External validation refers to basing one’s value as a person on the standards of others. This means that whether a person sees themselves as being a valuable individual is determined by what others think.
With external validation, the assessment of one’s beliefs, habits, or personality characteristics comes from sources such as family and friends, coworkers, and standards defined by society.
Unfortunately, allowing one’s sense of self-worth be determined by others can be very unhealthy. For example, attributes that a person sees as among their most admirable traits, might actually be rejected by external sources.
In addition, societal norms and expectations can be distorted by social media. For instance, we are often exposed to an endless stream of high-achieving, highly attractive personalities. This creates a false norm that 99% of the population can never live up to.
So, when an individual compares their life with what they believe to be the norm, they inevitably feel like a failure.
This can contribute to feelings of worthlessness and maybe even depression.
On the other hand, external validation may not always be negative. Having one’s accomplishments recognized by others, be they academic, athletic, or artistic, can be very gratifying.
It can boost self-esteem and be a source of motivation that can lead to continued success.
Internal vs External Validation
The fundamental difference between external and internal validation is where the validation originates.
- With external validation, the sense of approval for oneself stems from messages received from outside sources. Those sources can include parents, role models, close friends, colleagues, or society at large.
- With internal validation, one’s sense of self-worth is based on a set of internal criteria. A person labels their attributes as positive or negative, but both are accepted equally. The individual has learned to accept even their negative characteristics.
Relying on external validation can create negative outcomes. For instance, another person may have a distorted perception of what is a positive or negative characteristic.
Society at large may not be tolerant of individuals that do not conform to a narrowly defined construct or expectation.
In addition, societal standards and expectations usually change over time. So, what is seen as a negative attribute today, might actually change over the course of 50 years. Unfortunately, that means that some people must endure a great deal of judgment for most of their lives.
For these reasons, internal validation is considered to be psychologically healthier than external validation.
External Validation Examples
- Praise from a Supervisor: After completing a detailed report for upper management, you desire complimentary statements from the supervisor in charge of the project.
- Receiving Comfort from a Parent: After doing poorly in an academic competition, a parent may offer comfort and words of encouragement, stating that the child did an excellent job and will do better next time. This can help the child negotiate life’s struggles and help form a stable sense of self.
- Being Complimented on a new Hairstyle: After changing hairstyles, you feel a desperate need for friends and coworkers to compliment the new look so you’re sure you made the right decision.
- Receiving an Award: Actors and musicians can receive validation by being selected to receive an award for their role in a film or composition of a popular song.
- Earning a Promotion: When a company decides to promote an employee, it will validate that individual’s devotion and talent. The individual may have worked very hard for many years, and when their efforts and abilities are finally recognized by those with status, it can be a tremendous source of pride.
- Publishing a Scientific Paper: Spending years collecting and analyzing data, and then publishing the results of a scientific paper in a respected academic journal can be very validating.
- Being Accepted to a Prestigious University: After years of hard work studying, receiving an acceptance letter to the university of your dreams can confirm your abilities. All of those self-doubts are swept aside almost instantaneously.
- Inducted into a Hall of Fame: Great athletes and coaches can be inducted into a Hall of Fame that will cement their legacy in history. Unfortunately, sometimes that can take so long that the person has passed away and may never know they were recognized by their peers.
- Receiving Funding for a Grant: Writing a grant is time-consuming and requires a lot of hard work. In some cases, the approval rate is in the single digits. So, when a grant is funded, it can validate the author’s belief that the initiative is worthy.
- Gold Stars for Good Spelling: When a child receives a gold star for doing well on a spelling test, it can impact their sense of value and help them build self-confidence. That can become the early foundations of a positive identity and set the child on a path of success.
Strengths of External Validation
1. Can Help Alleviate Self-Doubt
Some people are very self-critical. They just have a tendency to see the negative aspects of their personality, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy and perhaps depression.
However, if people in their social circle offer emotional support it can help them endure difficult times.
Hearing others offer words of encouragement can help reduce negative self-talk and give the individual a new sense of optimism.
That optimism may be combined with increased effort to succeed, and if successful, lead to the person developing a more positive self-concept.
2. Can Offer a Spiritual Roadmap
During difficult times such as those that occur during a health crisis or marital discord, feelings of despair can creep into the soul of even the most resilient individual.
Spiritual teachings often espouse tolerance and acceptance, in addition to practicing personal forgiveness. Seeking comfort and reassurance through spirituality can help people cope with difficult times and restore self-confidence.
Those teachings can be a valuable source of validation and reassure an individual that despite present circumstances, even if they feel the broken marriage was their fault, they are still not such a horrible person after all.
Weaknesses of External Validation
1. Creates a Fragile Self-Esteem
The biggest weakness of external validation is that it may not be stable. External sources are fleeting and the definition of what is a valuable attribute can change depending on the source.
If a person places too much importance on external validation, they may end up very disappointed.
Therefore, instead of basing one’s sense of value and self-worth on internal criteria, relying on external sources can make for a fragile self-esteem which can easily dissipate if not constantly reinforced.
2. May Reject the Positive
Another problem with external validation is that the source of that validation may have different values than the individual.
For example, the teenage years are a time of internal strife. Many teenagers base their value on the approval of peers and social groups. Unfortunately, those other entities may not value the most admirable qualities a person can have.
Some social groups may value defiance or rebelling against authority. Other groups may be shallow and value personal appearance and being “cool.”
For a student that is highly intelligent and studious, thier attributes may be at the bottom of the list.
Applications of External Validation
1. In Psychotherapy
Underlying several psychological struggles such as depression and anxiety are feelings of inadequacy.
Modern therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT; Beck, 2011) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT; Linehan & Wilks, 2015) attempt to help patients develop a more positive self-esteem by disengaging cognitive distortions such as catastrophizing and negative self-talk.
As Beck (1995) stated,
“In a nutshell, the cognitive model proposes that distorted or dysfunctional thinking (which influences the patient’s mood and behavior) is common to all psychological disturbances” (p. 1).
The therapist attempts to be a source of validation, while at the same time help the patient develop an internal foundation from which to base their self-worth.
“Understanding and validation of emotions is crucial in any psychotherapy” (Linehan, 1997, p. 384).
It is a balance that is constantly gauged and adjusted during each therapy session.
Although the therapist provides external validation initially, the goal is for this validation to be internalized by the patient and practiced outside of therapy.
2. In Parenting Practices
Because young children lack self-reflection or experience, their self-identity is a bit of a blank slate. Therefore, it is primarily the responsibility of the parents to help them form a positive self-concept.
That can be accomplished by reinforcing the child’s positive attributes, but also letting them know that mistakes and shortcomings are also accepted.
This is particularly important during moments that involve emotional struggles, such as when a child has failed at something or been caught lacking self-discipline.
Research over the last five decades on parenting practices has demonstrated a strong link between these types of parenting practices and children’s behavioral and personality profile (Baumrind, 2005).
“Children’s ability to regulate emotions effectively is a developmental skill essential for maintaining successful relationships with peers and family, academic success, and mental health” (Morris et al., 2015, p. 233).
Although the foundation of a positive self-concept may begin externally, hopefully it will be internalized so that the child can form a stable sense of self-worth and value.
External validation occurs when an individual relies on the acceptance of others. The worth of one’s values, attitudes and personality characteristics are given value based on the perceptions of other people and society.
During a personal crisis, a therapist or spiritual figure can be a source of comfort and reassurance, in which case external validation is constructive.
Young children also benefit from external validation. Receiving the message of approval from parents can help a child develop a positive self-concept which may lead to better emotional self-regulation and academic performance.
Unfortunately, external validation can also be fleeting and therefore unstable. This can lead to a sense of worth that is easily altered based on factors outside of the individual’s control.
Ideally, each individual should develop a sense of self-worth that is primarily based on internal criteria and provides a stable foundation over the long term.
Baumrind, D. (2005). Patterns of parental authority and adolescent autonomy. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 108, 61-69.
Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond (2nd ed.), New York: The Guilford Press.
Linehan, M. M. (1997). Validation and psychotherapy. In: Bohart A, Greenberg L, (Eds.). Empathy Reconsidered: New Directions in Psychotherapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Linehan, M. M., & Wilks, C. R. (2015). The course and evolution of dialectical behavior therapy. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 69(2), 97-110.
Morris, A. S., Criss, M. M., Silk, J. S., & Houltberg, B. J. (2017). The impact of parenting on emotion regulation during childhood and adolescence. Child Development Perspectives, 11(4), 233-238.
Wei, M., Mallinckrodt, B., Larson, L. M., & Zakalik, R. A. (2005). Adult attachment, depressive symptoms, and validation from self versus others. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52(3), 368.