External validation has a bad name. We shouldn’t care so much about what others think, right?
Well, if we all did and said whatever we wanted with no consideration of how it may impact others, the world would become completely individualistic and emotionally detached. Seeking external validation is not only natural; it encourages us to be socially responsible. At times, it pushes us to step out of our comfort zone, take risks, and achieve bigger things in life.
With that said, an overreliance on external validation is unhealthy, and can lead us down a path of self-pity, self-doubt, and perpetual dissatisfaction. But how do we know when we’ve given others too much say in our self-perception?
Are you over-reliant on external validation?
Have you ever worked hard on a project, giving it your all because you enjoyed the challenge? You pushed your limits, burned the midnight oil, and successfully achieved your goal, feeling proud and confident. But after presenting it to your manager, their lukewarm response and constructive criticism deflate your excitement. Your confidence wavers, and the pride you felt moments ago turns into self-doubt. You think:
“What’s the point of working so hard?”
“No matter what I do, it will never be appreciated.”
“I’m not as good as I think I am.
Why does the lack of validation change how you feel about your work? It’s natural to experience disappointment when our efforts aren’t recognised. But when we begin to judge our self-worth based on the opinions of others and see ourselves through their eyes, that’s when we may lose touch with our own reality.
The more we allow others to define our self-worth, the more painful the lack of external validation becomes. When we are constantly working to impress others, be it our boss, colleagues, or spouse, we set ourselves up for disappointment because we subconsciously expect others to make us feel good. In other words, we hold them responsible for our emotions. This not only puts us in a state of anxiety but also compels us to pursue things we may not necessarily desire.
For instance, we may strive for a promotion merely for the sake of the title, even though we may not truly want that position. We may prefer working as an individual contributor, but push ourselves into a people management role not for our own growth, but so we can tell our family and friends (and our connections on LinkedIn) that we’re getting ahead in life. This results in misalignment between our career trajectory and what we truly desire, and our happiness is short-lived even if we do achieve that goal.
Moreover, when our primary focus shifts from the intrinsic value of the work itself to the pursuit of external recognition, we tend to view our peers as potential threats rather than collaborators. In this mindset, we become hesitant to share due credit with our teammates, which ultimately results in strained workplace relationships.
How to be less reliant on external validation
1. Reflect and observe our thoughts
When we receive negative feedback, let’s pause for a second before sinking into self-deprecating thoughts. Let’s ask ourselves:
“Where does this need for external validation come from?”
“Why isn’t our self-validation sufficient?”
“How do we perceive ourselves?”
“What are our strengths and values?”
“Are we waiting for others to validate a version of ourselves that we ourselves are not entirely sure of?”
Deep self-reflection allows us to acknowledge our strengths and see a piece of negative feedback for what it really is: an opportunity to grow.
2. Set realistic expectations for ourselves
Instead of succumbing to unhealthy comparisons, set realistic goals as your yardstick for success and celebrate each achievement along the way. When tackling a complex project, for example, you may aim to
- Complete the project within the specified timeframe.
- Incorporate a specific number of real-life case studies.
- Use the latest software introduced by the company.
- Deliver your presentation confidently to your team or manager.
Self-defined goals allow you to complete the project on your own terms rather than being beholden to what others think. Sure, negative feedback from your boss may still sting, but it’s less likely to undermine your self-worth. Sometimes, we may also need to set boundaries with people who are not supportive of our self-improvement journey and constantly criticise us.
3. Shift our focus from external to internal validation
Now, we can’t eliminate our need for external validation without replacing it with something healthier: internal validation. This can be particularly challenging, especially when our inner critics are vocal, but here are some ways to start.
Refrain from self-criticism and be aware of negative self-talk: Instead of berating yourself when you make a mistake, practise self-compassion by reminding yourself that you are only human.
Celebrate when you achieve your goals: When you reach your self-determined goals, give yourself a small treat or share your satisfaction with someone you trust.
Give ourselves credit for our accomplishments: Acknowledge your role in making it happen, rather than attributing it solely to ‘luck’ or other factors.
Acknowledge our strengths and qualities: Learn to take compliments graciously rather than dismissing them.
Build the confidence to set higher goals for ourselves: Self-compassion isn’t to be confused with complacency. Put your growth mindset to work and strive for improvement while maintaining contentment.
How can coaching help?
Through guided introspection, coaching can help you understand why you seek external validation and gain insight into your thought and behavioural patterns. I also work with clients to:
- Reframe negative self-talk and limiting beliefs to develop a more positive self-image.
- Assist them in pinpointing their core values and setting goals that are personally meaningful.
- Support them in setting healthy boundaries with individuals from whom they seek approval but who may not have their best interests at heart.
- Help them develop action plans and make autonomous decisions that are independent of external validation.
Ultimately, by understanding what truly matters to them, clients can free themselves from the need for approval or fear of disapproval from others.
Learn more about the benefits of coaching here.