Wednesday, October 28, 2009

External Validation

"Self-esteem is the greatest sickness known to man or woman because it's conditional."--Albert Ellis, Ph.D.

If you google external validation, you come up with a lot of hits asserting it’s a bad thing. Or at the very least, it’s not as good as ‘self-esteem’.

Nathaniel Branden, a psychotherapist who received his Ph.D in the 70’s, called external validation "pseudo self-esteem." He made the common argument of "true self-esteem" being derived from internal sources, such as self-responsibility and self-sufficiency. He defined true self-esteem as "...the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness". (1)

Yet external validation is something children need. Adults with mental health problems (most famously, borderline personality disorder) may not have been nurtured in that area when they were children, or even as adults, and so might need such validation in their adult years.

External validation may be necessary in the development of self-esteem; Encouragement and approval most definitely do aid in building self-esteem traits.
Linehan, the famous validator, proposed six levels of validation: listening nonjudgmentally, accurate reflection, mind-reading, or articulating unspoken thoughts and feelings, understanding the historical background of a behaviour, confirming thoughts, behaviours and feelings based on current circumstances and radical genuineness, which requires the therapist to speak authentically to the patient and his/her family (2, 3).

Indeed, Linehan is such a proponent of validation for treatment, she developed DBT (dialectical behaviour therapy) which is grounded in two core concepts - validation and problem solving.

External validation is not bad. Nor is it dysfunctional or overrated. It is simply a necessary component in the development of self-worth and independence. I am not indicating one should constantly and pathologically seek out validation, but it is a process many individuals need to go through and those who are need not view their behaviour as something to be rid of, but to be open to the validation they are receiving.

The above is true of anyone; we all need to know we’ve done a good job or look nice in that new shirt. Compliments, which are a form of external validation, improve productivity and mood, generally making the world a better place.


1. Branden, N. (1969). The psychology of self-esteem. New York: Bantam.
2. Linehan, MM (1997). Validation and psychotherapy. In A Bohart & C. Greenberg (Eds.) Empathy reconsidered: New Directions. Washington DC: APA
3. Woodberry, KA, Miller, AL, Glinski, J, Indik, J, & Mitchell, AG (2002). Family therapy and dialectical behavior therapy with adolescents: Part II: A theoretical review, American Journal of Psychotherapy, 56, 585-602.

1 comment:

  1. I think there is often confusion between "external validation" and "visibility". The Six levels of validation described in this article could be more accurately described as six levels of visibility. Those ah ha moments in therapy occur as the therapist strikes a cord with the client - the answers or interpretations reflect something the client knows but that has been hidden from him or her. Whereas external validation is someone other than oneself determining that I am indeed a good person because of someone else's evaluation of some particular thing I have done, or their perception of my motivation, etc. However, I may not know that is true, yet I accept that other person's evaluation ahead of my own. Dr Soloman's book "Born to Be Worthless" offers another perspective on this whole issue, agreeing with the author above that we do need external validation at a young age, but this must shift to internal validation for one to experience true self-esteem as a mature adult.