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  • Writer's pictureHeather Davis

Self-Validation: Freedom from External Approval & Tool of Empowerment

Updated: Jul 16, 2021

"It is our nature to conform; it is a force which not many can successfully resist. What is its seat?
The inborn requirement of self-approval.” — Mark Twain

Social influence is a powerful force.

It’s what drives people to change or double-down in their beliefs, opinions and behavior after interacting with others.

In our inter- and over-connected culture, social influence is key to spreading ideas, intensifying fears and in the organization of movements, from protests to insurrections.

Recent reality, and research, shows us just how strong an impact it can have.

Also known as informational social influence, the concept of social proof was first coined by psychologist Robert Cialdini. It’s when people look to others around them as a guide and short-cut to what is good and right behavior.

It is conformity based on the assumption that if others do it, it must be right – and the more people that do it, the righter it must be. It helps us bypass all the inconvenient time and work involved in thinking for ourselves.

Popularity appears an easy gauge of good. Advertising claims of “best-selling” or “fastest-growing” have nothing to do with the product itself and yet, no matter. If others like it, that’s good enough.

How others influence our opinions

The basic want to be liked and accepted is potent. Conforming and changing behavior or beliefs to go along with others helps feed a strong emotional need for connection we all have.

Research by Moussaid et al., (2013) showed that a majority of non-experts that share a similar belief, influences the individual opinion of others. Called the majority effect, it happens in jury deliberation rooms and from social media feeds every day.

The researchers also found that confident people in a group also sway a group opinion, called the expert effect.

Other studies have found that the sheer repetition of an opinion by one person, proved almost as influential as that of a more broadly-held belief (Weaver et al., 2007).

The squeaky opinion gets the influence.

Echo chambers reinforce & make more extreme

Overall, our opinions are bolstered and strengthened when we surround ourselves with likeminded individuals.

Known as group consensus or polarization, studies have shown that opinions among individuals, when shared by a larger group, are not only reinforced but can emerge as more extreme.

Online echo chambers magnify and amplify ideas. Ideas that are becoming increasingly untethered to reality, empathy, and even humanity.

A human desire to fit in, be liked & validated

The emotional reward in all this is belonging and validation.

Validation is the confirmation that we are worthwhile, and an affirmation that our feelings and opinions are too. It can come from the people around us (external) or it can be something we can give to ourselves (internal), and most often both.

As social beings interdependent on others, it’s both totally understandable and also gratifying when our opinions, ideas and accomplishments are acknowledged and validated by other people.

Even the most self-sufficient and independent among us still require validation in some facets of life.

Validation as a spectrum

On one end of the spectrum, external validation describes the reliance on ongoing encouragement and feedback from others to validate our feelings, personal worth, or point to preferable ways to behave to be socially accepted.

Over here, the opinion and approvals of others tends to outweigh our own, and self-judging and constantly comparing oneself to others is routine.

On this end, we depend psychologically on others for how we feel, think about and value ourselves. Normative social influence can lead us to change or hide facets of ourselves, or to conform in order to fit in, be liked and accepted.

The other end of the spectrum is self-validation

In contrast, internal or self-validation involves the ability to feel good about ourselves separate from the world around us. Learning to accept and value ourselves, our thoughts and feelings despite what others think isn’t easy. It’s an act of courage, especially these days.

Internal validation is more challenging especially because of the constant bombardment of opinions and marketing on what’s good/bad, right/wrong, valuable/or not being hurled about.

It comes down to a daily balancing act between the constant feedback of others, with what you know to be true for yourself. It’s about integrating that which helps you and rejecting the majority rest.

On the spectrum, the more we can strive towards the internal validation and the less we can depend on the external, the better off we’ll be.

The problem comes in when self-validation is missing and when external recognition becomes relied on for value or self-worth. Liking and showing oneself kindness and respect is the basis for something critical: self-esteem.

This life is mine alone.
So, I have stopped asking people for directions to places they’ve never been.” - Glennon Doyle

Mental & physical cost of external validation

Research has strongly connected low self-esteem with a reliance on external validation. Rather than trusting one’s own feelings and judgements, some look instead to the outside world for approval and self-worth.

Studies also show that not only does a dependence on external validation reflect low-self-worth, it actually erodes self-esteem, feeds the insecurity and harms self-confidence.

An over-emphasis on everyone’s else opinion stems often from insecurity, anxiety or emptiness, and can leave us feeling even more so.

A study by psychologist and self-esteem researcher, Jennifer Crocker at the University of Michigan (2002), looked at more than 600 first-year college students. She found that for 8 out of 10 of them, their self-worth was tied directly to their academic achievement and appearance.

The more students emphasized the value of external achievements, the more negative the consequences for their academic performance, mental health and general well-being.

Despite more studying and the motivation to achieve, students that linked their self-esteem to their grades did not do better. In fact, the more self-worth was connected to grades and physical appearance, the more academic difficulties, the more stress, anger and depression, and the higher likelihood of drug and alcohol use and eating disorders.

On the other hand, Crocker found that those college students whose self-esteem stemmed instead from something internal had better academic performance, less eating disorders and less drug or alcohol use.

Freedom on the inside comes when validation from the outside doesn’t matter.”- Richie Norton

Self-acceptance propels self-determination

Self-determination is the ability to take control of one’s life and future. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan coined self-determination theory (SDT) and found that the ability to be self-determining is positively correlated with such fundamental traits like self-knowledge, secure self-esteem and self-acceptance.

Accepting ourselves involves recognizing our accomplishments and strengths, and efforts and growth. It also requires honestly acknowledging our weaknesses, faults and imperfections. Self-acceptance helps people like themselves regardless of either list.

Self-validation and acceptance have shown to defend against the negative impact of inevitable criticism, or feeling the need to compare oneself to others. It’s also been found to help with self-motivation and encouragement, especially helpful when life’s not going your way.

"The sooner we accept the inevitable dilemma of not being able to win the approval of everyone we meet, the easier our lives will become."
— Richard Carlson

Secure self-esteem and internal validation

While it would seem that when it comes to self-esteem, the more the better, it turns out that not all self-esteem is created equal.

Self-esteem that is fragile or unstable is dependent on external approval and validation. It relies on ongoing attention and recognition.

For self-esteem to be firmly grounded in true self-worth, it’s got to be secure. Like self-validation, it’s internal and disconnected from the approval of others.

“What an interesting little prison we build from the invisible bricks of other people's opinions.”
- Jacob Nordby

Addiction to approval

When self-esteem is insecure, there’s a need for constant reassurance from someone or something external, that we’re OK.

Approval-seeking is not unlike other addictive behaviors. Recognition and approval are a temporary fix that must be replaced shortly by another. In this case, constant social media feedback is the supplier.

Study after study has detailed the link between social media use and anxiety, depression and driving unhealthy comparisons.

Kajillions of likes and posts and comments and shares fuel a giant validation vortex. People seeking attention and approval, sharing opinions and judgments and generating tons of both temporary feelings of value, and also hurt feelings and self-doubt.

Comments and judgments often have little to do with the person being judged and more about a person looking to be heard. Despite this, online feedback is often weighed heavily and taken personally. Even the simple absence of positive feedback can be inferred as rejection and lead to self-doubts and insecurity.

Prioritizing the opinions of others over our own is a constant moving target, not to mention an exhausting way to live.

Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice.”
– Steve Jobs

Self-validation is helped by ignoring the world

While we are indeed social beings, it’s possible all of this has just gone too far.

If you happen to find yourself too far on the external validation side of the spectrum, turning down the outside influence is helpful.

In order to increase autonomy and learn to value ourselves, unplugging from everyone’s opinion is a good place to start.

Self-determination theory (SDT) maintains that self-esteem increases not by depending on the feedback from others but instead by spending more time alone and making decisions independently.

The one opinion that matters most

Seneca the Elder said it two-thousand years ago. I guess we need to say it again:

What you think of yourself is much more important than what others think of you.

[mic drop]

The first step is to be clear on what it is you think and feel about yourself and ideas - separate from the rest of the world.

Some other things that help in building self-validation include a healthy exploration of why you feel you need to be validated and by whom.

Getting real helps too. It’s just not rational that outside approval can be the source of your own self-respect or self-worth or happiness.

That’s a crazy conspiracy theory.

"Not one drop of my self-worth depends on your acceptance of me."
– Quincy Jones

Give it to yourself instead

To dial down the external and empower the internal, be the source of all the positive things about yourself that you want others to say.

Don’t wait for others to make you feel good about yourself. Cultivating a supportive, accepting and motivating attitude towards ourselves is time way better spent.

Build your own arsenal that can serve you regardless of external approval. Generate and reinforce secure self-esteem by focusing on the positive and collecting reminders of your own accomplishments and value.

After all, who better to know your capabilities, skills, thoughts and dreams, then yourself?


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