How Validation Can Help Our Mental Health at the Time of COVID-19
Mindfully observing and catching our invalidating habits so we can hold space.
Do you feel the heaviness of the world right now?
I think we all do.
We are living our lives on a day-by-day basis. It doesn’t matter what age, race, gender, or socioeconomic status you have, we are all experiencing the same kinds of fear, sadness, anxiety, and uncertainty right now.
You are not alone in this battle.
While providing remote counseling sessions and informal ones for my friends, I noticed a general theme that didn’t sit well with me, and I noticed myself thinking the same way sporadically the past two weeks. It sounds like:
“I should not feel sad or depressed or bored because I am not a frontliner. I have no right to complain or rant. I should be productive. I should just feel grateful that I am asked to stay home.”
I am usually quick to correct people (and myself) when I hear them say these things, because these statements are their truths. It is okay to feel sad, depressed, anxious, worried, scared. It is okay to complain or rant, to feel bad about cancelled plans. It is okay to not be productive. You have every right to feel all of this.
On my last Medium entry, I wrote about collective grief and how this whole COVID-19 situation we are in right now is technically a loss of normalcy, agreeing with Harvard Business Review’s interview with grief and death expert David Kessler.
Think about this: when a person dies, how do we hold space for and comfort the surviving members of the family? “You should be thankful you’re still alive,” or “You should not feel sad; instead, try to be productive,” or “At least it wasn’t you who died, so just continue living,” would come off as insensitive and rude.
So how do we hold space and show empathy? And what does “holding space” even mean?
The most common definition of holding space is “the unconditional willingness to walk alongside someone in his or her journey.” This means being present without judging people or making them feel inadequate or that they need to be fixed. When we hold space, we don’t try to change the outcome by pushing for what we would do if we were in that situation.
Instead, we open our heart, offer support, and let go of judgment or control.
The best way to hold space for others (or yourself) in our COVID-19 situation is the same way we would hold space for someone experiencing grief:
Be present and listen.
This may seem basic but generally speaking, people have a hard time being present for others to really listen. It’s extra difficult to do this lately because all of us want to share our experiences. We are all seeking some form of attention and validation, and, while there’s nothing wrong with this, just be clear with your intention when you ask someone how they are doing.
Be curious about how they are and what they are experiencing, and notice if you start to divert the conversation to how you are. Oftentimes, the things that people do not say are louder than what they do say, so watch out for body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions — yours and theirs.
Validate and empathize.
One cannot empathize fully without validating one’s experiences and truths.
Validation is when you recognize and identify the experiences of a person (or your own) as understandable and acceptable. It doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with the experience or feeling, but just acknowledging that this may be the truth of the person for the time being. Validation is also seeing the person and accepting them as they are. It feels good when someone acknowledges us when they say, “I see you’re feeling helpless,” “It seems you are having a rough day,” and “What you are feeling is normal,” — these are examples of validating statements. Empathy comes in when you actually understand and share the same feeling with the other person.
It is important to also mention that, at this time, it’s easy to fall into invalidating habits, such as comparing one’s experiences with another’s, or brushing off or minimizing a person’s experience.
This is especially the case in the Filipino culture, where we grew up hearing our parents say, “Kami nga noong panahon namin…” (“During our time…”) as if what we were experiencing during our time was invalid.
A rendition of this can be spun in [toxic] positivity, like, “Oh, I didn’t experience that at all. In fact, I’m doing great!” Good for you, but this isn’t about you.
Another rather toxic response we commonly hear is “Okay lang ‘yan!” (“That’s okay!”) or “Para ‘yan lang? Wala ‘yan!” (“That’s it? It’s not a big deal!”).
My favorite: the shoulds. “You should be thankful / productive / grateful, because [insert someone having a worse experience here].”
This is not a competition.
Just because one is experiencing the same situation differently does not mean they are not entitled to what they are experiencing. Being the recipient of these statements make you question the validity of your own experiences, and so when we blurt these out, we also invalidate someone else’s.
Let’s try to be extra mindful about these habits.
Utilize “and” statements.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is my personal favorite. It was initially developed for borderline personality disorder (BPD) but is now also commonly used in affect-related issues such as anxiety and depression. One of the core foundations of DBT is learning to embrace the duality of life.
The power of “and” is especially helpful in managing emotions — realizing that we can experience two opposing and contradicting things at the same time can give us the validation and perspective that we need.
- We can dislike where we are and work on finding new routines.
- We can help as much as we can and also spend time nurturing and holding space for our own selves.
- We can feel grateful that we are safe and feel disappointed that things got cancelled.
- We can be full of hope and yet feel that everything is falling apart.
“And” statements validate your experiences and may also direct you to a more solutions-based mindset. Embracing contradiction can help shift our worldview and allow us to find solid ground again. This shared space with both black and white shows us that we can pull ourselves out from being stuck in an experience and that one does not necessarily nullify the other.
It looks like staying home is working to flatten the curve, but it also looks like we will be staying a little longer in this situation. We can be moving around the stages of grief: one day, we are inspired to make the most of our days; the next, we don’t even want to get out of bed.
It’s okay. Give yourself and others permission to feel things.
Share it with others. Find time alone to self-soothe. Cry if you must.
At the end of the day, there is wisdom and growth to be found in our truth.