We are looking for qualified participants - apply today!

Validation and Limits in Relationships

Validation and Limits in Relationships, by Jordan Harmon

How do you validate someone in a relationship while maintaining your limits? Validation is a verbal expression of empathy or accurate listening/ perceiving. It stands in contrast to praise, advice, or sympathy. Validating someone’s feelings opens space for them to feel understood from their perspective.

“Validating the valid” is a phrase used to describe validation when much of the content coming from the other person is something we disagree with or don’t want to validate. Rather than getting into a power struggle or argument with the other person, we can validate the valid by finding the kernel of truth in the other person’s thoughts, emotions, or actions. Learning and practicing how to validate the valid can transform your relationship with your kids, your partner, and anyone that you have meaningful interactions with.

Examples of Validation vs Invalidation:

Validation Invalidation
Paying attention to someone (eye contact, putting the phone down, etc) Not paying attention to someone, not being present with them when they are talking to you
Accurate reflection of what they’re saying Inaccurate listening
“Mind reading” or hearing the emotion under what’s being said in a non-judgmental way  Assuming false intent. Hearing the other’s emotion in a “shouldn’t be feeling that” manner
Understanding the valid cause of the other’s experience. “Your experience makes sense based on what happened before”  Not taking into account the valid cause of the other’s experience 
Validating the experience based on the facts of the present situation. “It makes sense that you’re feeling this way. Anyone would be feeling this way given the situation”  Not taking into account the facts of the present situation when communicating about the other’s experience 
Treating the other person as a valued equal. Being authentic and compassionate.  Treating the other person as less than, not equal, or as more childlike or fragile than they are. 

Listen for the Underlying Emotion

Imagine a scenario in which your partner, child, or friend is talking about something that they’re frustrated about. It could be “I’m bored,” or “Why did you say that?” or any expression that initially elicits a reaction from you to give advice, give an excuse or engage in a back and forth argument that you know is not going to be helpful. In your chosen scenario, imagine that instead of doing what you’ve done before, you try to hear underneath the other person’s words. It doesn’t matter if you agree with them or not. Ask yourself, “What is the emotion or effect they’re experiencing?” Emotions are valid whether or not they fit the facts. Emotions exist—simply hearing them and reflecting that they are present can do a lot to help the other person feel listened to. You can do this without giving up your own limits or boundaries.

We can validate the emotion by saying, “I can hear that you’re feeling bored—I know what that’s like. It’s not fun,” or “I can tell that you’re frustrated,” or ”If I were in your shoes, I might be feeling the same way.”

Validate Their Feelings While Observing Your Limits

While validating the validity of someone else’s experience, make sure that you don’t surrender your own limits. Limits are another term for boundaries. The term “limits” points to the idea that limits are flexible rather than fixed. They change depending on a variety of contextual factors.

Some people struggle to identify their limits. They may not know what their limits are and how to observe them. Here are some ways to know if you are not observing your limits:

  • You feel exhausted by someone 
  • You feel disrespected by someone
  • You feel like you are being taken advantage of
  • You say “yes” to someone, agree with them, or do something for them but feel more resentful toward them afterward

Observing your limits means communicating clearly and honestly to someone instead of telling them what you think they want to hear. It requires you to practice saying “no” to things when your body, mind, and soul is telling you no. Sometimes we can extend our limits when it matches our values and is effective; however, extending our limits too long will lead to burnout and resentment.

A man sits looking at someone who has placed their arms on his shoulders

Balancing validating the valid AND observing limits is powerful. The “AND” in the middle is vital. Sometimes when we validate someone and want to express our limits or our differing perspective, we use “but” instead of “and.” This tends to cancel out the understanding and validation and leads to more power struggles or back and forth.

Practical Example of Validating Feelings within Limits

Imagine a couple that is ready for bed. The husband wants to talk about something related to the relationship. The wife is feeling tired and worn out and not up to having a discussion at the moment, while at the same time she knows it’s important to her husband. Notice the possible responses:

  1. Wife agrees to have the discussion even though she is feeling too tired. The discussion doesn’t go well and both end up feeling more frustrated and resentful than before. (validating the other without observing limits)
  2. Wife says, “No way! Do you realize what time it is?” She sleeps well, but husband is frustrated and resentful. (Observing limits without validating the other) 
  3. Wife tries validation BUT limits. “I know that this is an important thing for us to discuss, but I’m WAY too tired right now. Do you really want to have this discussion now?” (Validating the other BUT then invalidating the other with limits)
  4. Wife tries validation AND limits. “I know that this is an important thing for us to discuss, and I’m wondering if we can set aside a time to talk tomorrow. I really feel that I won’t be effective right now in the conversation, and I want to be able to have it be a productive conversation where we both feel heard and understand each other.” (Validating the other and validating the self through observing limits).

The principle of using the “AND” instead of the “BUT” can also be thought of as a paradigm shift moving from a debate orientation to a dialogue orientation.

PRactice and Be Patient with Yourself

Really, there is no perfect way to do this kind of stuff. We will all mess up and be frustrated, so patience with self and other is of utmost importance.

Validating another’s feelings while observing limits is a powerful way to hold the dialectical pairs of empathy and assertiveness. You can balance connecting with other people while also maintaining your self-respect in relationships. Balancing these ways of being in relationships is not easy, and it’s okay to mess up.

Practice is the key! Practice with your family, in your social media interactions, and especially practice with people you disagree with. Notice the impact it has.

Validation and Limits – Harmon Psychotherapy & Consulting

Jordan Harmon, LCSW


Jordan has been a therapist for over 10 years in Utah and Salt Lake counties. He considers himself a “compassionate behaviorist” and a client-centered therapist. Jordan’s specialties include DBT, EMDR, ACT, behavioral activation, family therapy, and parent coaching. He has worked primarily with young adults suffering from mental health and substance abuse struggles. 

If you or anyone you know is facing mental health challenges and needs support, we can help you.

You can share how you’re feeling or about your experience, or apply to our subsidized therapy program.

One thought on “Validation and Limits in Relationships

Comments are closed.