4 Reasons We Crave External Validation and 3 Ways to Feel Truly Seen, Heard, and UnderstoodOn Purpose with Jay Shetty
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- 12 Mar 2021
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Every person on the planet wants to be understood. But sometimes what we do to feel understood leaves us feeling even more lonely.
On this episode of On Purpose with Jay Shetty, Jay Shetty explains the difference between seeking validation and wanting to be seen.
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I've talked to nearly 30000 people on this show and all 30000 had one thing in common, they all wanted validation. Every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire. They want to know, do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you in this world with so much going on, with information coming from so many social media news channels, with things changing so quickly, with so many responsibilities each of us have, these are often the questions running on tape in the back of our minds.
If we were able to turn down the volume on everything else around us, most of us would hear our voices on repeat, asking these questions of the world, of our parents, of our partner, our friends, or our employers or peers. Do you see me? Do you hear me? Do I mean something to you? We crave validation. That's a given today. We're talking about why we crave it and how to resolve that craving so that we do feel seen.
We do feel heard. And we know that who we are and what we're doing in this life has meaning and worth. When we look for validation, we're looking for recognition and reassurance that we matter and that we belong. One of the biggest myths out there is that seeking validation is a bad thing. When we talk about validation in this way, the validation seeking is negative. We're often focused on the extremes, the feeling of needing to be validated in everything you do, of having an intense fear of doing or saying something that will be judged harshly or negatively by others.
And that's true. That kind of validation seeking is unhealthy because we're constantly changing ourselves in response to what we think others think one so that they judge us more favorably. Yet validation does have an important role in our lives. When people say we shouldn't want or need any validation from others, that's simply not realistic. And it's not how we're wired. Our brains are highly attuned to react to both harmony and disagreement. Research has long shown that most humans value social conformity so much that they'll actually change their own responses and even their perceptions to go with the group, even when the group is wrong.
In my book, Think Like a Monk, I describe a classic study by Solomon Asch in which participants looked at a series of lines and were meant to indicate which two lines matched over and over again. Participants change their correct responses to incorrect ones in order to match the incorrect answers of others. More recently, scientists have tried to isolate what actually happens in our brains when we disagree with the group. In another study, Chinese researchers took a group of thirty men and women and had them play a game in each round.
A person called the Proposer had a certain amount of money, and they would offer to split it with a responder in a variety of different percentages. They'd offered to split 50, 50, 60 40 and so on. While scientists monitored their brain activity via fMRI, the respondents would accept or reject the offers based on their perceived fairness. But there was a twist in some rounds, the respondent was also showed the responses of four peers. Not surprisingly, the respondents often change their answers to match those of their peers, even when they thought that the offer was unfair.
But check this out. Brain scans showed that when participants disagreed with the group, their brains sent out distress signals. They sounded an alert. And this way, just over a game, played with strangers that had no real consequence in the real world. This shows just how deeply we're wired to conform with others. Disagreeing can cause stress. So while the likelihood that will conform with others varies based factors such as our age, gender, culture and level of self-esteem, in most cases we're likely to go with the group.
We want to be in agreement with the people around us. This is a lot of what's going on. When we seek validation from others, we want them to confirm that we're still part of the group. Again, this goes back to the ancient wiring in our brains when it was safer for us to be part of the groups than to be out in the wilderness trying to survive on our own. So if you're being hard on yourself for caring what people think, please don't.
Instead, if we tossed that energy with understanding that this wanting to be accepted is a deep drive within each and every one of us, we can exercise compassion for ourselves. And from that less critical space, we can gain some perspective on what validation seeking activities are detrimental and which ones can actually help us. First, let's look at what's against us. A big one in this day and age is social media. I'm not demonizing social media. I love it.
It changed my life. I'm extremely, extremely grateful for it. But listen to this. When you understand that we're wired to seek validation and you know that social media operates on likesome views, you can see where the greater challenges come in and where we need to pay extra attention to engage with it in a healthy way. Huffington Post writer Clarissa's Silva conducted in-depth interviews with active social media users aged 28 to 73 and found that 60 percent of them said that social media has had a negative impact on their self-esteem.
Half said it had a negative impact on their relationships. And I know some of you have shared similar experiences with me. When social media has this impact on us, when we get off a feed or an app feeling worse about ourselves or our lives, it's a strong indication that we're assigning at least some of our need for validation to social media that we're going there with the intention, usually a very unconscious intention, to check in and gauge how we should feel about ourselves, about whether we're winning a life compared with what others share in their posts, or based on how others rate our lives.
To see why this is problematic, let's look for a moment of validation in another context. When scientists talk about validation, they're referring to the quality of their work. They're referring to whether the results of a study accurately represent reality. For example, one of the questions they ask when determining the validity of the design of a study is will these methods and this approach tell me what I want to know? If they don't, it's not a valid approach.
Let's look at this through the lens of social media. Let's say I wanted to design a study and the questions I wanted to answer are, am I worthy of love and belonging? Is my life worthwhile? Does who I am matter? And then I said, right, how am I going to answer these questions? I know I'll go on social media and I create a rating system of my life compared to other people's lives as shown on social media.
How many friends or followers do they have versus us? How much time do they spend together with other people? How loving and affirming is their partner compared with mine? How fit today compared to me, how many exciting things do they do? And so on. And I'll compile data. And in the end, if their life looks better than mine, I'll know that I do not matter. And if my life looks equal in quality or better in quality to theirs, I know that I do matter.
If I came to you with that study design, what would you tell me? You'd probably say, Jay. I don't think that's a great idea. And if I asked you why not, what would you say? I know it's a bit silly, but think about this for a minute, because in effect, this is what most of us are actually doing, at least some of the time we engage with social media. The reason that wouldn't be a scientifically valid way to measure my own worth is because the information being provided on social media is skewed.
We know this, that what we share is curated, that we put things out there specifically to get a certain kind of attention. It's not that it's not at all real life, but it's only a slice of life. Even when sentiments and content are authentic, they're planned. So for the most part. What you're only seeing a portion of someone's experience at a time when they want to share it with you doesn't make sense to measure the quality or value of our lives and experiences against someone else's curated videos or images.
And yet again, subconsciously, this is what we're doing. We're measuring how do I fit in compared with others? Am I as successful? Good looking? Do I have enough friends? Am I wearing the right clothes? And when we post, we create a version of ourselves that we present the world. Usually this is a false self. It has elements that are performative because we think those things are what others will approve of or want for themselves.
We want to show ourselves in the best light. So what we're asking to be validated isn't even us. It's a caricature we've created. And here's what's happening internally. While that's happening externally, we can become lost to our creation and it can be harder and harder to recognize who we actually are. As Clarissa's overwrites, we're in effect actually creating a double consciousness where we can even start to prefer to communicate with people digitally rather than in real life. Because over digital means, like social media, emails and texts, it's easier to manipulate our presentation of ourselves.
For some, that may be an effective formula for likes and shares, but it's not a formula for authenticity, self-esteem or deep connection with others or with ourselves. We become lost without a sense of who we are, and as a result, we crave more and more external validation. It's like an appetite that just can't be satisfied because we never received that deep nutrition. That's what we actually need to sustain ourselves. When we lose our sense of self, we constantly look to others to tell us who we are.
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It's funny to think of legendary martial artist and philosopher Bruce Lee wanting to be anyone but himself, yet he said that early in his Hollywood career, when he was filming the TV show The Green Hornet, at one point he looked around and saw a room filled with other people, other human beings. But he was acting like a robot. He realized he had been trying to gain external validation by moving and speaking in the right way instead of doing things the way Bruce Lee would do.
Then always be yourself and express yourself, Lee advised. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate them. This brings us to the other extreme, where we say, I don't care what anyone thinks. How many times have you heard someone say that? Or maybe you've thought that yourself. I wish I was just like so-and-so. They don't care what anyone thinks about them. And yet is that always good? What about people who are intensely rude or insensitive to the feelings of others?
There's a certain amount of behavior and fitting in that helps us to create a kinder and more cohesive society. The other issue is that for most of us, if we say I don't care what anyone thinks, it just isn't genuine. We aren't being truthful with ourselves. Our brains are really small when we tell ourselves it doesn't matter what other people think. I don't care. Our brains know better. Remember the Chinese study I mentioned? Our brains actually send alert signals when we don't fit in.
There doesn't mean that we should bend over backwards to try and fit in. Certainly not. But to manage that kind of primitive circuitry, we have to learn how to engage with it thoughtfully. One way we can do that is through something called self affirmation. Now, that's not to be confused with affirmations, which are phrases we repeat to ourselves to help us focus our thoughts and direct our attitudes. In this context, the key to effective self affirmation isn't simply thinking positive thoughts.
It has to do with identifying with and listing out aspects of ourselves and our connection to our values that affirm who we are. And as studies show, when we self often and have this more grounded and supported sense of who we are, we're actually more likely to have an accurate sense of ourselves. And it's actually easier to learn and grow. Check out this study published in the journal Psychological Science. Researchers took a group of 38 undergrads and split them into two groups.
In one group, the Self Affirmation Group were asked to rank six values from most to least important. The values were aesthetic, social, political, religious, economic and theoretical. Then they were asked to write for five minutes about why the value they put in the top position was the most important to them. Of the six in the second group, participants also ranked the six values, but were then told to write about why their top value was actually not that important to them.
Then the researchers evaluated the participants self-control. They were shown either the letter M or the letter W and were told to press a button when they saw em, but not when they saw the participants in the group who affirmed their top value and wrote about why it was more important to them, actually made fewer errors than those who undermined their top rated value and wrote why actually wasn't that important to them. When the scientists looked at participants brain scans, they saw that those who had affirmed their top value showed brain signals that increased their attention to error and emotion, making them better able to recognize and correct their mistakes as they engaged in the task.
I love this study because it actually shows that when we're aware of and in alignment with our values, our brains actually perform better. And when we have a strong sense of self, we're not totally thrown over by shame. When we make a mistake, we can simply correct validation also linked strongly to our relationships. And it's a big thing most of us look to our romantic partners for we want to partner in part because we want built in affirmation, someone we can constantly turn to who can reassure us.
And we want our friends to affirm us too. But just like our brains know, when we give ourselves empty affirmations, we know when the words of our friends or loved ones don't feel true. And if they don't offer the validation, we can be left in an emotional tailspin, not knowing where to turn to ground ourselves. So how do we solve this? How do we address our own need for self-esteem and affirmation, but also use validation as a positive relationship building tool?
Let's start where we have the most direct, immediate impact with ourselves and think like a monk.
I write a lot about the importance of being connected to our values, of being really clear about what motivates us, what we truly care about, and why. When we seek control in our lives, we often seek to control things that are out of our grasp, what's going on in our world, how others see us and so on. Ironically, what we truly can control, we often ignore things like our values, our values are deeply personal. No one can take them from you and no one needs to affirm them.
But if we haven't identified and affirmed our own values, there's no way to tell how we're doing. And if we're judging ourselves by externals, our tests about our lives and how we gauge how we are doing are actually invalid because other people can't set our values for us. So here's an exercise to help you focus on identifying and aligning with your values and focusing on that self affirmation right down six to 10 of your values, things like kindness, family knowledge, wealth service and so on, and rank them in order of importance to you.
Once you've got your list, do what the participants in the study did and take five minutes and physically write out why that top value is the most important to you. What role does it play in your life when you've done that? Take another five minutes and write out how you honored that value in your daily life. For example, if your top value is kindness, how do you act with kindness to others? How about yourself? How do you demonstrate kindness in your day to day that shows that your top value be specific.
Do you check in with colleagues or loved ones to see how they're doing? Do you hold the door for people or help your children with their homework? Now, for the last five minutes, list out anything you do in your day to day that works against this value. Do you gossip? Do you withhold compliments or love from others? Again, be specific. Now, this isn't meant to make you feel bad about yourself. It's meant to help you identify any times or areas where you tend to act out of alignment with this core value.
We all do that. We all have misalignments. It's about identifying these areas so we can make tweaks and corrections when we see that behavior come up. This exercise helps us see and correct our missteps. So we're constantly growing and improving while also loving ourselves along the way. Unfortunately, we're often taught that it's bad or narcissistic to love and validate ourselves when something unsettling happens. We need to be able to have a sense of our own value and worth.
We need to have that healthy ego to affirm ourselves. That doesn't mean telling ourselves we do everything right and we're perfect, but instead to affirm ourselves as imperfect. But still with lots to offer, models are typically expected to look the way the industry wants them to do what the industry wants them to and even talk the way the industry wants them to, which is not much as a young model. Lacking a strong sense of self, Ashley found herself dealing with constant pressure and criticism by looking for her work in food, men and gossip.
I just 18 years old, she realized she was in a downward spiral of hating who she was ready to quit modeling altogether. Ashley reached out to her mom, who encouraged her to stick with her career, but also to reconnect with her spiritual roots. When she started spending more time with people who had a strong value system, Ashley realized that she'd fallen into a pattern of having people around her who didn't truly care who she was or what she wanted.
She made an about face and started focusing on defining her own values and on creating nurturing relationships with people who loved her. Today, Ashley Graham is one of the most influential voices and figures in modeling and has helped shift the industry towards creating better, more fashionable options for people of all body types. She's also a really good friend and even more wonderful in person. Here's another exercise you can do to help validate yourself. When you see that you don't exactly fit in somewhere.
When you see that maybe you don't have the degree of education that others in your field have. When you see that you don't look like others in your area, when you see that you don't have the same personality or disposition or financial situation, ask yourself this question. What are the unique or unusual things I bring to this space? Because I promise you that you do. I promise you that for any way you are unlike others in your space, in your field, in your job or what you have.
I promise you that there are powerful, positive ways those differences can work to your benefit. I had a friend who got into a relationship with a guy, and when it started out, she was really nervous because everyone he had dated before was supermodel gorgeous in her estimation. They were thin and glamorous and that wasn't how she saw herself. So she figured he would lose interest. But then she asked herself a similar question and wrote down all of the wonderful qualities that made her appealing, her sense of humor, her kindness and compassion, her intelligence and her own attractiveness, which, as she saw it, wasn't a mainstream look, but was kind of the girl next door.
Look, none of this had to do with her boyfriend. It had to do with herself whether or not their relationship lasted. She affirmed these things about herself and that exercise helped her from being. Insecure and jealous, which were not behaviors and attitudes she wanted to adopt, she didn't want to become someone else because of perception of what her boyfriend was attracted to in the past. And incidentally, as it happens many years later, they're still together. So make that question into a meditation for yourself.
If this is an area you struggle with, comparing yourself to others in this way and what you think you don't have, spend at least 30 minutes in solitude being present with that question. What are the unique things I bring to this space? I want to share with you another activity. In fact, I'm going to invite you to go ahead and take an entire week and just focus 15 minutes each morning or each lunchtime or each evening on these exercises to help you self validate and to calibrate yourself perception.
Repeat any of that, feel like they could use more time and attention for this one. You're going to make two columns in one of them, list out all the things you're good at and in the other areas where you could improve. Maybe you're a present parent, maybe you're great at meeting deadlines, but maybe you could be more present with your partner and be a better listener with friends. Again, none of this is judgment. We're just gaining perspective.
We're just fostering that equanimity and a balance in how we see ourselves. Incidentally, this will also help us be less judgmental of others and help keep us from putting others on a pedestal, both of which can be easy to do when our own sense of self is imbalanced or our self-esteem is low. Overly seeking validation can make us more vulnerable to the negative effects of stress. When we have self-esteem, when we're in learning mode, and when we're in our growth mindset, we expect a certain amount of struggle or failures.
And we know it's all just part of the learning process. It's an inescapable part of being human. When we're in our growth mindset and when we accept that we need to engage in effort and learning to get to where we want to go, part of which is gauging how we're doing. This is where we can use seeking validation from others in a positive way. We can check in with others for help and support. This not only gives us valuable information, it can help us build stronger relationships.
There's a beautiful quote by Saint Augustine. The truth is like a lion, you don't have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself. This is true about your worth as well. You don't have to defend it. You don't have to defend who you are in this world. We're not responsible for what others think of us. And it's exhausting to try and live in a way that gets likes from everyone. Instead, we're responsible for adhering to our own values, to living in alignment with our priorities, and we can use the input of others to help us calibrate our words, thoughts and actions.
But we don't rely on them for our sense of self. You are not responsible for others expectations. Those you can let go instead live in your truth, let it loose. Given the opportunity, it will defend itself.
Thank you so much for listening to On Purpose. Make sure you tag me on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, whatever social media platform you use, sharing what you learned and gain from this episode. When you're putting that out on social media, you're more likely to remember the next time you're scrolling and worrying as well.
Have an amazing, amazing day. I'll see you on our next episode.
Thanks for listening. Hey, guys, this is Jay again, just a few more quick things before you leave. I know we try to focus on the good every day, and I want to make that easier for you. Would you like to get a short email from me every week that gives you an extra dose of positivity? Weekly Wisdom is my newsletter. Write down whatever's on my mind that I think may uplift your week. Basically little bits of goodness that are going to improve your well-being.
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