I (fortunately) don’t know much about drugs or addiction. But as I reflect on my relationship with External Validation, I can’t help but notice the similarities.
I learned at an early age of the “high” I could get from pleasing others. While I wasn’t a naturally gifted student, I worked hard to earn decent grades and, more importantly, I followed the rules. You could say I was the teacher’s pet: always volunteering to lead a group activity, speak in front of the class, clean up or perform other chores to help out… While the favor of adults didn’t make me one of the “cool kids” (a more commonly pursued route to validation), the kudos I got from my teachers and parents for being a “good kid” was extremely satisfying.
When I graduated college, I moved right into Corporate America, a place where external validation was being sold on every proverbial street corner. What started out as a “bad habit” soon became my full-blown addiction. From stellar performance reviews to president’s awards to leadership development programs… the validation I received was addicting and had me considering myself very successful. And the addiction created a vicious cycle. The more I got, the more I sought.
Corporate America basically became my “dealer”. In this environment, many people become so addicted that they will do anything for the drug. Whether it’s miss their kid’s soccer game for a last-minute work meeting or spend hours at night responding to emails that really could wait until the next morning, instead of spending quality time with their spouse. They get their “fix” the next day when their boss gives them a pat on the back for making it to that last-minute meeting and when their peers read that 2am email and respond “Wow! Burning that midnight oil, ey?!”
The high you get from that external validation keeps you practicing this unhealthy behavior of sacrificing the truly important things.
The irony is that the “high” one could get from those truly important things (time with family, exercise, hobbies, SLEEP) is usually an even better high in the long run than that of external validation. But if you’re addicted to something, you can’t get over the addiction that’s in front of you, even if something better exists on the other side. This is why millions of people get trapped in over-commitments to their jobs.
There is no public recognition (or external validation) for devoting your time to your family. There’s no “Top 40 under 40” honoring the best 40 moms in America who are raising exceptional human beings. No, in our society, such public recognition is generally obtained through professional success – either through an impressive title, money, or public notoriety. Corporate America also encourages this behavior by branding the addiction with fancy, admirable-sounding terms like “Lean In”, so it’s even easier to justify the addiction. If you’ve been conditioned like most of us have to crave external validation, this is what you spend most of your energy pursuing; that high you’ve become so accustomed to.
For the first ten years of my career, I was as addicted as the next guy. I wanted to climb the corporate ladder as high as I possibly could. Each new rung I climbed gave me a huge hit of external validation. Each promotion, each pay raise, each moment of public recognition gave me a great rush. I subconsciously sought what I imagined to be the greatest possible highs: becoming a Chief-Something-Officer, starting my own company, etc. I thought I wanted these things but, in hindsight, it was just my pursuit of external validation that was motivating me to achieve more, more, more. Over the years of building up such a habit, it became more addicting and even harder to break.
A Better High
But an interesting thing happened to my addiction when I became a mother. I discovered an alternative source which gave me an even greater high than external validation: the intrinsic fulfillment I got from being a great mom.
Still, my addiction to external validation was deeply entrenched. For a while I tried to have it both ways (what our society has nicknamed “having it all”: external validation from meeting Corporate America’s expectations and intrinsic fulfillment of being a great mom). But the more I tried to have both, the more I realized it was impossible.
It’s not physically impossible to have a career and be a parent. But it is emotionally impossible to simultaneously value external validation and intrinsic fulfillment.
By definition, if you value one thing, it means you don’t value (or place less value on) its opposite. So if you grasp external validation for meeting expectations at work and you try to simultaneously hold intrinsic fulfillment from being a great parent, one of the two inevitably devalues the other.
Fortunately, some people are able to find intrinsic fulfillment in their work. This magically allows them to “have it all” because they are intrinsically fulfilled by their work and their personal life. They are holding one value in both areas of their life.
Most of us wouldn’t consider this person as “having it all” because they don’t have an impressive title or drive a Tesla. But if they have all the intrinsic fulfillment they ever desired, that’s “having it all”.
In my case, I’ve been able to find intrinsic fulfillment in my work, but I had to first end my pursuit of external validation. I had to let go of my desire to climb the corporate ladder because my only reason for that quest in the first place was for external validation. I had to let go of the voice in my head yelling “Lean In!” because the only reason I was telling myself that was to achieve external validation (from… Sheryl Sandberg?). I let go of working 50 hour weeks and I stopped worrying about what others thought when I left the office at 4:30pm in order to go home and make dinner for my family. I kept my laptop shut at night and instead talked with my husband about his day and about our lives.
After the birth of my second and third children, my intrinsic fulfillment continued to devalue my external validation until it was practically gone. I wanted to let go of my old addiction entirely and just bathe in the greater, intrinsic fulfillment. But there was a major hurdle I had to get over first: “withdrawals” from my old addiction.
In my post “Being at Peace with Leaning OUT”, I spoke about the anxiety attacks I started having in 2017 and how surprised I was to be getting them at that point in my life. People tried to tell me it was because I was “stressed at work” or overwhelmed in some way. But I was none of these things. For the first time in my life I had the exact balance I wanted for myself. My work schedule was completely reasonable and things were very manageable and enjoyable at home. So why was I starting to have anxiety attacks now?
I finally realized the anxiety attacks were my “withdrawals” from external validation. Having decided to Lean OUT, I was no longer receiving accolades from Corporate America or society in general. I would never be on the “Top 40 under 40” and I would never have a corner office or fancy title because that was no longer what I was pursuing. As much as this decision allowed me to revel in my intrinsic fulfillment, I still had to overcome 34 years of addiction to external validation.
Fortunately, once I realized this was the source of my anxiety, I made a conscious effort to acknowledge my withdrawals, affirmed my decision to “Lean Out”, found ways to support my decision and new lifestyle, and moved forward.
As a recovering addict still living with my Corporate America “dealer” among many other addicts, I have to consciously make the right choices and say “no” to external validation every day. I set aside my painful heels when my cute and comfy flats will suffice. I decline the Friday happy hour in favor of time home with my kids. I scroll past the Facebook ads promising me “10 Tips for Breaking the Glass Ceiling!” I continue to do my best work, focusing on the intrinsic fulfillment I get from a job well done. I hold strong to my convictions even when – especially when – that means foregoing a hit of external validation. I find it helpful to have many “sponsors” who also value intrinsic fulfillment over external validation.
Is it easy? No. Is it worth it? Yes. Because the high of intrinsic fulfillment is so much greater. And if Forbes ever decides to run a “Top 40 under 40” article for the best moms in America, I think I have a shot at making the list.
Have you experienced the “addiction” of external validation? Have you found a way to “get clean”? Have you found intrinsic fulfillment in your work and your personal life? We want to hear your thoughts!
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