I held a workshop recently and it was attended by my usual coaching clientele – super capable, high-achieving female lawyers who hold senior positions and perform their jobs to the highest standards. A room full of supreme confidence you might assume. But you’d be wrong! When I asked these extremely competent women to communicate their own value to the assembled group – they all stumbled and seemed almost lost for words. Why? Because nearly all of them had learned to define their worth through their interactions with others – they sought external validation for evidence of their value and were unable to recognise or articulate it for themselves.
Is this something you are guilty of too? Maybe you haven’t given the topic much thought before. After all, if you’re achieving and performing well and receiving lots of positive external feedback because of that — why would it even be a problem? Well – have a think and see whether any of the following scenarios resonate with you.
10 signs you are relying on external validation for your self-worth.
- Feel rejected or disproportionately disappointed and anxious if someone disagrees with you or criticises something you have done?
- Tend to feel that specific pieces of negative feedback are a reflection of your general personal worth and character?
- Feel unwilling to express different/opposing ideas in meetings etc?
- Need to receive regular positive feedback from others in order to feel that you are doing a job well?
- Often say you agree with something that you don’t really agree with (how to deal with a client, etc?)
- Wait for someone in authority to recognise and articulate your worth to you before putting yourself forward for stretch projects or promotions?
- Do things that you don’t want to do because you feel unable to say ‘no’? (working the weekend, taking on an extra project.)
- Tend not to raise the issue if you have received unfair treatment or are unhappy with service you have received?
- Concede points/arguments (even when you think/know deep down that you are right)?
- Apologise for speaking up, or in advance of normal actions where no apology is required? (Apologising for delegating a task where this is the standard procedure for example).
Obviously we all do some of these things – some of the time! And sometimes it isn’t a problem. After all, seeking approval can often have the result of making us more conscientious and driven. But if you recognise a lot of these signs in yourself, then it could just be that you are relying on external validation more than is healthy – or productive.
If you have this trait – then don’t immediately take it as a criticism (you will be inclined to of course!). The need for external validation is widespread and somewhat rooted in human nature. Part of humanity’s success lies in its ability to form strong community bonds, to cooperate and assimilate. In other words, we are programmed to want to be part of the ‘in group’, to get communal approval, to do what the majority perceives to be right. This is all very necessary for our survival in a primitive sense – the problem comes when we begin to base our own perceptions of our value on what others think of us. And of course – we can never really know what is going on in other people’s heads, so our assumptions can often be wrong. Social psychologist Charles Horton Cooley described this external validation paradox as ‘The Looking-Glass Self’ – “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.”
When described in those terms, you can begin to see the problems with relying on external validation for your sense of self. It is a wholly artificial construct based on your own insecurities. And the problems with this model of thinking are three-fold.
1. It stops you from having control over your own feelings and well-being.
If your happiness or stability relies on what you think other people are thinking about you – you can’t regulate your own emotions. It is exhausting and unsettling to constantly be on an emotional rollercoaster plunging down and climbing up depending on the feedback you are receiving.
2. It limits your life opportunities and stops you from progressing.
What are your ambitions? If you want to achieve at the highest level, you need to be proactive and assertive to forge your own path. If you have to wait for praise or positive encouragement from the right quarters before going after a promotion or taking on a stretch project, you may well miss out on opportunities that are there for the taking.
3. It disrupts your work/life balance.
Getting that delicate balance right between your career and home lives depends on you recognising your own worth, and being able to confidently assert it. If you don’t want to be that person in the office who always takes on the rubbish jobs, or always has to work on holiday, learning to know, believe and reflect your own value is crucial.
Even as a high achiever – relying on external validation can have serious consequences. Even if you feel that seeking approval from others makes you more dedicated and that the drive for excellence and recognition is what helps you achieve – consider how these behaviours are also preventing you from having control over your life and your destiny. If you are always beholden to what others think of you (or what you think they think of you!) – you can never direct how you progress or how you make balance work for you. Learning how to self-validate instead of seeking external validation, will give you the same stimulus to achieve, but without the loss of control – and the emotional unpredictability.
For a strategy on how to start doing this – tune into the Babyproof Your Career Podcast Episode #35 Internal Validation