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.
Many of us struggle from time to time with low frustration tolerance. Perhaps you find yourself fuming at small inconveniences, or a minor infraction by your partner, peers, or children. When our lives become overly stressful, it can be difficult to keep little things from becoming major annoyances, and it can be hard to stop yourself from exploding verbally or mentally when one more thing goes wrong, even if it is just a minor thing, like a stubbed toe or being cut off in traffic. Over time though, when we do not keep our frustration tolerance in check, our moods can start to feel out of control. We can become angry and resentful in our daily lives, and snap at people we care about, contributing to the overall negativity in our environment. It’s important to recognize when low frustration tolerance has become a problem, so that you can start to build more resiliency in your life and stop allowing minor frustrations to become overwhelming.
First, ask yourself a few questions to determine if frustration tolerance has become a problem in your life:
- Do I find myself becoming disproportionately angry at minor inconveniences or mistakes?
- Do I sometime snap and yell at people I care about (or strangers) when something frustrating happens?
- Does anger and frustration seem to be impacting my overall mood in my daily life?
- Do I regret or feel ashamed about my reaction to things when I become frustrated?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, recognize that you may want to focus some attention to building more resiliency to frustration, and improve your frustration tolerance. There are several reasons why having better tolerance to frustration is an important skill. Most importantly, having better frustration tolerance will help you spend less energy on things that are not worth getting angry about. Our lives can be busy, complicated, stressful, and exhausting. Focusing your energy where it will best serve you will help you feel better on a daily basis, and more in control of your emotions. Having low frustration tolerance is just unpleasant. Your mood is affected, you may ruminate on unimportant problems, and you waste time and energy reacting to stressors that should really be brushed off. Of course this all sounds good, but how do you stop letting frustration affect your mood and relationships and keep your energy focused on what’s really important?
First, assess your priorities. Take stock of your life and identify 5 areas that are most important to you. This may include your relationships with your family and friends, your success at work, making room for quality down-time in your life, working on special projects you care about, or accomplishing goals that you have set for yourself. Recognize that these are the areas in which you want to focus the most of your energy. Everything else is secondary, and thus does not deserve to have too much of your attention and energy.
Next, identify how low frustration tolerance has negatively impacted your life. Perhaps you have said things you regret when you were frustrated, destroyed property when you were angry, or your overall mood has been soured because you get stuck in a negative mindset. Recognize how this negativity has taken up space in your life that detracts from your real priorities. Make a commitment to re-focus your energy back on your real priorities, and stop giving energy to the frustrations that drag you down.
Finally, start working on ways to reduce the power that frustration has over your life, and begin to develop the skills you need to minimize that impact. Some strategies to building better frustration tolerance include:
- Start your day off with a positive affirmation. This can be as simple as a mental note you make to remind yourself that you are going to have a good day and not let small things affect your mood. Alternatively, it could be a devotional or prayer that speaks to you and helps you center your priorities for the day. Another possibility is starting your day with uplifting music that will help you get your mood in the right place for the day.
- Build an arsenal of coping skills that you can use in the moment when a frustrating experience happens. Deep-breathing exercises, counting practices, worry dolls or a talisman, a personal mantra (“Serenity Now!”), and walking off or removing yourself from an overwhelming situation are all examples of coping skills that will help you deal with frustration in the moment and prevent the situation from taking control of you.
- Allow yourself a designated amount of time to vent or process your frustrations, and then choose to let them go. It’s fine to give a voice to or acknowledge the things that get you down or cause frustration in your life, but don’t allow this time to go on forever. If you have a friend, for example, that you talk to or vent to when you feel frustrated, allow yourself to spend no more than half of your time together ruminating or discussing frustrations, and then consciously change topics to more uplifting messages or acknowledge the positives you can identify in your life or day as well.
- Use humor or comedy to help you build resiliency to negativity and improve your mood when you find yourself stuck in negative mindset or feeling angry too often. Watch comedy programs you enjoy, listen to comedy podcasts or radio shows, read humorous materials or writers you enjoy, and talk to your funniest friends. Use inside jokes with your friends or family to lighten the mood or remind you about times that were fun or funny. It’s hard to feel frustrated and angry when you’re laughing.
- End your day with affirmations of gratitude. If you are partnered you can have a gratitude practice that you engage in right before you go to bed or at another time during the evening, when you identify at least one thing you are grateful for that day. You could also do this practice with your kids if you have them, or just do them solitary. You can write your ideas down, or just mentally take stock with intention. Finding space to recognize what you are grateful for will help you keeps those priorities centered, reducing the power that frustration has over your life.
As you incorporate these strategies into your life, you are intentionally giving more energy to positivity and priorities, and taking energy away from the frustrations and negativity that life throws at you sometimes. Keep practicing and building good habits, and you should begin to build your tolerance to frustration in a way that helps you feel more empowered over your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
I see a lot of clients for marital/relationship counseling, and one of the most common and frustrating factors that people struggle with when they come to see me is something that I call the Parent/Child Dynamic. This happens when one partner has taken on the role of the Parent, or Director, in the relationship, and the other partner is stuck in the role of the Child, or Adolescent. In these relationships, one person is basically in charge of knowing what needs to be done, and they end up having to ask, direct, or otherwise nag their partner to complete responsibilities that need to be handled. This is an unhealthy relationship pattern for many reasons, but it’s not the fault of one partner of the other.
Honestly, the way I see this dynamic play out most often occurs with a woman in the role of Parent, and a man in the role of Child/Adolescent. However, this is by no means the only way it happens. I’m going to use the example of a woman in the Parent role to illustrate my points here, but be aware that these roles can occur in any relationship with either partner taking on these two roles. In this situation, the woman/Parent is constantly having to tell her partner what chores need to be done, what bills need to be paid, what child-care responsibilities need to be attended to, what planned events or activities need to be prepared for, what needs to be purchased at the store, what pet care duties need to be fulfilled, and on and on and on. Often, I hear from the partner in the Child/Adolescent role “I don’t mind doing whatever she needs, she just needs to ask me”. It sounds like cooperation, but it’s really a form of relinquishing duty. In this example, the woman is in charge of knowing everything that needs to be taken care of, and is in charge of making sure everything gets completed on time and as needed. The man essentially can say he is helping and cooperating, but he takes no part in being pro-active about responsibilities. This dynamic is damaging to relationships because the relationship is not functioning as a partnership, but as a Parent/Child relationship.
For the person in the parent role, it’s exhausting. You didn’t sign up to parent your partner, you wanted someone who would share responsibilities, support you in both tangible and intangible ways, and be, well, your Partner. For the person in the adolescent role, it’s equally frustrating. After all, you didn’t sign up to be treated like a child, nagged about your duties, and punished verbally or emotionally when you didn’t do your chores. It’s infantilizing, and for men, also emasculating. In most cases, you both came into this relationship looking for a partner, and when it starts to feel like you’re in a Parent/Child relationship, it’s going to start to feel less like a partnership and more like a drag. No one wants to be treated like a child, and no one wants to have to nag their partner like a parent. Even worse, sometimes the person in the adolescent role will become resentful about being treated like a child, and will begin “acting out”, by saying they will complete certain tasks and then “forgetting”, or just saying they will do it later and then dragging it out until their partner starts nagging them again, causing more frustration, resentment, and even arguments.
The solution here requires both partners to make some changes. First, you need to have an open discussion with each other if you feel that this is the kind of dynamic that is developing in your relationship. You need to both recognize the role that you have been playing and discuss what you really want your partnership to look like. If you have been in the adolescent role, recognize that it is not your partner’s job to tell you what needs to be done around the house, remind you of the responsibilities that you agreed to, and direct all functions of the household duties. You’re an adult, so act like it. Don’t want to be nagged about taking out the trash or helping with dishes or children? Then start being more pro-active about what needs to be done so your partner doesn’t have to “assign” you chores to do. In some circumstances you can both agree about what needs to be done and assign who is responsible for doing it. However, in my opinion, this is not ideal. Chore lists are for teenagers, not adults. If you don’t want to be treated like a teenager, then act like an adult. It’s fine to have some general roles if you both prefer to do certain tasks. For example, one person may be primarily responsible for mowing the lawn or cooking dinner. These divisions may occur naturally based on what each partner prefers to do or is more capable of doing well. That’s not a problem. But all partnerships require some give and take, and if you notice something needs to be done, just do it. There’s no point in keeping score.
If you have been in the parent role, you may be in for some frustration as you try to make these changes. It will be hard to refrain from engaging in your role as director and assigner of duties if you have been used to doing this, because if the pattern continues, you will see things that need to be done and either end up doing them yourself, or feeling secretly insane inside as you wonder when and if your partner is going to step up and do what needs to be done. This will take some adjusting because while you are used to knowing what needs to be done, and when and how to do it, you will need to allow some space for your previously adolescent partner to step into their new adult role. Give it some time, because one of the most important parts of fixing this problem is that you refrain from asking multiple times for something to be done, or reminding your partner of the things they said they would do. If you get frustrated and start asking multiple times or reminding your partner over and over about something they said they would do, the pattern starts to get further engrained. Sometimes, unpleasant things may happen, like the trash piles up or a bill incurs a late fee. I know, I know, this shouldn’t happen. But you are trying to break unhealthy patterns, and you must give your partner some space to feel the consequences of their own inaction rather than you pointing it out to them all the time. People will not grow up and take responsibility if you always fix everything for them, nor if you criticize how they do everything. If your partner feels like they can never do anything right, they will likely just stop trying.
These changes are not going to happen if you do not talk openly and frankly about what the problem is beforehand. For example, if you have, in the past, tried to passively stay silent while the lawn went un-mowed or the dishes piled up, “testing” your partner to see how long it would take them to notice and step up to the work that needs to be done, then continuing that pattern is not going to help. You have to figure out how to walk the line between direct communication about what you both need and expect from your partnership, and being the director and supervisor of everything. This means that you may need to let go of some of the things you want to control. The towels may not be folded the way you like them and you might run out of toilet paper. Partnership is a growth process. As individuals, we all have to make adjustments when we choose to become a partner to someone else. If you want that partnership to develop in a healthy way, you need to recognize that it is not your partner’s responsibility to conform to what you want them to be. You both need to make adjustments to find the dynamic that works for you both. But don’t allow an unhealthy dynamic to fester and grow in your relationship. You both need to be part of the solution, so recognizing and talking about the Parent/Child dynamic and how it is damaging your partnership is a good place to start changing.
One question I often hear from couple’s who have experienced infidelity is: how do I trust my partner again? It’s a difficult question to answer, because while many people say trust is earned, I tend to say that it is given. Sometimes betrayals happen even after years of devotion, and it is hard to know how to “earn back” something that’s been broken. Sometimes when you’ve been hurt, you may want to resort to tactics that are intended to reassure you, like wanting to have more oversight of them by checking their phone, or their social media accounts. Unfortunately, I think these strategies tend to be ineffective in the long run when it comes to healing a relationship after betrayals occur, and may even exacerbate mistrust and conflict. They may provide some temporary satisfaction to the person who’s been hurt, but it’s important to think about long term results as well when you are trying to move forward as a couple.
Trust can be built back slowly as more of your emotional needs are met over time. However, it ultimately takes a decision that is made by the per son who has been hurt, to give that trust back when they are ready. Unfortunately, trust is always an emotional risk that you take. Frequent or reoccurring infidelity over time is, of course, an indicator that your partner is not deserving of your trust. Yet many people who have been betrayed by their partners still want to repair the relationship, even after multiple occurrences. How do you trust someone who has violated their commitment to you? The surveillance route is inadvisable in my opinion. It creates a dynamic in which the relationship turns into more of an adolescent trying to avoid being grounded by their parent than a couple trying to work through emotionally difficult times together. If this is where you are in your relationship, there are some things that you can do to try and work on moving forward. First, instead of talking about what happened, talk instead about how you feel about what happened. Instead of trying to figure out all the details, which may just cause more hurt to the person who was betrayed, talk instead about how that pain has affected them. Decide what needs to change in the relationship in order for the dynamic to return to a place of trust and mutual respect. These may be things like having more frequent time set aside for you as a couple to reconnect with each other, sharing letters or other writings that express feelings related to the infidelity, increased attention to the division of duties within the household, or sharing spiritual time or other meaningful activities together.
The commitment to these kinds of activities will tell you more about you and your partner’s ability to build trust and mutual respect over time than will checking phone records and social media accounts. Sometimes people really are not deserving of your trust. Knowing when to walk away is important too, but I encourage couples who do want to move forward to be mindful about how they choose to rebuild trust over time. Infidelity involves very real pain and damage in relationships, and the healing process must also involve some real effort and thoughtfulness on the part of both partners in order to move forward with true forgiveness and mutual respect.
Shankar Vedantam’s podcast Hidden Brain recently aired an episode concerning the hook-up culture that is prevalent nowadays both on college campuses and in other social circles occupied by young people. The discussion revolves around the role that casual sex has in the lives of young people and the various social norms that dictate the changing rules of dating, relationships, and sex.
One of the most interesting points that was made was that the rules of hook-up culture disallow emotional investment in the object of sexual conquest. Essentially, the rules dictate that sex itself is not taboo, but becoming emotionally invested in your partner is. Instead of the traditional concept of dating, in which a couple gets to know each other and expresses some level of affection and interest towards each other prior to advancing sexually, sex is now the first barrier to be crossed. Only after perhaps a few casual “hook-ups”, in which commitment is verboten and emotional affection is taboo, would a couple explore the possibility of actually liking each other and wanting to date more seriously.
The fact that emotional investment in an intimate partner is considered a violation, and could lead to a person being labeled as “desperate”, is an indication of the deep fear of vulnerability that pervades many people across age groups in our culture today. Fear of being hurt or rejected causes people to limit access to their own emotions and avoid creating the bonds that actually bring emotional fulfillment in relationships. Equally as disturbing is the fact that showing your emotions to another person can cause social ostracism and comes with the possibility that expressing your feelings could bring about the emotional pain of rejection.
None of this, of course, means that participants in hook-up culture are less likely to desire emotional intimacy and committed partnerships. Yet it does make achieving those things more difficult. Avoiding the work of developing emotional bonds because of the vulnerability involved leaves people missing out on one of the most fulfilling parts of relationship experiences. There is no guarantee that any relationship will work out, and it is impossible to avoid any emotional pain. Yet emotional pain can bring about personal growth and important reflections about what you want and what to avoid. It’s possible that hookup culture is contributing to emotional stagnation, as people avoid intimacy and fear vulnerability. Sexual exploration is an important part emotional growth as well, but when the culture surrounding it makes emotional intimacy punitive, then individuals are losing out on an important part of their own growth: love, in all of it’s messy forms.