Reflecting on Mental Health Awareness Week
Charlie Mackesy, the talented author and illustrator of ‘The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse’ provides a written reminder of the need for compassion and love in a challenging, ever-changing world. At The Fitzrovia Psychology Clinic, we have been reflecting back on Mental Health Awareness Week and how we can all uphold and show compassion to one another, with reference to Charlie’s work.
Charlie’s book cleverly narrates a story about the unbreakable bond of friendship. He explores the values of kindness and empathy in all its forms, through his beautiful use of pictures and words. Within the busyness of life, it can be helpful to reflect upon the values illustrated by Charlie, and consider how we can all take the time to show kindness and compassion to others, as well as ourselves.
One way we can express compassion is by validating the thoughts and feelings of ourselves and others. However, this can be challenging if you are unsure where to start. In Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, we consider six levels of validation:
- Be present
- Accurate reflection
- Put yourself in their position
- Validate based on their history
- Validate based on their current circumstances
- Radical genuineness and equality
Whilst it is not necessary to go through each level when expressing kindness, using these validation levels as a framework can help us to reflect back on what we have been told, allowing us to support and empathise with others.
Being present for yourself means acknowledging your internal experience and sitting with it rather than “running away” from it, avoiding it, or pushing it away. There are many ways to be present with others such as through physical touch, active listening, eye contact, and allowing pauses in a conversation. For ourselves, we can be present through mindful acknowledgement of our current emotion, rather than avoidance and denial of it.
This involves summarising back to a person what we heard them say. When done authentically, with the intent of truly understanding that person, it can show empathy and validation, and demonstrates a genuine interest in understanding and hearing another person.
This type of validation can help someone sort through their thoughts and separate them from their emotions. For ourselves, we may use mindful and non-judgemental language to label our thoughts and emotions.
Put Yourself in Their Position
Sometimes people experience difficulty expressing their true emotions, often masking them to others. When someone is describing a situation, try to notice and mentalise about their emotional state – what are they feeling, why might that be, what might that experience be like for them? Being able to understand their emotions to a situation increases our ability to empathise, offer support and compassionate words, and involves us putting ourselves in their shoes for a moment.
Validate Based on Their History
Our experiences and biology influence our emotional reactions and responses in the present moment. Understanding past events that have happened to a person increases our understanding of why they may feel the way they do now. For example, what has this person been through in their past that has contributed to them feeling this way or shaped how they see the world? This can be powerful to reflect back to someone curiously in order for another person to feel understood and seen. We can do this for ourselves also.
Validate Based on Circumstances
Normalising emotional reactions to challenging present-moment situations can be a powerful form of validation. Note that this does not mean dismissing the person’s feelings. By contrast, it means that we help them to understand that it is okay to feel the way they do based on what they are going through in the here and now. We can similarly validate our experiences based on our current circumstances.
This final level is when we understand the emotion someone is feeling on a deeper level and connect with them as an equal. It is our natural reaction to a situation that the other person is experiencing and is about sharing their experience as an equal. Whilst you might not use this particular level all the time, it can be helpful in encouraging open discussion between ourselves and the other person. For example, I can understand why you feel this way because I feel/have felt this way in similar circumstances – I get it. This level of validation is about genuine connection, and sometimes draws upon self-disclosure when appropriate to connect. It communicates that we are human and fallible too, and their experience is normal.
Across these 6 levels of validation, note that they are all grounded in practising curiosity, compassion and emotional connection. They do not call upon our problem-solving abilities and do not require us to jump in and fix a situation for someone so they do not feel a certain way. See what it might be like to practise these levels of validation with yourself and others, without the added extra of offering solutions. You may be surprised about how powerful these simple skills are.
Written by Ellie Bacon, Assistant Psychologist (Supervised by Dr Emily Smyth, Clinical Psychologist). Illustration by @charliemackesy