Validating Others While Acknowledging Our Own Pain
Updated: May 12, 2020
Imagine that a child, Joanna, falls down on the playground at school and sprains her ankle. She cries out for help, but no one comes running. Joanna’s friends say she’s overreacting and call her a crybaby. Joanna goes to a teacher for help, only to be told that it’s no big deal, she should be able to keep walking on her ankle even though it’s swollen and in a lot of pain. The next day, when Joanna can’t run around on her sprained ankle, her friends call her a wimp, and keep doing so until Joanna is able to walk normally on her ankle again.
A few weeks later, Joanna sees her classmate Katie fall down and sprain her ankle. Only this time, everyone comes running over to help. The other kids respond with kindness and understanding, and help Katie walk to the nurse’s office, so she doesn’t have to put too much weight on her ankle. The next day, everyone asks how Katie is doing, and several kids keep her company at recess until she is able to join in and play again.
It’s understandable that Joanna might feel resentful of Katie for getting better treatment. Joanna might get angry that so many people helped Katie. She might think that Katie should have been told to suck it up and been left to deal with the injury on her own. But really, the problem here isn’t how Katie was treated – it’s how Joanna was treated. Joanna may direct her anger at how everyone treated Katie, but deep down, the hurt comes from the way Joanna was treated.
When we’ve been through tough situations where we didn’t get the help we needed, where people pushed us to suck it up and didn’t take our problems seriously, it’s easy to lash out at people who are getting better treatment than we did. But it’s important for us to take a step back and recognize where that anger is coming from. In the example above, if Joanna had been treated with kindness and understanding when she sprained her ankle, it’s unlikely that she would feel any resentment towards Katie for receiving the same treatment. Likewise, when we find ourselves feeling resentful of younger people for having more resources than we did, getting more help than we did, or just being taken more seriously than we would have been for the same problems, we need to ask ourselves if we would still feel that way if we had gotten the same help and validation when we were their age. We need to ask ourselves where the hurt is coming from - if deep down, we’re not okay with how we were treated in the past.
It’s okay to be hurt. It’s okay to be angry that you didn’t get the help you needed, or that you didn’t get treated the way you deserved to be treated. And it’s okay to reach out for help in healing from that pain. We just want to do it in a way that doesn’t put other people down for getting treated better than we were treated.
There is a Greek proverb that says, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” When I wrote Redefining Positive, almost every example of how to validate other people came from an instance where I didn’t get the validation that I needed. While my goal is to change that for future generations, I have to acknowledge that the invalidation I experienced did hurt me, and it shouldn’t have happened. And if our culture becomes more validating, if the positive examples in my book become our normal way of treating each other, I may still feel the pain of past invalidation, and I may still need to heal from it. But I’ll be careful not to take those feelings out on people who are being treated better than I was in their situations. We all deserve to heal from the times that we were invalidated, while still working to create a more validating world.