A Coaching Power Tool Created by Michael Lewis
(Mental Wellness/Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
Validation is the confirmation that a person’s emotions or thoughts are true or legitimate. As children, our first act of seeking validation is when we cry and someone comes to our aid and we receive touch, care, and affection. As visual capacity develops, validation comes in a returned smile. Later we point to an object and someone looks at that object and says a word, which we then try to learn so we can get validated for that too. Anyone who has spent time around small children knows quite well the almost constant need for attention and validation.
Validation of a human is just as important as food, water, shelter, and protection. Without validation, we have no sense that we are part of the group and under the protection of others more powerful than us. The need to belong is one of the most powerful motivators for us. Validation is potent feedback that we are okay and belong.
Throughout our lives, we receive validation or invalidation as part of the molding socialization process to let us know what thoughts and feelings are acceptable or unacceptable to others in different situations. For instance, it’s encouraged to laugh after Dad makes a silly joke but not at a funeral while others are mourning. The human mind seeks efficiency and so organizes and optimizes the multitude of occurrences into beliefs about how things work in the world.
According to current work in neuroscience, belonging produces the release of stress-reducing neuropeptides such as oxytocin and opiates, which boost the immune system and protect the body from damage due to inflammation. In a sense, one could say we are hard-wired to conform to get that sense of belonging.
Seeking validation from others is not necessarily a bad thing. It confirms what we want and needs to survive. It causes us to trust others who understand what we are going through. It heals traumas and hurts. It normalizes our experiences. It binds us together.
Psychologist Dr. Steven Hayes describes this need and how it can turn on us to become a source of pain.
We are the social primates; we evolved in small bands and groups were belonging was a matter of life or death. While this yearning is healthy, many of the ways our minds try to satisfy it cause our psychic pain. We lie about ourselves to defend our ego; we play the victim; we berate ourselves for failing to meet inflated standards that might please others, and we become consumed by worries about rejection and perceived slights. (Hayes, 2019)
So, there is a dark side to validation. The seeking of validation from others sometimes prompts us to acquiesce or deceive. At worst, we can become victim to those who would exploit this need for their gain. In that same socialization process that has molded us how to think and feel about others, we also internalize misguided validations and invalidations leading to beliefs that we are not ok now or won’t be in the future unless we conform. The feeling that comes when we are separated is shame or the feeling that something is deeply wrong with us. Shame doesn’t just make us feel separated from others but also our very selves. Shame hijacks the amygdala in the brain and puts us in immediate fight/flight/freeze mode (i.e. DANGER!!).
Most of us learn at some point that we cannot please other people all the time no matter how hard we want or try. We have thoughts and feelings that are unique to our wants and needs that sometimes clash with the wants and needs of others. We usually experience this first with our caregivers, but it happens in every domain of our social lives. Depending upon how strongly the validation/invalidation was imprinted on us, we may not be able to tell when what we were taught to believe doesn’t fit our own experience.
But there is an alternative to reacting to that shame and it is a matter of both awareness, will, and choice.
To illustrate this point, Brené Brownrecounts a story where she is out shopping with her daughter. She tells how fun danceable music started playing on overhead speakers, and suddenly, her daughter started dancing with full abandon caught up in the moment. At the same time, Brené noticed a short distance away from a group of mothers and their daughters noticing and pointing with disgusted looks on their faces. Her initial response was one of shame, however, Brené was aware of the shame and knew it stings and it’s the source. At that moment, she had to make a choice. Was she going to fall prey to the expectations of others and tell her daughter to stop dancing possibly even scolding her to drive home the point (a natural reaction to shame) or was she going to let go, pivot, and choose to connect with her daughter and possibly have some fun herself? (Brown, 2013)
Shame is a very common response to being invalidated by others, which can sometimes be masked by becoming immediately angry or spiraling into feelings of worthlessness. Brené emphasizes from her research that the solution to shame is developing shame resilience. She outlines four steps to this process, which are as follows:
- Recognizing the personal vulnerability that led to the feelings of shame
- Recognizing the external factors or triggers that led to the feelings of shame
- Connecting with others to receive and offer empathy
- Discussing and deconstructing the feelings of shame themselves
Implied in these steps is a growing sense of self-awareness and vulnerability with trusted others, and this is where coaching can help. One of the most powerful actions a coach can offer a client is validation (not agreement) of their experience. It opens people up to be even more vulnerable and that often allows the coach to recognize and offer observations about that person’s beliefs that deepen a person’s self-awareness.
Here enters the possibility of authenticity, which is the ability of a person to know which of their thoughts and feelings are true or valid for them.
In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, external validation is an essential part of acquiring and attaining most of the needs on his list including physiological (food, water, shelter), safety (health, employment), social (friendship, family, sexual intimacy), and esteem (confidence, esteem from others). The only one that external validation is not necessary for is self-actualization (morality, creativity, lack of prejudice). Authenticity can be seen as the goal of self-actualization. According to Maslow’s theory, a truly authentic person would be open to new experiences, non-judgmental, and empathetic towards others and could not be truly self-actualized without it.
The challenging process of developing authenticity happens first in the questioning of beliefs and the undoing of pressure people feel to conform to different ways and traditions.
To undo that, you have to in some ways disregard the demands of other people on you or walk away from certain situations. You have to be quite strong-willed and courageous to resist the pressures to conform. (Joseph, 2016).
There is risk involved in thinking or feeling in ways that do not conform to the desires of others. The risk of isolation and losing the benefits of the collective or even of another individual can seem daunting, but it is essential if a person is to have congruence in their internal world where what is experienced, believed, and then acted on matches.
As we take these steps and deepen our self-awareness, a shift starts to take place where the need for external validation lessens, and the need for internal validation increases and becomes the more valued of the two. In essence, we start to give ourselves what we previously needed from others. This is not to say that we do not need or value the validation we get from others. It’s just that it becomes less important to our sense of wellbeing. This is a beautiful thing: when a person knows what is true for them and begins to make choices that honor that knowing. At the same time, the belonging generated from conformity becomes replaced by openness and connectedness to others (especially those different from ourselves) which according to Maslow would be the true test of authenticity.
The feedback loop with our feelings is a sense that “This is right. It feels good. I know this to be true.” We open up to feeling our feelings no matter how they come at us holding both “positive” and “negative” emotions with the same attitude of equanimity, which is an essential skill at the core of emotional intelligence. Our emotions and thoughts shift from controlling us in informing us.
Returning to the story about Brené Brown and the choice to shame/scold or dance/have fun, of course, she made the right choice that was in line with her true self and started doing what she thought was a pretty good rendition of the robot dance. She chose with the courage to act in line with her values to be vulnerable and wholehearted.
This is the courage that comes in our daily lives. We may never have the chance to be the hero that runs into the burning building to save another’s life. But we all have the opportunity to act in line with our true selves and make a difference if not only for ourselves but also for those we care about and the world. As a coach, this presents a unique opportunity to assist people to navigate this path and create authentic actions that honor their true selves.
References and Influences:
Brown, Brené. The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection & Courage (2013). Speech on Audible Narrated by Brené Brown.
Hayes, Steven C. A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Towards What Matters (2019). Penguin Publishing Group.
Joseph, Steven. Authentic: How to be yourself and why it matters (2016). Piatkus Books.