Skinny Hobbit from Growing Into Myself recently did a post that contained this Youtube video. The video is about supporting someone who is grieving, but it’s a powerful message about validation in general, which is what inspired this post.
Many of us have chosen to blog because there are difficult experiences that we’re dealing with. We look for various things out of blogging, like self-expression, seeing we’re not alone, or connecting with others.
So, here we are in a community, with our various experiences and motivating factors. How do we go about being supportive to others?
First let’s take a quick look at some relevant definitions, courtesy of Google:
- Empathy: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”
- Sympathy: “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune”
- Pity: “the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others” (note: the dictionary definition doesn’t have the negative connotations often associated with the word)
- Compassion: “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others”
- Affirmation: “emotional support or encouragement“
- Validation: “recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile”
Within the mental health blogging community, I think empathy is an important benefit for many of us. Even though our experiences aren’t exactly the same, chances are fairly good that at least some people will be able to really “get it.”
While the dictionary definitions of sympathy, pity, and compassion are similar, I’m going to talk about compassion, since I think it’s the best fit here. I suspect most of us don’t consider compassion in and of itself to be a major goal of blogging. Compassion without empathy is fairly distant; if someone feels bad for our problems but doesn’t demonstrate any understanding of how those problems make us feel, that’s probably not going to be all that helpful.
Sometimes, compassion will manifest as advice-giving. The advice-giver makes suggestions that they think will improve the other person’s situation or eliminate the problem(s) entirely. This can be tricky, especially if the advice was not asked for. There is the risk that advice will come across as minimizing or dismissing the problems that the person is experiencing. This is particularly true if the advice-giver doesn’t have a strong empathetic understanding of how the person is feeling, or if they don’t know the blogger or the situation all that well.
Occasionally, I’ll get comments from people who’ve never visited my blog before giving me advice. The advice is totally unhelpful, which isn’t surprising given that they didn’t know me from a hole in the ground. A while back, there was a blogger who kept telling me that I didn’t need meds, I needed a keto diet to fix my depression. I got sufficiently annoyed that I blacklisted her from commenting.
When it comes to affirmations, I think the success depends on how they’re pitched in relation to where the person is currently at. This probably has a lot to do with self-verification theory. For some people, affirmations of any kind can be helpful, but not everyone reacts that way. Affirmations pitched too high above someone’s present state can come across as dismissive or unrealistic.
If a blogger said “I hate myself” and I responded “you’re a wonderful person,” that’s a pretty big spread between where they are and where I’m aiming. If instead I were to say “for what it’s worth, I think you’re a good person,” that narrows the gap and also shows I’m speaking for myself rather than assuming I know what the world in general thinks.
That brings us to validation. Validation is not agreeing, nor is it encouraging someone to stay wherever they might be stuck. It’s allowing them to feel however they happen to be feeling, and not making assumptions about what they should or shouldn’t be doing. It’s sitting beside someone rather than trying to pull them in a particular direction.
We live in a society where we’re bombarded by shoulds, and there are a lot of “should nots” around emotional expression, especially when it’s men doing the expressing. When someone asks us how we are, it’s expected that our response will be at least “fine”, although preferably more positive than that.
When this is what we face “in real life,” there can be huge value in coming to the blogosphere and letting it all out, knowing that it’s okay to not be okay.
Meeting each other where we are
Sometimes there will be mismatched approaches. My sole “in real life” friend is a compassion-driven fixer. I find fixing very invalidating, as it feels like it brushes aside whatever it is I happen to be feeling. He’s made a lot of progress in being more validating; it’s still a bit awkward, but it’s working a lot better.
I think most of us in the blogosphere want to support each other as best we can. Yes, there will be some mismatches, and that’s okay. But if we can try to appreciate one another’s good intentions and recognize that others won’t necessarily interpret our messages in the way we intended them, then I think we can all manage to muddle through somehow.
Is there a particular type of support that you tend to be looking for the most within the blogging community?
Embrace Acceptance: A Guided Journal draws on concepts from acceptance and commitment therapy to help you move towards a place of greater acceptance. It’s available from the MH@H Download Centre.