Your teenager rolls their eyes at the special plans you made for your free day together. Your partner comes home from work, firing complaints about their day right out of the gate, never noticing the things you've done in preparation for their return. In fact, when you finally bring them to their attention, they're actually resentful.
Suddenly there's that familiar sinking feeling in your gut, the wave of heat across your face, and your thoughts turn to your favorite escape. Why do I even bother?
Everyone hopes for validation, which is why I find it so interesting when someone is criticized or mocked for seeking it. It's important to know that our life and choices make a difference that's valued by others. But our good desire to be seen moves into the arena of being an obstacle to relationship not because it exists--but because something inhibits it from ever being fulfilled, and those we turn to for validation soon become exhausted.
The Wound in Your Story
All of us have been wounded somewhere in our story. These injuries to our identity and experience of life vary in number and severity, but each one matters. And each wound carries with it a message.
Greg's family was all about sports. There was nothing his dad or siblings got more engaged with or excited by than a good game. But in one of his most potent memories, a particular match was a surprising struggle. The team from a few towns over was vastly more prepared than theirs.
Greg remembered looking into the stands and seeing his father's grim expression, and as their eyes met over the distance his dad gave a slow, disapproving shake of his head. Instead of the traditional celebratory meal after the game, Greg was driven straight home in icy silence.
The message this event (and a pattern of events like it) wrote on Greg's heart was You Disappoint Me. That statement quickly became a narrative he could see playing out in many other interactions; it began to change the way he would see them in the first place. It drove him to excel in everything, to beat anyone who stood in his way. He'd meet someone, learn what was needed to impress them--or defeat them--and do it.
But it was never enough.
Because the validation-seeker doesn't just want to hear we did a good job, that we exceeded expectations, or even that we are better than others. Underneath it all, we are asking for someone to wipe that wounding message away. But we are usually in so much denial from it, so dedicated to running from it, that healing it simply isn't possible.
Confronting the Paradox
My wounded heart will never be denied, and the irony is that my turning from it in fear is exactly what gives that wound control over my life. I unconsciously offload the work of healing to others, who quickly become aware that they can't do it.
Every action is an agreement, and in Greg's case his relentless pursuit of performance (though he called it "excellence") was a tacit agreement with that heart-crippling message. That doesn't mean the answer was for him to become some kind of slacker, but to enter into the process of no longer abandoning himself.
As Greg slowly learned to become his own healer, to find the affirming and forgiving voice that should have always been there, he also saw people less and less for avenues to the validation he used to crave. This kind of growth made all kinds of new room for authentic relationship in his life.
It takes time, honesty, grieving, and hope to discover what that journey looks like for each person, because each wound is personalized to each unique story and identity. But the good news about that is that in all the hard work of facing and feeling our wounds, we find the clues to begin piecing together our true story.
And the truth is much bigger, much harder, and much better than you've imagined it is.
Mike Ensley is a nationally certified professional counselor in Loveland, CO.
Original photo by Chemical Engineer.