Two important and popular tools that promote emotional well-being are emotional validation and gratitude. Sometimes these two tools can appear contradictory.
Imagine a college graduate who applies to a few jobs. Their first choice is a dream job that is exactly in their field of interest, aligns with their values and is a 15-minute walk away from home. Their last choice is one that is barely connected to their interests and an hour of commute away, in addition to being at a company that does not have the best reputation in terms of organizational culture. Let’s say this person only receives an offer from their last choice and shares the news with family and friends. Some of them might say something like: “Oh this is so frustrating and disappointing, it seems like it won’t be easy to work there” (i.e., emotional validation). And some might say: “Wow, look at the bright side, congratulations, you still got a job and imagine all the reading you can get done on the commute!” (i.e., gratitude).
Which one is the helpful response? Are they incongruent? Should we choose only one? Let’s dig deeper.
We validate our emotions when we recognize them as acceptable and valid in response to a situation whereas we invalidate our emotions when we judge or reject them. We can validate our emotions by normalizing them and giving ourselves permission to experience them. Saying phrases like “I am allowed to feel this way” and “My emotions are legitimate and they make sense” are examples of emotional validation. Validating our emotions is an important part of accepting those emotions and regulating them, skills which predict many positive outcomes such as better psychological and physical well-being, more positive social interactions and relationships, as well as increased performance in important life domains (Check out Candace Kensley’s blog post “Validation” for more on the power of emotional validation and how to use it effectively).
Being grateful means recognizing and appreciating different aspects of your life, such as your health, your support system, your job, specific experiences, etc. For example, you can feel grateful for a great walk you had in the park or for having loving and caring family and friends. Just like emotional validation, gratitude is also associated with a multitude of similar and positive outcomes such as improved emotional regulation, better sleep, an increase in positive emotions such as happiness and hope, a decrease in negative emotions such as stress, and healthier relationships. You might already be familiar with many gratitude practices that are increasingly gaining popularity, such as writing down 3 things you are grateful for when waking up/before going to sleep or gratitude meditations. Another powerful gratitude practice, described in the podcast episode, “How to Practice Gratitude When You’re Not Feeling Thankful” by the Science of Happiness involves imagining losing something you treasure in order to increase your feeling of gratitude towards it (See Andrea Martin’s blog post “What’s the Big Deal About Gratitude?” to learn more about the concept of gratitude, its benefits and how to incorporate it in your daily life).
Can we be too grateful? Overuse or misuse this strategy? Maybe you have heard of something called toxic positivity.
Toxic Positivity (or Forced Gratitude?)
Toxic positivity involves focusing only on the positive aspects of a situation while denying its negative sides. Sayings such as “Good vibes only”, “Look at the bright side”, “You attract what you think, so just think positively”, and “People have it worse than you” can promote toxic positivity.
What happens if we say these things to ourselves (or hear them from others)? We deny our own experiences and invalidate our feelings which can harm our relationship with ourselves. Engaging in toxic positivity towards our loved ones can also make them feel misunderstood and rejected. In addition, dismissing and not speaking of negative feelings or aspects of our experience can prevent us from being assertive and resolving conflicts with our loved ones.
We have all “forced” ourselves to be grateful or encouraged others to do so at some moments. Although this practice can be “toxic”, it usually stems from good intentions. We might want to fix the problem, reduce negative emotions, or we might just be practicing what we have learned in our own upbringing.
A Both/And Approach?
Coming back to the example of the college graduate, what should they do? Internalize the emotional validation voice or the gratitude voice coming from friends and family? Focus on the glass half empty or half full?
While emotional validation and gratitude can sometimes seem incompatible, focusing too much on one without considering the other misrepresents our complex and nuanced human experience. We can both empathize with our negative feelings and be grateful for the positive aspects of our experiences. However, the order in which we use them is important. For example, the college student might benefit from validating the frustration and disappointment first and grieving the loss of their first choice before making space for feelings of gratitude and satisfaction around the job offer. Validation Firstand Gratitude Second. And maybe combining these two powerful tools might look different for each person. For instance, some might prefer to practice gratitude before emotional validation or go back and forth between the two.
As human beings, we rarely experience only positive or negative feelings about what happens to us. Therefore, developing the capacity to hold on to and accept contradictory feelings about situations, ourselves and others can allow us to have a more authentic experience, heal and accept ourselves more.
I would like to invite you to reflect on your own experience with emotional validation and gratitude. Think about situations in your life and how you usually respond to them. Does one approach come more naturally to you? Do you find one more helpful than the other? Where do you think you might have learned that? If one is harder to access than the other, what would help you find a delicate balance between the two?