Seeking validation from others is one of the most common and consistent things we do these days. It feels almost natural to look to others for approval and to determine our worth by the way we think others see us. 

The problem with seeking validation and approval in this way is that it limits our ability to be authentic or to form real connections with others. If we think that we have to have approval in order to be worthwhile, and we are afraid of falling short, we will hide who we really are—and no one will be able to form a connection with us. Let’s take a look at what it means to seek validation and how you can stop seeking approval from everyone around you. 

What Seeking Validation Means

First, here’s a great example from a popular kid’s book of what it means to seek validation. Most of you are probably familiar with the storyline of the kids’ book You Are Special by Max Lucado. If you’re not or you need a quick refresher, here are the basics. (And there’s an affiliate link to the book if you don’t know what I am talking about.)

Punchinello is a cute little wooden puppet who lives in a village with other wooden puppets who are like him. As these little wooden “Wemmicks” go about their daily lives, they place stars and dots on each other to indicate whether that little puppet is doing a “good” job or a “bad” job on the task at hand. A gold star means that someone approves—you’re doing great! A black dot means you’ve failed or that someone is unimpressed.

The storyline continues as Punchinello receives only black dots from his fellow Wemmicks and starts to feel down about and frustrated with himself and others.

One day he notices a Wemmick who has no stars or dots at all. Impressed, he asks her why this is and she takes him to see his maker where Punchinello learns that he doesn’t have to allow others to dictate his choices or his feelings about himself. He can feel worthy without the gold stars and doesn’t need to accept black dots.

It’s a darling story with some very powerful messages and like I said, most of us are probably familiar with it. Is that because it rings so true? Is ours a world of gold stars and black dots that we play into as readily as the Wemmicks did?

Are we seeking approval from others around us, trying to achieve status, hoping other people will like us and give us a figurative gold star?

The truth is that it’s incredibly common for us to seek validation from others in order to feel good about ourselves. So much so that we often don’t even realize we are doing it.

Of course, there are the obvious ways we do this—looking for likes on Facebook or Instagram, hoping to have a big house, a nice car, or a green lawn, or maybe seeking popularity among coworkers and friends (especially when we were in Jr. High, right?)

But if you take a really deep look, you may find that the gold star and black dot principle of seeking approval or validation from others is very much at play in your life still…even when you don’t realize it.

What Does the Word Validation Mean?

Let’s take a look at some of the dictionary’s definitions of the word “validation” to see why seeking this sort of approval from others might be more problematic than we sometimes think:

Stop trying to be good enough for othersFirst validation can be defined as, “The action of checking or proving the validity or accuracy of something.”[1] Obviously, this refers to the process of making sure that something is legit—like a passport or an antique.

But listen to how it sounds when you say this in reference to a person: “Recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile.”[2] It still sounds pretty similar to making sure something is legit, in this case, it’s just a someone that we are referring to.

So, when you’re asking someone to give you validation, what you’re actually saying is “prove to me that I am worthwhile.” In other words, you’re putting your worth into someone else’s hands. Not really what you want, right?

Yet somehow we manage to seek those gold stars of validation and to abhor the black dots of disapproval day after day.

What Seeking Validation Looks Like in Real Life

Before we go further into why this is something to avoid in your life, let’s take a look at some ways that we do this. This is important because deep down we all know that the idea of gold stars and black dots is one to avoid, that’s why we love that story, but we seek approval and validation from others in a million ways, probably not fully realizing that we are doing it.

Pay attention to where you see yourself in these. (I’ve probably done them all at one time or another. Maybe we all have.)

Perfectionism:

Perfectionists try to make everything in their lives orderly and well, perfect, as an attempt to receive validation from others…even if they don’t realize that’s the motivation. Usually, those “others” are in their minds, not necessarily a real person, but it feels real to the perfectionist. A perfectionist can’t tolerate the idea of invalidation from others for anything less than perfection.[3] If they can just show others how well their life is pulled together, then they will be worthy of others’ praise and admiration.

Give me a gold star because I am flawless, or at least I give the illusion of that.

People-Pleasing:

On a similar note, people-pleasing is a major way that people often seek approval from others. Think about it—would you say yes to that thing you don’t want to do if you weren’t interested in feeling validated by others? If you didn’t get a little boost to your ego that you were willing to do what no one else was? Or on the flip side, you’re afraid that if you say no, people won’t think as highly of you. Doing things that you don’t want to do in order to feel like you’re worthwhile is a major way that seeking validation from others occurs.

Give me a gold star because I do what you want me to do, even when it doesn’t feel right to me.

Religiosity:

I’m a religious person. I go to church weekly, I pray and read my scriptures daily, I try to love and serve my neighbor and God. All of these are, in my book, very good things. But these all have the potential to be motivated by this idea of seeking approval from others. If I do these things (or tell you that I do these things) because I think that I have to in order to be worthy of God’s love or to be in good standing in my church, it’s motivated by something that’s not going to breed much happiness in my life. If reading my scriptures is something I do to check it off my to-do list each day or so that I can feel good about myself or like I’m living the way I “should,” I’m losing a lot of the meaning that can come from religion. I am doing it more for the approval of people outside myself (and this could even include God) rather than out of a genuine desire to connect with God.

If, on the other hand, I am motivated to do these things not to receive approval from others or from God but because I recognize that the relationship I am creating with God is meaningful in my life, something that I desire and crave, I am going to have a very different experience.

Give me a gold star because I go through all the motions of religiosity, regardless of my personal spirituality and connection with God.

The Sports Field

Ah, kids’ sports. I love watching my boys play sports and I do a lot of that. What I don’t always love is listening to other parents watch their kids play sports. You know what I am talking about, right? Some parents get so highly involved in the happenings of a 7-year-old soccer game that they completely lose their cool. They yell and scream and carry on as if the fate of the world rests on how their child performs in the game and their kid can’t possibly know to “get the ball” if they aren’t constantly coached by a parent on the sideline. Why would a parent do this if not seeking validation for themselves by proving that their kid is performing well on the field/court/rink? How much of their own feelings of self-worth seem to rest on their child’s performance in the event?

Give me a gold star because my child is so good at sports and his team never loses.  

Parenting in General

Very related to the sports arena is parenting in general. Are you willing to acknowledge your own imperfections as parents (we all have them) or your kids’ shortcomings (they all have them and that’s ok) or do you need to be seen as great parents raising amazing kids who never do anything wrong? When someone calls you or your kid out on something, it can really hurt. Especially when you put so much of your time and your heart into raising this kid. It’s hard to see your kids struggle and make mistakes—believe me, I know. But part of parenting is being responsible to your kids for the things they need and then allowing them to learn and grow and make choices and mistakes of their own, without worrying about what others around you think the process.

Give me a gold star because my kid is so wonderful and acts like an angel at school and in public.

Relationships

The same idea applies to close relationships. Do you ever do the things you do in your marriage in order to feel good about yourself instead of being motivated by things like love and appreciation for him? I cooked a great dinner, so I’m a good wife. I kept a clean house, got all the bills paid, or had sex with him, so he should see nothing but goodness in me. Sometimes we lose sight of why we are doing the things we do for our partner. Things that could be motivated by love instead become motivated by a desire for validation and approval in our role from our partner.

Give me a gold star because I am a loving, caring wife who sees to all of your needs endlessly and never falls short in loving you.

This list could go on and on, but hopefully, you are getting the idea. So often we worry about what others around us might be thinking and seek their approval instead of doing the right things for the right reasons.

Receiving validation from others is not a bad thing. It actually feels really good to be told you’re doing an amazing job!

The problem comes in if that validation or approval is your motivation for what you’re doing.

How to Stop Seeking Approval From Others

Step #1: Consider Your Motivation

One of the best ways that you can stop seeking or needing approval from others is to stop and consider your motivation for the things you do.

Humans are motivated to do things for many reasons.[4] Those motivations can range from being totally externally motivated (meaning the reason you are doing it is entirely driven by sources outside yourself) to completely internal (meaning that sources outside yourself have absolutely nothing to do with your reasons).

And there’s a spectrum of reasons in between.

Motivation Theory

Let’s use caring for your body as an example of how this might work.

On the far left of that spectrum, someone motivated entirely by external sources would care for her body in order to achieve a desired appearance. She wants to look good and she’s willing to work for it, but it’s entirely based on that desire for a great appearance.

Moving a little to the right on the spectrum you might find someone who is caring for her body because she knows she’s “supposed to” take care of her body. The motivation is still mostly external. Other people have said that caring for your body is important (maybe even her doctor), so maybe she’s willing to exercise or eat an apple every now and then because someone said she must, or she feels a little guilty if she doesn’t.

How to stop seeking other's approvalContinuing along the spectrum, this person maybe started to care for her body because she was “supposed to” or wanted to look good, but now she’s started to see some benefits. She feels better when she works out or she’s found some healthy recipes and loves to try new ones. The external piece may still be there—hey, she’s dropped a few pounds too and that feels nice—but there’s now some internal motivation as well. She’s starting to like to care for her body.

And finally, approaching the far-right side of the spectrum, we find someone who genuinely loves her body and what it can do for her. She respects it and knows that when she eats healthy, exercises, gets, enough sleep, or drinks plenty of water, she feels great! She is motivated to do these things out of a deep respect for her body that has nothing to do with what others think of her appearance.

This same scenario could be true with literally anything that we are motivated to do or not do. We fall somewhere along that spectrum of motivation. It either stems from external sources or comes entirely from within.

If your motivation is stemming from an externalized desire, it’s likely that you are seeking validation from others. OK, at least now you know, but what’s next?

Step #2: Strengthen Your Sense of Self

Having a strong sense of self means:

  1. Having a clear idea of who you are, what makes YOU
  2. But more than just having clarity about who you are, it means that you can maintain that sense of who you are even when other people try to change it. You don’t rely on others to tell you who you are, YOU decide who you are.
  3. And finally, you not only know who you are, you love yourself and think you’re worthwhile. Because you’re clear and comfortable with who you are, you are willing to let others really see and know that person

But how do you get a strong sense of self? A really easy way to start is to consider the opposite. The opposite of a strong sense of self is a reflected self. This means you are trying to see yourself through others’ 

What’s Your Motivation?

It’s actually rare to reach the spot where your motivation is completely internal. We are social beings who are readily influenced by others[5] and with that comes some pressure that motivates us to try to please others.

For example, one of my favorite things to do is bake cookies and I love to drop them off at neighbors’ houses. When I do this, I’m not thinking to myself “boy am I going to convince this neighbor that I am a kind, generous person who is really good at making cookies.”

And yet, there is some validation that comes with doing something like that, right? Because I’ve been taught that doing nice things for people is a good thing, I can kind of pat myself on the back and feel like I am good.

Or if the person is really appreciative or tells me how great the cookies were, I’m receiving some external validation and that might make me want to do it again.

So in reality, it’s hard to separate our motivations entirely from others. But as we move towards that internal motivation end of the spectrum and our choices become more dictated by what we truly desire rather than receiving gold stars or avoiding black dots from others, our relationships with others will be happier,[6] our mental health will be better,[7] and we will feel more authentic.[8]

Don’t let the gold stars or black dots drive what you do.

Seeking Approval from Others

[1] Oxford Languages: https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/

[2] Oxford Languages: https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/

[3] https://www.finlayson-fife.com/podcasts/post/the-perils-of-perfectionism

[4] Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist55(1), 68.

[5] Ryan, W. S., & Ryan, R. M. (2019). Toward a social psychology of authenticity: Exploring within-person variation in autonomy, congruence, and genuineness using self-determination theory. Review of General Psychology23(1), 99-112.

[6] Knee, C. R., Hadden, B. W., Porter, B., & Rodriguez, L. M. (2013). Self-determination theory and romantic relationship processes. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17(4), 307-324.

[7] Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Self-determination theory. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology (pp. 416–436). Sage Publications Ltd.

[8] Kernis, M. H., & Goldman, B. M. (2006). A multicomponent conceptualization of authenticity: Theory and research. Advances in experimental social psychology38, 283-357.

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