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September 30, 2005

the validation manifesto

Several women have already stopped reading. Several weary women.

I've referred to my "Validation Theory" many times on this page, but I've never spelled it out. Simply put, I believe that the primary social force in the world is the human need for validation. In the bulk of human interactions, we are either seeking or granting endorsements. Simple, no? This theory scales like a motherfucker. Once you start filtering human behavior for validation, you see nothing else.

And yes, I'm fully aware of the irony here. I'm waxing about my belief system on my web site. Self-indulgent and validation-seeking behavior if ever there were one. See how well it scales?

So say I'm right. So what? It's a harmless enough social force. Sadly, it is not, for the Validation Theory has a very ugly corollary: most people view validation as zero-sum. If I'm to feel good about myself, you cannot—unless you make the same choices I do. But if you don't, any happiness you feel invalidates my own and must be denigrated.

My favorite example of zero-sum-validation thinking will forever be the Christian bumper sticker

Know Jesus, know peace

No Jesus, no peace

If you want to drive a fundy positively insane, show them how happy you are without their religion. That so invalidates everything they believe, everything in which they've invested their self-image, they cannot even consider the possibility. Nope, you're Satan's intermediary.

All the new moms in my life have experienced a zero-sum crossfire lately. If they continue to work, stay-at-home moms revile them as bad parents. If they stay at home, their professional colleagues snort disdainfully about "breeders." The invective is harsh, unrelenting, and unsolicited, and it invariably comes from women whose own choices are being—cue the organ music—invalidated.

Let's view recent posts through the validation filter.

And on and on. The need for validation is why people dress up and wear make-up. It's why they buy expensive things. It's why people pair up. It's why lousy relationships persist well past the establishment of lousiness. It's why people have kids. It's why they pray instead of taking kids to doctors. It's why your family goes batshit if you don't come by and stare at the TV with them often enough. It's why managers create direct reports aliases (e.g., "Jim Jones' Direct Reports") that are of no conceivable use to anyone but them but that inconvenience many. It's why we insulate ourselves with people who affirm our belief systems. It's why seemingly good people can rationalize doing horrible things. It's why we want our friends—strangers, even—to couple/parent/buy something/change cities/etc. like we did, and it's why we feel curiously rejected when they don't. It's why we feel self-conscious about dining or going to movies alone. It's why people with no education disdain its necessity, and it's why I so value it. It's why people find a way to diminish your new house/car/S.O. It's why the top-10 non-fiction list is half books about how smart you are, half books about how stupid "they" are. It's why readers send me email arguing "I don't seek validation from other people." It's why people kill those who don't share their beliefs. It's why they want to introduce matters of faith into the science classroom. It's why I go weak-kneed every time I hear "Lover Lay Down" and remember that the sexiest woman I've ever known actually thought of me when she heard that song. It's why my brother and sister-in-law would rather lose me altogether than admit that the John mythology they've concocted is untrue. It. Is. Everywhere.

• • •

What, if anything, is to be learned from this? Like any point of view, it's subjective. It's a theory that happens to fit the facts. A helluva lot of facts. What began as a desperate attempt to explain one person's behavior became a plausible explanation for most of mankind's behavior. Does this make it right? Is it the only possible explanation for a given behavior? Of course not. But I've yet to come across an alternative explanation that scales so, so well across all of human behavior.

Although I found the theory life-changing, I didn't exactly find it life-affirming. Understanding validation, both your need for it and others', is not an A-ticket to bliss. The benefits are more subtle than that. I look at it more as something to keep an eye on within myself. When someone upsets me, I question why, filter for my validation needs, and very often am able to let it go. This is a good thing. I take great pains not to feel invalidated by others' beliefs or choices, and that eliminates much of life's unnecessary misery. And of course, the rhetorician in me benefits from appealing to others' validation needs. At this point, Allie and I are pretty overt about it.

(phone rings)

Allie: Hello?

Me: I need some unconditional validation.

Allie (bored): You're so smart.

Me: Thanks.

So there you have it, my world view, honed by years of wondering why so-and-so is acting that way. And if you don't agree with my Validation Theory, well, you're just stupid.

posted by john at 8:20 AM  â€¢  permalink