What should you say to a friend who is going through a tough time?
We ran a study with 148 participants, to find out what people want to hear from their friends and loved ones when they’re going through a period of struggle. The results show that it’s very common to want to have one’s feelings validated. About 45% of respondents said they wanted emotional validation when describing a tough situation, with about 35% of respondents saying they give it when a friend describes a tough situation to them:
But how do you do that? Well, let’s start with what not to do.
How NOT to validate someone’s feelings
You’ve probably heard of gaslighting, a manipulative tactic whereby someone makes another person question their senses or their sanity, often causing psychological distress. For instance, if someone constantly tells you that events you clearly remember never happened, they might be gaslighting you.
But did you know that there's a less-recognized, opposite behavior that can also cause major problems, and which people sometimes do when they're attempting to validate feelings? As far as we know, it has no name, but Clearer Thinking founder Spencer Greenberg has coined a term for it: "lightgassing."
In essence, lightgassing is when someone validates or agrees with another's misconceptions or false beliefs in a bid to be supportive. Unlike the malicious intent behind gaslighting, lightgassing is often a well-meaning, and therefore unintentionally harmful, tactic of friends and supporters.
Here are some examples of common statements that, when they are not justified, can count as lightgassing:
Justification: "It was reasonable for you to do X because the other person made you feel bad." (Even though X was really harmful.)
Absolution: "You did nothing wrong. It was totally the other person's fault.” (Even though the blame was actually split between both parties.)
Emotional reasoning: “You’re angry at them, so they clearly did something wrong.” (Even though it might not be justified anger.)
Ideally, when someone you care about is upset, you should validate their feelings and help them feel heard and understood, but do so without agreeing with statements that you know to be false or that rely on bad reasoning.
We do a disservice to people when we encourage them to believe false things.
Most people value truth-telling and knowing the truth. Indeed, our studies have found that it is more common to report intrinsically valuing "believing true rather than false things" even than "being happy" (and the former is viewed as more important, on average, than the latter). By avoiding lightgassing, we respect and stay truer to these values.
The problem of lightgassing reveals how hard it can be to validate people’s feelings effectively; doing so requires a delicate balance so that you are not being unsupportive and also not being unduly oversupportive. In this email, we’re going to equip you with some ideas and advice that will help you find that balance.
Finding the Balance
The challenge is in finding a way to validate feelings and true beliefs without validating false beliefs, while still listening with openness and empathy. This can be a tricky maneuver, which might be one reason why many people are tempted to lightgas.
Of course, sometimes, it won’t be clear whether your friend or loved one’s beliefs are true or not. Perhaps because the only things you know about the situation are what they have told you while upset. In such cases, it is usually best to start with the charitable assumption that what they have described is an accurate representation of what they experienced (unless any reason to doubt it emerges).
And, in cases where you have reason to doubt the truth of their beliefs, it won’t always be helpful (and might often be unhelpful!) to challenge them in the heat of emotion when they are sad or upset. So, avoiding lightgassing will often initially involve simply not validating/agreeing with what you believe is false.
Later, when the person is feeling better, if they ask for your opinion on the facts (or if you feel it’s important for them to hear your opinion) you can tell them what you believe to be true at that point, keeping in mind whether this is appropriate given your relationship with them.
Beyond Ordinary Circumstances
Lightgassing typically happens in ordinary situations where someone feels hurt or upset. But it is useful to think about how it manfiests in extreme situations, to understand why it happens and also, how to skillfully avoid doing it.
To that end, suppose you're trying to help someone who is feeling upset due to severe delusions caused by psychosis.
The path of least resistance is likely going to be to lightgas them by agreeing with their delusions, but this is probably not in their own interest, long-term. On the other hand, if you invalidate their emotions, you might make them more upset and may lose their trust. This means there’s a tightrope to walk: you want to help them feel cared about, listened to, empathized with, and understood, without saying that their delusions are reality. In other words, the goal is to avoid lightgassing them while also not causing them to feel gaslit!
(Of course, every individual and situation is unique. If you or someone you know is facing challenges with psychosis or related concerns, it's essential to seek guidance from a mental health professional.)
You might wonder: “Does lightgassing need a unique term? Isn't it just a form of enabling?” Well, lightgassing can be type of enabling, much like gaslighting is typically a form of manipulation. But lightgassing is much more specific than enabling, and enabling can include lots of things that are not lightgassing (e.g., buying an alcoholic alcohol is a form of enabling, but it's not lightgassing). Having a more specific term (lightgassing) makes it easier to spot and communicate about this specific pattern of behavior.
How to validate someone’s feelings
We've talked about what to avoid when you're emotionally validating someone. But that raises the obvious question: how can you do it well?
The main difference between the healthy validation of emotions and the unhealthy version is that the healthy version is based on genuine compassion, caring, authenticity, honesty, and interest in the other person's experience. The unhealthy version, on the other hand, involves a willingness to sacrifice those things in an attempt to make the other person immediately feel good.
At a more detailed level, we like the following framework for healthily validating other people's feelings:
Healthy Emotional Validation Involves:
Care: Caring about the person whose emotions you are validating
Willingness: Being totally okay with them feeling those emotions right now and in front of you.
Acceptance: Not thinking badly of them for feeling what they are feeling
Interest: Being interested in learning more about what they are feeling and why they are feeling it.
Compassion: Having compassion and/or empathy for their unwanted suffering and wanting them not to experience more unwanted suffering (keeping in mind that sometimes people want to experience painful emotions for a period of time, such as after a significant loss, when such emotions feel appropriate).
Understanding of facts: Understanding the facts of what happened in the relevant situation (and, if you don't understand, asking open ended questions in an effort to understand it).
Understanding of feelings: Understanding why they're feeling this way (and, if you don't understand, making an effort to understand it).
Legitimization of feelings: Seeing it as totally reasonable that their combination of situation, beliefs about their situation, thoughts, and past experiences causes them to feel this way right now (and, if you don't, making an effort to understand why their experiences led to these feelings).
While some of this is helpful to say aloud when a friend or loved one is upset, much of it will typically be expressed through body language, attention, attitude, presence, tone of voice, and so on. The main thing is that these ideas get expressed in a way that the other person receives them, whether that expression is verbal or non-verbal, explicit or implicit.
To summarize: when people are hurting, they often want emotional validation. When giving it, avoid lightgassing the other person, and go into the conversation, as much as you can, with genuine compassion, caring, authenticity, honesty, and interest in the other person's experience. Don't sacrifice these things just to help make the other person feel better temporarily.
If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the topic of communicating with people who are hurting, you might enjoy reading our articles:
Or you might enjoy our tool that teaches kind and effective communication: