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Validating Someone's Anger May Help Them Be More Positive, Study Finds

Young woman arguing with her mother at therapy.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study suggests that we should try validating, rather than invalidating, anger before exploring alternative solutions in a conversation with others.
  • When participants recounted an anger-provoking event, those who weren't validated in their angry emotions showed a decline in positive emotions. The participants who were met with support and understanding reported a steady rate in their positive moods.
  • You can take steps to validate the anger of those around you in your daily life.

When someone approaches us to rant or complain about a past event, how do we respond? The first instinct might be to minimize the issue or emotion. We might say: "What’s all the big fuss about, anyway?"

While minimization might be coming from a good place, a recent set of studies from The Ohio State University suggests that we should try validating, rather than invalidating, anger before exploring alternative solutions. The research was published in October in the Journal of Positive Psychology.

“A potentially important, yet understudied, aspect of interpersonal relationships is the process of feeling understood, cared for, and validated by another person,” the authors wrote. “These studies highlight the importance of validation as a communication strategy to buffer against decreases in positive affective experiences after a stressor.”

Researchers found that when participants recounted an anger-provoking event, those who weren't validated in their angry emotions showed a decline in positive emotions. The participants who were met with support and understanding reported steady positive moods.

What This Means For You

Next time a loved one is recounting an anger-provoking event in their life to you, take the time to respond with supportive statements and validate their anger. This can help them cope in the long run, and develop a healthier relationship with feelings of anger.

The Research

In a series of three experiments, researchers tested 307 undergraduate participants for changes in positive affect (PA) and negative affect (NA) after writing about and sharing stories of situations in which they felt angry. 

In the clinical world, positive affect (PA) is defined by emotions and behavior that allow us to stay open, curious, flexible, and connected, such as happiness and empathy. Negative affect (NA), on the other hand, narrows that aperture, such as in moments of anger, disgust, or sadness.

Participants ranged in age from 18 to 58. Slightly more were female, and the majority were White. They were randomized into two groups. Half were validated after sharing their stories, and the other half were invalidated.

Validators and invalidators used scripts to respond. Validating phrases included “Of course you’d be angry about that” or “I hear what you’re saying and I understand you feel angry.” Invalidating responses included “That doesn’t sound like anger” or “Why would that make you so angry?” It was hypothesized that invalidation would increase NA.

Researchers found that although invalidation did not increase NA, validation did increase PA after it had dipped while participants engaged in writing about a time when they were angry. At the same time, those who were invalidated did not see an increase in PA, and ended with a lower PA than when they started. There were times, too, when validation provided participants with a mood boost, or higher PA than when they began.

“These results suggest that validation could be used as a strategy to shift or boost mood after potentially stressful or painful events in one’s life, such as anger-provoking instances at work or in interpersonal relationships, while invalidation may hinder mood recovery after such events,” the authors wrote.

Addressing Anger

Maria Napoli, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor based in New York, finds that people often struggle with feelings of anger. “A lot of people haven't been validated on anger, [because] we are not supposed to demonstrate our negative emotions,” she tells Verywell. 

“It's been very clear how people have a lot of difficulty with anger—it's a secondary emotion,” Napoli says, meaning that it takes root in another emotion. “[So] when someone tells you ‘I’m upset about xyz,’ you say, ‘you have a right to be upset.’”

Napoli first validates her patients' anger but then encourages them to understand its roots. “'I say, yes, you get to be upset, but now let's explore where this anger comes from,'” she says. “Then, they start to become more comfortable with the emotions themselves.”

When it comes to validating anger, Brad Thomas, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York, tells Verywell the effect is powerful. "When we validate peoples' negative emotions, we're validating them,” Thomas says. “We're validating a piece of them that they've had negative reactions to."

Similarly to Napoli, Thomas finds that many who struggle with anger have a sense of shame around feeling the emotion. "Anger isn't problematic in and of itself,” he says. “Anger is only a problem when it's problematic—when it's interfering with things like personal relationships and work."

Pointing this out to clients helps not only to validate the emotion but to also understand themselves in a complex way. "We want to acknowledge all aspects of this human being," Thomas says. "I think it's important to really develop an integrated sense of self. That's what the validation piece does." When we stop splitting off the undesirable or shameful parts of ourselves, "we can start to teach ourselves with kindness and grace." 

How Your Childhood Factors In

For some, it may be difficult to access the causes of anger in part due to their childhood experiences. “The word 'angry' is more easily accessible—it comes from childhood,” Napoli says. “When we’re children, we don’t have all the words to express ourselves. When we’re feeling angry, we often just use the word.” And since anger is a secondary emotion, if we, as practitioners, family members, friends, or partners, make space to validate it, “you're able to explore a little bit further," Napoli says. "That helps people open their eyes and find out that they're embarrassed, ashamed, etc.”

Therapy is an ideal place to process and validate anger, but this study can have implications for daily life as well.

Napoli says that healthy processing of anger can start in childhood. She suggests adults help the child understand the situation and consequences, or why someone is angry, “so that they're not left in a conflict from within,” Napoli says. 

Let's say, for example, a child purposefully drops a glass. It shatters all over the floor and leaves a tricky, sharp mess for the guardians to clean up. Even though a first reaction might involve screaming or scolding, you can also follow these steps:

Approach them at their level, and use words they can understand. “We often use our language to show superiority, when in reality, we don't know if they're understanding us,” she says.

Explain the consequences of the situation. In the case of a dropped glass, you can use that simple language to tell them that we shouldn't purposefully drop and break glasses because it can hurt someone's feet.

Finally, the often skipped, but simple, last step: Teach the child how to summarize. If you ask a child if they understand you, “they'll say they understand, but they're often left in conflict," Napoli says. "We want them to repeat to us what they heard us say.”

How To Validate Others

A concern in validating anger, however, could be that it leads the individual to feel more justified in acting on it to cause harm. So, is there a "right" way to affirm anger?

"It's an important question," Thomas says. But for anyone who may be concerned about validating anger, he advises, "It's not a switch; it's a dial. It depends on what they're bringing in as a human being, and how emotionally balanced they are, to begin with." 

So, when talking with someone who is angry about another event they have going on in life, there are some simple do's and don'ts. 

You should avoid:

  • Triggering them. "Sometimes we know what buttons to push in people," Thomas says. Don't push them. it's not constructive. 
  • Matching their level of negativity.
  • Talking over them.

 Instead, you should:

  • Allow them to cool off.
  • Listen if they want to be listened to.
  • Affirm their experiences. You can use phrases such as those used in the study.
  • But above all, Thomas says, ask people what you can do. 

At the same time, if the anger becomes routine or personal, you can ask yourself what your role is. If it's an attack toward you, it might make more sense to walk away from the conversation. 

This recent study reminds us that validation of anger may seem so simple, yet can be crucial to helping someone bounce back from a past event. On the contrary, invalidation can lead to slower mood recovery—just more time feeling distressed as opposed to neutral or content. 

Napoli reminds us, too, of a simple question we can ask our loved ones in times of stress: After validating their anger, why not ask, “What do you need?” 

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  1. Benitez C, Howard K, Cheavens J. The effect of validation and invalidation on positive and negative affective experiencesJ Posit Psychol. 2020:1-13. doi:10.1080/17439760.2020.1832243

  2. Caldwell E. The power of validation in helping people stay positive. Ohio State News. December 14, 2020.