To be validated is to be approved of. To be verified. To be confirmed as a human being.
I was in the sixth grade when I first developed my unquenchable thirst for validation from my peers.
I was a hopelessly insecure, woefully mixed-up, flat-chested, 12-year-old female longing for some kind of certification to ensure my existence was, indeed, real.
I wanted something tangible to prove I wasn’t as invisible as I felt. I wanted to be seen.
When you find yourself a young and tender girl hopelessly sinking in a reaping, turbulent sea of hundreds of other young and tender girls, it’s easy to find yourself desperately seeking the life raft of validation.
Anything to mark your meaning in the seemingly massive world.
My reasons for craving a colossal supply of compliments are as boring as they are universal: I’m the youngest child of a large blended family made up of impressively high-achieving, whip-smart, adorably funny and undeniably gorgeous siblings.
I went to a competitive school in a privileged Northeast town filled to the brim with hyper-attractive, picture-perfect, tennis-white-wearing kids from enviable backgrounds with ample societal pedigrees.
Everyone was so pretty, in a CW TV-series kind of way.
And as a raven-haired, porcelain-skinned waif of an adolescent, I was pretty in more of a Wednesday Addams sort of way (not exactly the kind of beauty embraced by a preppy middle school populous).
In short, I felt widely invisible. Like a colorless, broken bulb sifting through the dark, dangerous waters of school. If a strong tide had come in and washed away my frail limbs, surely no one would’ve noticed.
Before the pressure of beauty rears its ugly head, most kids receive their first taste of validation through academic achievement.
I was a mediocre student, decent at English but horrendous at math, the great imbalance of my talents leaving me smack in the middle of the great academic spectrum.
I was worse than a f*ck up -- I was mediocre.
When you’re deemed not particularly good or particularly bad, you’re loudly ignored. I didn’t like being ignored.
In fact, I hated it with such relentless urgency, I knew I had to make a giant change to my life.
I wasn’t being validated, therefore, I didn’t exist. I was hanging vaguely in the air, my presence too meek to make a dent.
I longed for heaps of attention. After all, if no one notices you, what’s the point in even living?
These were the twisted thoughts that endlessly tugged at my prepubescent brain throughout the night while my parents thought I was in peaceful slumber, neatly tucked into the hideous floral Laura Ashley sheets adorning my antique twin bed.
Cut to the first day of seventh grade, and I am sporting my first ever padded bra, purchased in secret at our local lingerie store. I am just shy of 13.
The bra was a faded, virginal white, adorned with a perfect, pink little rose applique right in the middle of the size-A cups.
I peered at my reflection in the mirror. I didn’t look like myself, which was precisely the idea. Being flat-chested, unacademic, unathletic Zara wasn’t exactly nourishing my dire hunger for heaps of attention, was it now?
Feeling sexy in my new bra, I smiled. I was certain life as I knew it would be forever changed. I’ve always had a highly sensitive nose for sniffing out a shift in my life’s energy.
My beautifully brilliant, well-constructed plan WORKED. There was a buzz in the sweaty, hormone-laden hallways about ME. I had what everyone wanted: a chest.
I had left for summer break flat and invisible and worthless -- only to return in the fall with boobs (no one knew they were built from foam, but who cares? I was quickly learning it’s all about outer appearance anyway).
I had finally had my first fix of validation, and I was hooked. The council of middle school boys had deemed me worthy, and there was no way in hell I was going back to the painfully bleak existence of namelessness.
See, validation is not dissimilar from a drug. You snort the powder, take the pill, throw back the shot -- and if you’re one of the unfortunate ones (like me), you like it a little too much.
You feel otherworldly amazing. The glorious buzz intoxicates you, and you never, ever want to come down.
The annoying part of any drug is this (especially to the addictive entity): The high is as intense as it is temporary. The higher you are, the harder you fall when the feel-goods wear off and the cold burn of reality sets in.
What comes up must come down.
Soon, the attention I was getting for my body wasn’t enough. I needed more, more, MORE -- I was quickly developing a sky-high tolerance for validation.
I began to unabashedly flaunt my sexuality. I kissed more boys than the other seventh-grade girls (among delving into other bases). I wore an excessive amount of makeup. I wore the skimpiest clothes.
The situation was dramatically escalating so rapidly, my clumpy mascara-adorned eyes couldn’t see what was happening.
I was becoming addicted to validation. I needed it to feel alive.
I became a bonafide overachiever in anything that garnered attention. Nothing was ever enough. I needed to be prettier. I needed to be THINNER.
I needed to be the lead role in the play. THE BEST. I strived to be a perfect specimen.
My incessant need for validation would follow me throughout high school until my early 20s. If I didn’t receive a compliment, I felt like sh*t.
My self-esteem was plastic. It was artificial. It was solely reliant on others. I couldn’t be proud of myself unless someone else was proud of me.
Herein lies the tricky part of having your self-worth depend on outside forces: People are madly unpredictable.
People aren’t compliment-spewing robots programmed to provide you with the perfect validating words at the perfect time just because your confidence is shaky and you need your fix.
And unlike drugs, there is no “validation dealer.”
Finally, one day, amidst a lover’s quarrel in which I was irrationally upset at the lack of reassurance, my annoyed romantic partner looked at me long and hard and said: “You know what, Zara, no amount of compliments in the world will ever be enough for you.”
The relationship ended, but those words fiercely stuck to me like leeches to the skin. It was true. Even an everlasting stream of compliments couldn't fill the empty pit of my addiction.
I had sorely mistaken validation for self-esteem. I was 22, and it was time to embark on the rocky road to self-worth.
I started to do things that made me proud, in a real, honest way. Not merely the things that would rack up a stealth slew of compliments.
I started to write, and act and help my friends sort through their problems. I discovered my love for design and my untapped talent for helping others.
I realized there were things that made ME feel good, with or without a pretty little compliment from someone else’s pretty little lips.
I started to understand that while it feels undeniably good to be recognized for what I invest my energy into, that can’t be the lone reason I do it.
I must be driven to do it because it I’m passionate about the process, not the end result.
And a compliment is just icing on the f*cking cake. The cake is good by itself, too.
See, real confidence is rooted deep within you.
It comes from the most sacred person of all: yourself. And no one can ever take it away from you just because he or she had a bad day, is dealing with sh*t or simply doesn’t like you.
Real confidence is bigger than numbers on a scale, or likes on an Instagram picture or sitting at the cool table.
And the longer we girls rely on outside entities for validation, the further away we drift from ourselves. The further we are from cultivating the most important relationship we will ever experience in our lives -- the one we have with ourselves.
Learn to make friends with the imperfect girl staring back at you in the mirror. Because she’s all you really have. No one can ever rip you away from you.