Self-validation is a distinctive DBT skill that focuses on accepting the emotions you are experiencing. If you have trouble regulating your emotions, then you probably have a hard time accepting them in the first place as well. You feel sad, or angry about something that happened around you, and you immediately tell yourself "I shouldn't feel like this, I should know better". So, on top of your primary emotions, you build other negative secondary emotions as a response. This can be a very exhausting and uncomfortable process. Learning to self-validate your emotions will help you cope with the overwhelming emotional process. The author Sheri Van Dijk ("DBT Made Simple") breaks the self-validation skill into three steps: acknowledging, allowing and understanding. Let's look at them more closely!
First, try to observe how you feel right now. Observe how your body feels and try to notice what emotion is prevalent right now. It doesn't have to be very intense. Although you will eventually apply this skill in the situations where you feel overwhelming emotions, first you can get familiar with these steps when you feel relatively okay.
Step One: Acknowledging
The first step is to simply acknowledge the emotion that you are experiencing right now, without judging it. Just put a name on whatever you are feeling right now. If you feel sad, then just repeat that sentence to yourself without getting lost in the self-deprecating train of thought. Instead of saying to yourself "I am always feeling sad, I am so weak and unworthy of anything because I can never pick myself up", simply acknowledge the fact that the emotion is there: "I am feeling sad."
Step Two: Allowing
This step focuses on reminding yourself that it is okay to experience any emotion. You are allowed to feel whatever you feel right now or in an overwhelming situation that makes you feel intense emotions.
Below are some statements that you can use to get in the headspace of allowing yourself to let the emotion be:
- It is okay to feel the way I do right now.
- I am allowed to experience this emotion.
- Allowing myself to feel this way doesn't mean that I am behaving accordingly.
- This will pass, but for now this emotion is here.
- This emotion is uncomfortable, but it won't hurt me.
Choose three of these statements (the ones that you like the best), and write them down in the worksheet. Next time you notice that you are judging your emotions, read these sentences out loud to remind yourself that you are allowing this process to happen.
Step Three: Understanding
The last step is meant to help you create a context for the emotion you are feeling. Many of us don't always stop to try and understand why we feel the way we feel. In this step, take your time to think about the past events that have led you to experience this particular emotion. Don't judge yourself, just think about the objective facts that formed the context you are in right now. If you say to yourself that "I was being stupid, and that created my feeling of anger" -those are not the facts, but you judging yourself. Instead, you could say "It is no surprise that I felt so angry, since I always think that people will abandon me if they don't return my call".
You can refer to the article about cognitive vulnerability. That one can help you build the skills to look at the bigger picture, instead of clinging to a negative opinion that you have about your experience.
Step one: acknowledging - Right now I feel frustrated with myself.
Step two: allowing - This feels uncomfortable, but right now it is what it is.
Step three: understanding - I am frustrated with myself because I haven't cleaned my apartment in two weeks. I am not going to judge myself for this, because I've been feeling very lonely and mildly depressed. That's enough negative feelings, I don't need to make it harder on myself. For starters, today I will do the laundry.
Next Level: Working on Stronger Emotions
If you did the first part working on a relatively subtle emotion, you can further practice this skill thinking about a past event where you experienced overwhelming emotions. Think about how you would apply the same three steps from the first part, only now on a situation that was problematic for you.
For the first step, acknowledging, remind yourself of what you were feeling.
Then, imagine how you would apply the second step, allowing, to what you were feeling. What statement would you use?
Last, think about the bigger picture - what happened and what are the objective reasons for your emotions?
Practice self validation of your emotions using this worksheet.
I find it very hard to validate and accept my emotions. What can I do?
For people who have trouble regulating their emotions, self-judgment and not accepting what they feel is very common. This is precisely why this skill is so important. At the beginning it will be difficult to get used to thinking about your emotions in this new way, but just try to be persistent and patient with yourself. With time it will become easier for you to navigate your emotional processes using this skill.
Why do I have trouble accepting my emotions in the first place?
Sometimes, when we are young, we are being told that we shouldn't be angry, or that we should stop complaining or being sad. This type of environment propagates an atmosphere of not validating ourselves and our emotions. So, as an automatic response to what we feel, we start playing a tape in our head that is full with reasons why we shouldn't feel the way we feel, i.e. we judge ourselves. This is not a healthy or useful way to deal with our emotions. This skill can help you be more effective in accepting what you feel.
How do the primary and secondary emotions fit into this exercise?
Ideally, if we observe, acknowledge and allow our first, immediate emotional response to what is happening then we will slow down the secondary emotions (feelings about how we feel). This can be very useful, as it will save you a lot of energy and it will allow you too choose how you want to proceed with the situation. Nevertheless, even if you know that you are already "stuck" with the secondary emotions - you can still apply this skill to cope with this process in a more healthy way.