About 10 or so years ago, a close friend and I had as our catchphrase, ‘I don’t need validation, I am validating Me’. I cannot help but smile as I reflect on our pride as we paraded around singing our theme tune to ourselves and anyone who dared cross our path. Our catchphrase was at some point replaced with a line from the Destiny’s Child song “Independent Woman” – ‘I depend on Me’ (said with raised eyebrow and hand gesture – hmm, actually maybe I just made that up, but you get my drift!). We’d been burnt by so many who crossed our path, from family, friends, lovers to work colleagues and somewhere along the line we had decided to develop thick skin and freeze out anyone whom we felt could potentially hurt us.
What I now know many years later is that having that catchphrase was my attempt to protect myself from the pain of longing for validation, that somehow never came in my youth. And on those rare moments when it did come, never recognising it through my lenses of low self-worth and that feeling of being eternally flawed.
I had not really given conscious thought to my old catchphrase for a while until a couple of months ago, when I was preparing to run a series of workshops for gay men based on the book ‘The Velvet Rage‘ (Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World) by Alan Downs. In his book, Alan talks about how we all seek validation everyday, it being one of the essential psychological needs of every person. Alan goes on to differentiate between the different types of validation, explaining that the only type that really counts is ‘authentic validation’ – ‘honest validation of something that matters to you’. He says “Authentic validation is absolutely necessary for the development of a strong sense of self. Without it, the self does not develop properly. Further, authentic validation inoculates us from the ravages of shame. If we are receiving adequate amounts of authentic validation, then shameful comments or feelings simply have little impact on us. After all, if others are providing authentic validation, what do we have to feel shameful about”.
As I reflect on this passage, I am reminded that in my conversations with same gender loving people, I have come across many who have never received that authentic validation from their family of origin. Instead, what appears to be commonplace are many instances of ‘invalidation’. In those cases, the invalidation comes in many guises, from families operating a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ code, going into denial and building a wall of silence to being thrown out of the family home and being treated like an outcast; no longer welcomed or invited to family gatherings.
Authentic validation in a family setting has been brought home to me this month. When I choose the theme of ‘family’ at the end of last month, I had no idea of how it would play out in my own life – no such thing as coincidences, I guess!
The month began with my partner and I invited to dinner by a cousin and his wife. It was such a beautiful evening, full of laughter and joy. The evening was filled with open conversations about everything. It felt such a blessing to be seen, accepted, acknowledged and to be in the presence of family who demonstrated that my being same gender loving did not mean that I was banished from their family table. There was a genuine interest in their wanting to get to know the me that I had been too afraid and shamed to show them, for fear of rejection. It’s the first time that I have felt authentically validated by a member of my family of origin, for being same gender loving. And I do remember, on our way home that evening, feeling what Alan talked about in his book – ‘with authentic validation, what do we have to feel shameful about?’.
Another instance that I had this month was visiting my foster mum in Kent. Even though we speak on the phone, we had not seen each other for about a year. When I rang her to mention my visit, the first thing she said was ‘are you bringing your friend?’. When I told her he was not in the country, she said ‘you do know that he is welcome to come with you’. On my arrival at hers, within minutes she was already asking for all the details about my relationship – ‘Is he black or white?’, ‘What job does he do?’, ‘Tell me about him’. When my foster-brother arrived later that afternoon, again within minutes there was an interest in finding out about my relationship. ‘Are you happy? asked my brother, ‘Is he treating you right?’. So, this is what continual authentic validation feels like, I thought – wow!
And just this past weekend, I met my partner’s parents for the first time, It was an afternoon filled with moments of being authentically validated. Just like the visit to my foster family, there was a curiosity to know and an invitation to be known, both being graciously accepted by each one of us.
“Does all this really matter?”, someone asked me during the course of this month. “Do our families really need to have those conversations with us and ask about our relationships? It is a big cultural and traditional issue for them, you know. And they are of a different generation”. I replied saying something along the lines, ‘many years ago, I would have said it did not matter. I was Out and those that needed to know I was same gender loving knew. I was happy to collude with the silence of those who dared not ask and with those who felt I was simply going through a phase. That’s no longer the case. I have learnt that collusion resulted in me feeling ongoing shame about who I was and how I lived my life. I am in a different emotional place now and it is time for me to finally heal those old wounds’.
What I have come to learn this month is that, because I had become so used to being invalidated for being same gender loving by members of my ‘Tribe’, I had learnt to desensitize myself by validating their invalidation (‘I depend on Me’, my old self gleefully sang) – finding excuses for why ‘they’ felt or acted the way ‘they’ did. I was told, this month, during a heated conversation with a much younger family member, that I was pushing everyone away. There is some truth in that, but like the rest of life, it is not that clear-cut. The fact is I now speak up, where in the past I would have colluded through silence. I now walk away, where in the past I would have stayed in the midst of emotional abuse. I no longer validate the invalid, for I have tasted authentic validation and that is the path I am now on. Guess, its time for a new catchphrase!
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