After 35,000 interviews in 37 years on TV, Oprah Winfrey states the following in her speech at Harvard graduates :
“The common denominator that I’ve found in every single interview is that we want to be validated. We want to be understood. […][A]s soon as that camera shuts off, everyone always turns to me and, inevitably, in their own way, asks this question: ‘Was that okay?’ I heard it from President Bush. I heard it from President Obama. I’ve heard it from heroes and from housewives.”
This, I believe, is one of the most fundamental insights there is into our nature as human beings. Our striving for validation doesn’t only occur during and after an interview on TV but also in our everyday working environment, when building relationships, or even when meeting complete strangers. We all want to feel heard and understood. For itself, this isn’t a problem. At least not more than any other evolutionary entailed tendency such as our striving for pleasing endless desires. It does however become a major obstacle to our happiness if seeking validation arises from an uncontrolled need to fulfill other people’s expectations. Sadly enough, this is ever more the case with social media being omnipresent. Let us call this kind of validation default validation. It is contradictory to what Oprah describes as the reason we are here:
“Your real work is to figure out where your power base is and to work on that alignment of your personality, your gifts you have to give, with the real reason why you are here. Align your personality with your purpose, and no one can touch you.”
What she describes in essence is authenticity and our journey of becoming our true selves without caring much about what other people want us to be. And although this might sound like just another most likely true but sort of naive and hardly applicable life advice, it is worth taking this to heart. Life’s most profound realizations, stripped away from our own experience and personal reflection, remain often not much more than empty shells, whose importance is yet to be recognized.
The process of understanding and accepting, the courage to fight against our approval-seeking nature, the daily practice, and regular reflection certainly are a long journey to undertake and require hard work. The reward, however, will be freedom and validation from carefully chosen peers. Let’s call this type of validation courageous validation. To make this very clear: Even while striving towards authenticity and overcoming our approval-seeking behaviour, we as human beings still need to be validated just as a fish needs water. What changes, however, is that this validation no longer stems from our attempt to fulfilling external expectations. Instead, it comes from being recognized for the person you are by people you care about. The journey, therefore, is not so much about overcoming your need for validation (which is impossible) but changing its source.
The goal of this essay is to lay out a case for our validation-seeking nature, to discuss specific and applicable methods that make others feel recognized and understood as well as elaborating on the steps of our journey towards our authentic selves.
A Universal Desire For Validation
In order to survive in their harsh natural environment, collaboration with their in-group members was essential for our prehistoric ancestors. Anything that facilitated this collaboration was therefore favoured by evolution. Being complex social animals that operate in social hierarchies, our ancestors for example used gossip to exchange information and determine which of their group members were reliable and trustworthy. Our approval-seeking nature ties in with this behaviour since attempting to please other group members was a reasonably safe way to become and remain an accepted part of the group while ensuring cooperation from an evolutionary perspective.
Nowadays, however, our need for validation comes at a cost: our freedom and happiness. Because how can we be any less free than when constantly trying to please everybody else? Since this seems obvious, we should simply stop caring about what others think. Yet it takes courage to accept this (accepting is not the same as mere understanding) and even more courage to free yourself from this. In his book “The Courage To Be Disliked”, Ichiro Kishimi emphasizes exactly this point as part of the Adlerian psychology, writing:
“Unless one is unconcerned by other people’s judgments, has no fear of being disliked by other people, and pays the cost that one might never be recognized, one will never be able to follow through in one’s own way of living. That is to say, one will not be able to be free.”
Throughout our different stages of life, we can find examples to illustrate our often very unhealthy desire for validation. Assume a child that not long ago got a younger brother. From being the only child and the center of his parent’s attention it suddenly becomes what feels like an unrecognized side note to its parents. The child now develops all kinds of provocative, attention-seeking behaviour to foster the feeling of being recognized. Of course, attention might cause the feeling of being seen, but it doesn’t please its parents (on the contrary). It’s therefore just a weak, unsatisfying form of validation, but better than the feeling of being unnoticed.
For the sake of another example, let’s look at unhealthy perfectionism whose implications become apparent in the working environment. It refers to a tendency to set up excessively high standards for yourself while being preoccupied with past mistakes, afraid of any future mistakes, and concerned about the expectations of others, such as parents or employers. Being highly focused on tasks and others’ expectations, you use accomplishment as a way to feel validated. Yet, as the last accomplishment fades, new pressure assumes itself, and any success is discounted.
What might help when evaluating your own attitude towards this is a differentiation between a goal-oriented focus and a process-oriented one. The former is only about collecting one’s achievement and is thereby symptomatic of unhealthy perfectionism driven by the urge to please. The latter considers the work as a means in itself, is open to learning from mistakes and failure, and is therefore a healthier, more sustainable way of approaching things. I hope that you can bear another generic yet true cliché, but in the grander scheme of things, the purpose of life is a process-oriented focus. You don’t live to accomplish certain goals but to savour every moment of your journey towards them. Like a dance, where we don’t dance to get anywhere but simply for the sake of dancing.
With regards to romantic relationships, the psychologist and author Dr. Sue Johnson breaks it down to three universal questions that every partner consciously or unconsciously keeps asking: “Are you there for me? Do I matter to you? Will you come when I need you, when I call?”. According to her, all problems in distressed couples arise because one partner feels neglected, unrecognized, and misunderstood. Assuming this is true, the question then is what kind of methods can we use to make others feel validated?
The Secret of Empathy-Driven Communication
Probably, none of the following concepts are entirely new to you. Nevertheless, they are of astonishing potency and can be applied in almost any situation. And frankly, knowing them almost doesn’t matter at all. Instead, conscious application is what counts and this requires just one thing: practice.
Creating validation, no matter if it’s a parent with her child, a boss with an employee, or you with your partner, starts with Active Listening. This is much more difficult than it might sound but there are a few things that can help. Lean back and take a relaxed body position. When your counterpart is talking, don’t make any assumptions and listen until he is finished. Since we all have the tendency to start pre-configuring our answer while the other person is still talking, we need to work on actively suppressing this. Also, if the context is right, take notes (you probably wouldn’t want to do this when in a loaded conversation with your partner about whose turn it is to wash the dishes). This forces you to pay closer attention and makes the other person feel listened to.
When reacting to your counterpart, use Paraphrasing to repeat what she said in your own words focusing on the essence of what she feels (emotions) and what is important to her (content). While this too is difficult to do since it requires extremely careful listening, few tools are as suitable as this one to make the other person feel truly recognized. It’s also one of the most effective ways for debates since it forces you to actually understand your counterpart’s argument.
Further, use Labeling, that is verbalizing your counterpart’s emotions, to create a feeling of connection and understanding. Several studies underline the effectiveness of this tool on a neurological basis. In a brain imaging study, psychology professor Matthew Lieberman of the University of California found that people react with fear to photos of faces expressing strong emotions. If this emotion is, however, labeled, the brain activity moves from the amygdala (the part that generates fear) to other areas that govern rational thinking. In other words, labeling emotions decreases their intensity. These labels usually start with expressions such as It seems, It sounds like or It looks like. Try to avoid the word “I” because it creates the impression that you are more interested in yourself than in the other person.
Finally, asking the right questions matters a lot as well. Instead of formulating close-ended, verb-led questions (such as Can you do XYZ?), use open-ended questions that don’t allow for a static, yes or no answer (such as How can we solve this?). Asking these kinds of questions lets the other person talk and creates the feeling of being safe and in control which is a primary need we all have.
Striving for Authenticity
Until now, we discussed several examples concerning our validation-seeking behaviour and looked at tools and methods to make our counterpart feel understood. In the beginning, we differentiated between default validation as part of our attempt to please everybody’s expectations and courageous validation which we defined as bringing up the courage to let go of other people’s expectations, striving to become the person you really are, and being validated for exactly this. According to Adlerian psychology, we argued that only by being disliked (i.e. ignoring other people’s expectations) we can be truly free. And only once we are free will we be able to, as Oprah puts it, “align our personality with our purpose” and gain lasting happiness.
Even if that was something that we would all agree on, the question remains how to get there. Of course “getting there” is incredibly difficult. We are social animals and wired to care about other people’s opinions. Our journey, therefore, becomes a fight against our own nature and most likely one where we never fully succeed (who really is completely free of other people’s expectations?).
It starts with understanding the journey’s profundity and becoming conscious of our uncontrolled need to please others as a means of validation. This is not to say, however, that we should be judgemental of this behaviour. The key is accepting it and, more importantly, accepting that we are good enough just the way we are.
“Wisdom therefore consists in accepting what we are rather than in struggling fruitlessly to be something else, as if it were possible to run away from one’s own feet.” (Alan Watts)
Much of our default validation-seeking behaviour stems from our own feeling of inadequacy and our fear that the real us won’t be liked. Our approval-seeking behaviour is the easy way out, one without many risks. Therefore, beyond consciousness and acceptance, it takes courage and hard work to arrive at a state of courageous validation. What might help the most on a daily basis is building up habits of contemplation where you question your acting and reflect on it. Write down your thoughts, commit to goals, and recognize and celebrate successes. In the process of authenticity, things will change. Friends will leave, new ones will come, old jobs will be quit and new ones will be found, and couples will change to make room for something new. Eventually, you will end up with peers that appreciate you for the person you really are.