Validation is to Approval as Empathy is to Sympathy
There’s a lot written about the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is standing beside someone, sympathy is looking on.
If I express empathy, I’m letting you know that I “get” how you’re feeling. I’m not attempting to fix it. I’m standing beside you in it because I know where that is. If you have just suffered a loss, empathy might sounds like, “Wow, that’s a tough loss. Can I get you a chair?”
If I express sympathy, I’m standing at a distance looking on. I can see that you’re suffering but I don’t directly relate. If you have just suffered a loss, sympathy might sound like, “I feel so badly for you. You should sit down.”
Sympathy can be a very uncomfortable experience and, if I’m not careful, I might attempt to solve your issue or shut it down as a way to resolve my discomfort. When I’m feeling empathetic, I know it’s not mine to solve. On the receiving end, sympathy can feel a lot like well-meaning people asking me to make it better for them, while empathy feels soothing and safe, like I’m not alone.
It’s the same kind of thing for validation vs approval. If I validate your experience or opinion, I’m letting you know that I see where you are, I “get” how you’re thinking. I don’t have to agree with you. It’s not up to me to decide how you should see an experience or what opinion you should hold. I serve only as a witness. This is a very soothing experience to be on the receiving end of.
When I approve or disapprove of your experience or opinion, I’m now determining your value based on my opinion. In the same way that sympathy can easily become me asking you to take care of my feelings, offering or withholding approval can easily become about proving my value by getting you to come on board. I feel good when you agree with my opinion and I influence that outcome by offering my approval when you comply. It can feel demoralizing to be pressured into aligning behavior or thoughts to what’s acceptable to someone else.
There’s another angle here, maybe the one that really matters most. If I’m seeking sympathy, I’m shifting the focus from taking responsibility to convincing you to feel badly for me. If I’m seeking approval, I’m deciding how to act, not based on my own judgement but, instead, based on how I think you think I should act. In both cases, my experience rests on your opinion, how I see myself hinges on how you see me, meaning I don’t have to be responsible for myself. I transfer my power to you.
Whether I am imposing my experience on you by offering sympathy or approval or you are imposing your experience on me by requesting it, it’s a competitive exchange of energy. Either you’re sucking up my energy or I’m draining yours and the exchange is not healthy, not collaborative. Always a good indication that it’s time to take a closer look.