Leaving the Validation Carousel.

Things happen in your head the day you successfully make the switch from craving external validation to finding internal validation. But Christian organizations benefit from people needing external validation–and do their best to demonize the idea of internal validation. There’s a reason for it, of course, and we’ll talk about that reason today.

(Cory Denton, CC.)
(Cory Denton, CC.)

External Validation as a Narrative.

A lot of folks not only thrive on praise and admiration from others but need that praise and admiration just to get through their days. They set up a group in their heads that they think are cool–maybe the jocks at high school, or the goths in the art class at college, or the people in Accounting at the banking firm, or even all the hipsters in Brooklyn, NY–and then start playing to that group.


“Brooklyn, after all is said and done, I only have one more thing to say: Can I move to you? Please? I’ll cut my hair and get some ink. Do people still say “ink”? I’ll start saying whatever people are saying.”

People who need a lot of external validation live at the mercy of whatever in-group they’ve decided is the one that matters to them. When the cool group notices them or–better yet–compliments them or admires them, they’re on top of the world. When the cool group insults them or–worse yet–doesn’t even notice them, they’re devastated. They need to be told, constantly and anew, that they are all right and that they’re doing the right things in the right way. When this affirmation is absent, a person who needs external validation might become extremely insecure.

This need for approval might manifest in some really ugly ways. People might avoid taking risks that might backfire; they avoid situations where they might face any kind of censure; they worry and fret about what people think of them; they react explosively when some errant bit of criticism does manage to get past their barriers and land on their skin. To gain approval from the groups they care about, they might learn to posture and pose like one of the group–even if the pose is entirely inauthentic. They’ll waste time courting the approval of members of that group when really they can’t stand any of them, all because they think that’s the best way to gain the approval they need. And when it all fails and they’re left standing alone, they’ll blame the group for not giving them that approval–never suspecting that their own need for approval is what led them to seek that group out in the first place.

When an unscrupulous leader has amassed enough people like that in his or her retinue, then things get pretty cushy! All that leader must do is ensure that enough affirmation is given to the followers to keep them eager to obey, while withholding enough to make them insecure enough to redouble their efforts to please. Kept dancing on their strings in this manner, these followers become ripe for indoctrination into all manner of extremist ideas.

By contrast, the worst thing that such a leader can possibly hear back from a would-be or erstwhile follower is “I don’t care what you or your pals think about me,” because such a leader is, at the same time, very likely to be someone who thrives on external validation as well. (Ever notice that we tend to give what we hope to receive?)

That’s why you see misogynists hurl invectives and judgments at women about their relative desirability. To them–being people who thrive on external validation–the withdrawal of that validation from another, especially from someone in a group that is perceived to be socially superior, is one of the worst things they can possibly imagine. The response, which is increasingly a terse “I don’t give a shit what you think about anything,” flummoxes them. I’ve seen it happen in realtime–the misogynist is covered in awkwardness because his withdrawal of approval was met with a candid assessment of how little his approval actually meant in the first place to his intended victim. His entire attack plan falls into disarray. He is a man–so therefore his opinion should matter to all women everywhere, right? Right? His arousal is all they should care about, and they should be devastated when he asserts its absence! But he’s finding more and more often that these unsolicited expressions of opinion are worse than unwelcome: they are irrelevant.

Churches themselves are like massive validation factories, of course; the average fundagelical pastor is well aware that most of his job consists of petting his congregants and telling them that they’re pretty. One who ignores this most-vital duty is one who is very likely going to find himself out of work before too long–either ousted by his congregation, who will find him “unfriendly” or “cold,” or managing an ever-dwindling number of attendees as people leave to find churches that supply their need for validation. A leader who is exceptionally good at offering wide-scale validation, by contrast, is considered very charismatic and may eventually catapult himself into a very lucrative megachurch-style ministry.

Most folks don’t have the luck to get into the orbit of one of these very-charismatic leaders, though. When the progressive-Christian Benjamin Corey wrote about why he thought people left church, people responded in droves to talk about why they had left their various churches. I hope it was an eye-opening experience for the blogger, but ex-Christians won’t see much there that surprises us. Read their comments. Sift through the lofty declarations, and you will see one reason stand out above all else: I wasn’t feeling validated there. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If someone needs validation and expects to get it from a church, then it seems perfectly acceptable for that person to move on if they don’t get what they think they should be getting.

Sooner or later they’ll discover that there really aren’t any churches that offer excellent validation to all members–though they may never know why it’s like that. At best, they might luck into a church that happens to have a spot open for someone like them, and gain validation that way. At worst, they’ll search until they sour on the idea of searching, and then withdraw rather than stay in a church where they don’t feel appreciated.

Why It’s Like That.

People don’t actually go to church for altruistic purposes, any more than they do much of anything else for purely altruistic purposes. They are consumers, rather. They go to church to have their various needs met. Going to church makes them feel like good and special people, and ideally the church environment will offer them a thick injection of validation right in the arm.

Of course, even while it’s offering them the external validation they desperately need, Christians denounce and disavow the entire mechanism of external validation itself. It’s not hard to find these denunciations and disavowals online–even one at the ERLC that Russell Moore heads (remember him? We talked about him last time). Believers are exhorted every time to seek “God’s” validation and not care about “man’s validation,” which is considered ickie and inferior by far. Validation is only supposed to come from their god, who (they claim) supplies it in ready plenty to anybody who seeks it in earnest. Validation from any other source is thought to be insincere and fleeting.

I used to wish a guru at the mountaintop could tell me what to do, and never saw that I am the guru.

Captain Cassidy’s Private Journal, May 1997

Internal validation, in particular, is to be eschewed and distrusted. It is among the most suspicious of feelings–possibly related to the sin of pride, probably not allowed anyway in systems that posit that humans are terrible at heart and can do no good without divine guidance. (That it also would completely destroy churches’ hold over people is not ever mentioned, obviously. It is demonized–literally, in many cases–instead.)

There is a distinct informal indoctrination in the subject of validation that followers don’t normally encounter until long after they realize that their church experience is lacking in some significant way. At that point, it’s too late–they will be blamed for wanting exactly what the church markets itself as providing: validation and welcome, comfort and community. The problem will always be the lonely believers needing validation, not the system created by Christian leaders in the first place. If they can’t find validation, then obviously they are not earnestly or sincerely seeking it from “God,” and so therefore this is all their fault anyway.

And yet the same social systems persist in almost every church. The same cliques dominate the same social milieus. The same people jockey for the same limited amount of validation, and sparingly dole it out in turn to those they think deserve it. The few who (like that drive-by Christian I banned the other day) find religious fervor propelling them to a feeling of divine validation are rare; most people can’t maintain that level of excitement forever, however. Without there actually being a god at the top supplying validation, people very naturally will gravitate toward each other to find it in systems that stress that internal validation cannot be trusted.

There’s no other way this goes. There’s no other way it really can go.

And if you think that’s an accident, then the architects of that system certainly do not. This system benefits them entirely too much for me to believe that it’s all just some accident of design.

At the time, I didn’t realize that we all inhabited a very broken system. Without dismantling the system itself, these self-righteous Christians like that lady at the ERLC are simply blaming the victims of their system. It’s like shooting someone in the foot and then blaming them for hopping and yelling. When people get disgusted with the clique scenes in churches and the power politics to be found there, when they talk about how unappreciated and ignored they felt, the reaction should not be one of condemnation but rather introspection to see how the system itself could be leading to the problem driving away members. But it’s much easier to blame those who don’t fit into the broken system than it is to fix that system. It’s always much easier. And nobody wants to work hard if they don’t have to do so, and especially not if the broken system is benefiting them in some way–or even if they think it will.

If it backfires in the long run, well, that’s in the future. Now is what matters, and it’s all that matters.

How’d We Get Here?

In part, I blame the self-esteem movement of the 1980s and 1990s. An entire generation of kids got raised to think they were special-snowflake Indigo Children, and stuffed so full of external validation they could hardly walk, let alone fall down. As the saying goes, when everyone is super then no one can be. And I think we know that, deep down. You can stuff someone full of validation all you want, but without them knowing it themselves as true, they’re just bottomless pits wanting more and more–like kids eating candy till they’re balloons, yet still are under-nourished. Of course, it’s not just that generation affected–it’s older and even younger people as well. But the same impulses seem to be driving them: a serious need for external validation, a serious inability to be their own validation system.

Fran: Oh, God, look at him! Look at that love-me smile. I know his sort: a full-time approval junkie.

Black Books, “The Travel Writer”

The real problem comes in when people don’t know how to give themselves the validation they need. Once they grow up and join the real world, they discover that people aren’t interested in their every thought or deed–and that most folks are too focused on their own projects and selves to offer endless validation to others. (Don’t believe me? Embark on a long weight-loss journey. It’s downright catastrophic to your social life to talk about it too often. Or have a kid; pretty much none of your friends will want to hear much about it after the first few months.)

The skills involved in recognizing our strengths and weaknesses, in taking control to work on those weaknesses and build genuine victories, in learning the discipline needed to do a difficult thing and do it well, in learning that we are our very own best support group and validation source, are simply not taught anymore. We never learn that when we validate ourselves, it’s real and genuine–and that this validation cannot be substituted in any way by anybody else and still really matter.

Without being able to do all of that, we will always be at the mercy of anybody who comes along offering validation to us.

Churches market themselves as “hospitals for sinners,” selling a vision of humanity as intrinsically broken and in need of fixing. Certainly this model appeals to those who lack a core of self-esteem and who cannot therefore validate themselves. This model tells such people that if they do X, Y, and Z, that they will gain the approval they need. They’ll join a vast brotherhood of similar believers and be surrounded by love and grace. It’s not a true promise, of course, but then, nothing of that nature ever could be.

The only way to win this game is not to play at all. We have to get off the carousel of external validation, so we’re no longer prey for those who offer false promises of validation to us. We have to find in ourselves the guru at the mountaintop, the source of our security, the means of our own happiness. Nobody else can hand us any of that. Anybody who even claims to be able to do so is trying to sell us something that is not in our best interest to purchase.

What I’m talking about is not some inborn talent, either. Like pretty much all of life’s required traits, this one is a skill that can be learned even by those who don’t think they ever could. It can be honed, it can be sharpened, and it can be deployed.

Not only can it be, but it must be. Or we will be going from table to table with our begging-bowls like little lost children, flitting toward any source of even potential comfort. And that is no way to live.

We’ll talk again about how someone might be able to get off this carousel–see you soon.

POPULAR AT PATHEOS Nonreligious