March 6, 2001

External Validation


There's an old Jewish saying to the effect that a parent must make sure their child learns how to swim.

It's more than just literally learning to swim, of course.. it stands for being able to cope and function in life. The metaphor can go further probably.. to know when (and how) to float and drift and when to pursue your direction; how to not get eaten by the sharks or pulled down by the undertow(d).

What reminded me of this was a recent thread on my forum. During the discussion of why do we write, the concept of external validation was raised. This has always been a sore point of mine, partly due to my own struggles to shake off an excessive need for it; it's always irritating when I see people that I care about fall into the same traps that I'm in or that I like to think I wriggled out of.

Children need to be taught right from wrong according to the standards of their parents and society; unfortunately, many adults never outgrow an overwhelming need to solicit sanction from external forces. And the nature of many external forces is such that the negative messages far outweigh the positive ones. Much more time and energy is given to communicating shortcomings than to celebrating excellence; mere adequacy is usually ignored altogether.

Any psychology book or course will teach that positive reinforcement is much more powerful than punishment. I found that out for myself several years ago with my own children. Yelling and grounding was getting me nowhere so I tried a technique that I had heard or read about: "catch them doing something good". It was a bit awkward at first but it began to show results almost immediately; soon verbalizing the positive became second nature, not only with the kids but with friends, family, and even strangers.

Praise is such a powerful tool, it's frightening. People get sucked into cults and gangs and dysfunctional love affairs by becoming addicted to the approval and/or affection that's given to them at the onset, thereby reeling them in. I don't use the word "addicted" lightly - that kind of validation can be like a drug to an insecure (or even a well-adjusted) person. When the approval is withdrawn, the subject (or shall I say victim) assumes it's their own fault for not living up to expectations, and just tries harder to please, eventually falling deeper into the cycle of low self-esteem and abuse.

It's frightening to be vulnerable to anyone who knows how to manipulate this way.

Of course not everyone expressing praise has ulterior motives but those depending upon external validation may not be able to tell the difference before it's too late.

My point? I think it's that relying on external validation as an adult is misleading at best (even fatal at worst!) because the message is likely to be heavily weighted towards the negative by human nature, or towards the positive due to manipulation. Why put any trust in that sort of feedback?

I remember being motivated by the need to have the approval of others. I remember feeling that I wasn't complete without a boyfriend; unfortunately, I rarely felt complete even with the boyfriend, because the problem was me. Why would I have felt that another person could supply what I was missing? That's probably a question for the shrinks. At least now I see how wrong that attitude is.

Marriage supplied the partner but it still took many years before I landed on my own two feet emotionally. I read books like I'm OK You're OK but I never really grasped the concept that I was OK, or had the potential to be if I let myself.

At the moment I don't remember exactly how I got from there to here; it must have been a gradual process which is still under way. I achieved satisfaction from jobs well done, first at work in a hospital lab, later as a mother. I slowly undertook responsibilities on various school and other local committees, and saw that I was indeed capable. All I know is, now I trust my own judgement and instincts above anybody else's. That in itself brings much comfort and a feeling of security and stability.

I'd like to be able to snap my fingers and have my some of my friends magically see themselves without distortion. I'd like them to feel confident that they can weather the storms and survive, even flourish; and that they can take on everyday challenges unintimidated by the worst possible scenario.

A person whose self-image is at the mercy of others can never swim to their fullest desired potential.

Linque Du Jour

The quest for external validation
By Mark Taylor

In the course of a web search on "external validation" I came across this article in, of all things, a newsletter of the Society for Photographic Education. It reflects the attitude that anyone contemplating (or maintaining) an online journal had best adopt; it really applies to any creative endeavour.

My favourite passage therein:

If you're gonna do the Art Thing, uncompromised personal integrity must be the engine that drives your machine. You've got to dance like nobody's watching. If they get it fine. If they don't, fuck 'em. If it makes them think about anything, it's probably worth something.

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