The Anxiety for External Validation and its Incorporation into Self-Concept Through Parental Conditioning

Our anxiety is often said to be from us wanting completion from what is external to us. This is essentially referred to as a need for external validation. The most powerful form of external validation is probably the desire to please others, more specifically, to get their approval and acceptance.

When our sense of self is characterized by a need for external validation then our emotional lives tend to become characterized by insecurity and its manifested forms of worry and anxiety, both during social situations and also when we are alone. This is because we have internalized expectations that we assume others have for us, using them to judge ourselves thereby making them our own. It is also because that very process of internalization itself is our normative way of processing our experience of ourselves and the world; our normal way of interpreting and thinking involves the active devaluation of ourselves in relation to others. We are conditioned to look outside ourselves for our Soul’s sustenance and so we are always hungry. Alone, we feel the hunger for validation, and this hunger is felt as anxiety and uneasiness for which we tend to rely on an assortment of coping mechanisms just to distract ourselves. It is a spiritual agitation and a sense of need rather than a quiet contentment.

This way of perceiving the world has a strong basis in early childhood conditioning, primarily our experiences with our parents as well as our early and formative relationships outside the family structure. When our parents teach us that love and approval is conditional on the meeting of their expectations, we become conditioned to feel and to understand that our inherent value is also conditional on the meeting of external expectations. This is the basis for the Devalued Self-Concept. Our early and formative relationships with others outside our immediate families tend to be based on this conditioning, and so they serve the purpose of further validating in us that our value is external to us, that this is how the world is, and this is the nature of love and relationships. But this is of course a grand exercise of confirmation bias. The only reason that our relationships chip away at our self-esteem and teach us that we are not inherently valuable is because we sought out people that would communicate this to us, especially in ways that were familiar to us during childhood.

Our existent state is felt as a sense of depersonalization because we essentially are looking through the eyes of others by orienting our mind state around their existence rather than our own. We perceive their “reality” as more “real” than our own thereby diminishing our own existence and sense of value. Our existence on a deeply metaphysical level is perceived by us as being dependent on others. This opens us up to more easily being attracted to personality types that would facilitate for us abusive and toxic relationships that reflect, and thus ultimately confirm and validate, our devalued sense of self and the perception of how the world and relationships are supposed to be. We victimize both ourselves and others because being a victim of life is what defines us.

External validation, and therefore how others react to us, informs our self-concept as opposed to any sort of self-identified transcendent Principle(s) from within. When we are dependent on other people defining us, our emotional state becomes characterized by anxiety, eventually morphing into resentment and even depression. This is because approval from others is necessarily contingent and conditional. Our existence is therefore also felt as contingent and conditional. Because we lack a sense of continuity and endurance existentially we are thrown into a state of insecurity and fear and agitation. We feel threatened on a deeply fundamental level, and this metaphysical state manifests physiologically as anxiety. And then we act accordingly to seek respite from this agitation.

This way of existing is taught early on in life as children, making us highly prone to distress later on in life as adults. As the Merill-Palmer study from Wayne State University described, “…it seems that children’s early emotional tendencies may be integrated into their sense of self at an early age.” Tempermental proneness-to-distress and family interaction are direct and independent predictors of children’s self-concepts. The Merill-Palmer study showed that children that are prone to distress tend to incorporate perceived “affects and social responses into their self-views.” This demonstrates a fragile self-concept that has incorporated, and is thus dependent on, external validation to define itself. We thus define ourselves by the reaction of others. We become ultra sensitive to displeasing people, and from this we turn into what is described as “people pleasers”. We are trying to please people not for the sake of pleasing them but for the sake of being hurt by their displeasure.

Whether it is in the form of approval or rejection, individuals with such a self-concept, echoed in Erikson’s description of the immature “identity-diffused” self-concept, are reportedly high in self-monitoring. They thus exhibit inconsistent patterns of behavior between social interactions, even to the point of contradiction. Their behavior, rather than being predicated on universal Principles that would make their behavior, in essence, consistent and coherent with who they are as a person in different situations, is instead predicated on the particulars of each social situation in a way that would result in them receiving the desired form of validation. So although validation is what is universal in their behavior, validation itself is a contingent particular.

One key characteristic of the immature self-concept is the lack of confrontation with moments of crises. Moments of crises are described by Erikson as challenges to one’s self-esteem and self-concept. By confronting and overcoming those moments we are able derive from them their underlying wisdom that leads to the personal growth of our self-concept towards the more mature states of identity-synthesis and self-actualization. The Merill-Palmer study echoes this understanding, describing that children that are highly prone-to-distress are unwilling to confront novel and/or challenging situations that challenge their self-esteem.

Our need for approval is ultimately the reason why the words and reactions of others can cut us or flatter us so deeply. Both are effects of low self-esteem that stems from a self-concept that largely defines itself through the expectations of others. If those expectations are met, only then do we feel validated because we’ve been taught that we are what others tell us we are. We are not what we tell ourselves we are, and thus we remain always ignorant of our Higher Self, our greater potential.

The paper contrasted these findings with the self-concept of children that were low on proneness-to-distress, described as temperamental boldness. Temperamental boldness was not directly described as related to children’s self-concepts, indicating that overall, these children did not associate their emotional tendencies or the reactions of others with their self-concept as much as those that were prone to distress. Essentially, they just don’t care about any of that and must realize on a fundamentally deep level that these factors are all external to and not part of the Self. There is, for them, a sense of simply being ok with who they are.

The difference between a mature self-concept that expresses high self-esteem and an immature self-concept that expresses low self-esteem is in how they conceptualize and feel a sense of power. Whereas a mature self-concept manifests from within a strong sense of power over one’s emotional states through their own agency and capacity for judgement, an immature self-concept holds the belief that others have power over their emotional states and thus tend to hold others accountable for their happiness. A person that is on the higher end of the identity-synthesis spectrum believes that they are ultimately responsible for their own of happiness precisely because they know that it is in their control. But this control isn’t based on controlling external material variables, but rather on an ingrained metaphysical belief about the nature of the their Being. It may not be expressed in doctrine, but it does relate to the transcendence of the human spirit. This sense of power grounds us in our own sense of reality. The important point here is that we recognize that our reality is real. If our sense of reality feels diminished and devalued then automatically we perceive that other people have a truer reality than we do, and thus we fall into the trap of trying to live our lives vicariously through them. Their version of events, of life, their ideas, they all seem more important than ours.

[1] Merrill Palmer Q (Wayne State Univ Press). 2009; 55(2): 184–216. “Young Children’s Self-Concepts: Associations with Child Temperament, Mothers’ and Fathers’ Parenting, and Triadic Family Interaction” 

[2] Art by Agnes Cecile. More can be found here.


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