Acceptance and Change: Dr. Aarika V. White on the Role of Validation in DBT
Taking action to improve our mental health can be difficult. On top of the emotional work needed to change our thoughts and behaviors, we might also struggle with the feeling that other people don’t understand us. We might feel like our family, our friends, and even our therapists only want to make us change and don’t actually accept us for who we are.
Dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, is a type of psychological therapy that aims to counteract these feelings. Created by psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan in the 1980s, DBT is a modified form of cognitive behavioral therapy that emphasizes the importance of both acceptance and change in the therapy process. In DBT sessions, clients work not only to change harmful thoughts and behaviors they may have, but also to accept the benefits of doing so.
Of course, it’s easier for someone to accept that they must change their behaviors if they feel accepted by others in turn. This is why validation is an important part of DBT. Early in her development of the model, Dr. Linehan discovered that her clients who were most resistant to therapy were also raised in environments that were highly invalidating.
To better understand the role that validation plays in DBT, we spoke with Dr. Aarika V. White, a psychologist at Cummins who uses DBT as her theoretical framework. She breaks validation into two main categories: validation from the therapist and self-validation from the client.
Accepting the Value of Therapy
Aarika V. White, Ph.D.
One of the core tenets of DBT is that the client must accept that they need help. Uncooperative clients are unlikely to put in the emotional work that’s asked of them, which diminishes the effectiveness of treatment. The client must believe that therapy is the best option for them, and this is best achieved through validation.
According to Dr. White, validation is extremely important but sometimes misunderstood. “Sometimes people think giving validation means they have to tell the other person that they’re right,” she says. “That’s not what validation is. Validation is saying, ‘I can understand where you’re coming from. I can look at it from your point of view and see why you might have responded the way you responded, or why you might have had the interpretation you had.’ “
DBT aims to make the therapist an ally in the client’s treatment rather than an adversary. Using validation as a tool, the therapist builds trust with the client by acknowledging their thoughts and behaviors, but they also point out how changing these thoughts and behaviors can be beneficial. This dynamic can ultimately convince a resistant client to buy into treatment, as Dr. White explains:
“When you’re working with a client in a therapy setting, validation is one of the most important ways to ‘soften’ their attitude and get them in a headspace where they can hear what you’re trying to teach them. If a client comes in and they’re upset, angry or hurt because they’re not feeling validated, either by someone else or by the therapist, the skills work is not going to be effective because they’re not going to be able to hear what the therapist or the skills trainer is saying to them.”
Accepting the Value of Our Disorder
Even a disorderly and chaotic painting can seem beautiful from the right perspective.
Validation is crucial not only for convincing the client to engage with therapy—it’s also necessary for helping them accept their mental disorder or condition.
Due to the stigma surrounding mental illness, people who have mental health issues may believe something is wrong with them. Therapy models that focus solely on changing behaviors can inadvertently increase feelings of shame and guilt among some clients. “This is why Dr. Linehan created DBT,” Dr. White says. “People were getting the message that they were flawed, because they were being told, ‘Change your thinking, change your behavior, and your life will get better.’ She realized she needed to help them understand that they are the way they are for a reason, and that’s not wrong. They have to be able to accept who they are and why they are that way, otherwise they’re going to spend all their energy fighting it.”
If the therapist validates a client’s experience about their mental health and also helps them reframe these thoughts more positively, they can begin to erode the stigma the client feels. This can counteract feelings of denial or self-pity that prevent clients from making therapeutic progress, ultimately increasing the chances that they will embrace change.
As Dr. White says, “That’s where validation turns to self-validation. When you can remove that layer of worry, shame, embarrassment, or whatever comes with the client’s condition, then you can start to see more effective change.”
DBT skills training is one of the many services provided by Cummins Behavioral Health Systems. Our licensed therapists can help you with a variety of mental health needs, from psychiatric assessment to substance use treatment and crisis intervention. Please visit our services page to learn all the ways we can help!
Want to learn more coping skills for managing your mental health? Check out a few of our other posts below!