Seeking External Validation
We can all relate to it. We look outside of ourselves for answers, insights, reflections, instructions, and validation. We doubt ourselves, especially when we have new ideas, dreams or desires that don't quite fit into what we've been told we should want. What our peers deem acceptable. What society defines as ok.
Lately, I am feeling pretty sick of this exercise. I've become acutely aware of how often and how much I go outside of myself to find answers. How much I look to others, how much I compare and contrast, how much I measure, how much I interpret. How often opinion trumps fact. And overturns the glimmer of self-acceptance that wants to shine through.
I've noticed how much energy, mental space, and physical time goes into looking for external validation ... If we spent even a fraction of our energy counting (and reclaiming) this time as we do counting calories, we could make some serious improvements to our sense of self-worth.
WHY WE SEEK EXTERNAL VALIDATION
Why do we seek validation from anyone? Why do we look outside of ourselves for indicators of our value and our worth?
Because we're hardwired for it. We've been taught this way, and those that taught us were also given the same instructions, passed down through previous generations. It's in our culture and in our psyche.
At the most basic level, we need to be accepted by those around us. Humans cannot survive alone. We form tribes and, together, we are better able to survive. If someone is evicted from the tribe, their likelihood of survival is low. Even if this sounds primordial, it's fascinating to know that no matter how modern we think we are, our instincts are ancient and they take over whenever we think we are in danger.
When we think we are doing something that could cause those around us - especially those closest to our sense of physical or social safety - to turn away from us and leave us 'out in the cold' our instincts take over. Danger! Fight or flight. Cortisol and adrenaline. Fear and anxiety.
Our bodies and our primordial brains actually react this way to regular, everyday situations and interactions.
In their book On Self and Social Organization, social psychologists C. H. Cooley and Han-Joachim Schubert called this phenomenon the Looking-Glass-Self and summarized it this way: “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.”
As tongue-twisted as that sounds, what's even more twisted is that it was my truth for almost my whole life. And it's the same for many other people.
We are constantly trying to project an image of ourselves based on what we think others want, but since we really don’t know what they want, what we are really doing is deciding what we think they want and then trying to project that image.
When we aren’t met with approval, we no longer feel safe and protected. When we meet ridicule or rejection, it can undermine our view of ourselves. If we internalize this kind of negative feedback, we can begin to doubt our personal worth. This threatens our sense of security and disrupts our inner harmony.
When we choose to associate with people whose opinions we value and respect we are seeking approval and validation from them - whether we think of it this way or not. The opinions of this group become the basis for how we value ourselves, for our self-acceptance. In-group, cool-kids, family nucleus, confident creatives, accomplished professionals, etc. There are myriad groups that we look to for validation throughout our lives.
The problem is that if you base your self-concept on what you think others think of you, then you will always be vulnerable. If you are completely dependent on the validation that other people give you, you are prone to emotional instability. Your self-concept has no true foundation. You end up losing touch with who you are and what truly matters to you.
“You have been criticizing yourself for years, and it hasn't worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” ~Louise L. Hay
But, am I not a confident woman?
I am. Most of the time.
Confidence can be precarious. Building that sense of confidence, which is actually rooted in shifting from external to internal validation, is a boatload of work.
It involves facing our shadow, grappling with 'the shoulds', dismantling beliefs, redefining words and concepts, and a constant practice of awareness and acceptance. Acceptance for the world we live in, for the way our society operates, and the way our minds operate. Awareness for the way we react to people and situations that trigger the fight or flight response.
And it all begins when we are too young, naive, and too innocent to understand what's going on.
As children, we are taught from a young age to seek approval from our parents. We need our parents in order to get food, shelter, and protection. We are instinctually and biologically built to survive. Being in our parents' good graces ensures we don't get left out in the cold to starve (the tribe again).
Since the need for approval, love, and acceptance from our parents is strong, we become conditioned over time to seek approval from others as well, especially people in positions of authority like teachers or coaches.
This was very true for me. I was smart in school, a good student. Yet my confidence was precarious. It was there when I got good grades when my Dad or teachers praised me for how 'smart' I was, how well I had done an assignment or generally had done what I was told or expected to do.
But, when I slipped, when my grades weren't A's when I did something to displease them all, they made sure to let me know. And, it would crush me. I felt like a Jenga block tower being kicked over.
What has shaped us from a young age affects us today. It's in there, in the recesses of our minds. Being played out in adult interactions. We have immense power to shape young lives and to begin to shift the compass from external to internal validation.
The idea of success and self-worth was, for me, tied to my intelligence and to having a 'successful' career. For some women, their sense of self-worth and validation is assigned by external, perceived beauty. It's different for each of us.
Our culture determines a lot of our conditioning. We are raised by parents within a society of peers influenced by media. Cultures differ, and not just nationally. There are cultures within nations and even sub-cultures within cities. Within LA, Beverly Hills is juuuust a little different than Inglewood ... and I know 'cause I live in Inglewood! Being attuned to cultural conditioning helps to understand why some people may believe certain concepts and act those out.
I was raised by parents who immigrated from Italy to Canada. Their generation, as well as the culture in America generally (yes I'm going to put the USA and Canada together here), believed in going to college, getting a good job, and climbing the career ladder. Doctor, lawyer, banker were the top-three professions of choice to make my family proud and ensure others look at me respectfully. Status, position and material success were emphasized.
Passion? Purpose? Imagination? Enjoyment? Fulfillment? Not those. Those were not on my radar. Those were for movie stars and Disney characters.
So my early childhood dreams of paleontology, marine biology and journalism were not going to cut it. Actually, I dreamt of being a philosopher-writer who lived by the seaside ...
On the other hand, I feel extremely fortunate that my parents immigrated to Canada. I grew up believing that if I worked hard, followed the rules, and stayed on the well-worn path, I could live a good life. I was told I could - and should - be successful.
A mixed blessing, that message.
MOVING TOWARD INTERNAL VALIDATION
So often we are also looking to others to see the best in us and believe in us, or tell us we aren't horrible people when we messed something up. Isn't that an interesting angle on seeking validation?
Sometimes we just want to feel okay. To feel okay for simply being. And we look to others for that okay-ness.
At the risk of being a broken record, awareness and acceptance are the first steps to moving toward internal validation. Major, life-altering, existence-improving change always starts with awareness and acceptance.
We can recognize and accept that we have all been socialized to value ourselves through the eyes of other people. We can find solid ground knowing that we can learn to value ourselves.
Being at ease with ourselves, and who we truly are, is one of our most daunting personal empowerment challenges, given what we've just discussed. But it is not impossible. On the contrary. The best way to begin moving toward strengthening our internal validation is to spend more time with ourselves.
Self-discovery, self-reflection, contemplation, self-inquiry, shadow-work. Dig. It. Up.
What are we looking for? Spend some time in self-reflection and identify your unique strengths, gifts, and skills. Identify your values - the values that are important to you, and the ones that you embody. Identify what holds meaning for you and how you live for it. Identify the things that light you up and that you could talk about endlessly, with passion and a captive audience. Identify when you feel good. Identify what you do - and what you are when 'not doing' - that make you feel like a perfectly amazing, valuable human being ... for just 'being'!
This is an exercise is getting to know yourself. List out those gifts, skills, values, and deep inner meanings. Once you can truly know and value yourself, then you realize that no matter what anyone else says, whether they validate you are not, you validate yourself.
Most importantly, you realize that whether someone else validates you or not, it doesn’t change what you know to be true about yourself; you are still a glorious, valuable, beautiful Soul with a mission to shine your light in the world.