Are you ready to give up your validation fix?
Have you ever caught yourself wishing your boss would tell you that you are on the right track? Or wondering what people thought of your presentation at the All Hands’ Meeting? Or frustrated that your manager waits until performance review season to give you feedback of any kind?
You are not alone. For many of us, feedback and acknowledgement from significant people help us build confidence, gain self-knowledge, find direction in our life and work, and experience a sense of connection and belonging. This is especially valuable in the early stages of our career. Validation helps us believe in ourselves, gives us a sense of optimism. It fills our tank.
On the flip side – and especially as we progress in our careers -, looking for validation that isn’t forthcoming creates anxiety and self-doubt. It depletes our tank. We wonder, am I not meeting expectations, am I not good enough, did I not get my message across, am I doing something wrong, or worse still – am I becoming irrelevant?
The truth is that while validation can put our minds at ease in the moment, it is fleeting. The next time a situation comes up, the cycle begins again, and we look outside ourselves for confirmation that all is well. Validation can become a dependency, a crutch and even somewhat addictive. Why is this and what can you do to wean yourself off it?
The downside of achievement
As an executive coach, I celebrate my clients for their paths to success. However, I have also seen a potentially destructive cycle play out. If you are a high achiever, this pattern starts early and can pose a particular challenge. Since your early days, you have been called out for being exceptional: top of the class, winner of sports and music competitions, the star. In the corporate world you find similar reinforcement – with career ladders, promotions, raises, titles and status that constantly tell you that you are doing well. The rewards are great. At the same time, this reward system creates a dependency. Research shows that you get a dopamine hit for each reward, and the more you get, the more you crave. And when you don’t get it, you question yourself, and your self-worth takes a hit. Tank - empty.
So what can you do to get over this dependency?
The first step is simply to observe your patterns. Notice if there are times when you really want to hear what your boss thinks about your performance. Or when you feel compelled to check in with others to make sure you are on the right track. Or when you are frustrated that these very same people don’t go out of their way to see how you are doing or pat you on the back. Notice your internal process. Maybe their lack of attention leads you to feel ungrounded and worry that you are no longer exceptional. Maybe you tell yourself that your boss is lacking in empathy or doesn’t care. Or you begin to feel “less than” or unworthy. Consider what is beneath your desire for validation – perhaps an underlying insecurity, fear of becoming irrelevant or losing the good standing you have worked so hard to achieve, or even a fear of failing.
2. Reframe Just because you aren’t being called out in a positive way doesn’t mean you aren’t doing great things. Your boss’ lack of feedback might feel like they don’t care, but they may simply be too busy. Perhaps they think you no longer need to hear how well you are doing. You have consistently proven yourself throughout your career and they most likely have the utmost trust in you. Although it may feel like you are being under-appreciated, ignored or even invisible, it could also be the greatest compliment. You are where you are for a reason.
It can be hard to recognize that what is expected of you as a senior leader is different from earlier in your career. With this realization, your own expectations need to shift. After all, if you really are reaching the top of your game, maybe this is the moment to acknowledge all the validation you have received over the years and now pay it forward to others.
3. Shift your focus
The reality is that the more senior you are, the less external validation you will get on a regular basis. So how can you avoid derailing when you aren’t being validated by others? One way to think about this is simply to shift your focus. If you no longer expect or look for validation, what would change for you? Maybe you would feel a sense of relief, because you are no longer setting yourself up for the disappointment of not getting enough. Or maybe by letting go of the desire for external validation, you discover your own inner compass that helps you sense when you are heading in the right direction, when you are off track, or what is the right thing to do. The greater your own inner awareness, the less need you have to hear it from others.
4. Find other ways to refill your tank
In the absence of external validation, you need to find other means of filling your tank. Think about the moments in your day when you feel the most fulfillment. Maybe it’s the career development conversation you had with one of your team members, or the Board presentation you collaborated on with your peers. Or the celebratory moment with your team at year end. Or the time a co-worker reached out to you with a personal problem or to brainstorm a new idea. What are these moments that bring you a sense of fulfillment and joy? These are the times when you are at your best, tapping into a sense of purpose that transcends you. Make a note of these moments. Share and celebrate them with your partner, your friend, your coach. These moments replenish your tank.
Liberating yourself from the desire for external validation can be one of the most important shifts you can make in stepping more fully into your most empowered leadership. It may also signal an identity shift, one that you may not have recognized as it happened while you were so busy building your career. You are now senior, the one giving more than receiving validation. You may never completely lose the desire yourself – and to expect that would be unrealistic. But by shifting your focus to what holds the greatest meaning and satisfaction for you, you become your own source of deeper happiness and fulfillment that is self-sustaining. You become your own source of renewable energy for your tank.