What is External Validation And When It Becomes Unhealthy

As a person living primarily behind a computer. Hands nervously resting on my keyboard. Mind wondering what to command the hands to type. Sometimes I get a little lonely. I write. I publish. And then, besides the relief emerging because the piece is finally finished – which is quickly overrun by anxious thoughts trying to figure out what to start writing about next. There is nothing. No applauds. No compliments. No external validation. It’s the same me again. With simply one more finished article under my belt…

If my work involved packing my insights into a more concise form – i.e., Twitter posts. I was probably going to be a different story.

With each of my vague short writings designed to gather appreciation (likes) enters the internet void. My work – and my self-worth – if picked by the algorithm and awarded with clicks. I would have experienced an immediate source of joy.

“Oh, I got 20 likes. I feel less awful about myself right now!”1

But for how long?

People who work on long-term projects don’t get enough validation for the work they do. They don’t know if in the end there will be someone to celebrate with. Someone to want what they have created. Someone to appreciate the amount of work they’ve put in and rightfully acknowledge their efforts.

This often leads to depressive thoughts.

“Is this good enough? Should I continue on this path all by myself?”

The answer, of course, is it depends. But the lack of external validation – and if your desire for external validation is what drives you – can lead us to other, darker paths.

Since not getting approval for what you’re doing feels as if you are not good enough as a person. A common reaction is to turn to other actions that offer more instant outcomes – i.e., instant gratification. Sadly, these rarely positively contribute to our future well-being.

In this post, I’m exploring the concept of external validation: What is it? Is it good or bad? And at what point it becomes unhealthy?

What Is External Validation?

External validation is when your self-worth feeds primarily from outside sources. Most commonly, the opinion of other people about you, and everything you do.

External validation can take many shapes and forms. The most basic one is getting a compliment from your co-workers about how you look today.

external-validation-dictates-our-self-worth
When we directly connect our self-worth with the opinions of others. We can constantly move up and down the line above. From feeling worthless to feeling like we’re the undiscovered king of a country.

The other now common way to get the attention of others and thus, receive appreciation in return. Can be summarized in these two examples:

  • Receiving a dozen of likes on the new photo you’ve just posted from the Caribbean island.
  • Passionately following the release dates of the most luxurious items your social circle finds cool and pre-ordering them to show off.

For the second case…

Probably somewhere in the back of your mind, your rational self concluded after making a couple of calculations that there is no need to pay extra for getting an item faster. You can safely wait another week or two and get the same thing at a lower price. But this thought is usually quickly cut off with a sharp ax by the emotional part of the brain, which demands the attention of the crowd as soon as possible.

Why Do You Need External Validation?

Plenty of reasons for that.

But it all starts when we are born.

As a child, we still don’t know our place in the world. We don’t understand what are the rules, and we are not even sure what we should be doing. Plus, our small size is not allowing us to achieve a lot.

The table is just too high to reach something.

The chair is too heavy for us to lift.

We are just too little and too weak for the giant adult world.

We are constantly relying on our parents for help. But since we want to be recognized for our efforts – we still have our egos. We do all kinds of acts to showcase to our parents that we are, too, capable little people.

That’s why kids constantly bombard their parents with pictures, scraps glued together, etc., and ask them for their approval.

“Look, mam, dad. Look what I made!”

I can tell from experience about this. My little kid is currently 3 and a half at least 5 times a day I’m presented with a painting of some strange-looking thing accompanied by a question, “Do you like it?”

These are important moments for the kinds. When they do receive encouragement. These compliments feed their little self-confidence barometer in what is a big and strange world they are yet to understand.

A fact that contributes to the above is our social nature. We are, by default, social animals. Our survival is heavily dependent on other people. So basically, you want these other people to approve of you. Because if they don’t, you’ll unlikely survive through the night.

How does this approval happen?

That’s right, they say nice things about you.

And why are they doing it?

Well, because you’ve done something good for the tribe.

Or if we can summarize, we want external validation to:

  1. Feel accepted by our social circle.
  2. Feel that we matter as individuals.
  3. Feel that our efforts are not in vain.

Is It Healthy to Want External Validation?

Absolutely. If a child grows up in an environment where there isn’t a lot of encouragement. Their achievements – no matter how small – are not getting any attention from their caregivers. If there is emotional and psychological neglect, this leads to a deficit.

The child starts to feel worthless and may have trouble regulating his emotions.2

This can result in many different bad behavior patterns as the child grows up – drugs, sexual validation, drinking problems, etc.

Basically, the lack of appreciation creates a void, and you try to fill that void with other means that offer quick ways to escape reality, feel good, and forget about your problems – at least for a while.3

But say that you did grow up in a healthy household and your mom and dad did glue your bizarre pictures on the fridge, so everyone can see when it’s Christmas and the whole familia visits.

Does that mean that we’ll grow up fine and mentally strong adults?

Not necessarily. If we don’t develop inner confidence. If we don’t trust ourselves. Don’t think that we have what it takes to emerge successful from a disturbing event. If we don’t get emotionally strong – plainly, if we don’t ourselves believe in ourselves. Our wandering for “likes” will continue to be our guiding force.

See, external validation is incredibly fleeting.

You just received a compliment about how you look?

Well, that can make you feel great for 3 and a half minutes but after that, it is all gone. The dose of joy caused by the compliment is no longer warming your soul. You want more.

If an internal supporting system is missing (more about that later). External validation can lead to all sorts of trouble – financial difficulties, feeling worthless, and neglecting your needs in order to accommodate the needs of others. But most notably, the inability to appreciate yourself, for yourself.

Since your prime joy in life comes from other people saying how good – nice looking, smart, etc. – you are. And since you don’t want these comments to stop. You construct and optimize your lifestyle in a way to collect more of these.

Let’s share an example to portray this better…

Case #1: You’re a thirty-something woman. You have a job that pays well, but it’s not totally meaningful to you – it’s just a job. You have a cozy home. A nice car. You wear only eco-friendly socks and designer clothes.

And while on paper you have it all. It’s not enough to make you feel glamorous all the time. You want others, too, to see you as intelligent, creative, and independent. And of course, you want them to vocally express – or with likes and comments – the qualities you try to present to the world. To achieve this, you do what another group of people do – 1.440 billion users around the world, actually – you take photos of yourself and share them on Instagram.

When received, the likes and the comments do make you glow a bit more. But these results are quickly forgotten.

You seek more. You seek bigger. Probably another house? A bigger and more expensive car?

“Probably these will do the trick?” you say to yourself. “These will showcase to the world my uniqueness!”

In social situations. You primarily talk about yourself and secretly hope that the people who decided to pursue their real passions fail because if they succeed, this will mean that you failed – for not pursuing your own passions.

All of this is like a loop. And it looks like this:

Negative-External-Validation-Loop
The Negative External Validation Loop: Step 1: You feel discouraged. Step 2: You get an item that you think will wow others and share it online. Your main motive is to make others like and comment. Step 3: You feel good about the received praise.

And while it might seem like so, external validation is not all bad.

We need external validation to survive in our crazy world. On a lot of occasions, to know if we are moving in the right direction.

For instance, you know that it’s not socially acceptable to walk around in town naked, so you don’t do it.

Another, more elaborate example is the following…

Case #2: Say that you just graduated and you started working as a teacher. The comments you receive from the kids and the smiles on their faces are what bring you joy. But you want to get better. You know you can do better and you seek the opinion of others – which takes the form of feedback. For example, you ask your peers to give you an overview of how you are doing and what you can do differently to make improvements.

And when you do get the feedback, you don’t only hear the good things you’ve done and completely ignore the negative sides of your work. Your attention is focused on your flaws and how you can correct them.

After a year, your students move up and you get a new class. Unlike your former students, they are more chaotic and unorganized. They don’t listen to you. They rarely smile to validate your teaching methods. But you don’t mentally crush. You know you can make this work. You believe in your methods and in your teaching abilities. So, you start to listen more carefully. Do your best to understand their personalities. Then, you try a different approach.

Your ability to handle the situation and remain sane can too be viewed as a loop.

In this case, it will be The Positive Internal Validation Loop:

Positive-Internal-Validation-Loop
The Positive Internal Validation Loop: Step 1: You feel discouraged. Step 2: Remind yourself about your past achievements and in your ability to find solutions to problems. Step 3: You start to feel better and you also take steps to make corrections.

The main difference between case #1 and case #2 is that people who lack confidence in their skills rarely pursue corrective feedback. Their main motivator is to get external validation that validates their strong sides and completely ignores their weak characteristics. They want everyone to like them, and they deliberately focus on actions that will be accepted by the wider community, even if these actions are not quite right.

Conversely, people who are confident in themselves and in their abilities to move through the world are not afraid of doing things that probably won’t be accepted by everyone. They don’t need everyone to like them. They focus more on doing the right thing.

How Do You Know If You Need External Validation?

Well, even if you don’t admit it, you probably know if your thirst for external validation is unlimited.

But if you are not completely sure. Or you are ignoring the cues your conscious mind is throwing at you. Here are a couple of situations that mean you are an external validation addict:

  • Not being able to stop yourself from shopping for new clothes only to wear them once in front of the camera so you can update your social media feed.
  • Impatiently refreshing your email after submitting your project and waiting for praise from others.
  • Constantly correcting what you want to say with what you have to say to attune to the group. By doing so, you potentially make yourself more likable – or at least this is what you believe.
  • Feeling lost if there is no one to give you direction. Lack of personal motives and rules to live by.
  • Rarely listening to what others are saying. The main reason you hang out with other people is to bombard them with updates from your blissful life and await for their affirmation.
  • Buying expensive headphones – or expensive stuff in general – to signal to the world that you are affluent, have status, and have good taste.

The general rule here is that your thinking is focused on the following: “What should I do so more people can compliment me?”

How Do You Heal From Needing External Validation?

You are sick of trying to please everyone? You want to boost your inner confidence and be emotionally stronger?

Here are four ways that will help you make external validation a more healthy thing – or want external validation less:

1. Devote To A Specific Field

You don’t have to start the next SpaceX to feel that you belong to the planet Earth. Another, more achievable approach is to simply devote to a specific topic/field.

A lot of times, we don’t feel enough – and we wait for others to tell us that we are enough. Commonly, because our jobs are too generic. We start to feel like a little cog in a giant machine.

You work as an accountant, for example. But do you define as such? Surely no. You want a more exciting role for you that will be engraved on your death stone.

For this reason, you can get involved in folklore music – dancing or playing. Since accounting is boring as hell. The life you will now have as a folklore dancer is going to be something that will provide you with an arena where you can get the approval of others while doing something positive.

2. Escape The Online Competition

Everyone can share selfies and write hashtags. And precisely because everyone can do it. We start to spend way too much time and attention optimizing our posts in order to get more likes from our competitors. This is a zero-sum game. You get 1,000 likes on your current post. Now what? You have to start thinking about your next post and worry if it’s going to perform that well.

A much better alternative is to enter an offline competition of some sort. For example, sign up for a marathon. Or if we continue with the example from above, go to a folklore dance competition.

External validation becomes extremely unhealthy when there are numbers attached. Precisely what social media is doing. You don’t care about the picture itself. You only care about how the picture will perform.

When external validation is unhealthy, when attempting to share a post on your preferred social media profile, you don’t think, “I want to share with my friends my recent experience outdoors. Hopefully, I’ll encourage some of them to come with me next time so we can have fun together.” You think: “Now can I optimize this picture for more likes? I’m wondering which filter better underlines my ocean-blue eyes. Probably by adding some extra movie filter others will envy me more.”

You can turn this around and make external validation healthy. If you sign up for a sporting event of some sort. While internally, you will probably still hope that others will notice you and comment on your efforts. At least it will be for good reason. Your motivation to be seen can encourage you to work out harder.

3. Internal Supporting System

An internal support system is like a safety net. It will catch you and heal you if there is no one to say nice things about your newest project.

Another way of saying this is self-validation. And self-validation includes the following:

  • Encouraging ourselves.
  • Acknowledging our strengths and efforts.
  • Noticing and accepting our feelings.
  • Prioritizing our needs.
  • Treating ourselves with kindness.
  • Saying nice things to ourselves.
  • Accepting our limitations or mistakes.

An example of practicing self-validation is the following.

You just finished a project (in writing) about how the company you work for should advertise a particular product line to customers. It includes buyer personas. Different stories that can be used for ads. Potential marketing messages, etc. You hand it to your colleagues. And… they are not thrilled by everything you’ve done. Yet, you feel good about your work. Though you understand that it’s not perfect, you’re open to feedback and making corrections. The comments you receive don’t feel like poisonous arrows, you view them as notes from mentors. Overall, you know how much time you’ve spent on this, and you feel confident in what was included in the document.

4. Actively open-minded

Becoming actively open-minded is to actively search for information that contradicts your initial conclusion.

Others praise you for the work you’ve done on project X? Don’t stop there.

Search for people that see flaws in your work and use it to make corrections in the future.

People who are actively open-minded don’t see the world as black and white – right and wrong. They understand that often things are gray.

Not everyone will like you – your work, how you look, you as a person, and how you think about certain topics. And that’s fine. But even if there are others who do agree with you. That doesn’t mean that it’s all done.

Plainly, being actively open-minded is being aware that your judgments, thinking skills, etc., are all works in progress. You don’t only collect praise from others and then shut down the feedback form – plus delete entries that don’t agree with your statements. You yearn to receive comments from others about how things can be improved and use this to do better in the future.

What’s The Opposite of External Validation?

The opposite of external validation is internal validation.

When we seek external validation, we are waiting for others to praise us for who we are.

When we have internal validation, we don’t need others to tell us that we are capable humans. We understand our strengths and weaknesses and can feel good about our days.

Internal validation is about having a sober and unbiased look at what you do and who you are as a person.

When you get dressed for work, you don’t have to share a photo of yourself from the elevator to know whether you look good or not. You know exactly how you look. Whether you should do some changes – in the clothes you wear, your tonus, etc. These are things you consider and make plans for changes. But overall, you feel good in your own skin and walk with your head high.

Some Closing Thoughts

Every person requires a certain dose of external validation to survive in the world. Even someone who is an internal validation master secretly hopes for receiving praise from others.

It’s a natural human characteristic. It’s good for our well-being and also required to make positive improvements in our lives.

After all, you can’t completely ignore the opinions of others. If your spouse is making comments about your recent behavior; If your boss asks you to make corrections related to your recent work; If your friends are not OK with your late-night text messages.

In all these cases, we need to take into account what others are saying and make some adjustments.

Yet, it’s also not healthy to completely rely on the opinions of others about us and make this our main source of confidence. But it’s also necessary to take healthy, constructive feedback from outside people to make progress in the world.

As with everything worthy in life, it’s all about balance.

Here’s a suggestion:

If you love to hear what others have to say about you. Take it, and use it. But you don’t actively pursue the appraisal for others and use this as fuel to get up in the morning. Because when the comments stop, you’ll also want to stop moving. Stop making progress.

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Footnotes:

  1. And if 20 likes is more in the spectrum of, “Gosh, I still suck!”. Simply pick a number high enough that makes you scream “Hurrah!”.
  2. John A. Lambie, Anja Lindberg. The Role of Maternal Emotional Validation and Invalidation on Children’s Emotional Awareness. On the web: https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/mpq/vol62/iss2/2/
  3. That’s one reason why so many people drown in the rivers of the evil social media platforms. These institutions that house only short pieces of content provide the best form of escapism.
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