The trap of external validation

I’m in a Fitbit group. There are 10 of us, and each week we have a competition to see who can do the most steps. We congratulate each other for our wins, encourage each other when it’s hard, and are seen in our glory when we take the trophy. The external validation I get from my Fitbit competition friends is invaluable for my fitness and activity levels.

Task-specific external validation can be a great tool for developing new habits, understanding how we’ve performed on a job or assignment, and reminding us of how well we’re doing when we forget.

The dark side of external validation

As young children, we rely entirely on caregivers who reward and punish us to help us understand who we should be and how we should behave. And as a very young child, you are highly motivated not to be rejected by the people your very existence depends on, and have good reason to please them.

The problem is that so many of us have trouble letting go of this as adults. We look to others to understand how we should behave. We seek their approval and positive feedback, and we do whatever we can to avoid their rejection. We may become people pleasers, investing our energy in trying to be and do everything perfectly for everyone in our lives. We may compare ourselves to those who seem ‘better’ than us, and find ourselves lacking. We may be entirely crushed by receiving negative feedback (or none at all) from someone whose opinion we are overinvested in.

And we invest extensive physical, emotional, and mental resources in achieving something that is largely out of our control (the behaviours of others) and involves many elements that are unknowable to us (the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of others).

You can see how this goes wrong.

The consequences

Overthinking. If you’re having to guess at something that is fundamentally unknowable so you can base decisions on it, you’re likely to be in your head trying to figure things out a lot.

Social anxiety. If you’re constantly evaluating people’s responses to you and taking all of it personally, that’s going to make being around them pretty stressful.

Mood swings. If you invest your emotional state in the feedback, opinions, and behaviours of others, you’re probably experiencing some rocky rides.

If you prioritize external validation over your own deep knowing of what is right for you, it will always lead to stress, anxiety, and unease.

The recovery program

Step 1: Acknowledge that you don’t have to continue living this way. Breathe. Let go of your commitment to it. Feel the relief? Trust that acting in accordance with your truth will not result in the loss of anything or anyone that is right for you. It may also call in more of the right things and people.

Step 2: Develop the ability to self-validate. Praise yourself for hard work, persistence, learning, and growth. Be kind and self-compassionate when things don’t work out the way you expected, and acknowledge your achievements and learning within the process.

Step 3: Understand what you actually want and who you want to be by knowing your core values. As you figure this out, be vigilant for inner voices that attempt to bring other people’s opinions into the conversation. Go deep and be honest.

Step 4: Establish trust with your inner voice.  If you’re accustomed to searching for answers outside yourself, it may be difficult to hear the whisper within you. It may take time and patience to re-establish that relationship, but it is well worth cultivating. You may recognize that voice in moments of inspiration, excitement, creativity, and passion.

Step 5: Developing good boundaries will facilitate this process, and help you say no to things that don’t serve you without the struggle.

Step 6: Practice practice practice! Skill development takes incremental change, so find a small, low-risk domain of your life you can practice with. Family wants pizza tonight but you’d rather have something healthier? Tell them. Let them have pizza and make yourself that salad you’re dreaming of. It’s unlikely any cares as much as you imagine they do.

Living with authenticity and integrity

Living in integrity with your core values, acting in accordance with your own needs, and having trust in your own wisdom is the path to inner calm, fulfilment, and authentic success. It is my belief and experience that when we make choices from a deep place of love and wisdom, we never regret it, and even if the path gets a bit rocky… it will always be worth it.

Any number of these steps can be difficult, including understanding your values, communicating your needs to others, and overcoming fear to act on them. We’re talking about a lifetime of conditioning here, and there’s no magic trick that will instantly undo that.  

If you’d like to talk to us about enlisting a supporter who can help you unstick the parts that are stuck, contact us today for a free consultation call.