Sometimes I just need someone to notice... or maybe I need to notice different things...

The focus of this blog is validation. This was inspired by a recent conversation I had with a friend about our need for external validation. I’m not sure if it’s is ironic (never confident about the definition of irony!) but that friend happens to be one that provides me with (much needed) external validation for writing this blog.

When I talk about external validation what I’m thinking about is how the social environment provides positive feedback for our occupations – how other people value and judge what we do and how that makes us feel. As I see it, (and occupational therapists across the world see it) we choose to do the things we do because of a unique combination of internal and external factors.

This holds true when we think about our assessment of our skills and the value of what we do- we need internal validation so we can to choose occupations that match our occupational identities and goals, but we also use external validation to support our choices and experience a sense of achievement, satisfaction or pleasure from having our efforts seen and recognised by others.

Some people out there may be able to rely on internal validation alone to feel satisfied; others may always need external validation to feel ok. I suspect most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes: we have a level of internal validation (our inner sense of our capacity and skills and how effective we think we are at applying these when needed) but we also incorporate external validation (the thoughts and opinions of others about our skills and abilities) into our occupational narratives and sense of self.

So, why is this useful to think about now? Well, the conversation with my lovely friend was humorous in that it reflected on our need to have the efforts and achievements in our daily life seen and recognised as 'good' by somebody that wasn't us or our small children, who lets face it, rarely give the exact validation we need at any given time. So as we joked about how the schools virtual learning system has become an essential source of validation during these restricted times (validation from school not being a priority in our non-lockdown lives) I realised that lock down really has impacted on how we get feedback about how we're doing. Not only have our physical environments altered to accommodate this new normal, but so have our routines, social environments and opportunities to feel effective. We’re missing out on a number of everyday situations where we can get feedback from other people about our effectiveness.

In our 'normal' routines, whatever they may be, the chances are (if we’re generally happy and ok) we have systems that give us some sort of feedback about our efforts that makes us feel good. Feeling good about ourselves is hugely motivating: without it we're much less likely to carry on doing whatever it is we're doing. Now, when I talk about feedback, I don’t necessarily mean a performance review at work (although that hopefully would give some excellent external validation!) I’m thinking more about the little day to day moments of acceptance and praise that contribute to our sense of ourselves as effective, valued human beings.

An example of what I mean is: you go to a playgroup, your child says please and thank you to the lovely church lady who gives him a biscuit. The lovely church lady comments on what a polite little boy your kid is. This scenario would give me, as a parent, a little hit of external validation: I spend my time and energy parenting my child, I value saying please and thank you, somebody other than me has noticed this and commented.

Consequently, I feel that I’m doing a good job as a parent. (I have to add that this is not every time I go to a playgroup and I have had many an occasion where I have had to leave the group because of non-stop crying/tantrums/general unpleasantness. However, for the purposes of this blog, lets focus on the occasions when I get nice feedback!)

Another example might be that you have a coffee with a friend, you both speak about what’s going on in your lives and feel connected. You feel heard, seen and validated because you’ve expressed your experiences and been acknowledged and understood. But, I think its more than that, you’ve also provided that role to somebody else. This gives you a good feeling: you have been effective in the role of ‘friend’ and had feedback to confirm this (the thank you, the hug goodbye, the ongoing friendship).

It’s these ‘every day’ moments of validation that I’m thinking are harder to find in lock down. Depending on how strict your lock down has been you may have seen limited others or none at all. Either way, the likelihood is that in one way or another your incidental, day to day, ‘wouldn’t organise a zoom for’ social interactions have been restricted. A side effect of this is that you’ve reduced your opportunity to experience internal and external validation: you don’t get as many chances to do all the things you’re good at so have fewer opportunities for internal validation and less people to interact with means less opportunity for feedback: external validation.

So, what can we do? Well, it’s not new but yet again I’m going to suggest a bit of reflection: I think if you can find a structured way to notice the things that are giving you external validation it can help you to ‘top up’ that internal validation and sense of efficacy.

I jokingly suggested earlier that small children rarely give the feedback we’re looking for (“yes, thank you Laurie, I do have a very squashy tummy”) but sometimes we forget that they do give us feedback that we perhaps don’t notice or don't see as validation. For example, every hug, thank you and smile could be seen as evidence that your kids are doing ok and this is evidence that you’re doing ok as a parent. Every day that you get through and as a family you are generally getting along, eating, surviving lock down without trauma or upset, that’s more evidence that you are doing a good job in new and potentially unsatisfying set of circumstances.

Similarly think about how your relationships have adjusted to accommodate lockdown. Every time you get a message or WhatsApp or card from a friend or family member, that’s evidence that they value you – validation. Every zoom that gets organised and your name's on the list, that’s evidence that your input is wanted and needed- validation.

Think about all those interactions that you’ve had in lockdown that you either wouldn’t get or wouldn’t particularly notice in normal times: a chat with a neighbour and the smile and sense of connection that comes from it; a thank you drawn on the wall for the delivery drivers and the chalk written response of the milkman. All external validation and opportunity for ‘topping up’ internal validation if you can choose to notice it and use it.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that we can adjust our expectations of ourselves and this helps us to fit our goals to our circumstances (see earlier blog on realistic goals in lockdown) but if we don't also adjust our expectations of others and the social environment we might struggle to find a sense of validaton that feels enough. We function as part of a social system and in lockdown we miss that, we miss the interaction and the feedback. But, if we can be creative, switched on to the possibilities, maybe we can find more of what’s missing, even if it's in unexpected places.

I’m not saying it’ll be perfect, but maybe it’ll see us through.

I don’t want to sound too ‘rosy glow’ about lockdown- that’s definitely not how I feel! But I am committed to the idea that by slowing down, taking time to reflect, noticing and accepting the small things, we can create the possibility that things will feel different, I'm not aiming for perfect. And let’s face it, if things are feeling a bit rubbish, different is better than nothing isn’t it? Different means that there’s the possibility for change and in the possibility for change, there’s hope for better. I like to think so anyway.

Take care


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