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December 10, 2008 > Counseling Corner: Best Gift You Could Give - And It's Free

Counseling Corner: Best Gift You Could Give - And It's Free

By Anne Chan, PhD, MFT

There's a gift that everyone can give to anyone that would be one of the most, perhaps the most meaningful gift ever received. It's one of the greatest gifts you can give to your partner, your children, and to your friends. It doesn't cost a dime and it's the gift that keeps on giving. You don't even have to brave the crowds at NewPark or the Great Mall to get it.

I call it the gift of emotional validation. Stop and think about it - how often has someone stopped to listen, really listen to you, and affirm your feelings? It's not just about listening, although listening is the first part. It's also about validating feelings, telling them they have a right to their own feelings; that it's okay for them to feel what they feel. It's a gift of understanding, compassion, humanity, validation and kindness all rolled in one.

One family turned this gift into a cherished Christmas tradition. Instead of exchanging presents, this family sits down at Christmas and each of them takes turns to tell what's been going on in their lives and how they're feeling. This tradition is truly in the spirit of giving because each member is given the gift of being listened to, of being supported, of being emotionally validated. Each person's story is heard and affirmed. No one interrupts, judges, or shuts the speaker down. Each person is given undivided attention. This practice may seem like an unorthodox present, but it has drawn this family closer than could possibly be imagined.

It takes a big heart, an open mind and a generous spirit to give the gift of emotional validation. This is why it's a precious gift, but not an easy one to give.

Sadly, not too many people are up for the challenge of giving emotional validation. Most of the time, we tend to invalidate each other's feelings, in little and big ways. Instead, we quickly chime in with our thoughts, own experiences, and suggestions - we don't wait to listen, to witness a person's internal reality.

But ignoring or negating someone's reality is tantamount to emotional violence. Here are some ways people deny another person's reality:
* When someone goes through a tough breakup and friends tell her to forget the boyfriend and stop moaning about it
* When a partner is upset and the other partner refuses to listen or gets angry and demands to have their side heard instead.
* When a parent tells a child to stop being a crybaby when the child is upset.
* When a parent is too busy talking on the cell phone or texting to listen to their child's recounting of something big that happened to them.
* When a parent or spouse refuses to listen to a person's dreams.

We're not even very good at validating our own feelings. How often have you swallowed your true feelings, pretended everything is okay, and acted like everything is fine when you're suffering inside? We even have phrases like "Keep your chin up," or "Maintain a stiff upper lip," to talk ourselves into pretending we don't have certain feelings.

I once had the opportunity to work with an exceptional teenager a few years ago (I've changed some of the details to protect his identity). He had everything going for him - brains, good looks, and a winning personality. But for some reason, he was hanging out with the "wrong" crowd and getting into a lot of trouble in school. Panicked, his parents immediately brought him in for counseling. Josh (not his real name) said he loved his parents, but reported they were always busy working long hours at the family restaurant. Most of the time he spent with them was at the restaurant, where 99% of their interactions had to do with work tasks. His parents would say, "Josh can you do this?" or "Josh, clean this table" or "Josh, serve Table 10" but they never thought to say "Josh, how are you doing?" Josh's parents weren't bad parents; they were just busy trying to provide for the family and to keep their business afloat.

When the end of the year drew near, I asked Josh what he would most like from his parents. He had been talking nonstop about the latest and greatest snowboard, so I had half-expected him to launch into a long list of the snowboarding gear. But his answer stunned me. "I wish they'd just listen," he said simply, "Just listen to me and be interested in what my life is like. Don't give me advice too quickly; don't nag me, just listen."

It struck me that Josh did not want a snowboard, cool gear, gifts, or even money. All he wanted was to have the gift of having his parents listen to him and understand his reality. I thought it was pretty cool that an all-American 21st century teenager, steeped in our consumer culture, named listening as the gift that means the most to him.

Sure, the latest iPhone or bling-bling is wonderful to receive, but these things do not satiate our emotional hunger. Deep down, we all want to be validated, to know we are okay, to know our feelings are okay. This is especially true when we are in our most painful moments, when things are not okay.

When you think about it, a truly wonderful gift is to tell someone they have a right to their feelings and to acknowledge the feelings they have. I wish you and your loved ones many happy returns this holiday season and that you get the gifts that fulfill your heart's deepest desire. Happy Holidays, everyone!

Anne Chan is a career counselor and licensed psychotherapist in Union City. She specializes in helping people find maximum satisfaction in their careers and relationships. She can be reached at achan@midlabs.com or 510-744-1781.

(c) Anne Chan, 2008.

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