When I was about three years old, my father taught me how to swim. He brought me into the pool, had me hold onto the edge in the shallow end, and then walked about three feet away. “Ok, Jennie!” he would shout, “Swim to me!”
Delighted, remembering everything from the classes my mom had brought me to at the YMCA, I doggie paddled frenetically towards him. But then I noticed something upsetting: he was moving slowly away from me! By the time I reached him, I had swum not the promised three feet, but a solid six!
Thirty years later, the approach makes sense to me. If he had started six feet away, I probably wouldn’t even have tried. “That’s too far,” I can hear my stubborn toddler self complaining. “I can’t do it!” But of course I could, and learning that taught me confidence and self-efficacy.
I talk about this metaphor a lot when I’m with clients who rely heavily on external validation. Because the thing about external validation is that the bar always moves. Just when you have gotten the promotion, made the money, earned the accolades, lost the weight, gotten a compliment from your boss, or whatever the barometer is, a new standard emerges.
External Validation Can Be Self-Driven
We are all on a quest to answer the question, “Am I enough?” The answer, for everyone, is yes, you are – because as Brené Brown says, there are no prerequisites for worthiness.
But a lot of people struggle with this idea, and the question morphs into something else: “How can I become enough?” And often, this is the birthplace of perfectionism. Perfectionism, which is the aspiration to have no flaws, shortcomings, or vulnerabilities, is different from healthy striving. Perfectionism is deeply rooted in a sense of shame about one’s perceived shortcomings.
So when you ask how you can become enough, you start to delineate answers that are rooted in external accomplishments:
- I will be enough when I make partner.
- I will be enough when I pay off my credit cards.
- I will be enough when my child is an honor student.
- I will be enough when I weigh 120 pounds.
- I will be enough when I get married.
- I will be enough when I get into the college of my dreams.
When you achieve something, you feel excited, gratified, maybe even worthy. But once the shiny newness wears off, just like my dad in the swimming pool, the bar moves. Let’s say you decide you’ll be enough when you finish your novel. Then you finish it and you feel thrilled… but then you decide you won’t be enough until one of the top five publishers in the company picks it up and agrees to publish your book. When you get an offer from Random House, you’re thrilled! But then you decide you won’t be enough until you make the New York Times best seller list. Then you’re not satisfied until your book is #1… and so it goes on forever. Striving, feeling good for a very short period of time, and then setting a new bar.
To be clear, there are healthy ways to do this. There is absolutely nothing wrong with ambition, but the important thing is how you talk to yourself about your achievements.
If your narrative is “I have always believed in myself, I have always felt that I am a worthy person who deserves good things, and this is so exciting!” that’s healthy. But if what you say to yourself is, “I’m such a fraud, I’m such a failure, and I will be until I accomplish X,” that’s where it’s a problem.
External Validation Can Also Be Driven by Other People
Many people who struggle with this find that their need for external validation is met not by their own metrics of what success looks like, but by the approval of other people, especially authority figures. A lot of the time, that person is a boss at work, but it might just as easily be a significant other or a friend. The idea behind this is, “If I’m good enough to elicit praise from my hardass boss Sally, I must be worthy.”
So let’s say you work several consecutive 80 hour weeks, forego sleep, food, and loved ones, and Sally comes up to your desk and says, “keep up the good work.” You’re likely to feel good for a few hours, but then you’ll feel like you have to keep up that pace in pursuit of another compliment.
Where this all starts, of course, is with your parents. If you learned that the only way you could get validation or attention from your parents was to be wildly successful and without shortcomings, you take that with you into your adult life. And of course, a lot of adults continue to crave validation from their parents their entire lives. I call this “shopping for oranges at the hardware store.”
Let’s say you go to Home Depot and ask them where the oranges are. The salesperson looks at you, puzzled. “We don’t sell oranges… we’re a hardware store.” So you accept this, go home, and come back the next day. “Hey, did you get that shipment of oranges in yet?” They look at you like you’ve lost your everloving mind and respond, “We don’t carry oranges. We will never carry oranges. There’s a grocery store down the street. If you want oranges, you have to go there.”
And we do this all the time! No matter how often someone – a parent, sibling, significant other, friend, or boss – shows us that they don’t have the thing we need, we keep coming back, hoping they’ve found the capacity to give it to us.
Just as ambition is not inherently unhealthy, neither is wanting the praise and goodwill of other people. If the story you’re telling yourself is “I like this person, and it would be nice to have a positive rapport with them, that’s very different from “when this person thinks I am good enough, I will be good enough.”
If External Validation Isn’t the Way to Make Decisions, What Is?
Within you, there is a wealth of information. I have written before about how emotions exist to give you information, and that’s a good starting point. Check in with yourself and get curious: “how do I feel?” Keep asking yourself that question until you are satisfied with the answer. You may need to dig a little bit: “Ok, I’m angry… what’s driving that anger? Fear… and a little bit of shame.”
Then explore what your feelings are trying to tell you. “I feel afraid to change jobs because even though I hate working here, I at least know what to expect… and I feel a bit ashamed that I’ve let my boss walk all over me for so long.”
From there, envision different scenarios and check in with yourself. “What happens when I imagine staying here for another few years? What happens when I imagine working somewhere where I’m respected by my superiors? What happens when I think about starting my own business or going freelance?”
As you imagine each possibility, label your emotions, but also pay attention to somatic cues. That is, how do you feel physically? Where do you feel each of these possibilities in your body? Do your shoulders tighten? Does your jaw clench? Does your heart rate quicken or slow? Do you involuntarily take a deep breath? What conclusions can you make about what feels authentic based on those things?
Shaking the need for external validation is hard, but worth it.
Looking inward for answers can be a hard shift.
First of all, the answer to these questions is more nebulous than someone else’s opinion. Have you ever felt like you have the answers to other people’s problems, but you struggle with your own? This is very common. It’s easy to see what other people should do in a world where emotions and attachment play no role, but much harder when you’re tuned into deeper level needs. When trying to resolve your own stuff, the “obvious” and “logical” choices become muddled with your awareness of your own humanity.
Also, some people work very hard to turn off their emotional selves. This can happen for a lot of reasons. For some people, especially men, the message is received loud and clear that emotions are weakness. (Of course I disagree with this – I think it takes incredible strength to risk the vulnerability of emotional expression!) For others, the message growing up was, “why? Because I said so, that’s why.” Questioning that by tapping into your own needs, even as an adult, can feel like a betrayal of your parents.
But when you learn to listen to your own needs rather than relying on external milestones or validation from others, you live more authentically. You ask to have your needs met. You build stronger connections with loved ones. You feel less depressed and anxious. You build a life that makes you excited to get out of bed in the morning. If you ask me, all of that is worth making a shift for.
Jennie Steinberg is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor based in Downtown Los Angeles. She is the founder of Through the Woods Therapy Center, a group of psychotherapists who are strength-based and use the principles of social justice to inform their work with clients. Jennie has written extensively about issues pertaining to mental health and wellness, feminism, LGBTQQIAPK+ issues, and living authentically. Her guiding philosophy in her work and her life is that if you’re not harming anyone and you feel good on the inside, you’re probably doing okay. You can find her via her website: Through the Woods Therapy Center, on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Yelp.