Harnessing our Addiction to Validation: The Problem with Extrinsic Motivation & How to Overcome it
As humans, we have a built-in tendency (probably rooted in our survival instincts) to seek affirmation from others. Whether it’s related to who we are, how we look, what we do, or otherwise, we all feel a need on some level to fit in, to be accepted, and to connect with one another.
And this natural tendency gets reinforced during our socialization process. As we grow up, we learn to gather data and feedback in an effort to gauge how well we fit in with our peers. We’re taught to recognize validation as a valuable cue in that realm.
Taken to more of an extreme, these habits can begin to explain why we are drawn to the idea of achieving fame. A certain degree of attention and recognition can translate into power and perhaps would have improved our historic chances of survival.
I recently found myself attracted to a scaled-down version of this very idea: I wanted to build a following for my business - an audience. I had watched as acquaintances of mine shot into the spotlight and got featured in publications like Vogue. And some part of me wanted that too. I mean, the more people you reach, the more people you can help, right?
But there are some problems with striving to achieve fame and seeking pleasure and happiness from external sources, like fans:
1. You’re creating a situation in which your happiness depends on something over which you lack control.
People and things that are external to us operate largely outside of our control. We see this play out on a micro scale all the time. For instance, companies often fall victim to this problem when they hire too many new employees and grow too fast at once, losing hold of their culture and core ideals in the process.
Fans and followers can turn on you as well. It’s usually the idea of you that they’re enamored with, particularly if they don’t know you on a personal level. And if you act in such a way as to threaten that “idea” of you, your followers may lash out in response.
My point? Whatever gives you pleasure one day could end up causing you pain the next.
2. You’re giving up a valuable resource: your power.
When you choose to tie up your sense of security, happiness, et cetera in something external, you’re ceding power to it. You’re granting it a level of authority and control over your life, which is risky.
On a fundamental level, you are choosing to disempower yourself. And that rarely ends well.
3. It’s a trap.
The thing about fame is it’s a moving target. It’s addictive, and you can never get enough of it. Fame is a want that’s unending - like living life on the hedonic treadmill. (And everyone knows that treadmills are where happiness goes to die).
While I can’t tackle this topic from a place of personal experience, from what I understand, you will always continue to want more fame. There isn’t a magical moment when you’ve finally gotten “enough” fans and a congratulatory rainbow unicorn cake materializes on your doorstep (unless you have a pretty fucking rad agent or talented friends who bake).
Even if you do manage to hit some magic number of followers that was always your goal, the achievement ultimately feels hollow. Because it carries no meaning, in and of itself.
So, yeah. Seeking out external validation is problematic. But what should you do instead?
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no expert at this, having fallen victim to an extrinsic focus myself at times. However, I can share some of the things I’ve done in an effort to overcome these tendencies within me:
Focus on deriving joy from within.
Shift your focus. What lights you up inside, regardless of what anyone else thinks? What intrinsically motivates and drives you?
Whatever you do and however you choose to spend your time, do it simply for the sake of doing it. And while you’re at it? Enjoy it fully. Be present in it.
In other words, take the hike to take the hike. Don’t do it for the perfect Instagram shot you can get at the summit. And the same rule goes for any events you attend or however else you choose to spend your time.
Do what you do for you, first and foremost. Be authentic. And then if you choose to share a moment with others, do it from a place of authenticity and wholeheartedness, as opposed to from a place of FOMO-stoking (please tell me I just invented that phrase), validation-seeking, or insecurity.
Be independent & secure in who you are.
Sometimes our desire for external validation or acknowledgment can arise in our romantic relationships. Oftentimes if we feel insecure, we will look to our partner for affirmation instead of believing and trusting in our worthiness internally. And if our partner ever fails to come through for us in that respect, we react by experiencing emotional torment and suffering.
In more extreme cases, relationships characterized by insecurity can become codependent. If you’ve ever felt ensnared by feelings of “love” that manifested as an addictive clinging sensation - an extremely needy condition that could seemingly turn you from attracted to attacking at the flick of a switch, you’ve probably experienced a codependent relationship.
The thing is, you should be perfectly capable of being happy and fulfilled on your own - outside of any relationship. You shouldn’t be dependent on anyone else in that regard.
Learn to condition the validation you need internally. Know who you are, and know that you’re enough. Be secure, confident, and self-assured in the badass that you are.
Accept responsibility. Hold yourself accountable.
This might be hard to swallow, but you are responsible for making your own happiness - for growing it from the inside out. So focus on what’s important to you and plant the necessary seeds within you to be happy.
Now, once you’re in that place of happiness and contentment, you may feel an urge to share your joy, your stoke, your grace, or your passion with others. Which is okay.
But beware of the risks. Try to avoid falling down the rabbit hole and chasing attention, validation, or affirmation from others. Feeding off of it won’t fill you up. Rather, your life will become a performance, and it will leave you feeling hollow and empty.
Instead, feed yourself enough (meaning take care of and respect yourself enough) that you won’t have hunger left for any of that extrinsic crap. Be satiated and satisfied with who you are and whatever lights up your heart.
So, the central take-away from all of my rambling is this: extrinsic motivation ultimately won't make you happy. True happiness needs to come from within you.
But even more than that, in the end, remember that you don't need to earn the right to be happy. You already deserve to be.