What you think of yourself is much more important than what others think of you.
What does it mean to stop seeking external validation?
Well, simply put, it means relying less on the approval of others and instead looking to yourself for validation and worth.
This may not even be something you’re fully conscious of right now. I know that when I started my journey towards intentional living, it took a lot of inner work to uncover the ways in which I had been a chronic people-pleaser for the majority of my adult life. This resulted in a life that from the outside appeared successful and well put together, but on the inside felt disconnected, numb and unfulfilled.
So how can you find the healthy balance where you’re living a life that is true to you, without the feelings of unworthiness that fuel the hidden societal epidemic of people-pleasing and chronic procrastination?
In this article, I’ll explore the why behind external validation as well as the ways in which you seek it. I’ll then move on to how you can move the locus of control back to you.
Why Do You Crave External Validation?
By learning what behaviour made you more acceptable to your parents, or receiving praise from teachers, approval-seeking has been drilled into you since childhood as a necessary way of navigating the world. In short, it was fundamental to building self-esteem and feeling loved as a child, when you were entirely dependent on others for survival.
According to David Richo in How to Be an Adult in Relationships, the five ‘As’ of Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Affection and Allowing are necessary in order to build relationship essentials like love, respect, security and support. As such, there is nothing inherently wrong with these needs. In many ways, they’re actually fundamental for your growth into a healthy and emotionally available adult.
Interestingly, the drive for social acceptance runs even deeper still:
Humans are evolutionarily wired to crave inclusion. Eons ago, this was linked with our survival; in prehistoric times, rejection triggered fear. If someone became isolated or was ousted from the group, his or her life would be at risk.
Melody Wilding, Psych Central
Whilst it’s unlikely you’ll die these days if no one likes you(!), connection and inclusion within social groups are still an important part of human existence. For example, studies have shown how feelings of loneliness can actually increase stress and even decrease your expected life span.
But at what cost are we willing to surrender to herd mentality?
If we probe a little deeper, you can see how inherent things that you may not be able to change about yourself, such as your sexuality, would have meant painful feelings of shame and taboo in the not-so-distant past. And living a lie could arguably cause more internal distress over the course of a lifetime than society’s acceptance.
Too much approval-seeking can be crippling if you downplay your own needs and consistently abandon yourself.
How Does Harmful Approval Seeking Show Up In Your Life?
Needing approval is like saying ‘your view of me is more important than my own opinion of myself’.
Dr Wayne Dyer
It may be helpful for you to take a deep dive into your own life to critically examine the ways in which your approval-seeking may be doing more harm than good, and, in some cases, even holding you back. You may find that you are giving away your personal power in one or more of the following areas:
A busy, vibrant, goal-oriented woman is so much more attractive than a woman who waits around for a man to validate her existence.
For both men and women, I think you’re superhuman if you haven’t tried to validate yourself at some point through your appearance. Body image is such a loaded topic, which largely stems from the porn industry, as well as more traditional narratives of what men and women should look like.
From pursuing one-night stands after a break-up to covering yourself in fake tan for a night out, self-image becomes a problem when you start to over-associate your self-worth with your appearance. If your validation comes from guys finding you attractive and wanting to sleep with you… I don’t have to tell you that this is an all-too-common but shallow existence.
You are so much more than the beauty ‘standard’ you’re trying to shoe-horn yourself into. Take the counter-cultural approach and embrace your natural beauty.
This is one which I particularly identify with when it comes to harmful approval-seeking.
If you were pushed as a child to succeed academically, or even through music or sports, you have probably carried a narrative throughout your life that your self-worth is dependent on how outwardly ‘capable’ or ‘successful’ you appear. This may be through awards and accolades, the need for a bigger and better house, or the size of your paycheck.
While there’s nothing bad about these things in and of themselves, you have likely always relied too much on the approval of authority figures like teachers, which later reappear later in life in the demanding figures of bosses or superiors.
Regardless of how hard you push yourself and how you use your talents, you’ve likely never stopped to appreciate that you are inherently lovable and worthy, just as you are.
Your inherited blueprint
You grow up craving the love and respect of your parents, so it’s unsurprising that you internalise the existing structures of your parental family home, as well as their hopes and dreams for what you will become.
This becomes problematic when your parents view success as going to medical school, when your true calling ever since childhood has been to perform on a West End stage.
It is easy to go through life never really pushing against the boundaries of what your parents did or thought was possible. And this keeps everyone happy because it validates the path that they have chosen in life and doesn’t threaten their ways of doing things.
It is always your job to forge out on your own and create new blueprints, with no model or footpath to follow.
Twenty-first-century living brings with it its own set of problems. More than ever, we are addicts to the short-term dopamine hit of instant validation. We are constantly trying to keep up with Jones’, and buying more stuff to try and show off to people we don’t even really know.
By projecting your best life through your carefully curated Instagram photos, you’re largely creating a viewing platform for your life to be scrutinised, evaluated and judged by others. Am I enough? Is my life enviable to others? Am I desirable?
If you’re obsessed with the number of ‘Likes’ you receive on your latest status update or profile picture, then the likelihood is that you care way too much about what others think of you.
Shifting the Locus of Control Back to You
The people who receive the most approval in life are the ones who care the least about it – so technically, if you want the approval of others, you need to stop caring about it.
Dr Wayne Dyer
There are lots of backwards laws in the universe, and this is one of the strangest! How does it work that you gain more respect by trying less to impress?
Adler and Proctor couldn’t have said it better when they ask:
Would you respect people who have compromised important values just to gain acceptance? Are you likely to think highly of people who repeatedly deny their own needs as a means of buying approval?
When you receive criticism or disapproval, you should aim to see this as necessary and positive. 100% of people are never going to agree with you whatever your stance, so you may as well make sure the people who do are your people! Be thankful that you quickly get to identify those that aren’t in alignment with you. This only makes more room for the ones that are.
Moreover, if you constantly try to bend yourself like a pretzel to fit other people’s version of what you should be, I hate to break it to you, but you’re still going to disappoint people. This feels even worse when your inauthentic self isn’t good enough! Your subconscious then starts to believe that your true self is completely unlovable and must be hidden at all costs.
External validation can always be taken away from you through opinions and outside circumstances. Alternatively, internal validation means that you stop giving away your personal power.
A 5 Step Process to Stop Seeking External Validation
Now that you have a better understanding of the ways in which you rely too heavily on external validation in your own life, it’s time to look at actionable ways you can reduce this behaviour and turn to yourself for answers. Here is my 5-step guide to stop seeking approval from others.
1. Do shadow work
The first step, as we talked about briefly above, is to do the inner work of identifying your go-to approval-seeking patterns. This involves looking at your life currently, but also requires you to analyse your childhood for clues and signs as to where this behaviour stems from.
If you’re anything like me (read: recovering people pleaser!), then you may find that you actually fit into every section, with some hitting home a little more than others. This is absolutely okay and nothing to be ashamed of!
However the need for external validation shows up in your life today, recognise that it starts with an unfulfilled childhood need. Now that you’re an adult, you can provide this for yourself with awareness and practice.
It might help you to read the book Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn, which discusses how to love children outside of a traditional reward and punishment model. When children are taught that approval must be earned, research shows the damage that this can cause.
Learn to re-parent yourself by understanding on a deep level that you are lovable. Even and most especially when you’re not trying to perform, please or impress.
2. Identify your core values
The second stage of the inner work is to identify your core values. These are the foundations upon which you’re building your life. It’s important to prioritise in life so that you have a clear understanding of what matters to you as an individual.
If you’ve been a people-pleaser for a long time, you may not even realise how much your value system has been eroded away. If you’ve been so preoccupied with how your actions are perceived by other people, then you may have been guilty of neglecting yourself and your own needs.
3. Set healthy boundaries
Identifying your values means that you can start to set healthy boundaries around your time, interactions and choices.
Now is a good time to practice saying ‘No’ (which may be a word that’s missing from your current vocabulary!). Try not to over-explain yourself with excuses and apologies when you assertively state your boundaries. This can feel incredibly uncomfortable when you’re first giving it a go. But like walking in new shoes, it gets easier as you break them in over time.
I should also warn you that if people are used to your approval-seeking behaviours, then you have trained them to know what to expect from you. Expect a certain amount of backlash and confrontation when you change the rules of how people interact with you. But don’t let this deter you on your journey!
4. Revamp your self-talk
Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.
In other words, you’ve got to start talking to yourself like someone you love and develop the habit of self-praise.
According to a study by the National Science Foundation, you think somewhere between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts per day. Around 80% of these are negative, and 95% are the same repetitive thoughts.
Whilst this may sound incredibly depressing, the good news is that you can make a concerted effort to change this!
Try to catch yourself every time you say something negative to yourself. For instance, how long would you let someone sit next to you and criticise, tear you down and say awful things about you? Not very long, I should think!
Now imagine the way in which you’d speak to a close friend. The likelihood is that you’d be kind and support them, no matter the situation. Can you see how their damaging thoughts just simply aren’t true? Try to start treating yourself like this friend.
Get into the habit of praising yourself whenever you do something you wish someone else would recognise. For example: a good piece of work, going above and beyond for someone who needed help, or sticking with your gym routine even though you didn’t feel like going.
Self-talk and praise are cornerstone habits for shifting the locus of control back to yourself.
5. Spend more time alone
The final step in this process doesn’t mean becoming a hermit. But it does mean getting more comfortable with time spent in your own company!
By spending more time alone and not seeking support or validation, you learn to trust yourself by doing things which scare you and getting comfortable with failure. I can’t tell you how important it is for your own sense of self-esteem and worth to be curious and learn new things. Developing your own opinions on big and small topics, and knowing your own individual likes and dislikes, without succumbing to herd mentality, is a great launch pad for self-approval and confidently going your own way in life.
Practice gratitude for the things you have. Make the mental shift that you would be okay if you lost everything. While imagining this may be anxiety-inducing at first, it’s a good exercise when coming to peace with who you are outside of your things, accolades and relationships.
If you struggle with validation through social media, then stop being on show all the time. Experiment with living your life off-camera and out of public view.
Stop Seeking External Validation & Start Looking Inward for Approval
The importance of looking inward for approval and validation can’t be overstated when it comes to building an intentional life that is meaningful and fulfilling to you.
You are the most qualified person in your life to make the best decisions for yourself. No one else can tell you what this looks like or cares as much about your life as you do. So stop outsourcing your happiness and give this responsibility to the only person who is truly equipped for the job.
Oh, and it should go without saying, but please don’t hesitate to seek the advice of a health professional if you require further support or therapy to work through any of the issues highlighted here. It takes consistent work, but the results are so worth it!