The following gag video just showed up on my newsfeed today and I had a good laugh. Then I thought about what it was saying. Enjoy! Then join me in my analysis.
Now, personally, I found this hilarious, because it rang so true. Often when I’m talking to somebody who is upset I think I know exactly what they need to do differently, and I wish they would just let me help them feel better. I feel annoyed that they don’t see what I see and don’t have the same immediate response that I do, because it seems so obvious. The nail in the head joke embodies that frustration perfectly!
This experience is characterized in the video as a male experience of frustration with women. Men, practical and unemotional, seek solutions to “fix” the problem, get rid of it, and move on; women, impractical and emotional, wallow in their feelings and want others to wallow with them. Does that sound about right? It’s a fairly typical model, one that we demonstrate and expect over and over again, whether in movies and ads or just in casual conversation.
When the woman in the video says “it’s not about the nail” we laugh because we think it absolutely is. But she’s not necessarily saying her experience isn’t about the nail, she’s saying the conversation isn’t about the nail. She is not seeking help, she is seeking validation.
We assume that she is presenting a problem and that her experience is the way we see it: that she is ignorant of the nail in her head and hasn’t tried removing it yet, or that she knows and just can’t make the connection. When the man offers his observation and suggested solution, he is not validating the way the woman feels, but trying to change her feelings to solve the problem. It is well-intentioned, of course. He wants her to be happier and feel better. But in the process, he’s not telling her that how she feels is understandable and okay. This lack of validation and acceptance creates emotional distance and dissatisfaction.
Karyn Hall, Ph.D. explains how to validate and discusses the importance of validation. It is a way to communicate acceptance and continued love. She clarifies that it is not about agreement or approval, or even understanding. There are various levels of validation to be used depending on the situation. The man in the video says, “that must be hard,” which is an appropriate level of validation for the situation. He could also add, “I’m sure other people would feel the same way,” or “I would feel the same way in your situation,” if either of those things are true. If he can’t personally relate to her experience, he doesn’t need to. He need only communicate that he hears her and accepts her feelings as valid. The article by Karyn Hall on Psychology Today is a really excellent source of ideas if you want to learn more about validation techniques.
After validating, the key to maintaining respect is to make sure the person wants help before offering it. I usually try to ask, “do you want me to give suggestions or just listen?” or “Do you need my help with this or do you have it under control?” That way I show my compassion and eagerness to help, but I don’t make any assumptions. I maintain respect for hir capabilities and insight while still showing support.
Exploring this as a gender dynamic is really interesting, because I observe emotional experience to be the largest difference between the two gender roles. Boys are often raised to be practical and seek solutions while ignoring and repressing every emotion except anger. They are told to “man up,” “deal with it,” or “get over it.” Sometimes girls are told the same things. It really depends on the parents and the environment. But often girls are allowed to cry and express feelings with quite a bit of freedom. The misguided efforts to masculinize women have made this more and more rare. When we say that “men and women are equal,” too often we mean “women are just as good and capable as men.” What about the other way around? What about the ability to experience and validate emotion? We shouldn’t be repressing that in women as a solution to gender equality; we should be encouraging it in everybody.
Historically women have been better at recognizing and expressing their feelings, but validation has never been easy. Once we moved past the condescending hug and pat on the head—the “it’s understandable because you’re only a woman” routine, as a culture we sort of stopped validating feelings altogether. The problem is, emotion is a really important part of the human experience and plays a huge role in relationships of all kinds.
As a culture, we focus a lot on changing our external experience—making more money, getting a better job, getting nicer things, having better friends—all the make ourselves feel better. In fact, most of American culture is about pleasure and convenience, “pursuing happiness.”
For those of us who have ever had a good cry—and I mean sobbing into the couch, convulsing, hiccuping—we know how good it can feel to release that kind of emotion. The satisfaction one gets from pounding a pillow or running around the house when one is angry is incredible. The expression of unpleasant emotions is often a means of solution in itself, or at least a way to escape its immediate effects and see the light at the end of the tunnel. Validation is also a way to make unpleasant emotions feel a little more pleasant. When we know we are not alone, that we aren’t failing at life because we’re upset, that our feelings don’t signify some deficiency, that we’re not stupid or wrong for feeling, emotions are much easier to cope with.
Imagine how much happier we would be as a nation and a culture if we could all learn to validate our own and each other’s emotions? Imagine how much respect and understanding would grow if each of us learned this small but very important skill.
- Why Is He Oblivious to Her Emotions? (psmag.com)
- I Feel Like… by Jessica Shattuck for Babble.com. | Babble (babble.com)
- Mars and Venus at Work (women2.com)
- Emotional Immaturity: The Big Mistake (howtokeepher.com)