Internal and external validation are two kinds of approval we seek in our lives. They are both important, and to some degree we need both. Nevertheless, many people struggle to trust their own sense of internal validation. Because of this, they get stuck seeking external forms of validation their entire life. This can cause a lot of problems for people.
Several important questions are pertinent at this point.
One: What is validation?
Two: What is the difference between internal and external validation?
Three: Why is it important to develop a sense of internal validation, and why is it dangerous to solely rely on external forms of validation?
Validation: What it Is
If you look at the word validation, you might notice that it is connected to the word valid, which has connotations of being acceptable, correct, right, appropriate. For instance, in logic, the word valid pertains to a certain kind of argument that is structured correctly and appropriately so that the conclusion follows from the premises. For instance, when someone says “That’s a valid argument”, they mean (among other things) that the argument is sensible; that it passes muster; or that it stands up under scrutiny.
As another example, if we say someone has a valid claim, we mean that the claim is appropriate, justified, worthy or legitimate. Or if we say to someone, “That is a valid concern”, we affirm the legitimacy and merit of the concern. The term valid carries the connotation that whatever is valid has earned a certification of acceptably. (I mean a metaphorical rather than a literal certificate of acceptability.)
If we use these various meanings of valid to help us understand the word validation, we can see that validation means a sense of being acceptable, correct, passing a standard of legitimacy, being worthy, or being what or who one should be.
For example, someone might say, “Earning my degree gave me a sense of validation.” Or someone might say, “The fact that she listened to my concerns helped me feel validated.” As another example, someone might run a 5k after training for several months and feel like all her hard work has been validated.
In these contexts, the word validation (or its derivatives) means a sense of being good enough, worthy, or having passed some standard of appropriateness. And it turns out that a sense of validation is very important to human beings.
One form of external validation is honor or awards from other people. In Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle suggests that making honor the sole goal of one’s life is not wise because, among other things, it puts one’s happiness is other people’s hands.
Humans and Validation
Human beings, in distinction from other animals, can think critically about themselves and wonder if they are good enough. Non-human animals live their life almost entirely according to biology and instinct. These forces program the life of animals. So questions about the legitimacy of their existence do not arise for animals in the same way they do for humans.
For example, as far as we can tell, bunnies do not spend a lot of time wondering whether they are good and successful bunnies. They just live their bunny life.
Here’s a bunny that visits my backyard every morning. His main goal is eating clover, and so far he’s rocking it.
Humans follow biology and instinct to a certain degree, but humans also have a space of freedom. In this space, they transcend biology and pursue spiritual goals, which are goals pertaining to morality, creativity, purpose, and rationality. (These are just a few examples of spiritual goals.)
Because these spiritual goals are not pre-programmed by biology, we must figure out how to achieve them in our individual, particular lives. And because each person’s life is very different, humans often spend a lot of time wondering if they are worthy, acceptable, or doing their life right.
In other words, humans seek various sources of validation to tell them whether they are good humans, living a good human life. And they seek validation from both external and internal sources.
Some of the most common external sources of validation are the following:
Approval from authority figures.
Popularity (which is approval from peers).
Social awards or prizes. (For example, getting on the honor roll, winning an artistic contest, or getting a raise at work.)
Praise from other people.
Earning degrees or certificates or awards.
Some of the most common internal sources of validation are the following.
The feeling that our current actions help us to flourish mentally, physically, or emotionally.
Or the knowledge that our actions align with our moral code or core values.
A quiet confidence in the rationality of our choices.
Or a sense that our core philosophy harmonizes the various aspects of our life.
Pride in working hard and accomplishing a goal.
An awareness of our life philosophy and a sense of confidence that we are living it out.
The Value of External Sources of Validation
External source of validation are valuable because they can be a good guide for helping us understand if we are developing universal human capacities wisely. For example, we are born into the world with significant physical, intellectual, and moral capacities. But when we are young, we often lack a strong sense of how to express these capacities appropriately. So, we need external sources of validation to help us understand how to do this.
Consider a specific example. We are born with the capacity to think logically and consistently. But we need help developing this capacity. So, we attend school to, among other things, help us develop our universal logical capacity. In doing so, we seek external validation from our teachers to help us know if we are developing our intellectual capacities appropriately.
Developing Universal Capacities
And as another example, we are born with the universal capacity to be kind. But young children need help developing this capacity and moving past egocentric tendencies common to their age. Children learn skills of kindness through relating with their family or going to social activities church, school, clubs, or team sports. In these relationships, we seek external validation from our parents, social authority figures, and peers to help us know if we are developing emotional capacities appropriately.
If we do not care about these forms of external validation, we will likely fail to develop all our positive human capacities to their fullest degree. That is because our universal capacities for communication, care, and problem-solving (just to name a few) can only develop fully in relationships with other people. As such, they require some forms of external validation. (As a related but more trivial example, a person cannot become a highly skilled Ping-Pong player completely by herself. She can only do this by playing with others. Some skills require participation with others, which entails external validation, for full development.)
While external forms of validation are important, so are internal forms of validation.
But while there are some aspects of our human existence that are universal, or that require relationships with others, there are also particular aspects of our human existence. And there are aspects of this particularity we must develop on our own.
For example, no one’s life is exactly like ours. As such, we must figure out how to apply our logical and moral capacities in our unique life situation. Therefore, we must rely on our internal sense of validation in instances like this, or else we will rely on external sources to do something they are incapable of doing properly. Namely external sources are incapable of telling us definitively whether we are living our particular life well.
Here is an example that might help illustrate this point. Think of the great inventors of the world like Thomas Edison and Einstein who introduces groundbreaking science and theories into the world. Edison and Einstein certainly look to some external sources of validation for their work—like math and science. Nevertheless, what they were doing was so unique and unprecedented that at some point, they had to learn to rely on their own internal sense of validation. This sense assured them they were on the right path, despite the groundbreaking work they were doing and the many obstacles they encountered along the way.
While you and I may not invent things like new technology or scientific theories, each of us are the inventors of our own particular and unique life. We will certainly look to some external forms of validation to help us on our way. But inevitably, there will be times we must consult sources of internal validation to let us know we are on the right path.
Since we are closer to our unique lived experience than anyone else, we are our own best source of validation. And in fact, the older we get, the more important our sense of validation becomes. That is because the older we get, the more complex our life becomes. Complexity in human life leads to greater uniqueness. Thus, we need to rely more on our own sense of the appropriateness of our own unique life situation. In addition, the more complex and unique our adult life becomes, the less external authorities have direct experience with our personal experience.
And in fact, there is significant danger in seeking only external forms of validation.
Here are three possible dangers.
First: If we fail to develop a sense of internal validation, we constantly feel starved for other people’s validation.
Recall that validation is our sense that we are acceptable and worthy. Validation acts as an anchor that connects us to our sense of self, our purpose, and our community. Such connections represent some of the most basic needs human beings have. We all need to feel like we are someone. And we need to feel like we matter and belong to a community of people who believe we matter as well. These feelings give us stability.
But if we lack internal validation, we constantly rely on other people to validate our existence. And this can be a dangerous situation because there will not always be people who are able or willing to do this. Thus, developing a sense of internal validation is essential to our sense of stability.
Second: Sometimes the sources of external validation around us are deformed and do not have our best interest at heart.
In an ideal world, the people around us (i.e. caretakers, peers, society) are responsible, mature, and eager to help us thrive.
Unfortunately, sometimes these people are irresponsible or have destructive patterns of behavior. And they might be more interested in using us for their own purposes, rather than helping us thrive. For example, sometimes people have failed to develop their own sense of internal validation. So they try to use us as a constant source of external validation.
Thus, if we solely rely on external sources for validation, this will greatly disrupt our sense of stability. This is especially true when these sources are irresponsible or deformed.
Third: Sometimes external and internal sources of validation conflict.
Sometimes the people around us tell us something is right or wrong, but we strongly disagree. If we continually ignore our internal sense of validation in favor of external sources of validation, this leads us to abandon internal validation. Or it causes us to live in a constant state of self-alienation. Both feelings are destructive.
Therefore, at least in some cases, we need to learn to rely solely on internal sources of validation. This helps us do what we believe is right, even if it goes against external sources of validation.
A Parting Thought
External sources of validation help us know that we are generally developing universal human capacities wisely. Internal sources of validation help us know when we are living our particular life courageously.
By the way, if you would like to understand how to develop internal forms of validation, you might like this post: Do you live from the Inside Out or Outside In?
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