The Myth About External Validation
“You have to learn to love yourself.”
“Stop caring about what other people think.”
“The only approval you need is from yourself.”
These messages and similar ones are everywhere. There is this idea that you must be self-reliant and contain such inner confidence to be able to thrive without, and even ignore, any external input. The stigma around external validation is everywhere, and those who seek validation from others are labeled to some degree as “weaker” than those who don’t. We are told to foster self-love, and not expect or need it from anyone before we can give it to ourselves.
I’m here to challenge this idea.
While I appreciate the concept that the opinion of others is not what gives us value, it is a harmful idea that we must not seek positive, validating messages from others when we are feeling down. Afterall, our inner voice- often showing up as an inner critic- is the internalization of our environment, including explicit and implicit messages from those around us. As children, we were constantly receiving messages from others that were meant to shape our behavior based on the opinions of others. These messages often continue into our adulthood. We were and are told messages such as:
“You’re being too sensitive/dramatic.”
“That haircut/outfit makes you look silly.”
“You can do better.”
“I’m disappointed in you.”
And when these messages create an insecurity, a feeling of invalidation and lack of self-love, we are told to “ignore anyone’s opinion” because it doesn’t matter. If our inner critic is just the internalization of the messages we’ve received, how are we supposed to muster self-love without first hearing something affirming from someone else? It’s like we are expected to learn to speak a language we were never taught. The language of self-love is learned by someone loving us, not from the creation of it within ourselves. Only once we have been loved, validated, empowered, and really seen by another can we do that for ourselves.
Now here comes the tricky part, we must find someone who can validate our whole self, not simply our good parts. When we think of external validation often we think of messages such as:
“You did the right thing.”
“You are smart, pretty, kind, talented.”
“I’m proud of you.”
The above statements can be validating, however, if those comments come with a message that you could have gotten it wrong, you could have been less than, or you could have been disappointing, then these people might not be a reliable resource to seek validation from. If our resources can only validate us when we are “good”, and not in our mistakes, flaws, insecurities, and our humanness, then their validation is conditional. Our task is to recognize people who can only conditionally validate, and discontinue seeking their validation. Instead, we must seek validation from those who can validate our whole selves, mistakes, flaws, and all. This kind of unconditional validation sounds like:
“What you’re feeling makes sense.”
“I can relate.”
The truth is that we may not have someone in our lives who can give us compassion, understanding, and gentle curiosity when we show up with flaws. Here’s the thing- it’s okay to pay someone to be that person! If the only person who can validate our whole self, not just our good parts, is a therapist, that’s okay! The goal is to find and surround ourselves with people who can validate our whole selves. A therapist, counselor, or other mental health professional is a perfectly okay place to start.
Let’s change the stigma around external validation. Not only is it not something to be embarrassed about needing, but it is actually necessary. It is important to find people who validate us, whether it’s a good friend, family member, therapist, or simply someone to tell us that what we feel and who we are is okay. We are constantly externally invalidated and it is a harmful message to believe we must combat all those messages alone and not enlist support. So today, I hope that for every invalidating message we receive or remember, we can find resources to give us validating messages.
To go with this concept, my brother and I created four images to illustrate the importance of unconditional external validation:
We know from attachment theory our sense of self is created as a product of our relationships. Thus, the myth that we must overcome poor self-esteem on our own is setting us up for failure, and consequently results in an increased sense of shame due to our inability to muster self-love without the help of others. Additionally, attachment theory states that we are wounded in relationships, therefore we heal in relationships. The key, then, is to find the relationships that will help us heal, rather than returning to the ones that are wounding us by only accepting the “good” parts of ourselves.