You probably know excessive scrolling is bad for your mental health.
It’s well documented that heavy social-media use leads to depression and anxiety — especially in teenagers and children. Although most of us understand that social media encourages unhealthy comparisons of ourselves to others, we continue to crave “likes” like candy.
That’s because what we’re really seeking is external validation, and though social media is the latest — and perhaps most pervasive — expression of this reliance, it’s by no means limited to the device in your pocket.
When External Validation Becomes Unhealthy
Your boss tells you “well done” on your latest project. You get an A on your term paper. Your significant other tells you you look nice. These are all examples of external validation: affirmation from a source outside yourself.
It’s not inherently bad; in fact, we all begin life in a state of complete reliance on external validation.
As children, we rely on it to learn appropriate behaviors. As adults, it’s a necessary part of tribe life: You need to be able to take instruction and constructive criticism from others in order to collaborate with peers. The problem occurs when outside approval becomes your be-all and end-all.
“Children who do what their parents say get a lot of benefits,” said psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig, LCSW/M.Ed. “It becomes maladaptive when you’re old enough to stand on your own two feet and you’ve cultivated this habit [of relying on their feedback].”
Neither is it healthy to completely eschew the opinions of others. If your boss asked you to make some changes to a project you’d submitted, or if a professor suggested a different angle for your essay, would you completely ignore the feedback?
It’s all about balance: knowing when to take healthy, constructive feedback from others while not relying completely on outside approval for your sense of self-worth.
“It’s a spectrum of behavior,” said Ken Dubner, CHt. and NLP master practitioner. “External validation is a dead-end street if it’s all you can do,” he said.
What does an unhealthy reliance on external validation look like?
Not being able to confront people or disagree, changing your thoughts and beliefs because someone else either approves or disapproves, and ascribing your self-worth to the approval of others — all are examples of a reliance on external validation.
“If our life plans or even just short-term goals are guided by external criteria…without a true understanding of what it is that we actually want or what fulfills and satisfies us, then we end up at minimum disconcerted and unhappy, and at worst, with a midlife crisis or severely depressed,” said Dr. Risa Stein, professor of psychology at Rockhurst University in Missouri.
Perhaps counterintuitively, an unhealthy reliance on external validation is especially common among high achievers.
Praised for their good grades or athletic performance; lauded for every endeavor and accomplishment. But then what happens if a high achiever makes a mistake? Or they simply enter the real world in which there are no gold stars for a job well done?
“One false step and [high achievers] lose that external validation and those rewards, and then there goes their sense of identity and who they are,” Stein continued. “And then without those rewards…they question their self-worth, and that’s real damaging.”
If you’ve been lauded for your good grades and talent from day one, you’re more likely to develop a dependence on that affirmation as you age.
Learn How to Self-Validate
So how do you practice self-validation?
The first step, according to Stein, is to get to know yourself.
What drives you? What are your values? Not your mentor’s, not your boss’, not your parents’. Yours.
“I think a lot of people, when they think about external validation, it comes in really general, broad terms,” Stein said. “‘You need to make money, you need to marry well, you need to have a big house, you need to make great grades,’ but they don’t ever think about what those things actually mean. If we look only at the external validation of ‘what is [my] title, am I a CEO or a regional manager,’ then we’re missing out on the nuances that can actually make our life happier.”
Koenig urges you to take analyze your motives. Why are you seeking validation, and from whom? She cautions against what she calls “recall and reality,” or a distorted measure of reality based on a past memory.
Another problem with the need for external validation is that it drives us to act according to how we imagine others perceive or react to us.
How validation drives our actions
You might get anxious after submitting a big project at school or work, obsessively refreshing your email and imagining what sort of critique you’ll receive. Or you might dwell endlessly on a mistake you made.
But these reactions are based on emotions, the “deep emotional associations [in] that situation that are being brought up, which are never logical,” Dubner said. He offered a hack: a visualization practice to help you strip the emotion from the situation in which you are seeking validation in order to see it logically.
Reimagining a situation can help
Most people, Dubner said, recall negative situations through their own eyes and positive ones through, what he calls, the “camera.”
“There’s two ways we can remember something or imagine something — because memory is just imagination,” he said. “One is like we’re looking at it through our eyes again, like we’re there, and the other one is dissociated, as if we’re looking at it [through] a camera.”
When you recall a memory through your own eyes, that memory is more potent. You feel almost like you’re there again, reliving that experience — for good or ill. Recalling the situation from an external point of view — as though you’re watching yourself in a movie — allows you to rationally analyze the situation without getting bogged down in emotions.
So if you’re anxious about your boss’ critique of your project, imagine the situation from an external point of view. Your best friend’s point of view, Dubner suggested. More than likely, you’ll envision the scenario in a less emotional and more logical manner.
People who are reliant on external validation often ascribe self-worth to that validation: If your boss, teacher, or father approves of your actions or work, you’re good. If not, you’re bad. Viewing the situation logically is likely to help you remove moral judgement from the equation.
“People aren’t all good or all bad, and behavior isn’t necessarily good or bad,” Koenig said. “It’s beneficial or not, useful or not, appropriate or not, and thinking in those terms rather than in moral terms changes everything.”
She urges us to have “compassion and not shame”; to be able to recognize our own strengths and weaknesses and realize that they don’t define our value.
Be Kind to Yourself
So the next time you find yourself pining for “likes” or stressing over what someone thinks of you or your work, take a step back. Take out the emotion, examine the facts, and ask yourself why this person’s opinion matters.
And, Koenig said, have a little self-compassion.
“Be kind and say, ‘You know, I’m human.’”