You Can (In)Validate Me

“Only you can validate yourself,” says the group therapist to a member of the support group who has just shared that he feels unworthy. She looks at him and asks insistently: “Can you say: ‘I am worthy’, ‘I am enough’?” He responds that he cannot right now. She asks again and he is uncomfortably silent, so she tells him: “you are worthy”, “you are enough”.

What I see her doing is shining a light on his darkness to let him know that even if he cannot see his worth in the dark of his current despair, she sees his worth. She does for him what he cannot do for himself at the moment, she affirms that he is worthy of love and care.

I speak up to reinforce the message of worth. I step in to witness his grief and despair and to also let him know that while I think he is worthy, I also believe it is okay for him not to see his own worth right now. “I’ve been there before”, I tell him. In my moments of despair when I didn’t see my own worth, I didn’t want anyone forcing me to say anything, even an affirmation. In that moment of despair, what I wanted was for someone to bear witness to the validity of my pain and to make me feel that it is okay for me to feel low at this moment. I needed to know that it was okay for me not to have a light to shine on myself.

“I find it invalidating to be told to affirm myself”, I continued. “It feels like I’m being told that how I feel in this moment is incorrect and that is not what I want to hear. I find it condescending and it triggers my sense of powerlessness.”

I say these words to him because I feel like I can sense his isolation while the figure of authority coaxes him into saying something he doesn’t feel. The rest of us watching the uncomfortable exchange in silence only adds to the pressure to comply with something that doesn’t feel right.

The therapist had just finished showing us a video on how trying to make someone feel better when they are feeling down by saying things like “It will be alright” or “Try looking at it from this point of view” only makes them put up a wall between you and them. My experience has been exactly that. When someone tries to make me feel better against my will, it makes me defensive. It makes me put up a wall. I felt like I was witnessing that happening in front of me and I wanted to intervene in support of my wounded brother.

But that’s not the only thing I felt like I was witnessing.

I feel like the philosophy of “only you can affirm yourself” is harmful and contradictory. I am literally participating in an affirmation circle — where part of the process is to explicitly affirm others — being told that only I can affirm ourselves. If only I can affirm myself then WTF am I doing in this group and why TF are we being told to affirm everyone else?! We are being told to mistrust our own perceptions. The reason we’re all in this group is because of course I can’t affirm myself! That truth needs to be communicated.

My low self-image isn’t a product of me being born thinking I’m worthless. It is the product of persistent and pervasive disaffirmations from other people that taught me not to trust my own sense of self-worth. If everyone I know or interact with continues to tell me I’m a piece of shit, no amount of self-affirming talk is going to be enough to make me believe that everyone else is a liar and only I am right.

I recognize that I need other people to affirm me to make me start to believe in myself, just like I needed other people to disaffirm me to make me doubt myself. The danger I see with telling someone that only you can affirm yourself is that it doesn’t let them know that perhaps the only way to get better is to get rid of the disaffirming people in your life and replace them with people who do affirm you. It disconnects cause from effect so that you cannot remedy the cause. If only I can affirm myself then only I am responsible for how I feel and that is simply not true. It also puts an extra burden on me that I shouldn’t have to carry.

If I want to build myself up at the very least I need to get rid of the people tearing me down, because others can tear you down, and even if you spend time building yourself up, if 10 people are tearing you down you’re not going to be able to keep up.

For me to build a better life for myself, I need to recognize the influence that others have on my life including their ability to help me rise, and much like an Amish barn-raising, more (good) hands make for lighter work.

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The world's most intersectional man.

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