On Validation

Black and white photograph of a woman's back as she looks out of a window, for Validation post by Malin James

Photograph, Malin James

There are things that I’m painfully aware of. One of them is my deep, long-standing need for validation.

It’s gotten worse in the past few years. I’ve always had it but, recently, it’s kept me from taking risks. The need for validation has drawn me away from projects that would further my career because long-term gains haven’t been able to compete with that short-term need.

That impulse has kept me safe in the cocoon of a loving community, which is a comforting alternative after years in the less friendly world of literary fiction, but at something of a cost.

It’s a strange thing. On one level, I give zero fucks what anyone thinks. This is the level I try to live on. But beneath that is the fact that sometimes I give way too many fucks, which is why I can’t say that I don’t need validation for my work. The brutal truth is that I do and the same goes for my worth in relationships.

I grew up having internalized the idea that my primary value was in my face and, even more toxically, that the value of my face was arbitrary because I relied on a choreographer, director or photographer to decide whether or not I was right for a call or a role. It’s a conviction that dogs me even now, and the result is an over-reliance on what other people think.

That need for validation shows up in all kinds of subconscious ways. It’s in how I engage social media and how I blog. It’s in what I write about and when. It’s in whether or not I compromise myself in relationships and for how long. It’s what drives my inner sadist – the one who loves to rake my inner masochist over coals.

The need for validation is natural. We all feel it. But the degree to which I’ve allowed that need to dictate my professional, creative and personal choices disturbs me. The primary reason I stopped acting was because my dependence on external (and arbitrary) validation wore me down. Unfortunately, I’ve created a similar framework for myself by reinforcing a comparable need in my writing and relationships.

I’m ok with wanting a certain amount of validation. Like I said, it’s pretty natural. But I’m not ok with needing it to the point where it compromises my emotional autonomy. Validation is, essentially, a salve – an illusory guarantee that everything is ok. In my case, this is what validation usually looks like:

Yes, your writing matters.

No, you aren’t wasting your time.

Yes, he still wants you.

No, you aren’t a disposable fraud. (This one comes with a nice dose of self-loathing. Self-loathing fucking sucks).

The real problem isn’t wanting validation, it’s misunderstanding what validation does. It’s like ointment on a cut – it’ll soothe the surface, but it doesn’t address the bleeding you can’t see. For me, the internal bleeding is the fact that sometimes I give too many fucks, and that those fucks aren’t even the right fucks to begin with.

What makes validation so addictive is that it acts as a short-term guarantee that everything’s ok. And sure, everything might be okay – for now. But what about the next now? And the next? Pretty soon, validation stops being a relief and becomes part of a feedback loop, one that slowly blows everything out of proportion and gets you stuck on a hook, one where your insecurities take over and drive your behavior.

So, when you put all that together, my need for validation is the subjective measure of worries that are way more existential than concrete:

Is everything okay?

Am I okay in the world? (Or this job, or relationship, etc.)

What the hell does okay even look like? I don’t know but please make it okay….

Those worries aren’t something that should shape your work or relationships because the only thing that can comfort them are guarantees, and the bottom line is that there are no guarantees. There is only the fleeting right now, and no amount of validation can get you off that hook.

It’s a big, ugly, exhausting tangle, but I can’t be a productive writer or a fully present person if I don’t stop chasing false guarantees – guarantees that, for me, define okay as the external validation of my value.

I will always need to feel valued, especially by people I care about and respect. That need is carved into me like grooves on a record. But for all that, the fundamental validation I actually need, the one I’ve been chasing my whole life, is my own.

My need for validation isn’t about the story or the editor or the relationship. It’s about me. And because it’s about me, it places pressure on situations and relationships that shouldn’t have to bear it. That’s why self-possession and emotional sovereignty are so important to me. The weight of that need is, ultimately, my responsibility. It’s up to me to decide (logically, rather than reactively) how many fucks I want to give.

18 comments

  1. I can soooooooo relate to this. Validation has been ever elusive in my life. I need validation from simple things like people (i.e., family) acknowledging my point of view. Validation is like a drug.

  2. Hear hear Malin. Raising my glass to ‘self-possession and emotional sovereignty’.
    You aren’t alone in your vulnerabilities, and I honestly do think it gets easier to please ourselves as we grow older.
    From where I’m sitting, you are doing a great job of encouraging discussion and reflection.
    Keep socking it to us.

  3. A beautiful post, Malin. I struggle with the same need for validation.. I’ve even turned it into a joke with friends. “If I held a sign on a street corner,” I tell them, “it would say, ‘Will work for praise.'”

  4. THIS! EXACTLY this: “The real problem…[is]…misunderstanding what validation does.” Beautifully expressed, love. ~C

  5. Thoughts:

    I think acting is probably a pretty toxic business to be in all round. It’s inescapable. .

    Writers needing validation – *sheesh* How to escape that one? Grade us, grade us, we’re good good good and oh so smart.

    Grooves carved deep… I think this probably gets fixed in the first 5 years of your life – after that … can you learn to self-validate? I don’t ever know. I think people are very right to look at the effects of praise on children. So huge. I wish I hadn’t become a parent…

  6. I think all of us can identify with your sentiments; beautifully and honestly written. I find that the older I get, the less fucks I give about what other people think of me / the less I need validation from other people – for me, it’s the best part of aging.

    1. Thank you, Jo. I’ve been out of town, so I’m replying way after the fact, but I just wanted to say that giving fewer fucks is one of the only things I’m enjoying about aging. It seems like a hell of a good silver lining 🙂

  7. Needing validation is such a tricky thing. I grew up thinking my value was in not being a problem. I have quite a resilience against needing validation at work but it isn’t as healthy as it sounds. I have never sought validation at work because I have never believed that I would get it. When it has happened, it has taken me by surprise. I find it hard to let myself be vulnerable enough to either seek or need validation. I think there must be a more balanced future where I can look for validation as part of a smorgasbord of feedback but keep both my need and responses to it in balance. I think that in acting and writing, it is hard to balance those aspects as it can feel as though people’s responses and therefore their validation of you is the main lever in success.

    If it helps, I adore you because of who you are. The things you do and the things you create are the cherries on the top, but even fall of those are stripped away, you are wonderful.

  8. Obviously, from all the previous comments, this post about validation struck home in ways for all. I too have struggled with it – as above posts note, I think as humans we just need it – babies die without sufficient interaction/love/validation.
    It has taken me years to be more comfortable in my own skin, and I still work on it. It’s a process. Some kind of self-judgmental, grinding criticism was at the core of my near life-long battle with depression. I fought my way through with a strong spiritual life, Nature, music, lots of therapy/analysis, and the love of friends and family. As the process continues, I find myself more and more able to let go, and not take things personally. But it is certainly challenging, some days more than others. As a man, I lived – live still – with a relentless societal pressure to achieve, accomplish, to be the most competent, the most successful, no matter what. I have had to learn to let that slide off of me, and stop comparing myself to others. Ha! To a degree.
    I also think it can be more difficult – in ways – for a beautiful woman to build within herself real validation. Being beautiful opens many doors, yet what lies behind some of those doors can be cruel, and destructive. Part of it may be because so much of beauty – physical, socially accepted beauty – is simply genetic luck. I think it may be hard to feel confident and comfortable knowing in the back of one’s mind that it was luck of the draw, and that the physicality of it will fade with age. Several lovely woman I’ve known (my wife, and exes, actually) have spoken about this with me, and I’ve watched my daughters struggle with this issue as well (both quite beautiful young women). Fortunately, they’ve found – or are finding – their path through it all.

    1. Thank you, Michael. I just got back into town otherwise I’d have replied much sooner. What you said about the “genetic good luck” component of beauty and how the knowledge that something people consider to be a defining feature of who you are (ie: your looks) is really just the luck of the draw is something I’ve always struggled with as well. Beauty is a strange, double-edged sword – one that I’m grateful for, but that I’ve always been very conscious of. Your daughters are incredibly lucky to have parents who understand the challenges that can come with being genetically lucky. I have no doubt that the grounding support you give them will help undercut some of the issues that often accompany luck 🙂

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