I haven’t updated the blog in a while, but I wanted to write about an amazing TED Talk by a woman called Naomi Feil.
Feil works with older people with dementia. She talks about how empathy can improve the lives of even the most disorientated and withdrawn of her patients.
She differentiates empathy from being “positive” (which is often more akin to denial) or trying to distract a person from their distress. She instead focuses on how putting yourself in someone else’s shoes (without trying to cheer them up, fix or change them) creates a connection that “builds trust, reduces anxiety and restores dignity”.
She calls her approach Validation.
Validation is not about trying to change someone or their situation, nor is it about looking for the silver lining. These things might be side effects of Validation, but they are not the main goal.
If they are the main goal, there’s a good chance that they will block empathy and connection and end up making the person feel worse (invalidated and alienated).
Despite Feil’s focus on people with dementia, I think her explorations in empathy are valuable for all human beings in general, and are particularly pertinent for those of us with chronic illnesses.
Adapted for us, they could perhaps read something like this:
- All chronically ill people are unique and worthwhile.
- We accept our members as they are. We do not try to change them.
- We believe that listening with empathy builds trust, reduces anxiety and restores dignity.
- We believe that painful feelings will diminish if they are expressed, acknowledged and validated by a trusted listener. Painful feelings that are ignored or suppressed will become yet more painful;
- We all have basic human needs. These needs include:
The need to restore a sense of equilibrium despite living with chronic illness;
The need to make sense out of an unbearable reality;
The need to find a place that feels comfortable, where one feels in order or in harmony, and where relationships are familiar;
The need for recognition, status, identity and self worth;
The need to be useful and productive;
The need to be listened to and respected;
The need to express feelings and be heard;
The need to be loved and to belong;
The need for human contact;
The need to be nurtured, to feel safe and secure, rather than immobilized and restrained;
The need for sensory stimulation;
The need to reduce pain and discomfort.
I would also add to this list the need to not be confined to the house and to have support outside the home. Perhaps even the need to laugh and have fun.
The needs of disabled people are often called special needs, but this is misleading. Disabled people have the same needs as everybody else. It is just how we access (or struggle to access) those needs that might be different.
Because Validation is not about treating, changing, or curing people, it is not a therapy.
It is more of a philosophy in action.
Chill doesn’t provide therapies, but being among people who understand you is undeniably therapeutic if you are suffering. Furthermore, friendship and friends can resolve some psychological issues that therapies and therapists cannot.
Friendship changes lives.