Internal Validation, External Validation, Moving From A to B
March 31, 2017 12:01 PM   Subscribe

Brief summary: do you have any anecdata (or actual data!) on whether a person can move from seeking validation from external sources (e.g. romantic partners) to seeking validation from internal sources (e.g. developing a solid, positive self-image, achieving personal goals), and HOW this is best achieved? More inside...

My partner of nine years and I recently broke up. One of the maaaaany painful things I learned during the breakup was that, 1. I seek MOST of my personal validation from my romantic partners, and, 2. This is super-unhealthy for both my partners AND me, and I'd like to stop doing it. The problem is... I don't know WHY I'm this way, I don't know how to change it, and I'm not sure if it IS a changeable thing. In essence, I feel good/worthy when I'm "chosen" by a male partner. When I'm no longer chosen (because he's angry with me, or we've broken up, or he's started dating again), I feel awful about myself. This is a shitty, painful, kinda pathetic way to live.

The Crux: have you (... or maybe a group of people in a clinical study somewhere?) ever gone from "I base my self-worth on the opinion of my most-recent romantic partner" to "I base my self-worth on MYSELF"? How did you/they accomplish this?

(Data, if it's helpful: I'm a straight/cis woman, mid-thirties, feminist, in therapy for years, on a good SSRI, lots of supportive friends, good job, lots of interests and hobbies, embarrassed to be this way.)
posted by julthumbscrew to Human Relations (10 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
aw heck, i feel for you so hard! first, please don't beat up on yourself -- we women are indoctrinated with this validation-via-teh-menz crap from birth, so is it any wonder we catch some of the symptoms? you've acknowledged it, you want to do something about it, so just start there! that's an awesome spot!

for me, what mattered most was a rethinking of how i value all relationships -- treating my friends more like my sweethearts (investing in our shared futures, making plans, honouring committments and special occasions with creativity and effort), and treating my sweeties more like my pals (good boundaries, flexibility, respect for difference). focusing on the concrete actions, effort, thinking about, and the amount of time i quantifiably spend on each of the above felt like a tangible measure of how i was doing things differently.

basically, distributing your emotional eggs across many baskets (friendships, personal goals, chosen fam, dates, etc etc) in a way that feels meaningful to you. it took me a few years of having no "primary" relationships (but many fun casual sweethearts where i experienced more emotional generosity, fun and kindness than i ever had to date primary relationships). now i'm in a primary relationship, and it feels so. much. better. than. ever.

anyways, i know it can feel very bleak, but i just wanted to give a lil shout to say the future is very bright in the direction you've chosen :)
posted by crawfo at 12:33 PM on March 31, 2017 [13 favorites]

Oh, honey. Hugs if you want them.

I know almost all my answers are "Meditation" but hear me out:

What mindfulness meditation (especially Lovingkindness meditation) has done for me (and it might work for you) is to speak/look to myself as if I was speaking to/looking at a treasured, valued friend.

Think of the people you know and love who seem like fully-realized self-loving people, and consider the fact that they have doubts about themselves too, but ultimately, their value is intrinsic to them, not anyone around them. Then try to look at yourself the same way.

Lovingkindness meditation practices this. And it takes practice. If you follow a guided lovingkindness meditation you will learn to project goodwill and validation out towards others AS WELL AS yourself.

I reccomend Sharon Salzberg's Real Happiness which comes with a CD of guided meditation.

And anecdotally, I've started meditating with my mom, who has VERY low self-esteem and who struggles with mental illness and chronic feelings of low self-worth. She has reported feeling better with regular meditation. And I simply can't recommend it highly enough.

Good luck!! You got this! You know intellectually that you're valuable and valid - you just need to practice understanding this on a deeper and more profound level.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 12:44 PM on March 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

Anecdata: become a radical feminist. I stopped blaming myself for the way I sought validation from romantic partners once I read at length about how aggressively women are socialized to do this, as well as to downplay their own strengths and value as individual people, instead seeing themselves as valuable when they are good girlfriends, wives, daughters, mothers, maids/caretakers etc. And I found that kind of analysis in radical feminist writing, even though I had been a liberal feminist for a while. (Actually, liberal 'choice' feminism made me feel even worse about myself because there were a lot of expectations in it that made me feel unsettled and grossed out but I couldn't put my finger on why; reading more radical writers and talking to other radical women helped me figure that out.)

Seeing the structural and societal viewpoint helped get me out of my head and made me realize that I had also been socialized this way, despite the liberal/secular aspects of how I grew up. The first step to getting away from that was to understand it and be able to recognize it when it infected my thought patterns. That sensation of feeling shitty about yourself when you aren't "chosen" is a very particular thing that women internalize; and there's a reason for that which is bigger than you. It's not because you're deficient or poorly developed in terms of mental health.

YMMV, this is just one side of it that I experienced. I am sure that the comments on here will have lots of great suggestions from other perspectives.
posted by zdravo at 12:48 PM on March 31, 2017 [16 favorites]

So I need the middle of the night last night I woke up and puttered around on Google. I stumbled on "attachment theory/style" in adults and it was pretty eye opening and helped me understand a lot of the "why". Knowing I fit into a pattern made me feel less alone and more empowered. Maybe it will be helpful?
posted by Vaike at 1:06 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

Daddy's girls are made, not born. Often we have moms who did not nurture or care, and when daddy came home, that is when we got to live, sometimes this went on until kindergarten. So there is a deep depression that forms early on as we are abandoned in our own homes, and the only break in it is the dad. Suddenly we are growing up, and we love guys best, we count on them for all our joy, on a personal level. Search deep, fall back somewhere safe, and examine the way you felt about your dad, as a very little kid, and look for the rest of the scene for feelings about that time. This is not to affix blame to anyone, but to understand where the impulse to self abandon comes from. Abandonment issues are delicate to approach.

It doesn't help that starting in junior high and high school, hero worship in the form of sports contests, and funding, continues to back this up. Hero! Hero! Hero! Love the hero!

The healthy love and caring for the self, can be hard to approach if it is has to be rescued from the well of despair. It is doable.

Carlos Castaneda spoke of Ruthlessness, sweetness, patience, and cunning when stalking consciousness. These things work when trying to find little you, in the past, making agreements you didn't necessarily understand.
posted by Oyéah at 1:43 PM on March 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

The problem is... I don't know WHY I'm this way

Oh, honey, because like 5000 years of human culture have worked super super hard to make you this way. You're not a monster and you're not an outlier and while you're correct that it's an unhealthy thing to bring into a relationship it's not some kind of terrible brokenness particular to you.*

I don't pretend to be 100% internally-validated and self-actualized and lord knows I have not achieved all of my goals. I can totally be a Little Lisa Simpson about my work, or what have you. But most of the time I feel ok about myself completely independently of my relationship. Honestly? I mostly got there through spending a fuuuuuuuckload of time by myself. I don't mean single, even. Just, alone in my house. Where there was absolutely nobody to evaluate me or reflect me back to myself in any way, just me, and my actions, and the consequences thereof.

This is obviously not trivial to attain so I don't mean to imply that it is, or that it's necessary. It's just how I managed it - if you get no external feedback, you sure can't thrive on it.

So yeah, in addition to the lovingkindness meditation and such mentioned above, periods of conscious singlehood and solitude. Consciously shift your attention and pride from things you *have* to things you *do* (or see, or feel, experience, etc.). Because anything you have you can lose; your efforts cannot be taken from you.

"I have X job" (source of pride) --> "I consistently come through for my coworkers and perform my job well."

"I have the love of this partner" --> "I treat my partner with kindness and set healthy boundaries."

It takes practice but it becomes easier over time.

*OH yeah: and I would bet substantial money that your ex partner, unless he is an exceptionally conscious and well-adjusted person, measures his own worth against externals in one way or another. Including his relationships. Men are simply taught to have more and different sources of external validation than women. So if there's a chance he was lording this over you like it's a you-only problem, just know that he's wrong.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 4:07 PM on March 31, 2017 [11 favorites]

The Crux: have you ... gone from "I base my self-worth on the opinion of my most-recent romantic partner" to "I base my self-worth on MYSELF"? How did you/they accomplish this?

A) Figured out how to get my sexual and emotional needs met.

I think most women are not getting either of these adequately met. The entire world frames heterosexual sex as being about meeting his needs, not hers. Women are frequently straight up used for sex, not made love to. When sex became about my needs, men and their opinions stopped having the same sick, twisted hold over me.

B) Developed ambitions of my own.

Men have careers. Men have hobbies. Men typically make bigger paychecks than women. For all too many women, marrying well is still there single biggest accomplishment of a sort the world will value (because god knows having kids and being a good mother does not count for shit in the eyes of the world these days).

I have hopes, dreams, interests and goals of my own. My life is very full, no man required. If some man wants to step into my game, he needs to be good to me and he better damn well not step on my toes or expect every fucking thing to revolve around him.

(I have been alone a long time, so it is possible this is a recipe for becoming a spinster. Shrug.)
posted by Michele in California at 10:48 AM on April 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

Often recommended on Ask.Mefi for good reason: How to Be an Adult in Relationships. This book really opened my eyes to some things. It's mostly along the lines of what other commenters here have already said. But the author throws in some great quotes and wisdom of his own. Highly recommended.
posted by acridrabbit at 5:37 PM on April 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese has it: "Consciously shift your attention and pride from things you *have* to things you *do* (or see, or feel, experience, etc.). Because anything you have you can lose; your efforts cannot be taken from you."

Sorting out this stuff for yourself is hard. You get points for being able to identify your question, and for being willing to make changes. It might help you to notice when you do a thing well, and even the small things count. Did you parallel park neatly and efficiently? Take a look at your park job and think to yourself "I did that. Good job, julthumbscrew!" I really think that this practice helps to highlight your abilities, no matter how inconsequential they seem (YES, that was just the right-sized container for leftovers!). Identifying evidence of skill builds up the self-confidence muscle, and gives you practice in hearing your own judgments on what you do.

Good luck.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:04 PM on April 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm three years out of my last relationship that was like the one you describe, and two years into a relationship that is *so* different. Your description of feeling "no longer chosen" when your partner was mad at you hit me in the gut. God I remember that awful feeling; it colored everything in my day. This happened for most of the 15 years I was married, and ended with the ultimate "no longer chosen" of being left.

Things that worked for me (not in chron order necessarily):

- realizing it was something that I wanted to change about myself
- having a ton of self compassion about that first one, so as not to get weighed down by regret or self doubt or embarrassment
- learning a lot about co-dependency and boundaries (felt like starting from scratch, but also felt like "so I'm not crazy or defective?")
- joined a men's group and started talking about feelings (cisgender hetero male here)
- got to the point where I finally believed that having no relationship at all would be better than having a relationship (where I behaved/felt) like that again
- talking with people a lot about examples of external and internal validation, and giving myself a pat on the back when I noticed myself seeking external validation (this was key for me: reward the noticing and you'll notice more often; get mad at yourself when you notice it and you'll train yourself not to notice)
- noticing the "covert contracts" I had in relationships (a term I got from the book, No More Mr. Nice Guy), where I would do things to get love or validation (including saying "I love you" just so my partner would say it back); now I try to ask for the things I want directly, and I encourage my partner to do the same, so that we can be more Ask than Guess
- where mindfulness helped me was with breathing through and staying with the discomfort that would come after an argument in my new relationship. My old patterns wanted to come back; I wanted to try to fix or appease, and instead I sat with the feeling until it started to lessen, and then later actually related that whole process to my partner, who knows it's a pattern I'm trying to let go

I still feel the discomfort, but it doesn't control me. A fight feels bad, but it doesn't color everything the way it used to.
posted by mabelstreet at 8:59 PM on April 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

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