You might have heard this from your spouse, your best friend, or your therapist: Your feelings are valid. Their consolation comes from a good place, but in reality, your feelings aren’t valid or invalid – they’re just feelings.
Validating feelings is a powerful choice. It’s affirming that your feelings, however petty or trivial, deserve attention and an investment of energy or that they’re accurate responses to the situation, instead of seeing them for what they are. The lie behind “your feelings are valid” perhaps doesn’t come from bad intentions. But it only spawns damaging effects.
How Feelings Dictate Behavior
Did you know that your feelings are a conscious experience? Feelings exist in our mind and act as the last step in a chain reaction of events. Emotions and feelings aren’t the same thing, even though we use those words interchangeably. We have four primary emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, and anger. But our feelings can accurately be characterized as more complex forms of those types of emotions. Emotions precede feelings, and feelings are produced in response to emotions. For example, say that a loved one dies. The basic or fundamental emotional response first produced in your body is sadness, but the feeling which follows that emotion could more accurately be described as grief.
We don’t have control over our emotions because they’re an involuntary, complex reaction to stimuli happening outside our bodies or our consciousness. Feelings are much more subjective – your feelings about a particular event, person, or thing may not be the same as mine. We can thereby conclude that we can control our feelings far better than we can control our emotions. But because we choose to believe the two are interchangeable, we let feelings, instead of emotional intelligence, determine our mood, our actions, our words, and other patterns of behavior.
Emotions and feelings are not the same thing.
Say that your boss calls you out in front of your co-workers in an unnecessarily petty or immature way. The first emotion you may experience due to their action is anger. But the feeling, or the caboose on the train of this reaction, is a mixture of fury and spite, and it’s that toxic combination, not the original emotion, which might motivate you to snap back at them instead of controlling yourself. We’ve all acted without thinking before, but instead of letting the feelings simmer down and dissipate, you act on them immediately, in the midst of their highest peak. You’re letting your perception of the situation, i.e. your feelings, dictate your response.
We’ve all known people who only act on their feelings. Maybe we’ve even been that person. It’s not only an exhausting struggle to interact with these people, but it’s an immature way to live. Constantly being triggered or offended by others and letting anger run wild is a tiring way to live. Having to constantly be dialed up and “on” in order to respond to outside stimuli, which probably isn’t as dire as we make it out to be, is a stressful way to go through life. It also sounds like a recipe for dysfunctional relationships, a poor or inaccurate outlook on life, and high blood pressure.
Indulging Your Feelings Isn’t Therapy
Last year, the dating app Hinge discovered that 88% of single individuals prefer dating someone who goes to therapy. Now that “going to therapy” has become our culture’s newest sacred cow and barometer for morality, not going to therapy is viewed as a dealbreaker for many singles. Hinge also found that 97% of surveyed singles wouldn’t date or go out with someone who doesn’t “actively take care of their mental health.” But it could be argued that taking care of your mental health varies from person to person, specifically when it comes to what’s effective for the individual.
In 2021, it was reported that an estimated 42 million American adults are receiving some form of mental health treatment, and for many, that looks like counseling or therapy. Removing the stigma around mental health treatment means it’s not only cool to go to therapy, but even socially acceptable to talk about it afterwards to strangers on social media.
In these particular cases, we might start to wonder if they’re really receiving mental health treatment, or as Gaby Solis from Desperate Housewives puts it, “an hour-long talk show starring me.” In fact, the social media craze surrounding the “going to therapy” obsession might give individuals the impression that therapy is for validating their feelings, rationalizing their bad behavior, and indulging in their woes and toxic habits – but put them in front of any licensed mental health professional worth their salt, and that individual won’t like what they experience.
Indulging your feelings isn’t hard work, therapy, or overcoming trauma. Feelings aren’t a trauma, either – trauma is an experience that may result in severe mental, emotional, or physical distress. Your feelings are produced in response to how you perceive that experience. If you go to therapy looking to have your feelings validated, you’re likely not going to perform tough introspection or self-examination. You can validate a life experience without validating your feelings. That’s because feelings aren’t valid, nor are they invalid – they’re just there.
Validity Versus Existence
The word “valid” refers to something that has “a sound basis in logic and fact” and is “reasonable or cogent.” Perhaps we’re taking that definition a bit too figuratively. How can feelings be valid? They often inspire the worst behavior imaginable. Outside of those feelings and whatever motivated them, is that behavior logical?
Let’s say that you finally meet your best friend’s new boyfriend, whom she’s constantly raving about. But when the two of you meet, he’s cold, apathetic, rude, and unfeeling. Or so you think. He couldn’t be worse in your eyes, and now you’re telling all of your other friends how terrible the guy is! Based on this one encounter alone, you’ve decided to dislike him forever. But perhaps he’s shy and doesn’t talk to strangers well. Or maybe he had a bad day at work or got some unpleasant news. But none of that changes anything now that you’ve made up your mind on how you feel about him. Is that logical?
The danger in validating our feelings lies with holding them above our own consciousness, and above logic, reason, and thought. If I stub my toe and, in a fit of rage at my own carelessness, I tear my entire house apart, I’d likely be mad at myself after the fact for destroying all of my possessions in response to a singular 10-second experience.
Validation, or at least today’s definition of it, seeks to turn something subjective into fact.
This likely sounds like an over exaggeration, but feelings are powerful. Or rather, we give them power, which means we either control them or they control us. Remember when you were a teenager and all you could think about was your lab partner in chemistry? The raging hormones and lovesickness in your heart might have felt overwhelming, wonderful, and heartbreaking all at the same time. A decade later, you might laugh or even cringe at how you behaved. Having the benefit of many years’ worth of perspective certainly helps, but how do we control our feelings here, right now?
Psychotherapist Seerut K. Chawla has the answer: “Don’t dismiss them, and don’t put them on a pedestal. Examine them, be curious about them, coexist with them, or let them be.” Validating your feelings or receiving someone else’s validation changes nothing about the situation, other than you’re now depending on their stamp of approval, Chawla writes. You don’t have to completely ignore your feelings, but you don’t have to idolize them either. Let them be, and eventually, let them go.
Everything has to be validated nowadays. Once, someone’s sexual preference or gender expression was no one else’s business but their own. But in order to live in a progressive society, we have to not only validate, but celebrate all of the aspects of an individual’s identity (even if they’re largely socially influenced or completely fabricated). Validation isn’t just validation, but at face value, you’re still the villain for not participating in it. Validation, or at least today’s definition of it, seeks to turn something subjective into fact. By validating someone’s quote-unquote identity or someone’s feelings, you’re affirming that those elements are indeed fact or indisputable truth, instead of something that’s transient and often irrational.
Today’s method of thinking is attempting to turn validation into affirmation or even endorsement. No matter how horrible or toxic our feelings are, if they’re validated, we have every excuse to act on them – in fact, the more extreme they are, the more egregious it would be if we didn’t! But feelings are temporary, and they’re a controllable choice. We can’t choose our emotions, but we can choose how to respond to them. We don’t have to approve, disapprove, celebrate, or bash our feelings. We just have to let them be.
Not validating your feelings provides more freedom than you might think. When we’re a slave to our feelings, we’re chained to acting on them. There will always be a better reward when we take the high road. It might not be satisfying in the moment, but neither is having to live with the inevitable consequences of bad behavior.
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