Validation is Not a Dirty Word

May 09, 2011

Good morning Marzipanlings! This guest post is written by the FANTASTIC Dr. Ashley Solomon of Nourishing the Soul. All her contact info is in the bio at the bottom, but I really encourage you to take a look at her blog if you haven’t yet. It is one of my favorite reads.

I tend to throw around positive affirmations and spew feel-good-about-ourselves mantras like it’s my job. Okay, so maybe it sort of is my job – I’m a psychologist and a body image blogger for crying out loud. But what sometimes gets confused in all this talk about how to feel good about ourselves is the idea that we need only ourselves to feel great.

We read and hear things all the time like, “I know I shouldn’t care what other people think, but…” Unfortunately, that’s just not true. And not only that, but it’s not all that helpful to believe either.

Girl Scout Day Camp

image by GraceFamily

Now, it makes sense that we try to pound the message of self-love into the hearts and minds of the masses. Most of us have spent at least a good portion of our lives looking to others to affirm that we’re okay. I can recall waiting hours for my mother to get home before heading out on one of my first co-ed movie excursions in sixth grade. I wouldn’t dare leave the house without confirming that my plaid skirt didn’t impair the aloof but trendy look I was going for. I didn’t trust my own judgment and I was terrified of being found out as the girl who just wasn’t with it.

Like many of us, my desire for approval became more of a need, and then more of an obsession. Breaking out of this pattern meant shifting the power over my self-perception from others to myself. I practiced positive self-statements (e.g. “You look freakin’ awesome. Wowza!”) and told myself it didn’t matter what anyone else thought if I felt strong and confident.

To some degree, that was true. But it wasn’t entirely true. I never actually stopped hoping to occasionally turn the eye of others and I never totally threw out other peoples’ opinions. I mean, c’mon… If I didn’t care what anyone else thought about anything I think, do, or feel, I probably wouldn’t write and put it out there for the world to see (and yes, validate me at times). What did stop was my constant need for that external boost.

What I’m here to say is that this is totally okay. It’s normal – and healthy, even – to seek others’ approval at times. Who doesn’t like a few more twitter followers or your partner to tell you that you look amazing in those jeans? We need to hear how wonderful we are from others. I sometimes remind people of their four year old self who shows mommy the artistic masterpiece (i.e. scribbled chaos on contstruction paper) and needs nothing more than for her to say, “Oh my, how beautiful!” and mean it. We don’t totally grow out of that.

In fact, our need for external validation is linked to our evolution and our humanness. If we truly didn’t care about what others thought about us, we wouldn’t be very good social beings – an aspect of ourselves that has been tied to our survival as a species. We need a little bit of anxiety about what others might think about our actions in order to make decisions that make us happy in relation to other people. Sure, we could eschew all social norms and say screw everyone else, but we know that the vast majority of us are made happier by living in community and being socially engaged.

Notice that I said “a little bit” of anxiety is needed. If our need for approval impairs our ability to engage, keeps us feeling depressed, or makes us late for our first co-ed movie, we might need to shift the delicate balance of approval from others to self. But wanting to look hot for your dude(tte) or get props for your amazing presentation at work is totally okay. And since I said so, you’re fine 😉

Dr. Ashley Solomon is a therapist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and major mental illness.  Her blog, Nourishing the Soul, provides a forum for discussion about these topics, and much more. She is the originator of the Body Image Awards, and can be found on twitter and facebook.