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Goodbye External Validation, Hello Self-Esteem

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at George Mason University chapter.

A thumbs up from your boss, a shout-out from your professor, hundreds of likes on Instagram or the look of approval from friends – all of these actions provide validation and, in turn, a confidence boost. It’s not uncommon to seek out validation, especially to ensure you’re doing the right thing or are on the right path. But what happens when this behavior becomes a habit? 

I recently faced this very question. 

With the start of a new season, and being about mid-way through the Fall semester, I felt it was time for a personal check-in. Was I doing okay? What do I need to finish school off strong? 

These days, especially as a senior in college, life seems to be moving at an incredibly fast and frantic pace. Taking a few minutes to sit in silence and let my brain wander was hard enough. However, that short time of true introspection pushed me towards an even harder truth: I’ve often sought external validation through work and school. 

In general, seeking validation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As humans, we’re very much social creatures, and we often thrive in a community. Sometimes we desire to have someone else’s approval or agreement with what we say, believe, or do. It sounds normal because it is. Yet, this search for external validation can become unhealthy when we start to base many of our decisions on an agreement from others. Living a life of “people-pleasing” and meeting others’ expectations is not only damaging but disempowering. 

Martha Beck in O, The Oprah Magazine writes, “Being dependent on approval — so dependent that we barter away all our time, energy, and personal preferences to get it — ruins lives.” 

I realized that I’ve often asked the questions, “do you think I should do this?” or “is this a good idea?” or “is my work good enough?” to friends and family. Some may also relate to feeling that constant search for an A on a paper or that recognition from a boss. Especially in Western culture, societal norms have deemed that a significant part of our self-worth comes from our professional success, “climbing that ladder” so to say. 

The question I’m asking myself now is, “why?” Why do I feel like I need this validation? 

Of course, everyone wants to feel accepted, like they and/or their work belong. But I noticed that this issue runs deeper. The root of the problem deals with a lack of self-esteem. External validation, whether through work, school, or even relationships, can fuel self-esteem. Yet, I – as I’m sure many others would agree – would like to get to a place where this confidence and assurance is found within. 

This brings to mind what psychologists call self-actualization, which is our own ability to realize our fullest potential and develop our skills and talents to serve that potential. When self-actualization is achieved, we truly believe we are worthy and capable of accomplishing our goals. 

As we depend more on validation, we start to lose the power that drives our own lives. It’s especially difficult today with social media platforms like Instagram, where we are constantly focused on validating each other and comparing – or even judging – one another. 

Seeking validation can ultimately be a prime disconnector from our own intuition or gut feeling. It’s totally normal to ask for help, support, or advice, but that shouldn’t become a crutch for which we lose deep trust or confidence within ourselves. 

So, in working to build a better self, I’ve made a plan to change that. 

I’ve started by asking myself whether my needs, particularly the need for belonging and self-love, are being met. It may sound cheesy, but being able to love and accept yourself is not always an easy feat. I’ve decided I need to focus on building self-esteem to fully step into my power, where I feel my capabilities and work are worthy. For some, this may take the form of taking a break from certain social groups, lessening social media use, or simply starting each day with a positive affirmation. 

One thing I’ve focused on recently is not second-guessing myself and simply doing. This led me to take up yoga, where I’m forced to listen to and trust my body and my intuition. After achieving a pose I had told myself I couldn’t do for over a year  – the crow pose – I instantly felt a welcoming boost of confidence. This feeling is one small step in what I’m working towards establishing throughout my life, so I’m confident in myself and my work without the want or need for approval from outside sources.  

It’s also important to remember that our value doesn’t come from whether or not someone likes us or our work. Dealing with people’s opinions is a part of being human, but it shouldn’t control us. Even when stressing about what someone thinks of you, take a second to ask yourself if that concern actually lives in reality or simply in your own brain. 

The key is being open to feeling unconditionally loved and living authentically. It’s not easy by any means, but it’s not impossible. If you’ve ever seen the TV show “Gilmore Girls,” Paris Geller teaches us a lesson or two about validation and insecurity. 

When our self-esteem is nourished and we have self-worth, we are one step closer to accomplishing what we set our minds to. 

Madison Rudolf

George Mason University '22

Madison is currently a senior at George Mason University studying Communication with a concentration in Journalism and a minor in Sustainability Studies. Madison enjoys using journalism as an outlet to write and inform about the environment. She is also a Strategic Communications Intern for Mason's Office of Communications and Marketing writing stories for the Mason website and The George newsletter. Outside of school, Madison enjoys running, reading, and exploring Washington, D.C.