woman reading a book while sitting on black leather 3-seat couch

Written by Dave Cooper


March 30, 2022

In this piece you will learn what validation is and how it can be problematic when your source of validation is external rather than internal. I will then talk about the connection between validation and recovery as part of self leadership. Let’s go!


I want you to think of validation as a form of acceptance, a way of knowing who you are which helps you know how you are. The Dictionary defines the form of validation we are concerned with as; 

recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile. 

 In this approach to recovery I use the metaphor of a ‘Captain’ and I say that you are the Captain of the good ship ‘you’. But it is worth remembering that you are also the ship, the crew and the cargo! When you are not recognised as valid or worthwhile, it’s like sending a message to your brain that “I’m the Captain but the cargo is not worth much”. Just imagine the effect of this message over several years, or decades! 

What this often means is that you may have tried very hard to achieve your recovery but didn’t realise that you had one hand tied behind your back the whole time! Without a well developed understanding of, and method of validation, progress in your recovery will always be an uphill struggle.

External Validation

So where does your validation come from? Often the bulk of our validation comes from outside of ourselves. It takes the form of what job you do, what achievements you have, how successful you have been, or how much people give you feedback that they appreciate your qualities. Now this is not necessarily bad in itself because your achievements may be great and people may well genuinely appreciate them. 

The problems start to mount up when external validation is the only form you are getting, or when the validation is something you feel you have to have, even if you feel you do not deserve it. This is made worse if you are manipulating it out of people or are stretching the truth in order to get it! So what is the main drawback of this form of validation? 

The main drawback is that it can hold you to ransom, you can be blackmailed through it. Think about it, if you need the approval and good opinion of others in order to build your character and worth, then you will probably live in fear of them removing their approval. Likewise, you may find yourself bending over backwards just to keep them happy. You can see how bad it might get, and I know that some of you are identifying with this as you read it.

Validation is often more noticeable by its absence. In other words you don’t often recognise it when it is still provided. Think about going to work. You may be loving your job or you may be resentful and hate it, either way you are receiving validation every moment you are there just by taking on that role. As soon as you acknowledge that this is your role and how to do it, validation is supplied. It’s the same when you tell someone what you do, or when you talk about your hobby or your passion. You aren’t usually doing it to be validated, which is why you don’t always recognise it.

Internal Validation

The recovery journey can be described and defined in many ways. As the journey from indirect to direct communication. As the journey from private to public. As the journey from the dead world to the living world. It can also be described as the journey from external to internal validation! So what does internal validation look like?

Unlike external validation it does not come from what your job is or what you do, your hobbies or your achievements. It comes from an understanding and a belief that you have worth. It is built on the application of embodied principles. In other words it’s not about what others think of you, it’s more about what kind of person you want to be and are willing to work at being. 

So this brings us to the big difference that often occurs between external and internal validation. External validation can be bought, manipulated or just based on doing things. Internal validation cannot. In fact, people around you may not always appreciate the effect your internal validation is having. You can upset the very people that were externally validating you by being more honest and authentic. When we practice principles like honesty and authenticity, humility and generosity, we have to commit to managing these relationships while we are developing our character and this can be one of the biggest challenges of making this part of the journey into recovery.

Using validation in your recovery

Do you find that there are certain times of the day when you always feel worse than others? Are there times when you know it will be difficult to get through it without your ‘support’? It is at these times when you may be switching from external to internal validation. If your internal validation is poor then this transition will be very difficult. It will sometimes feel like you just became a different person. It is at these times that the fridge may call your name! Or the pornography channel, or the gambling web site. This is not a random event, it is to do with how you feel about yourself.

It may be experienced as an acute discomfort that has no real explanation, you just know that it is often at this time when it starts. It’s no accident that this acute discomfort most often happens at around 9pm. It’s at this time that you are most often left to your own devices. It’s often when you are left on your own, if your family has gone to bed. Or it can be a day off, or a weekend with nothing to do. I have worked with people who simply feel that they cannot be on their own, it’s like they disappear when there is no one telling them who they are. You may also recognise the idea of ‘relationship hopping’ in yourself.

I don’t know if you have ever read the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. I remember realising that all the examples they give of people returning to drink happen when the person was left to their own devices. When they had finished their work. When they were no longer being externally validated! 

So now that you know this you may feel that you understand yourself a little better. Think of these times as opportunities to work with yourself better. Remember that you (and life) trained you to be this way and you can retrain yourself to be different! We learn through difficulties and so I want you to consider facing this challenge. If you have times of day like this please do not fight yourself or hate yourself because of it. Think of it as training and develop a new training program. 

Congratulate and celebrate

Working to produce a harmonised self as opposed to a conflicted self takes time but it is quite a simple process. Think of this difficult feeling as a younger part of you that needs help. Offer that help by first accepting the part as it is. Try to avoid talking with yourself as needing to change, rather accept that this is the way the part feels. The idea is to train the part to trust you by assuring them that you are able and willing to handle this situation. 

How often do you congratulate yourself for doing something well? How often do you celebrate your success with your partner? I want you to know that these processes are so good for your internal validation! Tell yourself many times each day how you are pleased with what you did and how well you did it. Remember, no fantasy! Always use an actual event, it can be as simple as washing up the dishes. When you do this you are sending a message to your brain that you want more of this and your brain will rewire around these ideas.

Self Leadership in recovery

So internally validating is improving your relationship with yourself. And improving your relationship with yourself is the beginning of self leadership. When you realise that you are a ship and its Captain, and that the ship and its cargo are valuable, you are leading yourself into a better future. You are setting a course for a recovered lifestyle. Thanks for taking the time to read this. I wish you all the best in your journey.


silver French-door refrigerator

It’s at this time you might hear the fridge calling your name

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