Tag Archives: validation

Privilege, validation, and reflection

Privilege is such a tricky thing to talk about. Often people with privilege don’t like to admit it, or feel defensive if it’s pointed out. I often see people assume that privilege means that life has been handed to you on a silver platter and you didn’t have to work for anything, so if their privilege is pointed out, they think they are being accused of not having worked for what they accomplished.

In activism spaces, this is not what privilege means. Privilege is more subtle than that. Now, I’m not going to try to explain what privilege is. That would be a blog post all to itself, and there are plenty of really good write-ups out there that have explained it all much better than I could. Instead, I want to talk about one particular type of privilege (since privilege takes many different forms). It’s a general type I see a lot of when looking at various lists of privilege (white, male, cisgendered, and straight being the ones I see most often talked about). That is – that you see people like you on a regular basis. That your reality and identity is reflected back at you by popular media and the people around you.

When you enjoy that sort of privilege, it’s easy to take it for granted. In my post ‘autism and race,’ I wrote:

I need to confess something. Until that post by TheAutcast, it had never occurred to me to think much about autism and race. I am white and I sat comfortably in my white privilege, seeing white faces reflected back at me, and it did not occur to me to question this.

And it’s not like I’m blind to this sort of privilege. I’m aware of it with things like gender and disability. But when something about you is privileged, it’s really easy to just not notice.

I have also found that it’s easy to dismiss. I grew up with the message that external validation was going to end when I turned into an adult, and that people are not supposed to need that sort of thing. This, I think, had two basic results. In the areas where I do experience that kind of validation – seeing people who are like me – it’s easy to take little notice of it, or dismiss it as not “really” doing anything for me. In areas where I do not experience that kind of validation, I find that I wish I did, but I have vague feelings of guilt and shame associated with those desires.

I am slowly realizing, however, that this is actually a really big deal. Like that cheerios commercial, and some of the reactions I saw about how it’s SO AWESOME for biracial people and/or mixed families to actually see other people who look like them on TV. And, importantly, being portrayed in a totally casual, ‘this is no big deal,’ some families look like this kind of way.

Or this post talking about race and adoption, and the impact it can have on children to not regularly see people like themselves in their daily life.

And there’s the fact that I love seeing strong, confident characters on TV who also happen to be introverts. Or the times when people have reflected my gender identity back to me, validating and supporting me in it, and just how utterly good that felt.

This kind of thing matters. It’s a privilege that everyone should enjoy. I don’t really know of many neurodiverse characters being represented in popular media, and when it is implicitly referenced it is often in a not terribly positive way. I find myself wondering what it would be like if I saw a strong, confident TV character who just happened to flap their hands when excited, or spun in a chair when stressed, or was sometimes confused in social situations, or just needed to fixate on a few specks of dust sometimes. And if all those things were presented simply as part of who this person is, rather than with a “what’s wrong with you?” tone. No manic pixie dream girl, no person who’s funny because they are broken, just a strong, interesting character who happens to be on the autism spectrum.

Wouldn’t that be cool? I think seeing that, in a likable, positive character, would feel really good. I think it would be awesome.

This kind of thing matters. The validation of seeing people like you, of having your identity and your reality reflected back at you, it matters.

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The importance of validation

Recent events in my life have lead me to wanting to talk about validation as a social skill.

I think validation is very important. Seriously, so important. It’s something I’m fairly deliberate about in my own interpersonal relationships and work hard on, and I find myself sometimes rather wishing that other people were better about it as well.

But first I want to address a myth that seems to be around about what validation means. So I’m going to try to make this very clear:

VALIDATION DOES NOT MEAN AGREEMENT.

Are we clear? I’ve seen plenty of people trip up over this concept, thinking that the only way to validate someone is to agree with them, but that is just not the case at all. Nor does validation mean admitting that the other person is correct. You can validate someone while strongly of the opinion that they are wrong, and you can even proceed to explain that disagreement after the validation. I mean, you can validate someone by agreeing with them, it is certainly also valid (heh), it is simply not the only way.

I actually want to talk about validation in the context of disagreement here. I’ll be honest – it’s something that I need. If you are going to school me on being wrong about something, I will find it a heck of a lot easier to hear you if you start with some validation. If we’re having a debate, you can say something like “those are interesting and well thought out points, but I disagree with you because of blah, blib, and bloo.” If we are discussing something and I’ve made several points and you only disagree with one of them, you can say “I agree with foo, bar, and baz, but I disagree with qux because blah.” If I misunderstood something you said, you can say “I can see how it could have seemed that way from your perspective and I’m sorry* it came across that way, but I really meant blah.”

Another area validation comes into play is when reassuring someone’s worries. First, I’m going to establish some credentials. I grew up worrying a lot. A whole lot. Enough that my mom called me a “worry-wart” (I’m not really sure what that means exactly, but it was because I was worrying all the time). So I can tell you from experience that saying “oh, that’s a silly thing to be worried about” in response to me sharing a worry with you does not help at all. Not even a tiny little bit. All it does is pile up shame on top of my worry, and we already know how I feel about shame.

So I make a point to never, ever do that to another person. Even if I think their worry is silly or not really worth spending a lot of energy on. Instead, I start with validation. This does not mean that I say “oh yes, that’s a great thing to worry about” or anything like that. In this context, it means that I start by saying that I understand worry, and that I can see why they might be worried about that (because seriously, I generally can. soooo much experience with excessive worrying). Only then will I go on to as thoughtful a reassurance as I can muster, about how things are ok or we have plans in place or whatever else. Heck, I am all about making contingency plans for unlikely events, so I am happy to do that too.

Still, the point is that I start with validation, before doing anything else. I don’t have to lie, or agree with the other person, or declare that they are right and I am wrong. I only have to respectfully acknowledge their point of view.

Now I’m going to get into a metaphor. There is a reason I think this is such a big deal in disagreements. Disagreements create friction between people. A few simple words of validation can act as a lubricant on that friction, decreasing it and ultimately making it easier (so much easier) to deal with and work things out. It makes it easier for people to really hear each other. It makes it easier for people to feel heard. This is important, and again, I speak from personal experience here. Both from my experiences of positive effects – in terms of both giving and receiving validation – and from my experiences of how much harder it can be when validation is absent.

I am also imagining that at least a few people are going to see this as some form of passive aggressive behavior or something, but I really don’t see it that way. As I already mentioned, I see it as social lubricant. I also don’t see any contradiction involved. I can respect a person’s thought process even if I disagree with their conclusion. I can accept that I don’t always word things great, even if I think the other person misinterpreted what I said. And openly acknowledging that makes interactions go so much more smoothly. When I first started figuring this out I was astonished at how nicer it made things. When Nee figured it out in our relationship, it smoothed out our friction by a hell of a lot.

Validation is important. You can validate a person without compromising your opinion or beliefs in any way. It’s a small thing to do that has huge benefits. I think the world could use a lot more of this.

*This is not a real apology. That’s ok, it does not need to be. You are not saying that you are wrong if you say “I’m sorry” in this context, you are simply offering to meet the other person halfway. If you can go as far as being willing to consider that maybe your word choices were unclear or you left out information or something that would be even better, but just a simple “sorry it came across that way” goes a long, long way.

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Filed under social skills