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Whether you’ve read my book, listened to my podcast, attended a keynote, watched an interview, or read another one of my articles on the topic, you know how passionate I am about emotional validation. But you also may have wondered to yourself, “is there ever a time when validation isn’t the answer?”
I’ve given this question quite a bit of thought over the years. In all my research, across thousands of conversations, and in all my discussions with therapists and other experts, I’ve only found one instance where validation can do more harm than good.
When dealing with someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
(If you’re not in this situation, but you still swear there are other situations where it would be counter-productive to validate, skip ahead to the next section where I address other theoretical situations.)
When Validation May do More Harm Than Good
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a disorder characterized by a long-term pattern of exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy toward other people (source).
Dealing with individuals with NPD is difficult because they have a fundamental lack of empathy for the feelings, needs, and perspectives of others. This makes true connection virtually impossible, because they show little-to-no vulnerability, offer little-to-no validation, and rarely—if ever—admit that they are wrong. And with this almost always comes abuse—emotional, if not also physical.
When you validate someone without NPD, it gives them space to feel and process their emotions. And, more often than not, the other person will then find a solution to their problem, be more open to your perspective or requests, and otherwise operate much more rationally than they would have without validation. Your gift of validation helps the other person and your relationship.
When you validate someone with full-blown NPD, all of this goes out the window (generally speaking, of course). Instead of allowing the validation to calm their emotions, and then taking the opportunity to listen, improve, and/or otherwise connect with you, the narcissist simply soaks up the respect and “admiration” (as they see it) and throws out any hint at fault or opportunity for change.
This becomes a problem in at least two key ways.
First, it can undermine your efforts hold boundaries and otherwise protect yourself.
In a Psychology Today article on narcissism, Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT writes:
The most important thing to remember about intentional abuse is that it’s designed to dominate you. Abusers’ goals are to increase their control and authority, while creating doubt, shame, and dependency in their victims. They want to feel superior to avoid hidden feelings of inferiority.
While validation is absolutely not the same as agreeing, most narcissists will take it as such. If you validate using the four-step method, an emotionally healthy individual will recognize the difference between the two, and you will be able to have a respectful conversation while also making your point heard. If you validate someone with NPD, they will likely take what they want (the validation), and ignore the rest. Your perceived agreement with them may therefore be seen as weakness, and an opportunity to exert more control.
In instances such as these, validation may only serve to fuel the toxic behavior, and open yourself up to further abuse.
Second, it can perpetuate a false sense of connection.
In a relationship with a pathological narcissist, you can give, give, give until you’re blue in the face, and never received recognition, appreciation, or support in return. This type of unboundaried “giving” (i.e. codependency) is common in relationships with an NPD individual, because they are masters at making you think everything is your problem.
While all of this giving becomes draining to us, the narcissist soaks it all up without a second thought. Because they have a fundamental lack of empathy, they feel like everything is just peachy in life, and can’t see any reason to change. It therefore often takes firm boundaries and strong consequences for them to even have a prayer of seeking help.
The problem here is that, because they do enjoy the validation so much, we (and they) may fall into a false sense of connection. They feel great knowing that we see and appreciate them, and we feel a small glimmer of hope that they might eventually come around and return the favor someday.
While I never want to suggest that people can’t change, the reality is most people with NPD (as well as addicts and anyone else causing harm to themselves and others) rarely do without first experiencing the brutal consequences of their actions.
So while you can still absolutely validate someone with NPD, you may choose to only do so periodically, or to do so in a deliberate, boundaried manner, to ensure you’re not inadvertently fueling emotional abuse, or perpetuating a false sense of connection that is removing any need to change.
If you suspect you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, I encourage you to seek professional help, as treating NPD—and healing from narcissistic abuse—can be a difficulty journey.
So, are there times when validation can do more harm than good? Yes. But so far, I’ve only encountered one.
HOWEVER, there are situations where just validating, or following the four-step validation method in order, isn’t the most appropriate.
Allow me to explain.
When Validation Alone Isn’t the Answer
1. When the other person is harming, or may harm, themselves or others
This is an interesting situation, because despite what many might think, validation can still play a valuable role in helping calm the other person, prevent harm, and reach a safe and effective resolution.
Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss discusses in his book, Never Split the Difference, how listening, reflection, and validation are critical first steps in every hostage negotiation:
Instead of prioritizing your argument—in fact, instead of doing any thinking at all in the early goings about what you’re going to say—make your sole and all-encompassing focus on the other person and what they have to say. In that mode of true active listening . . . you’ll disarm your counterpart. You’ll make them feel safe. The voice in their head will begin to quiet down.
The goal is to identify what your counterparts actually need (monetarily, emotionally, or otherwise) and get them feeling safe enough to talk and talk and talk some more about what they want. . . .it begins with listening, making it about the other people, validating their emotions, and creating enough trust and safety for a real conversation to begin.
The conversation, of course, does not stop after validating. You do negotiate with the other person and do everything you can to avoid harm. And, of course, in cases of abuse, illegal acts, or any other dangerous or inappropriate situation, involve the proper authorities and/or seek professional help. Validation is not an allowance or acceptance of aggressive, illegal, or inappropriate acts. It’s simply a tool of conversation to help the other individual feel heard and understood, with the hopes of bringing them to a more rational state of mind, and leading to a more effective resolution.
So while I’m not suggesting that validation is a fix-all pill for every situation, if the FBI considers it a critical first step in hostage negotiations, it’s clear that it can be a valuable tool—even in the most extreme situations.
2. When someone is constantly complaining
I’ve already written an article about this, but in summary, if the person you’re talking with has a pattern of complaining, you will need to put a boundary in place to preserve your own sanity and increase the chances that they will seek help, take your advice, otherwise or find a solution.
So, in situations like this, validation is still highly beneficial. You might say something like:
“Ugh, that’s really tough. What are you going to do about it?”
“Ugh, that’s really tough. I want to help—I hope you know that—and…I’m starting to feel pretty drained listening to the same problem each night. What can we do to address it?”
You: “Ugh, this is really tough. …What are you going to do about it?”
Other: “I don’t know. It just sucks.”
You: “It really does. I want to help…and, to be frank, hearing you complain about this every night is starting to feel draining. Do you see any way of fixing it?”
Other: “Well I just need you to listen!”
You: “I’m happy to listen. I’m not okay listening to the same problem when you don’t take steps to address it.”
So on and so forth.
All of those responses validate first, and then remind the other person that they are responsible, capable humans. The last example also starts to set a boundary.
3. When it makes more sense to offer assurance and clarity first
Although I almost always recommend validating before giving advice or assurance, there may be times when the other person asks for advice right away, or it simply feels more natural or important to offer assurance first.
In both of these instances, however, it’s still highly beneficial to validate the other person immediately after you give the advice or assurance.
For example, if you felt it important to start with assurance, you might say:
“That’s simply not true. I don’t even want to entertain that thought. I absolutely understand and appreciate why you feel that way, and why it looks like that—she’s not been friendly to you at all. And…that’s how she acts toward everyone.”
Notice how this comment still immediately follows up with validation. If you leave that out, and just immediately jump in with the assurance, you risk coming across as invalidating, which can do more harm than good.
4. When dealing with mental illness or personality disorders
To be frank, I thought I would be able to find at least a handful of mental disorders that would be harmed, and not helped, by validation. Thus far, narcissism is the only one I’ve found. (If you are a mental health professional, though, and know of others, please do comment below or drop me a line).
Consider the following email sent to me by a reader:
I just finished listening to I Hear You on audible, and I wanted to let you know what a difference it has already made in my relationships with my mother. My mom had an episode and was diagnosed with schizophrenia about a year ago, and since then, our relationship has turned sour. Prior to the start of her episode, which still persists today, we used to speak on the phone at least an hour a week and were very close. For the past year, our conversations have been angry and short, and I felt like we were always talking in circles about her irrational thoughts and conspiracy theories, never about anything going on in my life.
I was about halfway through I Hear You when I had a call with my mom last week. During our call, I realized that my knee-jerk reaction was to immediately invalidate every thought and emotion she shared with me, so I shifted gears and tried validating her feelings instead. I kept expressing how I couldn’t imagine what she was going through and that it sounded terrifying and isolating. Her response was so overwhelmingly satisfied that I found that I didn’t even need to offer my opinion or perspective. I could actually hear the relief in her voice when she thanked me for understanding, and for the first time in a year, she changed the subject and asked me about my day. We spoke for an hour and a half, and I felt good during and after the call, just like old times. We connected, and I’m actually looking forward to talking to her again.
Of course, every situation is unique, and I do not claim to be an expert on mental illness. If you are in a relationship with someone struggling with a mental illness, I highly recommend you seek the help of a qualified professional.
But Surely I Shouldn’t Validate If…
Alright, this article is getting long. But if you’ve made it this far, we may as well finish off addressing a few final objections. We’ll spend less time on each of these, as I’ve already addressed most of them in other articles.
What if I don’t agree with how they’re seeing things?
See this article.
What if they’re angry with me?
See this article.
What if I know how to fix their problem?
Validate first and ask if they want your opinion. The four-step method works as well as it does because of the order of the steps. It is a rare case indeed when someone appreciates unsolicited advice. And, while it may be hard to believe at first, most people who vent and complain to us do not want advice.
What if I don’t have time to listen and validate?
This is where tactful communication comes into play. I share a simple tip on what you can say when you don’t have time to listen and validate here.
What if I don’t want to be their venting/complaint box that day?
You don’t have to be. This goes back to my articles on serial complainers, presence, and boundaries. Mix and match the techniques from those articles to protect your space while preserving the relationship.
Validation is a tool, a skill, and a bit of an art. It’s incredibly versatile and can be used in nearly any conversation to demonstrate understanding and deepen connection. At the end of the day, though, no two people—and no two situations—are exactly alike. Evaluate, act, and adapt, and you’ll likely come to the same conclusion: it’s tough to do harm when all you’re doing is helping someone feel heard and understood.
What did I miss? Are there other situations where validation may do more harm than good? Let me know in the comments below.