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Episode 172: External Validation

Ever heard of The looking-glass self?
The looking-glass self is a concept created by sociologist Charles Horton Cooley back in 1902. It states that rather than a person's sense of self growing out of their own internal perceptions it instead grows out of the interactions with and the perceptions of other people. In a nutshell it can be summed up with the following phrase:

“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.”

This is actually quite a modern concept, bearing in mind back in 1902 doctors were so out of touch that they would regularly prescribe heroin as a cough syrup to children.
As for psychology it was a very dark time really, we had no idea about attachment theory so back in those days it was encouraged that children should be rejected and abandoned by their mothers so as to make them emotionally strong. Which we soon learned was the basis for many personality disorders.
The looking-glass self works like this. I think my son is amazing, he's funny, he's kind, he's generous, he's considerate. All the things I value. But what about his friends dad, Jeff. he might think my son is irritating, lazy, stupid and boring, all the things that Jeff hates. So what does my son think about himself? Well it depends where his focus is, because if it's on Jeff then he would have learned that he was stupid and boring and so on, but if his focus is on me, then he learns that he's amazing. But he doesn't get his own opinion whilst he's developing his personality.
Through life we will all get these mixed messages and so can easily end up being someone different to everyone we know and never get a sense of self at all. That's why we use the phrase "finding ourselves." The idea that we can walk away from everyone's expectations of us and become a blank canvas somewhere else for 6 months on the other side of the world so as to find out who we really are.
In a world of social media, it's become normal to look for attention and approval from the external world to get our sense of self-worth. And it's not healthy to normalise creating caricatures of ourselves to gain approval because a lot of people have anxiety and depression because of their low sense of self-worth. But they're basing this self-worth on other peoples opinions about them which can't be fully controlled anyway. So we need to know that we're playing this stupid game so that we can change the rules a bit and feel better about ourselves.
The problem is we obviously tend to be friends with people whose opinions we value and respect, they're our “in-group” as it's called in psychology. But if we've got this life long habit of seeking approval and validation from them then the opinions of this in-group can easily become the basis for how we value ourselves. Which doesn't work because if you base your "self" on what you think others think of you, then you will always be vulnerable. Your "self" has no true basis no genuine foundation. If the other person is having a good day and they respond to you in a friendly way when you ask them if they want chips or salad, then you feel good. If the other person is having a bad day then you'll spend all night wondering what you did wrong. All because we are constantly trying to project this image of ourselves out into the world that's based on what we think others want to see, but since we don’t actually know what they want anyway, what we are really doing is deciding what we think they want and then trying to project that image.
No ones a winner, least of all us. And it's likely that everyone involved is doing the same thing, all of us sitting round a table trying to base what we're going to do or say on what everyone else might want and none of us are being authentic. But it doesn't have to be this way, we can change. it just takes time.
It starts with an acceptance of the fact that we've all been trained throughout our lives, by society, to value ourselves through the opinions of other people, and that it's wrong. Once you start there you can begin challenging the thoughts and the feelings that contribute to keeping the habit going. Rather than falling into the trap that's sometimes called "the contamination of the adult" where it's safer for a person to believe a lie than to acknowledge the evidence in front of them.
So it might be worth spending time reflecting a little on who you are, maybe you can find yourself without needing to run away. Do some reflection and look at the parts of your personality that are valuable. Things that no matter what anyone would say, you know. That you're loving or dedicated, hard working or honest. Are you kind? Are you reliable?
Once you can truly know and value yourself, then you can see that no matter what anyone else says, whether they validate you are not, you validate yourself. And more importantly you can see that whether someone validates you or not, it doesn’t actually change what you know to be true about yourself. You are still, kind, loving, dedicated, hard working, honest, and reliable.
You are still you no matter what, and that is good enough.