I was an only child until I was six and was horrified to discover I was going to have share my parents' attention after my sister was born. (Family lore has it that when I was so informed, I said to my mother accusingly, "You did this at night while I was sleeping!").
All of which is to say, I am no stranger to thinking I could always use more external approval from authority figures.
But as I started really watching and analyzing what happened when I got external validation, I came to see that it doesn’t "work" in the sense of making me feel like I'm good enough in a lasting way, despite how gratifying it is in the moment.
There are two ways in which seeking external validation is fundamentally a self-cancelling or unworkable process, for reasons that are built in to it as source of pleasure or reward.
And once you really take stock of them, the whole quest for positive attention starts to seem a little bit less compelling, even for me.
1. Other people’s opinions/compliments/approval
Even the most glowing feedback imaginable actually can't make you feel truly validated. That's because making other people the arbiters of your worthiness only delivers the more basic and more powerful message that you are less worthy than the person giving you the feedback is, because they are the ones with the power to decide if you are OK.
Or to put it slightly differently, once you rest your self-worth on someone else’s judgement of you, you’ve already judged yourself as less than by putting their opinion ahead of your own.
Therefore, every bit of positive feedback from others you try to use to shore up yourself worth carries this hidden poison thought: Other people determine if I’m good or not, which means they are necessarily more important/powerful/significant/worthy than me.
It’s a put-down wrapped in a seeming compliment, a kind of global self-own. Basically, it is impossible to grow your self-worth through external validation because relying on external validation is by definition invalidating, since it positions someone else as more important than you.
2. Outside validation in the form of achievement/awards/recognition/getting hired etc.
Achievement is a self-defeating way of producing self-worth because achievement is by definition a finite event not an ongoing state of being.
That means that, depending on which side of any achievement you’re on, your worth is always attached to your past or future self rather than the one you are in any given now.
This is why you can get a great job and then worry that you oversold yourself in your interview. Past job-interview-self was great, but now you’re present-moment-self, who isn’t sure she can reproduce that achievement, because the achievement already belongs to a former you.
Seeing external validation in this way has helped me shift my approach to it in a big way. I used to think external validation worked, but that I should do without it if I wanted to be really evolved, sort of like learning to ride a bike without training wheels.
I thought I was getting where I wanted to go via external validation, but that to be a really strong person I should be self-denying and get there the hard way instead.
But that's not true. External validation never gave me the sense of self-respect and true equality and belonging that I wanted, because it always placed those things outside of me: either in those who were doing the praising, or the future or past version of me who earned the praise.
To go back to the bike analogy, external validation was less like training wheels than it was like one of those trainers you can mount your bike on so you can ride it indoors. I was always peddling, but I wasn't getting any closer to where I was trying to go.
None of which is to say that praise isn't fun. I still adore compliments. My love language is basically just someone saying I'm awesome in as many different ways as possible.
But it's really different to see all that a fun extra—like desert when you weren't expecting it instead of an essential meal without which you'll emotionally starve. And it's a lot easier to see it that way when you really take on board that it could never actually feed you any way.