Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
We’ve all been there. Whether we are wondering about an outfit, a paper we are working on, or a potential love interest, we all have those times where we need to turn to a trusted friend and ask, “Is this okay? What do you think of this?” Asking for validation is often depicted and seen as petty, vain, and self-centered. I’d like to propose the opposite: that external validation is a basic human need and something that should be exchanged far more often than it currently is.
So where does the need for external validation come from? If Henry David Thoreau could preach and practice self-reliance, why can’t the rest of us?
The most basic answer lies with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you ever studied psychology, you’ve probably heard of this guy. His hierarchy dictates that there are five essential groups of human needs arranged in a pyramid, and you must have everything on the bottom levels before going any higher. From bottom to top, the needs are physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.
Most people at Swarthmore can easily say that they have the bottom two levels, but the next two, belonging and esteem are more difficult. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on esteem.
External validation and support are vital in fostering healthy esteem—which includes confidence, achievement, and respect of others—for any individual. Given that mindreading isn’t a thing in real life, there is no way to fulfill one’s esteem needs without literally hearing validation from others. Not only is esteem important in and of itself, but it becomes especially pressing in communities where professors, peers, and future employers constantly expect various forms of self-actualization, including morality, creativity, and lack of prejudice.
Maslow isn’t the only one with an answer to my question. Let me now direct you to Brené Brown, a social researcher who studies vulnerability, belonging, and shame. Vulnerability and belonging are common enough words in our culture, but shame is so stigmatized that I would like to take a moment to explore what it is.
As Brown describes, shame tells us two different things: “You are not good enough,” and “Who do you think you are?” These two playback loops keep us stuck in a shame rut.
Let me give you an example. Say you are working on your first paper of the year, and you’re having trouble getting started. Shame notices and starts shouting, “You are not good enough to write anything of value.” You take a deep breath and tell that self-doubting shame voice to shove it. Shame sassily responds, “Ooooh, look who is all high and mighty. Who do you even think you are to tell me off?” This two-pronged effect thus traps us exactly where shame wants us, causing a downward spiral. Shame is self-doubt, shame is self-hate, shame is self-consciousness. Shame is the thing that tells us that we as people are not worthy.
Here’s the “good” news. In the words of Brown: “We all have [shame]. The only people who don’t experience shame are the people who have no capacity for empathy or connection… in other words, psychopaths.”
How does this all connect back to validation, do you ask? Shame is the thing that keeps us from reaching out for validation. And, shame is the thing that validation eradicates. Or, at the very least, keeps at bay. Given that shame is so shitty, validation is golden.
There is one caveat. In order for shame to be effectively dispelled with validation, it can’t just be mentioned, smiled at, acknowledged, and then poof: you’re set. Shame must be met with empathic connection.
For example: which of the following has helped you when you have writer’s block for a paper due the next day?
a) “Dude. You got this. You are great. You are perfect. You are a wonderful writer. There is no reason at all you should be struggling right now!”
b) “Look, I get that you are struggling. That sucks. But really don’t have any time to talk because I have that paper and a pre-lab and a book of Freud to read… but I believe in you. You’re gonna rock this!”
c) “Aw man. I’m so sorry that you are having trouble with that paper. That class is really hard. I spent three hours doing just the reading for Tuesday. I know you haven’t started it yet but trust me—it is brutal.”
In all likelihood, none of these are all that helpful. Most of them attempt to connect and validate your pain, but none of them are likely to make a lasting difference in your ability to write your paper.
Instead, validation must be authentic, empathic, and vulnerable. It takes no energy or effort to say any of the things above. These responses validate, but they don’t meet you where you really are. They don’t try to understand and acknowledge your struggle. They don’t counteract the shame tapes by explaining why you are good enough.
In sum: validate and ask for validation from your friends early, often, and repeatedly. Shame is not scared away by one showdown, so it might easily come back to haunt you in the same ways. Shame is, however, normal and treatable. Just add two cups of connection and a healthy dose of empathy. Boom: Validation cake. Eat as you please.