How Sean Long Found His Answers

While She Sleeps guitarist finds power in looking inward.

Posted Apr 07, 2021 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams

KEY POINTS

  • At the core of humanistic therapy is the notion that every individual deserves to live with dignity and that people have worth and value regardless of how they feel.
  • One of the most important ways we can express worth and value is by providing emotional validation.
  • Sean Long of While She Sleeps focuses on internal validation to experience a more lasting sense of joy, satisfaction, and self-worth.

“I’m nervous

I think it’s time to believe

But I’m nervous

That the answer’s right in front of me”

 — From “Nervous” by While She Sleeps (featuring Simon Neil)

At the core of humanistic therapy is the notion that every individual deserves to live with dignity and to experience unconditional positive regard – that they have worth and value regardless of how they feel, what they think or what they do.

One of the most important ways that we can express unconditional positive regard is by providing emotional validation. Validation refers to the process by which we come to know that our feelings, thoughts and behaviors are acceptable and understandable in a given context. When we feel validated, it becomes the basis for broader feelings of self-worth. When we do not experience validation, we can feel disconnected from our feelings, leading to our feeling lost and questioning our self-worth.

Marcha Richards, used with permission
Source: Marcha Richards, used with permission

Ideally, over time, we develop “internal” validation — the ability to let ourselves know that our feelings make sense and that we have value. With a strong system of internal validation, we don’t need anyone else to make us feel understood or that we have worth. However, we live in a world that often seems to revolve around “external” validation – or receiving validation from others. We naturally look to others to determine if our feelings make sense. Even humanistic therapy relies on the therapist to provide external validation in the form of unconditional positive regard until the individual develops the capacity for internal validation. And we often evaluate our self-worth based on the judgment of others as measured in praise, honors, “likes” or even material things such as money.

How do we determine the best way for us to experience validation? If we rely entirely on internal validation, we can feel good but ultimately may lose connection with the world around us. But if we rely exclusively on external validation, we lose touch with ourselves as we hand our self-worth over to factors that are entirely beyond our control. This was the dilemma facing Sean Long – founding member and guitarist of the band While She Sleeps. During our conversation for The Hardcore Humanism Podcast about While She Sleeps’ new album Sleeps Society (2021), Long explained his quest to find the proper balance of external and internal validation in his life.  

Part of the issue that Long faced was that early on in his life, he experienced the risks of relying entirely on external validation for feelings of self-worth. Like many artists, his passion for and commitment to his art was not rewarded, but rather punished. Long described how he felt criticized and at times bullied by both teachers and students for his interest in heavy music and music in general.

“When I was a kid, we were the minority and you will get bullied for that for sure,” Long told me. In fact, when the band signed a record deal, Long recalled how he wanted to share that f*ck you attitude regarding one of his former teachers who punished him and bandmate Mat Welsh for tapping on their desks and talking about their band during class. “Nine years ago, we signed to Sony. And I posted this status. And it said, ‘This one's to my form teacher...f*ck you for telling me and Mat to stop tapping on the desks and stop talking about our band’ … she literally said to us specifically that it will never do well, stop talking about it. We'd always get in trouble for talking about our band … So those moments where people, especially when people say no, it really fired something up.”

What Long did not anticipate was that as he rebelled against those who did not support him, he was inadvertently embracing the overall model of internal validation as a driving force in his life. “When you're really young, and you're inspired to do something, and then someone tells you it's stupid, or it's ridiculous, man, I’d go as far as to say then that's where the flame comes from,” he explained. “Something grows within you … Watch me, I know it's gonna work. Or like, watch me show you how much I can feel this inside …

“And I think those things build character.”

Long acknowledges that we are taught to look externally for validation. And as a musician, whether it’s getting signed to a label, making records or playing great shows, there is the natural temptation to validate “success” by these external indicators. But over time, Long came to realize that the feelings of joy and pleasure that he experiences from these external sources are fleeting and do not contribute to any lasting sense of satisfaction.

“In school and in education and things like that, we're always reaching. We've been taught to keep stepping forward and keep reaching, which is obviously a great thing. It’s very embedded in the way that we look at life. We always need to reach and once this is acquired, we enjoy a little bit of joy. And then it seems to dither away, and then we're on to the next thing which I've experienced in my life right now,” Long described. “I'm no big famous rock star by any means. But I've tasted enough fame and money to understand that my answers aren't there.”

To be sure, Long is not saying that striving to accomplish external goals and markers of success are inherently antithetical to internal validation. We can feel joy and gratitude for those external accomplishments but maintain our self-worth through internal validation. “You're always going forward. When is the next biggest show? You want to do a bigger show, you want to do a better album, you want to chart bigger, you want to make more money, you want better gear. It's always going up like this. So, my entire life has been this climb...all the milestones. I ever dreamed of every single thing I've reached,” he said. “And I’ve actually reached all the milestones I ever dreamed of... I don't take these things lightly, because I like to sit with so much gratitude that these things have happened. … There's never really a specific moment, it’s multiple milestones that you hit, that slowly create the realization that it's okay to have fun in the world.”

While Long has accomplished great success as a musician, he still experiences obstacles and setbacks. One such experience for Long was when While She Sleeps played a show to an audience far smaller than what he anticipated. In order to cope, Long focused on his connection to the moment for internal validation. “We did our first headline in USA. And we did our first ever headline in Iowa. And we sold six pre-sales – six … and let me tell you, bro, it was one of the funnest shows we f*cking ever played in our lives. And like, that's where you can get lost, you can get lost in it. We could have easily … been like, ‘f*ck this sh*t.’ We're not even playing — it's embarrassing for a band on our level. But what is it about...?” Long asked. “It's about this moment. And I think that's what we all struggle with. And rightly so, I think that, like I was saying, we've been brought up to always look ahead. We've not been brought up to be present and be in this moment.”

Long plans to continue to push the band to higher and higher levels. And while doing so, Long maintains his internal validation by reconnecting with the original reason he played guitar – the emotion and the connection he has with the music. And by focusing on this connection regardless of external validation, he has been able to validate his life as having worth and meaning. “I just have a vehicle with my guitar … There's something that comes out of me which I really enjoy. And that's where I get my meaning in life … I feel like I can express what I'm thinking — comes out my guitar and that's the purpose. It's not how many f*cking, how many cars I can buy. It's just common sense to me now.”

References

You can listen to Dr. Mike's conversation with Sean Long on the Hardcore Humanism Podcast on HardcoreHumanism.com or on your favorite podcast app.