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The quest for external validation – and how it shows up for many gay men

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

Validation. It’s a word that’s often bandied about, but what does it actually mean? Quite simply: needing approval from others in order to feel good about ourselves.

The need for it can show up in many ways – from constantly seeking compliments, to needing a partner in order to feel complete, or feeling like you have to dress or look a certain way to be deemed ‘attractive’. And while it’s not uncommon for most of us to occasionally seek validation from others, it can become a problem when it becomes excessive, or greatly impacts the way we think and act.

The quest for validation among gay men

Validation and gay men

Validation as a common problem in the gay community was first raised in what’s come to be known as a ‘bible for gay men’, a book called The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs. In it, he describes how gay men are often emotionally stuck in a perpetual adolescence of people-pleasing, sometimes very alienated from our own wishes, needs and longings.

He writes: “The acquisition of validation is so rewarding that we become validation junkies. The more we get, the more we crave it, the better we feel and the harder it becomes for us to tolerate invalidation. Explore the finest of anything in this world and you will always find gay men clustered around the helm. In fact, in our rush to achieve validation, we run roughshod over the subtleties that lie within us, and choose instead to grab the nearest and brightest flag that will draw the attention and, hopefully, validation of the world around us.”

How the need for validation can show up

The unmet need for external validation can be the driver behind many compulsive behaviours. It can dictate how much time we spend chasing ‘likes’ on social media, pursuing hookups via apps like Grindr or Scruff, or creating the perfect body at the gym. And it can get in the way of other life goals, like developing lasting friendships, satisfying hobbies, or even something as basic as getting enough sleep.

Of course, knowing that cute guy on Grindr thinks you’re sexy certainly feeds the hunger for admiration – for a short while, anyway. Similarly, constant people-pleasing for friends, partners, colleagues and family gives you that dopamine hit… but over time it can leave you feeling exhausted and resentful. And overachieving every day at work or at the gym may give you plenty of admirers – but it can also skew the relative importance of these things in your life, while also making you more stressed, tired and judgemental.

How to tune out the validation craving

So what’s the solution to this overemphasis on being the ‘good boy’, of the craving for reassurance that we’re ‘ok’? It means tuning in to our own feelings, needs and longings – towards what Alan called the “subtleties that lie within us.” It means honestly considering the answer to questions like ‘How am I?’ ‘How am I really doing?’ ‘How do I feel deep down about this?’ ‘What do I want and need?’ – and most importantly, ‘What is this impulse connected to?’ and ‘When I’ve done this previously, how do I anticipate feeling? Do I think I’ll be more at ease, contented or happy?’.

Taking some time to reflect on these questions enables us to become more conscious about some of the automatic judgements we can often place on ourselves and others. For instance, it’s no secret that the body image issues of gay men are wildly out of control. We’ve objectified the male physique to that point that many of us feel that we aren’t worthy of relationship unless and until we’ve achieved 'body-beautiful' status. We see sex less an intimate connection, and more of a beauty contest, and a purely physical act. In short, it’s all about the body.

If one of the main ways you connect with other men is via apps that tend to emphasise aesthetics over substance, your brain is being trained to assess every man you see according to his physical value in the ‘marketplace’. Of course, most of us are driven by aesthetics, and there’s no getting away from that. But when we reduce something like sex to the purely physical, based on the drive to be wanted, or admired or lusted after, that’s when the need for validation has run out of control in our lives.

BUT, there is hope – and it is possible to move beyond this. We can learn to appreciate our bodies for all they do, rather than constantly criticise – and we can learn to make friends with the aspects of our physical appearance that we may not automatically like. In sex, we can learn to pay attention to other aspects than just the visual. And we can learn to deepen our connection to ourselves and others, as well as appreciate others for the things which are attractive about them outside of the external.

How to self-validate

What’s also incredibly important is learning how to self-validate. This happens when you start to see how and when you’re being unfriendly to yourself. To start, ask yourself where you put relentless pressure on you. Where you don’t give yourself a break. When you expect perfection, and judge anything less.

Imagine that critical voice is like that mean-spirited, bitter, insecure guy whispering cutting remarks to his friends at the back of a bar. We’ve all met or heard a person like that on a night out, right? When you start to notice and recognise that voice within you, now’s your chance to build a new habit: responding to him with compassion. Because all that voice is really saying is ‘I don’t feel enough, so I’m going to criticise, in order to make myself feel better’. And when we can spot that within ourselves, and move beyond the belief that we’re in some way unacceptable, unlovable, shameful and flawed, we no longer need to be driven by the need for validation.

Instead we find the freedom to be who we are, exactly as we are – and we can accept life just as it is, without judgment, fear or insecurity.

If you’d like to explore more about how validation might be playing out in your own life – or any other challenge you’re facing as a gay man – contact me for a free introductory Zoom-based coaching session.

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