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How motherhood helped me overcome my addiction to validation

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Today, I find my self-worth from within, rather than without.

I’ve always loved school, even as a kid. This was particularly true of college, where choosing what classes I wanted to take made me feel like a kid in a candy store. I loved everything about it — the reading, the writing, the discussions, even the tests.

So when I left school to raise my children, I found myself really missing school. I decided that I would embark on a self-directed poetry-reading project not unlike the infamous Junior Poet project we took at the University of Dallas. I chose my poet, got my books, and… never made it through the selected works, much less the complete works.

At the time, I chalked up my inability to study alone to the distractions of motherhood and the lack of socially engaging class discussions. But after reading an article at ThriveGlobal on the psychological link between trauma and work addiction, I wonder if it wasn’t something else entirely.

Like any problematic repetitive behavior, being addicted to work, validation, or success is an issue with lots of factors and possible treatments. In In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Maté distinguishes between contingent and genuine self esteem. The bigger the void that people feel, the greater the urge to get themselves noticed, and the greater the compulsion to acquire status. Genuine self-esteem, on the other hand, “needs nothing from the outside” — it’s a sense of feeling worthwhile, regardless of your accomplishments. “Self-esteem is now that the individual consciously thinks about himself; it’s the quality of self-respect manifested in his emotional life and behaviors.”

Gabor Mate is a doctor whose family fled the Holocaust when he was an infant. As an adult, he became addicted to his work as a doctor — ironically working often with drug addicts, whose experiences he chronicled in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.

Mate told Thrive Global that addiction to work is addiction to a validation that fills a need inside oneself, and his need was created by the trauma of having an emotionally unavailable mother during the war years.

I’ve struggled with a similar need for validation through the years, though mine wasn’t caused by a trauma. That need for validation, and the related fear of disappointing others, was a strong motivator in my school years. Thinking back on my ill-fated independent poetry project, I think the lack of that motivation ultimately prompted me to abandon the project altogether.

Lucky for me, there’s no real validation in being a stay-at-home mom. No one claps for you when you mop the floors or gives you an A for successfully navigating a tricky parenting issue. No task is every truly completed, the semester never ends, and there are no days off. Basically, it’s a nightmare job for someone who depends on validation for their self-worth.

Over the years, though, that lack of validation has forced me to find my self-worth from within, rather than without. I’ve slowly learned to treat myself with the respect and kindness that I used to crave from others. It’s a work in progress, obviously, but it’s worth doing. I’ve always told my children that they have inherent dignity and worth, and I’m grateful that motherhood gave me a chance to learn that lesson for myself.

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