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How Instagram can influence your self-esteem

Experts believe that the mechanics of external validation, especially in this age of social media, have become complex and potentially harmful

Much of our validation today comes from social media, making us even more addicted to it
Much of our validation today comes from social media, making us even more addicted to it (Unsplash)

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Siddharth Basu (name changed), a 33-year-old media consultant, was on the fence about buying a car. Most of his friends had one, and he was still taking the train to work. "I had multiple fights with my wife about this. She was against it, and I wanted one as I thought it is the norm these days." A year down the line, Basu is behind his EMIs, which are accumulating interest and are affecting other areas of his financial plans. "My wife now blames me for all of it, and I realise this was a mistake. But I feel good as I know that I can match up with my colleagues and I am as good as them. One has to keep up with others, right?"

A similar case is that of Vaidehi Nayak (name changed), a 25-year-old marketing executive who has been facing depression for over a year as she feels she "is not good enough" compared to others her age. "A college classmate has managed to get a high-paying job at a telecom company and has already bought a place of her own. I have another friend who is happily married to this really good-looking, well-to-do guy and is now settled in Norway. And I am still struggling in both areas of life. I want my parents and friends to know I can be like that too!" she exclaims.

Also read: How food can change your mood and personality

These narratives might sound familiar and, at times, are voices in our own heads, telling us to do more, be better and aspire for more. We seek validation from our families, peers, and colleagues in the form of likes on social media pages and positive affirmations from those around us. We see others doing well, and we need to match up to them. But is that necessary? Experts explain how external validation works and how we can learn to counter it.

The neurological workings

One may not know that external validation has neurological links. There are chemicals released when one gets compliments, completes a task, or achieves something. Dr Minnu Bhonsle, PhD, a consulting psychotherapist & CBT trainer, explains a chemical side to happiness and positive mental health that arises from validation. "The 'happy hormones' commonly known as DOSE, i.e. dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins, promote a sense of closeness, cheerfulness, self-esteem, and even love," she says. She goes on to throw light on each of these:

● You'll have a dopamine rush when you get an A+ score, a promotion, or someone likes your post on Instagram. It's your brain telling you you've done a good job and deserve a pat on the back. And when you get that prize, there is a dopamine release, and you are happy.

● You have oxytocin to thank when you are validated with a hug, hand holding, a loving gaze into your eyes or warm words from a loved one. The release of oxytocin, aka the love hormone, will make you feel warm and fuzzy, loved, valued and thus happy.

● Serotonin is at work when you are feeling cheery and good about yourself. For instance, your hard work is acknowledged and appreciated, you are doing well, your accomplishments and achievements are praised, and you receive genuine compliments. You feel confident and deeply validated with a sense of recognition. There is a serotonin release, and you feel happy.

● When you are sweating it out and running a marathon, you are experiencing an endorphin high, and if, along with this, you feel a sense of achievement at the finishing line with the medal around your neck, there is a dopamine release. Also, when you get validated on social media for the achievement, there will be a serotonin release. In addition, if your significant other hugs you lovingly and looks at you with pride, you will have an oxytocin release.

The psychological & cultural connect

Tying back the neurological base to culture, if we go to dive deeper into how external validation works, we may notice that it is closely linked to how our culture shapes our idea of whose opinion should be valued in our lives. As Dr Nivedita Chalill, ARTH: Counselling & Arts Based Therapy, explains, "As children, we learn what is right and wrong through our parents, teachers and other adults. We can meet with approval, and encouragement, be taught to learn from our mistakes and be reminded about our core efficacy," she points out. We can also be shamed, discouraged and reminded of our failures.

The cultural basis for validation is aptly explained by Dr Bhonsle as she says, "Seeking and receiving blessings, praise, compliments, gifts, awards, applause or payment for an accomplishment, achievement or success, or by virtue of being gifted with good looks or talents, has been the familial, sociological and cultural norm. Priests, politicians, parents, peers and the press have rewarded and validated certain behaviours and punished others. Therefore, your survival instinct as a social animal makes you prone to seek out positive strokes," she says.

This, in turn, shapes our behaviours and aspirations. Dr Rizwana Nulwala, psychotherapist, Krizalyz Counselling and Mental Health Services, says that it makes us more focused on what we do rather than who we are. This triggers the need for awards, certifications, trophy partners, best cars, swanky houses, and high-flying jobs. "As children, we want to please our parents, and this trait may continue in adulthood as the need for validation. We start believing that if others appreciate us, then we are worthy," she comments.

To make it worse, today, much of our validation comes from social media, making us even more addicted to it. It is now possible to get likes, upvotes, or other forms of social validation, almost instantaneously. Your self-esteem goes up and down based on the number of followers on Instagram or the number of subscribers of your YouTube channel, or the number of likes or shares of your social media posts, tweets or reels. Social media has made us crave external validation even more. "So, if you feel that no one is responsive enough around you, the virtual world offers immediate comfort. Many people have almost stopped seeking refuge or comfort in the external world," observes Dr Nivedita Chalill. Additionally, the new entity of social media influencers paid for endorsements based on their follower status has further led to a dire need for external validation to monetise this validation, points out Dr Bhonsle.

The downside of seeking validation

Dr Chalill says that the degree of external validation we need depends not only on our past but also on our present situation -- our personality traits, state of mind, relationships, work situations and so on. "If you find yourself constantly being a people pleaser, being afraid of saying no, unable to form and express your own opinion, feeling anxious when you're unsure how others see you, unsure of what you want for yourself, feeling guilty if your choice is not what someone else would have approved of, unable to evaluate your own success or worth, these could be indicators of being addicted/ heavily dependent on the approval and external validation," she says.

Also read: How games can be used in therapy

Dr Bhonsle affirms that it is normal and healthy to ask for and give unconditional and conditional positive strokes as social beings, but, she warns, "it becomes unhealthy when you are unable to give yourself the strokes to fulfil your hunger and are completely dependent on external sources, and allow your own sense of self to be eroded by believing that unless you get external validation, you have no worth." In her opinion, "this results in neurotic emotions like anxiety, hurt, resentment, guilt, depression etc. This is when one needs to draw the line, as a healthy 'desire' for strokes has escalated to a 'dire need', without which one believes one has no value." She adds, "The problem occurs when you hinge your own self-acceptance on external acceptance and approval. When you measure your own sense of worth based on others viewing you as 'worthy' or on your 'worthwhile' achievements, you fall into the toxic trap of self-esteem. Thus, when you or others start 'labelling' yourself as a failure for failing an attempt at something, it leads to anxiety, guilt, anger, depression and other unhealthy negative emotions that prevent you from staying the course towards actualising your human potential."

Dr Nulwalla says that seeking validation becomes harmful when it is done at the cost of reality. "If I cannot buy another car, I do it anyway to seek validation and then cannot pay the EMI's, but I am not bothered by it. This is dangerous as you cannot reject what isn't true to you or doesn't align with you at that point in time." She says that social media is just a slice of how life is today and doesn't show the skeletons in our closets. "We see what people want us to see, and the layers beneath that are lost. It also becomes a pressure group which one may misconstrue and want to adhere to. If your self-esteem is low, you may be influenced easily," she remarks.

Six steps to not be dependent on external validation

Dr Nulwalla advises one to ask themselves the following questions before taking action to seek external validation:

1. What are my values? Is this aligned with who I am?

2. What response do I want from my family/friends/colleagues?

3. What is my need to share this?

4. What are the consequences of this action?

5. If I didn't do this action, what would I lose? Imagine the exact opposite situation.

6. Pause a bit or 15 mins or an hour or even a day before doing or posting something for validation. If it's impulsive, you might change your mind and may not have the urge to get that kick.

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