Validation in DBT: Purpose, Types, and Levels
Most people expect their relationships to be a safe space where there is empathy and acceptance of their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. It is a place with no judgment; instead, our family members, romantic partners, and friends are understanding and listen to and validate us. We can learn more about validation through dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which uses validation as a core technique to create a supportive environment for healing and growth. Here, we’ll talk about what validation in DBT is, including its purpose, the various types that there are, and the different levels that are used in treatment.
What is Validation in DBT?
Validation is a key concept in DBT. It means acknowledging the validity of someone’s words, feelings, or actions. Validation is essential for all relationships, from romantic partnerships to friendships and familial relations.
Validation is especially important in childhood. When parents validate, children learn how to trust and, eventually, control their emotions. Parental invalidation, on the other hand, can make it difficult for children to learn how to control their behavior and emotions, and this can carry over into adulthood. This is why validation is an important skill that is taught.
Why is Validation in DBT Important?
Validation in DBT is important for many reasons. Since invalidation is often painful, validating someone shows that we listen and understand. Validation also demonstrates acceptance, care, and compassion for the people who are important to us. On your end, validation can decrease anger and defensiveness as well as make problem-solving and offering support possible.
Types of Validation in DBT
There are several types of validation in DBT.
Emotional validation focuses on the primary emotion that another person feels. The key here is to validate with a non-judgmental stance and without escalating the emotion.
For example, your sibling may express secondary emotions like anger without realizing that they are reacting due to feelings of sadness. By validating the underlying emotion, you can help your brother or sister identify several emotions in any given situation.
Behavioral validation involves communicating that one’s behaviors are understandable. Whether a behavior is helpful or maladaptive, one must communicate that it is understandable.
For instance, your friend may be engaging in self-harm to cope with an overwhelming negative emotion. Behavioral validation means letting your friend know that it makes sense that they engage in self-harm because, historically, that has helped them feel less distressed. However, it is important to identify the fine line between validating and reinforcing behavior. We don’t want to invalidate our friends or family members, but we also don’t want to reinforce problematic or harmful behavior.
Cognitive validation is done by articulating the underlying beliefs, assumptions, rules, and expectancies of someone else and finding validity in them. This requires you to be aware of others’ cognitive and behavioral patterns.
For example, you might notice patterns that occur when your loved one is thinking of something specific, such as when they have had a bad day. You might use your knowledge of these patterns and predict what your partner would likely think and feel next. By doing this, you can help your partner identify patterns that are helpful or unhelpful (remember, practice this without judgment).
Levels of Validation
There are six levels of validation that can be used consecutively or simultaneously.
Level 1: Listening
The first level of validation is listening. Here, you learn how to stay aware of what is happening in the moment and show interest in the other person through verbal and non-verbal cues. Keeping eye contact and asking questions are also other ways to show that you are listening.
For instance, your friend might be talking about a pet dying. While they are talking and crying, you might nod your head and hold their hand. You can also ask them to share what they loved about their pet.
Level 2: Restating
The second level of validation is restating. It is important to note that this is more than just a repetition of what has already been said. This level of validation focuses on accurate reflection with a non-judgmental stance toward the other person. You need not agree with what the other person is saying, but you can still restate how they are feeling.
For example, your friend might say “My teacher doesn’t like me.” You know for a fact that this isn’t the case, but you can also validate your friend by saying, “You sound pretty certain that your teacher dislikes you. Is that right?”
Level 3: Observing
The third level of validation is focusing on observing and stating the unspoken. Here, you might restate what the other person’s non-verbal cues are. You can read someone’s behavior and draw inferences about what they may be feeling, thinking, or wishing for. It is best to check for accuracy here instead of making assumptions.
For instance, you may notice that your friend keeps fidgeting, both as they are talking and when they are quiet. You could say, “You seem anxious about the situation. Is everything alright?”
Level 4: Causation
The fourth level of validation is causation. This involves focusing on the causes of behaviors, including those from the past and present. Here, you can restate the past and connect it to the current issue while validating the other person.
For example, your colleague might express that they are afraid to meet with your new boss. After listening to their story, you might say something like, “Our new boss makes me think of our old one. I can see why you’d be afraid to meet with her.”
Level 5: Assessing
The fifth level of validation is assessing. This focuses on the other person’s history and identifies how the current response is not effective. You can revisit the past and connect it to current choices. It is important to practice behavioral validation here so that the other person feels that their behavior is understandable, whether or not it is effective.
For example, your sibling may have canceled a job interview due to nerves. You might say, “It’s normal to be nervous before a job interview. However, you won’t get the job you want if you don’t go.”
Level 6: Compassion
The sixth level of validation is compassion. Here, you focus on treating the other person as an equal. You can do this by expressing hope for the other person and showing that you genuinely believe that they are capable of change. It is important not to be patronizing or condescending in any way all throughout the validation process. Instead, validate the other person and recognize them as they are with strengths and limitations. It is also crucial to believe in them while seeing their pain and struggles.
For instance, your friend may be divorced for a year and feels uncomfortable doing activities with other couples. You might say, “I completely understand why you feel that way. Most people would feel the same way in your situation. It’s really brave of you to participate despite your discomfort.”
The Bottom Line
When taking on a DBT approach, we can learn how to use validation to ensure that our friends, families, and loved ones feel safe, heard, and understood. It is important to avoid invalidating behaviors and using responses that reject, dismiss, or criticize others’ emotions and behaviors. Validation can help others build their self-esteem and make our relationships that much more fulfilling.
To learn more about the DBT approach, feel free to browse our DBT worksheets.