I was talking to a friend this week and we got onto the subject of validation. Funnily it is a conversation I have multiple times a week, all year round. Whilst not necessarily a subject topic purposely explored for it’s negativity it is a concept which impacts so many aspects of our lives, and whilst it can boost self-esteem it can also limit us to our comfort place, and in some situations prevent progress and development. Therefore an area which we need to be aware of when working with children and young people.
What is validation?
Validation is defined as the ‘recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile‘. In expressing our views, thoughts or feelings we are actively seeking out an agreement from a third party that these thoughts are ‘valid’ allowing us to accept them as truth or gain a pleasure from them, which is why when someone disagrees or points out our flaws or errors we can so quickly jump to our defences and arguments can unfold. Disagreement with our belief systems makes us uncomfortable. Ever wonder why children get so upset at the word ‘no’? read on….
What does validation do to the brain?
In the reward centre of the brain, when someone validates how we feel it is activated and makes us ‘feel good’. Ever noticed that when you meet someone who is on ‘your wavelength’ you automatically feel more comfortable or attracted to them? Whereas when you meet someone who conflicts with your beliefs or thoughts it can make you feel uncomfortable or awkward and you desire to get away from them? If someone says something nice to us we glow – yet when they offend us we replay it for days?
Effectively when someone validates our actions, thoughts or feelings the brain releases dopamine transmitters which attract us to that feeling. Dopamine is also responsible for that feel good factor when you smell you favourite meal, or kiss the person that you love… Dopamine gives us that rush of good energy that makes us feel pleasure. Traditionally it has been acknowledged that our primary dopamine response comes from human connection.
The benefits of validation?
Remember that time when someone praised you for something, and you got a huge rush of pleasure? The human connection in conjunction with validation gives us a boost of dopamine that can stay with us days after the event. Human connection is classed as the primary stimulation in dopamine responses, which is why telling someone personally that their existence matters lasts longer than a social media comment of ‘I’m here for you’.
So when our boss, friends or family member tell us they are proud of us, that we have done a good job or that we have made a difference to someone’s life it can give us a boost which brings confidence, self-esteem and motivation. The combination of human connection and validation creates a positive rush of pleasure in the mind. If I were to ask you to tell me a person who makes you ‘feel good’ you get that warm, fuzzy feeling as you recall them. If I ask you to tell me someone who makes you feel uncomfortable it can draw the opposite physical or emotional reaction.
How has society changed our validation requirements?
So how has society affected our validation needs? Roll back 15-20 years in those dark days when we picked up the telephone to speak to people and you knew your friend’s landline phone numbers by heart our validation came from very different situations and experiences than it did now. When you’d sit up late into the night chatting about anything or everything and come home feeling so refreshed? Friendships and relationships were validated by handwritten letters and notes, long telephone calls into the night and the validation was perhaps less ‘in your face’, but more secure and consistent. You found out the updates from friends through conversation and letter, stayed in the loop through conscious action.
Roll forward to 2021 and we are acutely aware that our connections with people are lessened. Time is moving faster, there’s less of it and society moves at a speed of knots. Postage costs are higher, handwritten notes are all but non-existent and thank you letters and Christmas cards are replaced with e-cards and text messages. Someone sends a birthday gift and we rattle off a text message or Facebook post in seconds, whereas 20 years ago (or last week in my house) we would have made our children sit down to write a thank you note. Our human connection is smaller than ever before. In its place we actively seek out validation in so many different ways every day because our needs are not met in their preferred way (human interaction). We post rant messages on social media looking for attention, we take dozens of selfies to get the perfect image and filter photos on Instagram until they look perfect in order to get the best impact. Children are in awe of vloggers and youtube sensations, enthralled by their lifestyles and wanting the same recognition. Social media allows individuals to seek out validation on a new level- and if their post doesn’t get enough likes or comments it needs to be adjusted, reposted until it gains the necessary outcomes to release that dopamine burst. There are now known addictions where people will seek out ‘likes’ and attention on social media in order to feel ‘authenticated’, ‘validated’ or that they simply ‘matter’. Suddenly posting a picture of your dinner is more validating than phoning a friend to catch up…..yet loneliness, depression and anxiety are at their highest levels.
The limitations of validation?
Our evolutionary process lends itself to need human connections. Without these we can go seeking dopamine kicks from negative or destructive sources which effectively further remove us from human connection and lend themselves to negative feelings.
In a world where we are becoming disconnected from human connection our brain can quickly become addicted to the rush of pleasure we get from social media, computers and electronics. Every time our thoughts or actions are validated in those systems the dopamine response becomes adapted but also more addictive. When the human connection is missing from the dopamine response and instead replaced with a secondary source it can lead to destructive behaviours. In conjunction we should therefore consider why with this shift in destructive validation the impact this has on:
- low self-worth
- attention seeking behaviours
For instance, the person who hurts someone, then posts on social media about how the other person hasn’t met their expectation, is seeking validation that their actions were warranted. The belief system becomes validated and then adapted and empathy becomes lost.
A child who becomes engrossed in long hours on a computer gains validation for every level they win or move through and when their time is removed they have no other knowledge of how to gain the dopamine response and become withdrawn, angry or anxious.
The couple who have an argument, post about it on social media, whilst ignoring each other in the house as they go about seeking validation that their side of the argument is correct from friends or social media strangers – whilst the greatest dopamine response would be in reconnecting and moving forward together and creating isolation and loneliness.
People send gifts to a friend but if the friend does not post the picture on social media they do it for them – to allow themselves validation that they are a ‘good person’. They get a dopamine response from the comments or likes from others that they are kind but the recipient of the gift is left feeling like this was all for social media glory and was not genuine…disconnecting friendships and losing authenticity.
A person who does not wish to resolve an inner issue can quickly become engrossed in keeping their problem, limitation or worry alive by posting it to social media, with every like or comment the dopamine response is activated and their personal situation becomes validated and embedded preventing them from seeking out clarity or resolution.
Consider – If social media disappeared tomorrow would you get the same feel good factor from your friendship groups?
Can validation become wrongly wired?
Over time and evolution it can become a reality that for some individuals the dopamine response becomes wired to negative outcomes. If our human connections are not healthy or strong we can effectively become addicted to the wrong things whether it is social media, computer games, drugs or alcohol etc. If our feelings are validated repeatedly with a dopamine release we become connected to them and an addiction is started. However as with all addictions, we need more and more of it to keep the dopamine releasing.
Long term social media and computers have allowed us to go seeking validation for negative behaviours of feelings and behaviours. It can therefore reduce empathy and responsibility as people forget to look at the bigger picture or become unable to. For some they can want to believe that their side of the story or opinion is the right one, and sometimes these situations can become twisted until they find a version of the story that suits ‘their truth’ even if it is incorrect/untrue. For children becoming addicted to the dopamine release from computer games or technology at a young age we can impact their ability to connect socially as the dopamine response becomes linked to destructive sources and isolates them.
How can we improve our mental health and validation needs?
#1 – Reduce screen time – the NHS advises 2 hours of screen time a day (including phones, computers and TV) – particularly in the sense of social media and computers – reducing your screen time and instead re-connecting with friends and family is imperative to re-connecting to the human dopamine response.
#2 – Remove apps from your phone – scrolling through social media is a little too easy with the development of smart phones. Remove apps from phones so that you can limit your time browsing and seeking subconscious validation and reconnect with work colleagues, neighbours and friends.
#3 – Think before you post – If your post is looking for validation that you are ‘right’ or that your feelings are ‘justified’ walk away from it and delete the post instead exploring the feelings with a trusted friend. Reducing the simulated validation sources allows your brain to calm down and reduces the ‘need’ for likes and comments.
#4 – Encourage children (and you) to write notes and letters – Spend time with your children (or yourself) hand writing a note or letter to a friend to thank them for taking the time to send a gift, or pop a postcard to a friend who has done something nice for you.
#5 – Spend time with friends without your phone – call a friend, organise to meet up and leave your phone in your bag. Focus on connecting, listening and exploring thoughts and feelings without a ‘like’ button
#6 – Praise your friends, family and children – if a friend, family member or your child does something great – TELL THEM. Praise is a great activator for dopamine response, tell your friends and loved ones that they matter – it’s a feeling that will last long after social media has been scrolled past.
#7 – Do something good for someone and don’t tell a soul – Fulfilling kind deeds which are not publicised reconnects you with people but also brings a feel good factor. Learning to validate your own feelings through positive actions and thoughts allows you to strengthen resilience and self-esteem.
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