Tuesday, May 16, 2017

May I validate your feelings?

A few years ago now I volunteered to visit people who are sick and shut in. In order to be able to do it I had to take (and pay for) a course. I did it without enthusiasm but did it seriously. The course taught us to validate people's feelings. No one in the course told us why this was required. We all meet people every day and manage to get along pretty well so why is it necessary to validate the feelings of people who are shut in?

When I made my first visit I discovered hat the answer to the question is that people who are very sick are often bitter about their experience. They can't do many of the things they used to and no one visits them. They respond to this with anger and sense of entitlement. They put up psychological barriers making it difficult to approach them and this makes their very real problems even worse. They make it impossible for you to reach them. Not every seriously ill person does this but enough do that if you were to sign up to do what I did it would be a virtual certainty that you'd encounter someone like that. People who respond to life's problems with patience, hope and love are a joy to visit so their friends and family tend to visit them. The people who need visits from volunteers aren't like that. Thus the course.

I tolerated the lectures and role-playing activities. As skeptical as I tried to be, though, I could see that this was a technique that would work in some cases. That turned out to be an understatement. It worked incredibly well. I found myself unconsciously slipping into validation mode any time I had to deal with a difficult person. The only time it doesn't "work" is when you're dealing with a difficult person who is in a position equal to your own. I mean, it works in the sense that it calms them down and reassures them but you can't go anywhere after that.

Let me explain what I mean by that. If you're sitting with someone who is bitter and angry about life because they're sick and they feel like no one cares you can diffuse a lot of their anger by saying that  you fully understand that they are angry. When they calm down you can ask them to talk about their life. Ninety percent of the time, simply doing that will lead them to find something good and meaningful about their lives and that will improve their outlook on life. In a very small number of cases you will have to help this process along with with a few gently leading questions. In a tiny number on instances this won't work and you'll have to go to the head of the program and they will assign a qualified therapist to see this person.

The technique "works" because the person in the bed needs human contact. At some level they are trying to earn your company. The bitterness and entitlement and counter-productive in the way that many human responses are counter-productive. When someone like me validates their feelings I give them away to get around this barrier and most people, not surprisingly, jump at that second chance. Most of us would do exactly the same thing in their position. And we'd do it because we'd be in a position of weakness. If this person visiting us doesn't come back we'll be stuck in this damn bed all alone again. Validating feelings is all about power.

And that started to trouble me.
I wasn't lying to people when I told them there feelings were understandable. I could easily see how they had gotten into this state of mind. I could easily think of cases where I've done likewise myself. That said, thinking about those cases wasn't easy for I was deeply ashamed of the times I'd been like that. I realized that I must have seemed pathetic to people around me. And with good reason, my feelings certainly were understandable but they weren't justified. I felt the same way about the people whose feelings I was "validating". I was telling them I understood and what I really meant by that could be spelled out as follows: "What you're doing is a perfectly natural human response and I'm not going to hold that against you." It could be spelled out that way because they needed me. Take away that power relationship and validating someone's feelings amounts to surrendering to them.

Emotional maturity

I've been using the word "feelings" so far largely because that's the word most people use. I've said nothing about emotions. The vocabulary here is fluid in any case. A lot of people put emotions below feelings, describing them as basic responses to events and feelings as learned behaviours. You could just as easily reverse the terms.

The important thing to grasp is that there is absolutely no scientific evidence to back the two levels up. Suppose someone jumps out in front of you on a sidewalk at night. Your body will respond. Your heart rate might spike while you break out in a sweat and that will signify nothing at all by itself. That physical response is consistent with fear in some people and with aggression in others. On the other hand, there are people who get either fearful or aggressive and have none of those physical reactions.

A couple of posts ago I talked about feeling your feelings. What does that mean? Well, I've had two occasions recently to do so.

In the first case I went home for my father's funeral and, not surprisingly, I felt like crap. When I sat down and analyzed my feelings though, all I was aware of was stress. It hit me that the feeling was exactly what I feel when I drink too much coffee. I had to stop a moment and think about how much coffee I'd had because I realized it was entirely possible that I was deluding myself and that all this was just coffee and the context was leading me to read this stress as sorrow when maybe I was just a fraud pretending to care much more than I really did. When I reviewed my day, however, I realized that it had been more than twelve hours since my last cup of coffee.

The second instance was driving home from the funeral. We were driving on a two-lane highway with oncoming traffic when a truck entered the highway right in front of me. At first nothing seemed unusual. The truck did not stop back at the stop sign where it should have but there was nothing to indicate he wasn't simply overshooting the stop sign but still meaning to stop. We were only two or three car lengths away when it became obvious he wasn't going to stop at all. I made a sharp intake of breath that made a hissing sound, swerved out into the opposing and then swerved right back in successfully dodging the truck and the car coming the other way. And then Amy and I discussed the matter in a very calm manner. We both realized we came very close to dying. A short while later, probably just a few seconds but it felt longer, I got a massive adrenalin rush. I couldn't honestly say whether it was the event or the realization that we had just narrowly avoided death that triggered it. All I could honestly say was that the adrenalin came after both the event and the judgment.

And that was all there was to the feelings.

I tend to think of an emotion as feelings plus judgment. That's a bit bogus but it can be useful. It reminds me that I have some control over my judgments—both preliminary judgments and those made after the fact—and that these judgments will affect my feelings. I don't have absolute control. If I think someone betrayed me and then find out they didn't, the anger or hurt tends to linger even after I know it isn't justified. I know that I have to keep at it until the feeling fades and then goes away. I know that I can perversely maintain or even fuel my anger or hurt because I've done that a few times in my life.

I might say that the feelings are valid even when they are factually unjustified. I felt like I'd been betrayed and the feelings I had were understandable to have in such a situation. Yes, I was wrong but I'd made an honest mistake and really believed this betrayal was real.

I could take it even further. I could acknowledge that I was wrong but now insist that you validate my sense that the feelings I had were justified. Yes, I was wrong but it was an honest mistake and you should stop scolding me and give me a little love because, damn it, no one ever cares about me so give me some recognition. And you might even agree to go along with this. You might even do so enthusiastically. I've seen it happen. I've watched men do this for beautiful women many times. And I've seen people do it for their bosses. When the power relationship is the reverse of what I described in the case of visiting a sick person who is shut in—where the person validating the feelings has less power—validating feelings also buys peace. That said, it buys a different sort of peace; it buys a peace that is rooted in weakness and surrender.

I think the key point to take here is that validating someone's feelings is a manipulative technique. And maybe that's okay. We manipulate people all the time and there is nothing problematic in that. To return to the example of the sick person, validating their feelings is a way of diffusing those same feelings so they can get past them. If experience has told me that getting past their feelings makes it possible to do constructive and helpful things that these feelings would otherwise preclude can even be a good and caring thing to do. But we can be wrong about these things—that is to say that my judgment that getting past these feelings will make it possible to do good things for this person can be wrong. And we can also lie to ourselves and others about these things.

We could also validate feeling as a way of avoiding conflict. I can validate someone's feelings not because I want to create an atmosphere where we can have an interaction that might benefit them but simply so that I don't have to deal with their feelings anymore. If I take a little time to focus on them and their feelings now , the moment will pass and I can go on to do what I really want. Again, this can be justified but the situation is more ambiguous.

Consider an example. Jack might validate his girlfriend's feelings of anger that her sister never calls knowing that this will make the moment pass thereby make his efforts to initiate sex more likely to succeed. That's frankly manipulative but not evil. But what if Jack commends himself for being a loving and caring boyfriend for validating his girlfriend's feelings when his real objective is to have sex?

How does Jack know the difference? Self analysis seems like the way but it often fails. He might genuinely believe that that he just wants her to feel better. It may well be that he had no thought of sex when he first validated her feelings. The problem, if there is one, is that he did this only to make the bad feeling go away. And then he set about initiating sex because she is good at sex, desirable and in a good mood and there is nothing wrong with that is there? It might even be a win-win situation because, as often is the case, a good shagging was exactly what she needed and, although she was initially resistant, the outcome is that she feels relaxed and realizes that she has a lot of good in her life and that her sister is really a minor irritant if only she'd stop obsessing about how close they used to be. That isn't a weird hypothetical. These sorts of positive outcomes happen all the time.

One of the conclusions we should reach here is that intention is of limited value when doing moral analyses. The actual outcome matters a whole lot. It matters much more to the other person than our intentions ever could. I have to analyze not just my intentions but the likelihood of their actually being realized. (Much of what is wrong with current liberalism/progressivism  is to take intentions at face value.)

Actual outcomes are also hard to determine ahead of time. I can be reasonably certain that pouring gasoline on a fire won't put it out but the best I can say about my efforts to console and support others is that the things I do have often worked in the past. But I also know that there have been some cases where they have failed and perhaps a couple of cases where they have failed spectacularly.

I think the most important issue here is moral habit. Yes, intention matters and actual outcomes matter but moral habit is where the possibility for improvement lies. To return to Jack. He doesn't stop to think before attempting to make is girlfriend feel better. He just does what he does. And it works most of the time. And then he attempts to initiate sex. Why? Because that's what he always does when they're together and she's feeling good. That's what men do. If that bothers his girlfriend then he needs a new girlfriend. There is nothing here that needs to be redeemed. But suppose that, while recognizing that he is fine just as he is, Jack wants to be an even better man and an even better boyfriend. What does he need to do to achieve that?

Intentions are no guide here nor are actual outcomes. The only thing we really can evaluate are the habits we are forming. A good romp may be the exact thing your wife needs when she is feeling down on a given Saturday in June but pursuing sex every time you set about making her feel better is not a good habit.

Similarly, there are times when validating other people's feelings is a good thing to do but habitually doing this is not good.

It gets trickier when we consider our own feelings. I know it's a bad habit to always doubt your own feelings. On the other hand, always seeking to validate them and have them validated by others is equally (self) destructive.

That's where emotions are useful. An emotion is a judgment but it's also a judgment rooted in a  habit. We teach ourselves how to react, we form our emotional experiences. We can shape these things. As Lisa Feldman Barrett says, we are the architects of our own experiences. We cannot simply say, "From now on I will react this way?" Well, we could say it but doing so will make no difference. But we can begin to form habits. And we can consider how these habits and how they have worked for us. And we can grow in emotional maturity.

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