Your Looking-Glass Self
Why you should give up the need for validation
You want to be popular, you want people to like you and that’s completely normal. Maintaining a healthy self esteem is vital. In fact, it’s becoming even more important as our society grows ever more competitive. And yet, the race towards popularity comes with some adverse side-effects, such as depression, alienation and anxiety. Being ignored can be just as painful as being rejected, and it’s exactly why external validation has become the latest ‘psychological drug,’ administered online by trained App Developers.
Your self image is exactly what fuels social media companies. It’s why they re-purpose language (like, follow, friend, love) and it works perfectly — for them. They understand that people have a need to control painful feelings and prove their worth. It’s why you make posts, it’s why you upload selfies to Instagram, and it’s why you use social media in the first place — to be seen, to have a voice, and to feel that buzz that comes with each like. But it’s also a behavioral pattern that many of us aren’t aware of.
Loneliness, guilt, anger, acceptance, fear of failure, fear of rejection … all these emotions play an integral part in the quagmire of validation.
Elizabeth R Thornton calls these patterns our ‘mental model’ — our deep-rooted ideas and beliefs about the way the world works and how things ought to be. It means that we expect certain results from the things we do, say, create or share. In fact we are predisposed to seek validation and this influences our behavior, and as Thornton explains, these mental models can keep us trapped in old ways of thinking.
External validation is just one of these models, as is perfectionism and control. In Thornton’s ‘Objective Leader Assessment’ survey, 55% percent of people responded that their self-worth was often, more often or always tied to what others think. There are so many people busy projecting an image of what they believe others want, that they rarely stop to consider their own unique qualities and gifts.
We want to feel included and important … seen, heard and ‘liked.’ And it all starts in childhood.
Children seek attention as a survival instinct. They want reassurance that they are loved, protected and secure. If they’re hungry they might cry or slap the wall with mash potato, if they’re fearful or angry they might lie or throw a tantrum. We expect this from children — but when adults play attention seeking games it’s seen as a form of manipulation. However, if this need for validation is something learned, then it is directly connected with how our brains work. In fact, studies have been made to show how the reward part of our brain is more active when others agree with, or reinforce, our own opinions.
In 2010, a team of researchers from University College London and Aarhus University in Denmark investigated brain activity in relation to validation, and published their findings in the journal Current Biology. They took 28 volunteers and asked them to make decisions based on a selection of musical pieces. Once their opinions had been recorded, they were informed of the ‘experts’ opinions, and discovered that when participants opinions coincided with these experts, the area of their brain associated with reward lit up like a Christmas tree. Soon after, volunteers decided to change their choices to reflect the expert opinions.
While growing up I was deeply insecure and always trying to fit in, not by accepting who I truly was, but by trying to fit into a mold of what I thought other people wanted me to be. I was seeking approval and validation from the ‘in-groups’ and the opinions of these people quickly became the basis of how I valued myself. Instead of being the quiet wallflower, I became an extrovert — the class clown. I was a smart kid but hid my intelligence from most of the other students because I thought they would ridicule me. I thought being accepted was more important than my studies, and so I went from being an A student to an F student within two years, before finally being expelled.
I did end up going back to school, albeit some years later. After working in factories, call-centers, hospitality, cleaning and other dead-end jobs — I finally went on to study my degree. I try not to regret going the long way around, but to quote Aristotle, “Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.” However, I did learn a little secret along that journey… no one is actually better than you, some people are just born into different circumstances. And to quote Rose Tremain … “Life is not a dress rehearsal.” And while that may be true, there are a lot of good actors on stage. What you think might be a divine superhuman (who you can never possibly compete with) is most probably just as anxious as you on the inside — they’ve just found a way to hide it behind their survival ego and privileged lifestyle.
A person makes a judgement, labels and responds based upon a stock of ideas and influences. Consider this: Should you be worried about what someone’s response may be, when what they say most likely has nothing to do with you? Social psychologists C. H. Cooley and Han-Joachim Schubert call this theory the Looking-Glass-Self.
“I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.”
Sometimes a person’s success has nothing to with luck, looks or popularity — sometimes it’s simply a matter of stubborn ambition. A good role model is the late Stephen Hawking. Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease at the age of 21 and was expected to live for 2 years. He lived for a further 55 years and became one of the most brilliant scientists in the world, redefining our understanding of quantum mechanics and black holes. He didn’t give up on himself, even when doom and failure was rapping at his door.
Hawking wasn’t concerned with how many likes a post received or whether or not someone ‘hearted’ one of his tweets. When he gazed up at the stars he marveled at the staggering beauty of the universe, mysteries waiting to be unraveled, and his validation came from his work and the fulfillment he got from educating others. And yet, a large percentage of people hang their self esteem on the amount of likes they receive for a Facebook post or an Instagram selfie, or the amount of ‘friends’ or followers they have — allowing the playground of social media to determine their self worth.
If your natural inclination is to project a ‘looking-glass’ version of yourself in order to keep up appearances, while monitoring your climb towards popularity, then you’re self esteem is going to be caught in a vicious cycle of ‘never good enough’ as you try to maintain a status quo and compete with others.
How to ditch the need for external validation
It will take some work and diligence. But that’s the beautiful thing about being a human being, we can choose to change our story at any time.
It takes determination and a strong will to ditch validation. Imagine you are driving across the country — you have a destination in mind, you know where you want to go, but along the way you meet all these random people, who stop to ‘redirect’ you. Or maybe you ask for directions and they pretend they haven’t heard you. Maybe they simply aren’t interested. To them you may even appear invisible.
And that’s OK.
Keep driving and you’ll find those who are interested. They should turn up in the scenery as you steer your car towards the highway of your dreams — because now they’re going your way, instead of you making detours for complete strangers who are on a different path. My late father once told me, “Always stand on the shoulders of giants and you’ll be in good company.” This simply means, associate yourself with people you admire and respect, and who respect you in return.
“You can rewire your brain and create new ways of thinking by recognizing and accepting that we have all been socialized to value ourselves through the eyes of other people.” — Thornton.
As a writer, I bump up against feelings of inadequacy all the time. Mix that with a dose of perfectionism and you get escalating procrastination, add to that the hundreds of rejections writers face on a daily basis and well … dark thoughts can start to swirl. And while I don’t, for one minute, imagine myself as a self-help guru — I do believe that with failure comes wisdom. And while most of us don’t like the word failure, it is a part of every day life. So let yourself fail a little, and let yourself learn. Allow yourself to be a mistake making machine, and laugh it off. You’ll find gracious human beings will laugh with you, not at you.
If you allow the judgements and the ideals of others to define you then your self identity will have no true foundation and you will always be vulnerable. In CBT these are called ‘cognitive distortions’ and need to be replaced with mental rebuttals by mastering vigilance and self compassion.
“The value of a human life is that it exists. You are a person who is trying to live, and that makes you as worthwhile as every other person …” — McKay, Fanning.
To stop gazing through the looking glass and start focusing in the mirror isn’t easy. It’s a S.O.B. A real process. But you learn to recognize that regardless of what someone else says, it doesn’t change what you know is unique about yourself — whether others validate you or not.
I once attended a Landmark Forum (don’t even get me started) but if there was one thing I remembered out of that, it was that I was, and I quote, “Whole, perfect and complete.” I laughed when they drew a circle and told me my life was meaningless — but that one truth stuck with me. Why? Because we are all a big mess of particles smashing together, and if life really is just a ride (thank you Mr Hicks) in an amusement park then …
“You can change it anytime you want, it’s only a choice … between fear and love. “ — Bill Hicks.
It’s about believing in your accomplishments during conquests and defeats, accepting that you are complete, even in the face of fear, rejection and judgement. And as Jack Kornfield once said, if your compassion does not include yourself, then it’s incomplete. Consider that you’re a loving, compassionate, smart and talented human being. Because ultimately, 100 self help books won’t help you unless you are able to answer your own question … “Am I good enough?”