Balancing Internal and External Validation

Validation is a natural human need that comes from our origins as social beings.  While some species are content to live most of their lives alone, humans have always lived in groups, and thus our need for social acceptance is deeply engrained in our consciousness.  Acceptance from our peer group would have been literally a matter of life and death in early human history, because a person who had to survive on their own had much less probability of survival than those who were enmeshed within a group.  In light of our natural need for acceptance from other human beings, it’s easy to understand why many of us give significant weight to what other people think about us and whether they give us accolades or criticism.  As non-conformist as you think you may be, you still consciously or sub-consciously act or think in ways that reflect a certain value on what others may think of you.  Basic ways we conform include abiding by socially acceptable wardrobe choices, keeping appointments and schedules, showing up to work, paying for things you intend to take, and generally navigating the world without too much trouble.

It’s not a bad thing to care about what others think of you.  In fact, going back to our primitive need for social acceptance, it helps our society function in many important ways.  Our conformity to social norms ensures that we remain out of jail, can function in the culture we live in, and that our basic needs get met.  However, having a healthy mentality also means that you do not overemphasize the importance of other people’s opinions about you.  When you place too much value on what other people think about you, this can become an engrained need for external validation.  External validation means that you are getting your feelings of self-worth based on sources outside of yourself.  Internal validation means that you are gaining your sense of self-worth based on what your own opinions about yourself are.  The problem with an over-reliance on external validation is that when other people inevitably come up with something to criticize about you, you may have a difficult time mentally getting past the critique and dismiss any positive thoughts about yourself you may have had.

Imagine that you have worked very hard on a project for work, and you have to present the information about your project to someone in a supervisory role.  Upon finishing your presentation, you receive a scathing critique of your efforts, and you are told that your quality of work was poor, your efforts were sub-par and your presentation clearly lacks any demonstration of creativity or competence.  Ouch.  In order to process all this information, you need to have a healthy balance of respect for other’s opinions, and belief in the validity of your own efforts.  Having a strong sense of internal validation does not mean that you dismiss any and all criticism you receive, but it does mean that you try to separate out the information you received, with how you feel about that information.  True, you may feel embarrassed, hurt, or angry about the critique.  It may have been unfair, and if it is then you have all the more reason to look to your own internal confidence in order to cope with the situation.  When this happens, recognize that someone else’s opinion is just that, an opinion.  You’re allowed to have opinions too, and your opinion should matter at least as much to you as external opinions.  Some people really do just criticize other people in order to feel better about themselves, and these are the people who often abuse authority when they have it and are a general pain to be around.

Yet there may be times when some valid criticism is given to you, and you need to have a strong sense of internal validation in order to receive that criticism about yourself.    When you value the positive qualities that you know you have, you feel buffered by a strong sense of internal confidence that isn’t going to be destroyed by one critical opinion, or even ten.  That sense of confidence comes from knowing that you are talented and competent in some areas, as are all people, and that you can excel in those areas while knowing you own limitations.  It doesn’t mean that you think you always have the right answers or perspective, and it doesn’t mean that you think everyone who criticizes you is wrong, or out to get you. You are able to receive a valid critique, while dismissing the parts that you know and feel confident are unfair criticisms.  You recognize that other people’s opinions and expertise can help you to grow and get better at what you do.

Receiving criticism is an important skill to master when working on the right balance of internal and external validation, but there are many other times in which we navigate those feelings.  These struggles show up in our relationships, for example, if you constantly seek approval from potential partners because feeling lonely makes you feels unworthy.  Or, if someone make an unflattering comment to you about your appearance and you vow to change something about yourself or burn whatever clothes you were wearing to combat the shame of feeling hurt by their comments.  Sometimes, your opinion is the only one that does matter.  If you feel good about yourself, your work, your appearance, your talents, your future, and/or your value as a human being, there is no reason to allow other people to change your mind.  One of my favorite quotes is “What other people think of me is none of my business”.  The internet tells me it was Gary Oldman who gave us that gem.  It’s a great little mantra to remember, though, when you find yourself stressing over what other people may or may not be thinking about you.  Having a strong sense of internal validation will help you brush off unhelpful criticism and stop worrying so much about what others are thinking or saying.  Another thing to remember if that if you wouldn’t say something to your best friend, then don’t say it to yourself.  You do not have to co-opt the negative opinions that others may have of you.

Work on finding a balanced approach to external and internal validation, in which you can receive what you need from others in order to grown and learn, while not adhering to a need for perfection that requires that others constantly show you attention and praise so that you can feel good about yourself.  Reflect on what you value about yourself, what your strengths are, and how you use those strengths to accomplish your goals.  Then, keep these values and strengths in mind the next time you find yourself over-emphasizing what others think of you.  Frankly, it will make your mind a much more pleasant place to be.

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