It is a damning feeling: keeping a tab of the likes on our social media posts and then referencing the numbers to other friends having roughly the same number of followers. You feel ridiculous even doing it. And yet, you do it again.
It is a trap and you’ve made your peace with your place in it. Sure, you will deactivate your account every two weeks to feel better about yourself in the mistaken belief that you have defeated the monster – but we all know the victory only lasts so long.
“The need to seek validation develops quite early on in our childhood,” explains neuropsychologist Jasdeep Mago, co-founder of Invisible Illness India. “It begins when parents imply that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. They might say things like if you don’t eat your food, I won’t talk to you. This is the beginning of conditional love and it is a toxic one.”
The way Mago understands it – children only see things in black and white. They are impressionable and highly perceptive. “If a child accidentally breaks the TV remote and parents make a huge deal out of it – the child interprets it as the remote being more important than themselves.”
Inevitably, when we grow older, the patterns remain the same – only, the stakes are higher. It is only natural that almost everything we do, particularly in a public or interpersonal space, will flow out of this idea that love is conditional.
For Nonita Kalra, former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar India and Elle India – the field of lifestyle journalism has also fallen prey to the validation bug in more ways than one. “Journalism has narrowed itself down to Instagram. Since the pandemic particularly, Instagram has become a source of journalism and it has gotten inevitably linked to validation.”
The lack of the personal touch, when necessary, to work on certain articles and features or even shoots, is disconcerting to Kalra.
“It is lost on us that we, as journalists, are the chroniclers of our times. But if we conflate this idea of chronicling with numbers and likes – we are simply not doing justice to our profession. And it is here that we must all remember that as journalists we can’t wear our biases on our sleeves,” she says.
The teen character of Shai in Netflix’s Bombay Begums created by Alankrita Shrivastava –models her life, her art, and even her idea of how she sees herself on the way she is perceived by a school heartthrob. And, if you’ve seen the series, you know it doesn’t end too well for her but she comes out wiser. Unfortunately, the blind infatuation that comes with such stressful, unrequited, and toxic school romances have the potential to irreversibly damage self-esteem. Love, of any kind, becomes an oasis that is always fleeting.
The idea behind creating the character of Shai, for the Lipstick Under my Burkha director, was to spotlight the tender and often messed-up period of puberty, particularly for girls. It only worsens when social privilege, gender identity and caste hierarchies intersect to define the individual experience of looking to be accepted. The need for validation is not easy to dismiss for a young adult.
“I grew up in an all-girls boarding school and having a strong peer group was critical. It is not so simple to say don’t care about validation. You want to win that game, get validated in the eyes of your parents. That need is always there, but it is important to realise that we can’t let that need take over our lives,” she says.
As an artist, Shrivastava’s relationship with validation was quite visceral. Her debut film, the Gul Panag-starrer Turning 30, wasn’t well-received either by the critics or the box office. “I wanted a lot of validation for that film, but I didn’t get all of it. And yet, I remember going to a theatre in town to accompany my friends to watch it. And when, to my sheer surprise, I saw people actually getting it and laughing – I had a breakdown. I cried for the entire duration of two hours.”
For Mago, the solution is about looking deeper. “The first step is to trace this trail of behaviour starting from your childhood. Having done that, you then have to consciously catch yourself in that moment where you are desperately doing things for validation.”
This ‘cognitive training‘ is crucial to counter the toxicity of validation. Mago gives the example of someone buying coffee for their friends whenever they meet. “You need to ask yourself, are you doing this because you are inherently a good person? Or is it because you want your friends to praise you for the magnanimous person that you are?“
As Shrivastava’s puts it: “You can’t get carried away. You simply can’t afford to. It is important we seek growth more than validation.”
Also read: Self Love Even When It Seems Impossible
Arman Khan is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mumbai. He writes on the intersection of gender, lifestyle, and culture. He has works published or forthcoming in Vice, Grazia India, The Swaddle, GQ India, Femina, Vogue India, CN Traveller India, the Caravan, The Wire, and Architectural Digest. You may find him on Instagram
Featured Illustration: Ritika Banerjee/Feminism In India