Internal and external validation

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By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC

I’ve mentioned in my last couple posts the idea of external validation. Naturally, I feel this may need to be elaborated on. Why? Because it is important stuff! Also, because I have a hunch that you may not quiet understand the two types of validation and their important role in mental health.

First off, what in the world is validation? If we go on what the dictionary says, the definition of validation is “the action of checking or proving the validity or accuracy of something.” I want to draw attention to the whole “checking or proving” part. This is exactly what our prefrontal cortex is looking for! The definition of validation is all about having facts our prefrontal cortex can check and know they are real.

Not only does validation help our prefrontal cortex, it helps our hippocampus and hypothalamus store these facts as memories. As the hippocampus stores those memories, it assigns emotions to those facts. That means, when our darn amygdala decides to show it’s colors, we have facts that would help the prefrontal cortex have a strong voice and say “Amygdala, shut up!”

Another cool thing about validation is the ability it has to release the feel good neurotransmitters just when we remember that validating fact. How? Let’s review some of the information we talked about in my post, The “Feel Good” Neurotransmitters and How to Release Them.

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First, you have oxytocin. Did you know when you remember a neutral fact (or dare I say it: a positive fact) someone says to you, your brain releases oxytocin? Even if you aren’t physically with that person, that release of oxytocin reminds your darn amygdala that you are not alone and have someone supporting you, somewhere, in someway, in your life.

Next, you have serotonin. We have talked a lot about how serotonin improves our ability to feel joy, be happy, and reduce symptoms of anxiety. When we are given validation by someone, we can feel our heart rate increase (partially in thanks to endorphins and norepinephrine), get a warm feeling inside, and feel a small spark of joy.

Want to learn more about how neurotransmitters affect our mental health? Check out my post, Neurotransmitters: The Language of the Brain

Dopamine also has a hand in validation. Can you guess it’s role? If you said that hearing validation on something you are working on helps you feel accomplished, then you are are on the right track! The dopamine released during a validating comment improves motivation to keep going (true story).

I mentioned endorphins and norepinephrine above, but there is still more to be said about them. When we hear someone say “I’m proud of you,” we notice a decrease in physical pain. Why? The endorphins that are released naturally reduce physical pain receptors and actually release our own form of opioid: mu-opioid. Norepinephrine is responsible for the physical response we have when we hear these positive words from other people. It all comes together to help our prefrontal cortex mount a defense to that darn amygdala when it says “Nothing I do matters, I’m alone, and no one likes me.”

Now, there are two types of validation: internal and external. Are you familiar with the difference?

First, let’s start with external validation. Why? Well, it is way more common than internal, and it is easier to find. External validation is the validation of experiences and emotions we receive from sources outside of us. This included family members, co-workers, teachers, and likes on our recent TikTok video (true story). As humans, we naturally seek out external validation for several reasons:

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  • Increased sense of acceptance and belonging
  • Improved communication about needs
  • Sense of safety and bonding with our peers

As discussed above, the release of feel good neurotransmitters helps improve our mood and self-confidence.

Now, we have the elusive internal validation. Why do I say elusive? Well, think about it. How often to you validate your emotions and experiences compared to how often you offer external validation to your best friend? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Internal validation is how we validate our own experiences and emotions. Yup, that means acknowledgement of what you are feeling. I say this one is harder to do because this means you are using your own facts to validate yourself. If you struggle with self-esteem, you may not necessarily believe facts could actually be positive AND realistic.

Needless to say, we need to have a healthy balance of both internal and external validation in our lives. If we are heavy on the external validation and light on the internal validation, what could happen? You got it: our brain’s reliance on an unrealistic expectation that external validation is the only way to feel happiness, joy, and all those other positive emotions.

How do we validate ourselves without it coming across as insincere, bragging, or even boastful? That is a great question! I think I have to refer you back to my post, Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills to first reflect on the difference in assertive and aggressive communication. Once you understand that assertiveness isn’t aggressiveness, then we can move on to the next step.

Coping Skills Alert

I am going to focus more on internal validation rather than external validation in this coping skill. My posts all about Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills did a great job about increasing our confidence in asking for what we want and/or need. I think it is time for us to focus more about how to ask for what we need from ourselves.

When we start to validate ourselves, it is going to feel awkward, maybe weird, and everything in between. Remember, this is a new skill that requires practice. It will take time for it to feel natural. With that little disclaimer given, let’s move on!

You will be happy to hear that there isn’t a crazy acronym for this (yippee!!!), but there are some rules to remember when it comes to treating yourself with kindness and validating your own experiences:

  • Be present with yourself!
    • This means you have to actually feel your feelings. Not avoid them, ignore them, or dissociate when they are present. You actually have to sit with your feelings, label them, and experience them. Want to learn more about how to be mindful of your feelings? Check out my post, Mindfulness: The Art of Becoming Calm, Cool, and Collected
  • Reflect on what you are experiencing!
    • To reflect means to label what you are feeling accurately rather than guessing. For example, if someone close passes away, labeling your grief, sadness, and denial of their passing would be accurate compared to just feeling sad. Reflection just doesn’t happen with our emotions, it has to happen with what we are physically feeling. When we label our physical sensations (like a tight stomach or tense jaw for example), we are drawing attention to the whole experience
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  • Use your hippocampus!
    • Sometimes, we need to allow our hippocampus to review memories of times where we have felt the same way to help identify all that we are feeling. By doing so, we are also helping our prefrontal cortex draw on past facts to help you in a tough situation. This can help you validate strengths you have used in the past, as well as problem-solve situations that can increase your distress levels.
  • Remember: Everyone has emotions!
    • I feel like one of the biggest troubles with mental health is the idea that we all are supposed to be happy all the time. We really need to normalize the idea that we all have emotions. Emotions are not good or bad, they are just there. When we normalize how we are feeling, that means we are giving yourself the same patience we give to others when they experience the same emotions. Believe it our not, you deserve that same kindness.
  • Be honest with yourself!
    • Better known as radical genuineness in the therapy world, being honest about what you are feeling is a key in validating yourself. Many people try to lie about what they are experiencing (cue toxic positivity to enter the conversation) as a way to avoid feeling these hard, “negative” emotions. When we discredit these tough emotions, we also deny our experience. How invalidating is that?!
  • Take an educated guess!
    • There are situations where we truly don’t know , or can’t label, the emotions we are experiencing. This is where we prime our brain with some oxytocin, dig deep into into our hippocampus and ask “how would someone feel in this situation? Is that what I’m currently feeling?” By doing this, you are taking internal validation one step further by decreasing the shame of (ready for it?) being human and having a human experience!

I want to thank you for hanging in there for this post on the two styles of validation. With practice, you can ask for the validation you need to feel appreciated while offering yourself the validation you deserve! I believe in you!

To recap this post:

– Validation is the art of collecting facts for our prefrontal cortex

– External validation comes from people around us

– Internal validation comes from within

– There must be a balance of both external and internal validation to have self-confidence

Bonus Material!

Handouts are created to help you remember the facts of each post and help you implement the coping skill into your life. This week’s handouts (that’s right, handouts!) goes over the definition of validation, the differences between external and internal validation, how to validate yourself. Enjoy!

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