Invalidating feelings invalidates a friend

To be a good friend, you might have to go against a natural instinct — wanting your friend to be continuously happy.

“Don’t get mad!” “Oh, don’t cry!” “It’s OK.” As friends, we say and hear these phrases all the time because we want our friends to always be happy, just like they want the same for us. But lately, I’ve learned that sometimes these phrases have the opposite effect of what we want.

The 2019 bestseller, “Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves and Our Society Thrive” by the founding director of the Yale center of emotional intelligence Marc Brackett really touches on this. Through Brackett’s book, I have come to understand that although the intention behind trying to lighten your friend’s heavy emotion is sweet, it is actually detrimental to the way they process their emotions. Instead, what Brackett encourages us to do is permit ourselves to feel emotions other than happiness, accept the permission to feel for ourselves, and then extend understanding that we need to give that permission to those closest to us in life as well.

“Permission to Feel” emphasizes the RULER method to help people process their feelings, and I have to say that although it’s not easy at first, it really changes the game in how I live my life, especially in how I seek to understand and process my emotions instead of burying them. The first “R” stands for recognizing emotion in self and others. “U” is for understanding the causes and consequences of emotions. “L” is for labeling emotions accurately. “E” is for expressing emotions appropriately. Finally, the last “R” is for regulating emotions effectively.

Imagine putting in the work to practice RULER and to express when you’re feeling upset in a society that tells most of us that feeling is the last thing we should do in our “rational” lives. Then your friend (trying to be helpful) says “Oh, it’s OK. … It’s really alright.” While the intention here is meant to be kind, in reality, it just inhibits the RULER approach and ultimately perpetuates the societal standard that we should be ashamed of our emotions.

So, the next time a friend casually expresses a negative emotion, let’s remember that before immediately invalidating their feelings (therefore their current state of mind) our best course of action to be supportive of them is to actually say “Oh my goodness, that sucks. I’m so sorry that you are dealing with that” (or your own version of this). It is certainly not easy to remember to do so when it is so ingrained in us that we should all put negative emotions aside.

We want our friends to be happy, so immediately working to cheer them up after an expression of frustration is a noble calling. However, per “Permission to Feel,” we as friends must recognize that in a moment of negative expression, we must validate our peers by acknowledging that their sentiments, regardless of their seemed importance, are a significant part of their lived experience.

Nobody’s perfect, and even after reading “Permission to Feel,” I still find myself saying, “Don’t be mad — it’s fine,” and then correcting myself with, “Please be mad if that’s how you’re feeling — I’m not in the business of telling you how to feel!” Although it takes work, if we can normalize the use of the RULER approach from “Permission to Feel,” we can all be better friends to one another.