Dear Dr. Hurd:
Thank you for writing the piece on handling people who want to validate their irrational emotions. You answered it from your perspective as a therapist.
What I also would like to know is what I could do when someone accuses me of not validating their irrational emotions. This happens in intimate, personal and professional relationships all the time.
Dr. Hurd replies:
It’s really the same principle. Just because you, I or another feels something … doesn’t make it so.
If it’s a personal relationship, there are all kinds of options for handling this.
I’ll give you just a few examples here. From there, you can run with the general idea.
‘I understand that’s how you feel. However, I see some facts to the contrary. May I share those with you?’
‘I do care about what you feel. But what’s even more important to me is what’s true. Not everything that you’re feeling strikes me as what’s real. Can we try to figure out what the truth is?’
This nondefensive approach gives the person the benefit of the doubt. Particularly if it’s someone you love, he or she presumably deserves this benefit, and you want to provide it.
If the person you love is on the defensive, getting defensive back won’t solve much. But you don’t have to concede the point that facts are not feelings, either. Many people have trained themselves (or been trained, without even realizing it) to intimidate others—through strong emotions—into accepting their feelings as valid. “I FEEL this way, so that had better be enough!” Well … no.
I see or hear of this interpersonal dynamic a lot. For example, you have two partners in a relationship. One is highly emotional and the other is much less so. The emotional one will say, ‘This is how I feel, and you have to accept it.’ The not-so-emotional person will simply withdraw, afraid to fuel an even greater confrontation.
This leads the more emotional partner not only to feel a lack of validation for his or her feelings, but also to think and feel that the partner doesn’t care.
In reality, it would be kinder as well as more forthright for the less emotional person to say, ‘I do care about you, and of course I care about what you feel. But I’m trying to find the connection between those feelings and what’s really going on here.’
Do you see how there are many ways to respect the principle that facts and feelings are not the same thing (a harsh notion to some), while still tailoring your communication to the sensitivities or particulars of the situation?
You stated that someone close to you might accuse you of not validating their personal emotions. The fact that you feel accused is significant right there.
On the principle that feelings and facts are not necessarily the same thing, first ask yourself: What evidence is there here of an accusation? And how much of it is simply disappointment or hurt rather than accusation?
Whether your significant other is mistaken or not, it makes a big difference to think of someone as hurt or disappointed rather than accusatory. If you think of them as accusatory, then you’re quite naturally going to go on the counter-attack—or defensive. While this might make sense for two countries at war with each other, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when applied to someone of high personal or professional value to you. Your own selfish interests dictate sensitivity and proportionality here, don’t they?
I don’t know the details of the situation you’re describing, but the fact you ask the question that way leads me to think that you’re perhaps on the defensive when you don’t need to be, or should not be. Try to think of the person as hurt (if it’s a personal relationship) or more like disappointed (if it’s more of a business or professional dealing.)
People differ on many things, but one thing I have concluded is universal is the desire to be visible. This is particularly true in one’s romantic relationship. If one is in a relationship, one wants to feel visible. If someone is upset that you’re not validating his or her feelings, you don’t have to choose between a false alternative.
The false alternative you possibly assume goes like this: ‘Either I agree with their feelings and be a phony, or disagree with their feelings and risk conflict.’
You can treat your partner’s feelings as visible while still holding true to the idea that facts and feelings are not the same thing. ‘I care what you feel, but we both owe it to ourselves to figure out what’s true.’
Keep in mind that most romantic spats are not philosophical differences, but simply misunderstandings. When someone you know or love wants their feelings validated and you don’t agree, then it’s an opportunity to look for what might be a mistaken assumption on someone’s part.
Instead of an adversarial battle between reality and a significant other’s feelings, why not invite your significant other on a shared quest for the truth? I realize there’s no guarantee of success, but it’s worth a try and—unlike with defensiveness—you won’t end up any worse off than you started.
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