6 tips to help overcome your addiction to approval seeking
"A truly strong person does not need the approval of others any more than a lion needs the approval of sheep." ~ Vernon Howard
Sometimes things are the opposite to how they appear.
Not long ago, the archetypal 'rebellious' teenager sat across from me. Jason wore the conformist non-conformist off-the-peg disaffected youth uniform: the kind of low-slung jeans that makes running for a bus resemble the sack race from a pre-teen sports day. His defiant stare dared me to say something he could find stupid.
His mother had brought him to see me in an attempt to 'make him more pleasant'. And Jason did admit to sometimes upsetting his parents deliberately. He'd stumbled into the well-trodden adolescent role of finding everything wanting, 'lame'. Contempt for reality outside of himself or his friends had become his default setting. It didn't matter what I said or did; he was determined to - and here's the crux - not just be, but seem, unimpressed.
I'm not sure I helped that young guy (or his mother) as much as hopefully time and experience (sometimes the best therapy a person can have) will, but it occurred to me that constantly seeking disapproval - being rebellious for the sake of it - is, in essence, just the other side of the coin from craving continuous positive approval. The common denominator is still an over-preoccupation with imagining what people are thinking about you and trying to control their perceptions of you.
In sharp contrast to Jason, Susan seemed blighted by a constant need for positive approval. She was easier to help because she wanted to please me by getting better; eventually she told me, only half-jokingly, that she didn't give a damn whether I was pleased with her progress or not - at which point, we knew she'd made plenty.
So what's wrong with wanting to please others?
Seeking approval whilst compromising yourself
Nothing, up to a point; approval seeking is only a real problem if you feel as though positive approval from others is the very oxygen that keeps you alive. Susan actually said she felt like she'd almost 'die' if people thought badly of her.
She'd felt rejected by her parents, particularly her mother; yet I could tell she was keen that I didn't think her a 'bad person' when she spoke semi-critically of her mom, who had, it seemed, only very conditional regard for Susan. Unless Susan was how her mother wanted her to be at all times, affection was withdrawn. In this way, Susan had been conditioned as a young girl to feel that approval was vital at all times.
Susan's father went along with her mother, but she felt, deep down, that his love for her was 'at heart, unconditional'. The problem was that now, as a thirty-seven-year-old woman, Susan felt that anything she did or even thought only had any 'validity' if it was 'the right thing' to say and think. I asked her what she meant by 'right' and, after a long pause, she admitted she didn't really know - that perhaps it was what other people thought was 'right'.
Reliance on approval seeking leaves you open to abuse
One grave problem with chronic approval seeking is that it leaves you vulnerable to being manipulated by others. People pick up that you're anxious to please them, that your main priority is that 'everything be okay'. For example, Susan found that a particular co-worker would go into silent moods and look disapprovingly at Susan, but this woman didn't seem to respond to other people like that. Somehow, she'd picked up that Susan cared too much and used this knowledge to psychologically control Susan. Susan admitted that she only cared about doing a good job so that other people would be pleased.
The sleeping man and the snake
Another problem with being too eager to gain approval is that it can get in the way of actually being effective in a situation.
I'm reminded of the story of a man who fell asleep under a tree. As he slept, a venomous snake slithered into his open mouth. Another man, seeing this situation, immediately pounced upon the sleeper and beat his back, held him upside down, and generally seemed (from a superficial perspective) to be abusing him. The man who had no idea he'd swallowed a snake complained bitterly, thinking the other guy was deranged. Eventually, the snake was dislodged and tumbled out of the first man's mouth. He was saved and in that instant knew the 'attacker' had really been seeking to save him, not seeking his approval (1). It's important to remember that the needs of the situation sometimes far exceed the needs for instant approval.
The fact is that some approval seeking is probably inevitable. It makes sense to 'fit in' with other people and even Jason (our less than affable teenager) was, by his own account, keen to maintain strong social bonds with his friends. He cared that they had a good impression of him.
But if we are led through life always and only really doing and being what we've come to believe is 'expected of us', then, in a way, we cease to exist, to live, and be real. So how can you start to care less about gaining other people's approval? I've written a little about this before in 'How to Stop Worrying What Other People Think', but here I want to offer a few more pointers for being less bound by approval (or disapproval) seeking.
1) Practice saying what you think
Not always, of course, but why should it always be you who has to 'tread carefully'? Start practicing speaking your mind a little more and let the 'consequences' sort themselves out. What you'll find is that most of the time no one is offended at all - and, as long as you don't set out to hurt others, if they are upset it's only because you've started behaving in a way that lets them feel they have less 'power' over you.
2) Practice pleasing yourself
Constantly seeking approval means we're perpetually worried that others are forming a bad opinion of us. We come to feel vulnerable and prey to whether other people are pleased with us or not. This steals the fun, creativity, and spontaneity from life.
Make a point of doing stuff now and then purely because you want to. This is not being selfish; it's letting other people know that you're a multi-dimensional person with your own tastes, ideas, and enthusiasms.
3) Remember you can't control what others think, anyway
Anxiously seeking approval is often an attempt at trying to gain and keep a sense of control. If we can just make people 'happy' by being what we imagine they want us to be, then we won't be rejected or abandoned. That's the common assumption; but does it work?
Well, people like 'nice' people, for sure; but, paradoxically, trying to be all things to all people can make us less appreciated, because people are generally drawn to an aura of self-confidence. So remind yourself regularly that you can influence other people's perception of you some of the time, but you can't control it. People tend to think what they'll think.
4) Remember that sometimes 'doing the right thing' means appearing not to
If you had lived in Nazi Germany as a non-Jewish blond-haired blue-eyed person, to seek approval from people around you (the ruling Nazi party) you would have to have done and believed some monstrous things. Peer pressure can make us go against what we truly know to be decent and civilized behaviour. Was it decent and civilized of the helping man in the story to beat the snake out of the sleeping man?
Pack mentality can work on any scale. The 'leader' decides what is 'right and wrong', and the followers sometimes comply to impress the leader and others or because they are afraid of the consequences if they don't. This is obvious in a huge cult like Nazi Germany or in lesser cults, but it happens much more in day-to-day life than many of us realize.
Focus on what you believe to be right in situations, rather than what peer pressure may lead you to do. Be your own person.
5) Don't assume people make black or white assessments of you
I've noticed that people who are overly concerned with approval assume that I and others will think them 'a terrible person' or 'a loser' if they say or do something that isn't somehow right. But most people don't make heavily judgmental decisions about other people based on a few words or even actions. Constantly worrying that someone else is inwardly going to condemn you as an 'awful person' is over-estimating the 'black or whiteness' of other people's perceptions of you.
I might sometimes be baffled or surprised (or assume I have misunderstood them) when someone says or does something, but I rarely conclude: "She/he is a terrible person!" As we know, generally good people can do bad things. If you're around people who do make blanket, negative, and premature assessments of you based on a few words or actions, then you need to remember that is all about them - not you.
6) Don't play the game of disapproval
Some people use disapproval as a weapon. If you've had what amounts to a phobia of disapproval, then such people will scare and therefore control you if you play their games. Seeing reality through a narrow and prejudiced lens of 'does this please or displease me?' makes people pretty tyrannical. People who are quick to disapprove (even if they just imply disapproval) can make you on edge, to say the least.
Focus on what you think and want. If someone seems to disapprove, call them out on it. Ask them what their problem is. As weird as it sounds, you have every right to disapprove of their disapproval!
Ultimately, disapproval fails to deliver what it threatens. When the 'bomb drops', you learn there is no bomb. When you let people disapprove of you if they want and cease to worry, a whole new world of personal possibility opens before you.