assumes the worst.
Hearing someone say, “I get it,” “I’ve been there,” “uncertainty is hard,” or “it makes sense that you feel that way” doesn’t change the existence of uncertainty. What it does do is connect us by a shared experience. It also affirms that our struggle is real and encourages us to keep moving forward.
When I am in the midst of a struggle, Logan often can’t change it. When he empathizes with and validates my experience, he’s letting me know that he understands that what I’m feeling is real and painful, and that I’m not alone in my struggle. I’ve found that the problem doesn’t need to be solved for me to feel better; the strength he gives me lightens my emotional load and gives me the strength to continue to fight.
Do you practice empathy and validation in your relationship? How have you benefited from them? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!