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External validation and self-esteem: why do we need everyone to like us?

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For many of us, the need to be liked and admired by others is a very prevalent issue. Here, a psychologist explains exactly why this happens (including why women are more prone to it) and how we can loosen the grip of external validation on our lives.

In the opening scene of Lana Wilson’s documentary Miss Americana, Taylor Swift speaks openly about how her need for external validation has shaped her life.

“My entire moral code, as a kid and now, is a need to be thought of as good,” she says. “It was all I wrote about, it was all I wanted, it was the complete and total belief system that I subscribed to as a kid. Do the right thing. Do the good thing.

“Obviously I’m not a perfect person by any stretch, but overall the main thing that I always tried to be was a ‘good girl’.”

It’s a thought-system which will sound scarily familiar to many of us. I, for one, am hyper-aware of my need to be liked and thought of as “good” by everyone I interact with. God forbid someone dislike me and my work – one critical comment has the power to shake my self-esteem. I’m getting better at recognising and am slowly trying to dismantle it – but I’m not the only one who possesses this need for external validation. 

“Human beings are naturally social creatures, and we are programmed to want the approval of our peers,” explains Dr Becky Spelman, psychologist and clinical director of Private Therapy Clinic. “From the social cues we receive from the others around us, we form opinions about whether our behaviours are good and praise-worthy or not. When we are validated by others it feels good, and this tends to make us want to behave in a similar fashion in the future, so as to experience the same good feelings again.”

Defined by Dr Spelman as “approval and acceptance from others, such as a partner, members of our family and the wider community,” external validation can be healthy within “reasonable limits”. On the flipside, internal validation, defined as “self-acceptance and feeling a sense of self-worth without having to consult others about what we are like and what we are doing,” is something many of us still struggle to achieve; in a study conducted by researcher and author Elizabeth R Thornton, 55% of the participants said that their self-worth was often, more often or always tied to what others think. 

“While desiring external validation is normal and healthy, it can go too far when desiring praise and attention from others becomes an addiction, and/or when it is not balanced by healthy levels of self-esteem. In these cases, people can crave others’ approval even at the expense of their own mental and physical wellbeing.”

She continues: “Sometimes people feel such a great need for external validation that they want to be praised, loved and appreciated by absolutely everybody.”

And the need for external validation is an increasingly prevalent problem, especially among young women. In exclusive research commissioned by Stylist, it was revealed that only 1 in 10 women between the ages of 25-40 report having high levels of self-esteem, with many of the respondents saying the external pressures of social media and the idea that they need to be “perfect” have a negative effect on their self-esteem and mental wellbeing. In this way, the idea that women are more prone to needing external validation is not an “innate female quality,” but thanks to the pressures placed on us by society.

“Women tend to be more harshly judged when society feels that they have put a step wrong, and to be subject to a wider range of restrictions and punishments,” Dr Spelman explains. “All of this results in many women going through life in a constant state of incipent anxiety, because they are worried about the social penalties they may face if they are perceived as doing something wrong.”

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It is this incipent anxiety which is made clear in Miss Americana, as Swift navigates a world so keen to criticise her for every misstep or failure to please. In fact, Swift says, the pressure to be “good” and “right” in every way possible led her to lead her life in an inauthentic and unnatural way.

“A nice girl doesn’t force her opinions on people,” Swift says in the documentary. “A nice girl smiles and waves and says thank you. A nice girl doesn’t make people uncomfortable with her views. I was so obsessed with not getting in trouble that I’m just not going to do anything that anyone can say something about.”

She continues: “You are kind of doing a constant strategy in your head as how not to be shamed for something on any given day, but then you get accused of being calculated for having a strategy.”

Swift’s situation is, of course, amplified by her stardom. Much of the narrative of the documentary – including the moment when she says a stalker broke into her house and slept in her bed – is hard to empathise with. But, on the other hand, Swift’s desperate need to please everyone and live up to the impossible expectations placed on her is something is a feeling which will resonate with most women.

How to stop relying on external validation (and develop your internal validation skills)

There are two things we can do to help with our need to be universally liked – loosen the grip external validation has on us, and develop our internal validation skills.

“It is important to find and maintain a healthy balance between internal and external validation,” explains Dr Spelman. “Simple techniques can include allowing yourself not to be perfect. If you are a woman, for example, you don’t have to present yourself to the world perfectly dressed and made-up all the time; it’s up to you how you want to look, and you are just as valid and valuable when you are dressed down.

“At work, it is important to be diligent and hard-working within your role – but it’s actually OK to not be best friends with everyone in the office. If you suspect that Bob from accounts doesn’t like you a lot, you might be right – but so long as you and Bob can be civil to one another and work together effectively when necessary, you don’t have a problem.”

And what about when it comes to developing our internal validation skills? The answer, according to Dr Spelman, is developing and nurturing our self-love.

“We can practice positive reinforcement with ourselves,” she explains. “Many of us have an inner voice that tends to be quite negative, telling us that we are stupid when we have made a mistake, and so on. We need to nurture an inner voice that praises us when we do well, and that allows us to make mistakes and learn from them, rather than dismissing us as stupid.”

She continues: “Sometimes a few sessions of therapy can help people to start learning how to have a more positive relationship with themselves—and there are various techniques that can be incorporated into our daily lives to help in this area, including mindfulness meditation and the use of positive affirmations.”

To learn more about easy mindfulness techniques you can use at work, read our guide here.

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For far too long, the representation of women by both mainstream and social media has failed to reflect who we see in the mirror, and its impact on our mental health is worrying. Stylist’s Love Women initiative promises to change that. As well as the launch of our Body Politics series, we’ve partnered with Dove, whose latest project (in conjunction with photo library Getty Images) aims to increase the supply of diverse pictures of women – which we will be using going forward.

Our editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski has also made five pledges to Stylist readers:

1. We will ensure the women you see on our pages represent all women – inclusive of ethnicity, body shape, sexuality, age and disability. When we create content and ideas, we will ensure that all women are represented at the table. We commit to featuring one fashion or beauty photoshoot a month that uses real, diverse women.

2. We will ensure that we never sell an impossible dream. We believe in aspiration, but not in selling a lie. We will work with influencers, celebrities and other partners to encourage them to reveal their truths, too.

3. We will celebrate the so-called flaws of women to prove the normality in all of our bodies. We will run videos, photoshoots and honest accounts of our bodies and how they behave.

4. We will hold regular huddles with our advertisers and brand partners to challenge the way they portray and reflect women in their branding and advertising. We will call out and challenge brands, media and people who refuse to represent women with respect and truth. We will call on the government to support our goals.

5. Through insight and anecdote, we will teach everyone about the issues facing women, what needs to be done and how we can all work together to resolve this self-esteem crisis.

Find out more about Stylist’s Love Women initiative here.

Images: Getty

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.

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