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External Validation: Your Worst Enemy

The reason why I couldn’t get out of the Netflix-marathon-esque rabbit hole of destructive patterns and choices? Tunnel vision focus on external validation. I briefly saw my reflection in the black screen between episodes, but I sat frozen and just let it continue.

The need to satiate my feelings of inadequacy outweighed any chance for evolution to occur. My belief system was as follows:

“If I get married… If I buy a home… If I lose 10 pounds… If I get another degree… If I land a high paying job… THEN I will finally wake up one morning and be happy/whole/complete/valid/satisfied.”

It was the most a$s backwards way of thinking but it was hardwired into my brain so much so, that I went years without pausing to assess the dysfunction I had accumulated. I became a professional box checker and never once took a minute to listen to my intuition.  I subsequently was unable to determine if the path I was on was the right path for me. A path that would bring me fulfillment and align me with my core values.

Something that sounds so simple but for me was painfully elusive, was the idea that if you don’t know what you value, you’ll never be truly happy. My values were completely out of whack because everything I focused on was external. Do you want to enter an anxiety-induced emotional downward spiral? So much so that you hide from those around you in order to maintain the status quo? All you have to do is let your happiness be based on factors outside of your control. It will emotionally unhinge you as you cycle through periods of worry, depression, and helplessness. I was so there.

My focus on external validation led to unhealthy relationships, poor self-image, disordered eating, and financial hell. Not getting invited to a party, not receiving a reply to a text, deciding to indulge in dessert after promising myself I was going to be “good” at a group dinner… all minor occurrences that would result in major feelings of having no option but to commit emotional suicide. I would lay in bed playing out every possible scenario of what I could have done wrong, said wrong, and/or worn that was wrong.  Sometimes I cried. Sometimes I felt completely numb. The only consistency was that I did nothing remotely productive. I only wallowed and focused on the worst possible scenario.

The truth is that 100% of what people do is for themselves and is not a reflection of how they feel about you. No one is plotting to make you feel badly, they are simply doing their thing and your feelings happened to be collateral damage of their actions at that moment. This took me a lot of time and a lot of pain to understand fully.

I came to the realization that I was making myself miserable when I moved back home with my family in my 30s. I was broke, sick, recently divorced, and feeling like a complete failure. I have always been hard on myself, but this stage took it to another level. It felt like I had lived this brief adult life only to come crashing back down to my adolescence – the most powerless of existences. I landed a great job and I was close to old friends, but none of it mattered. The glass of wine immediately after work to “decompress” became a thing. And by thing I mean daily habit. I also caught myself drinking much more when I was out. The second an uncomfortable emotion crept it, I ordered another round.  I was running full speed away from my emotions.

I started scheduling regular phone dates with out of town friends to keep myself busy when plans were not on the books. The wakeup call that I desperately needed came after a conversation during one of these calls. I gave my overly rehearsed discourse about why I decided to end my marriage, sugarcoated the details of living at home at age 30, and waited for her response to be the standard “I am sorry. Things will get better.” I wouldn’t believe her, but I assumed that’s what she would say. That’s what everyone said. She caught me completely off-guard when she said, “I know this must completely suck right now, but please know that what you did was extremely brave. I don’t know a lot of people who would give up comfortable monotony to risk the unknown.”

Brave is the last word I would have used to describe myself, but to my complete shock, I believed her. For the first time after 12 months of emotional hell, I had a moment of clarity. I felt truly good about myself. The most moving part of that moment was suddenly knowing that what I did, for myself, completely on my own, is what was brave. It had nothing to do with anyone else’s thoughts, opinions or actions. In fact, it went against what most people said to me. I just needed someone who knew the real me to point it out.

This sudden trust in myself led me to assess what is truly important to me, not just what I was raised to think should be important or what my peers seemed to prioritize. I decided to determine what I value most and start living my life according to that truth. The practice of looking within is far from easy. It takes dedication, it’s ongoing, and it forces you to face some pretty ugly parts of yourself. This struggle kept me from shouting that which I deemed to be of upmost importance from a mountain top. I couldn’t share my findings confidently with others because during the process I was so unsure. This unintentional privacy served me well.

Telling everyone about your transformation and what is most important to you, especially if you are in recovery from perfectionism and people pleasing like I am, can taint your perspective. Determining your values while taking into account what others may think is the equivalent of making “what others think of me,” your top value. I know this because I have lived it. I claimed that my health and wellbeing were my top values, while I spent weekends throwing back bottles of wine and canceling my morning yoga class while lying in bed at 6 am popping Advil like candy. It wasn’t cute.

I joked about my shortcomings and setbacks often in an effort to not feel alone in the disappointment with myself. It turns out after much self-reflection, that my health is a top value. However, I needed to align my actions with this if I didn’t want to be a fraud and live in a state of unhappiness.

Taking accountability for my decisions and what they contributed to my current state was one of the most difficult steps, but facing that reflection in the mirror with my head held high was momentously rewarding. Those parts of myself that didn’t feel as pretty or socially appealing, that I worked meticulously to hide from the world around me, needed to be faced. Interestingly enough, some of them turned out to just be quirks, unique things that set me apart from the flock as opposed to subjecting me to the island of misfit toys. I love listening to 80s music while hula hooping outside when it’s sunny (4th grade hula hooping champion right here, not to brag 🙂 ). I also am addicted to crime documentaries and watch Jeopardy! everyday. These are silly things about me that I found embarrassing or assumed would make people take me less seriously. It’s just who I am. I actually like who I am now, so I have no reason to hide my quirks.

Conversely, those less appealing parts of me which conflicted with my true values required some work. For example, I claimed to value open and honest relationships, but often said negative things about my family and friends behind their backs. My actions were not aligned with my contended values. I recognized this and had to determine that either honesty was not important to me or I needed to take a hard look in the mirror and start practicing what I preached. Thankfully, I chose the latter.

Worried that your friends will be annoyed if you don’t engage in malicious gossip? I was petrified. Most of my friends were supportive and any that weren’t… Those weren’t exactly rewarding friendships (sidenote: occasional venting to get something off your chest but coming from a place of love is not gossip. There is a definite difference and most of us know that line).

I started basing my values on factors within my control such as honesty, health, dependability, consistency, and compassion. I felt a radical shift. I woke up happier, I started having the ability to see the positive side of bad situations, I had more energy, and I just felt so much lighter.

I would not believe this if someone told me a year ago. My natural reaction would have been to roll my eyes. BUT it’s real and it happened. I learned and fully accepted that I can’t control my friends, my family, the economy, or the affection (or lack thereof) that I may get from a stranger who piques my interest. I CAN control myself and what I bring to the table. Knowing who you are, being proud of that person, and attracting others with integrity who align their actions with their values will naturally follow. I’ve made some amazing friends over the past year as I began to let my guard down, and I had to let the relationships that faded away do just that.  No bad blood. No drama. Just breathing and letting go.

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