Why is validation so important to an abuse victim’s healing process? To answer this question, it’s important to understand more about what a victim experiences internally in response to the covert abuse. Within the abusive relationship, a victim’s emotions have been regularly dismissed, denigrated and invalidated by their abuser. Through frequent, systematic use of various covert tactics, such as gaslighting, lying, dismissing, minimizing, power-play/power-over, reductionism, etc., an abuser wreaks havoc on a victim’s sense of self-worth, identity and dignity. Victims learn to carry significant self-doubt and confusion. They often question their own reality and sanity. They consistently have been denied the freedom to use their voice. Validation is an essential first step toward healing all that has been harmed, fortifying a victim’s self-identity, and reinstating their voice.
Far too often, however, when a victim reaches out for help and bravely discloses their situation of abuse to a friend, family, therapist, or other first responders, they are not validated. Instead, they are doubted, disbelieved, diminished, shunned or blamed for the conflict they are experiencing. The M3ND Project calls this harmful response, “Double Abuse.” Rather than using this important opportunity to validate, encourage and help bring healing to the traumatized victim, the first responder who doubly abuses effectively conspires with the abuser to shut the victim down and increase their trauma.
On the other hand, providing much needed emotional validation is easy to do and will go a long way in helping the victim. Emotional validation is the process of learning about, understanding and expressing acceptance of another person’s emotional experience. You do not need to understand their emotional experience, agree with it, or know the facts behind it in order to validate it. Remember, their emotional experience is theirs. This is the time to leave your opinions to yourself. When we validate a victim’s expression of their state, we honor, encourage, and respect them. The victim feels seen and heard, something they likely have not felt in a long time, which helps them to remember their value.
Validation is a form of empathy. We can validate victims through our words and body language:
- Acknowledge their feelings. “You have every reason to feel the way you feel.”
- “I’m honored that you felt comfortable to share with me.”
- Look them in the eyes with care. “I would feel the same way.”
- Give them space and time to speak while you listen without interruption.
- Nod your head in acceptance of their words.
- Cry with them if you can. Let them know you are there for them.
The M3ND Project’s Healing Model of Compassion sets forth clear steps for responding to victims in a way that validates and empowers them. When done well, a victim will feel heard and seen and leave feeling lighter than when they came. Your validation makes them feel secure in their perspective. It erases self-doubt while strengthening the victim’s sense of self worth.
Emotional validation is to be distinguished from invalidation, or Double Abuse, which happens when the first responder rejects, ignores, or judges the victim’s emotional experience. When validation is so easy to do, why do so many first responders provide harmful responses instead? There may be many reasons, but here are a few for you to consider:
- They are ignorant about abuse. Too many people, including professionals, have insufficient knowledge about emotional abuse to be able to understand and identify the signs of abuse and trauma. They instead misread the victim’s emotions, shaking, anger, or difficulty expressing themselves to mean they are mentally unstable or that they are not telling the truth; concluding that perhaps the victim is the real problem. Don’t let ignorance prevent you from validating a victim in your care. Sign up for one of M3ND’s trainings on our website, here.
- Protecting the abuser. Oftentimes, the first responder knows the victim’s abusive partner and might not feel comfortable validating the victims’ emotions because they feel they should protect the abuser. They can’t imagine their friend treating their partner in the way the victim is expressing it. They feel it’s best to not get involved. They might say, “Well, I’ve known them for years and have never seen them angry!” Or, “That doesn’t sound like something they would do.” “It must be a misunderstanding!” These responses not only harm the victim but they embolden the abuser who is left without accountability for their actions or confrontation for the harm they cause.
- They are uncomfortable hearing about abuse. Many people don’t know what to say in response and are very uncomfortable with the topic and the victim’s distress. So they attempt to make themselves and the victim feel better by minimizing the issues being represented. For example, they may say, “I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way.” Or, “Maybe you just misunderstood.” “You know they love you; I’m sure they didn’t mean any harm by it.” It is good that you care about a victim’s distress. The easiest and best way to deal with these emotions and your discomfort is to simply listen. Take yourself off the hook and remember that you aren’t required to be the expert and give advice. In fact, giving unwanted advice is the same as speaking down to the victim as though you know what’s best. Victims have already endured months or years being spoken down to so that’s the opposite of what they truly need. It’s important to know that no two situations are alike and each victim has thought intently about the details within their own experience and truly know best what they need to do. .All you need to do is listen and allow the victim a safe space to process and unravel their confusing situation
Whatever the reason, please know that these types of responses cause significant harm for a victim and you should never say these things. Remember that when we allow painful feelings to be expressed, acknowledged and validated by another person, they will eventually diminish. It’s when we ignore or silence them that traumatic feelings become exacerbated.