How do you know if you are struggling with approval-seeking behavior?
If you feel stuck in your personal and/or professional life, it may partially be due to approval-seeking behavior or an “addiction to approval.”
Are you reliable? Flexible? What about caring, confident, and assertive? Do you play well with others? Whether the approval of others is coming from your family, co-workers, or business partner . . . your performance is, no doubt, being observed.
You probably have your opinions of all these people, too. Right?
From the meals you prepare at home and the way you style your hair to your pay raises and daily responsibilities at work . . . it’s easy to imagine how other people’s perceptions of your achievements, communication style, and even your personality can make an impact on your life.
And Western culture and society have determined that a significant part of our self-worth derives from our professional success: earning more money, securing a higher status (and material proof of that status), and “climbing the ladder,” to use a tired metaphor that many of us repeat with increasing disdain.
Are we really just trying to keep up with the Joneses?
Even if you’ve made it your goal to aim for a less conventional form of success, that word “success” is still there, and you’ll need at least some help from others to achieve it.
It’s in our best interests to make a good impression in the workplace, even if that means making some compromises. Very few of us can afford the luxury of being ourselves at work—right?
So to get ahead, we’re advised to make a good impression on others; mainly, to convince others of our value. You have to prove yourself, don’t you?
No one’s going to hand anything to you. Whether or not authority figures told you this from an early age, for most of us, it turns out to be correct. And it would seem that trying to convince others of your value involves winning their approval, in many small and not-so-small ways.
This is where approval-seeking behavior comes into play.
So what keeps you caught in the addiction to approval habit loop? “But I’m not asking for their approval!” you may be protesting. “I’m earning their respect. I’m showing them what I’m made of.”
Yes, but you’re demonstrating that you’re willing to do almost anything, much more than what others are willing to do . . . just to get a pat on the back.
For those who experienced enmeshment at a young age, it can be hard to tell the difference between someone’s approval and respect. If you fear repercussions for not going along with what an individual asks of you, chances are this person does not actually respect you.
How to Quit Stressing Over What Other People Think of You
As adults, very few of us are immune from caring about what other people think. And when we become preoccupied with a need to be liked — or try too hard to be everyone’s hero — we risk abandoning ourselves.
“Being dependent on approval — so dependent that we barter away all our time, energy, and personal preferences to get it — ruins lives,” wrote Martha Beck in O, The Oprah Magazine.
In other words, taken to the extreme, approval-seeking behavior is a recipe for stress, burnout, and a whole host of issues that threaten our well-being.
One reason it can be difficult to break up with our validation-seeking ways? We’ve been operating this way for a long, long time.
“Our concern with how other people evaluate us is a big part of being human,” says Sara Valencia Botto, MA, in her TED Talk drawing on her research into early childhood development. In fact, this tendency emerges “before we can even utter a complete sentence . . . and it becomes an integral part of who we grow up to be.”
So is it even possible to fight something that’s been ingrained in our operating system since we were babies? Short answer: heck ya!
These 3 tips from Rebecca Muller at Thrive Global may help.
1. Practice acceptance.
The first step to loosen the grip that people’s opinions have on you is simply to accept this as a normal part of being human.
“It is easy to say, ‘don’t let [him or her] get to you,’ but it’s not realistic,” Jessica Methot, Ph.D., an associate professor at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University, says.
Once you come to terms with the natural tendency to want to be liked, you can begin to let go of some of the fixations on others.
2. Avoid the overthinking trap.
If you find yourself stressing about what someone thinks of you, you might be creating a concern that only lives in your head — not in reality. “Someone not returning an email immediately doesn’t mean they are purposefully ignoring or undermining us,” Methot says.
“Consider the possibility that your coworker just returned from traveling and is catching up on emails, or is overwhelmed by another project.”
The only thing worse than caring about someone’s real opinion is obsessing over an opinion that likely doesn’t exist.
3. Become good friends with “disapproval.”
Often, we seek validation from others because we think we can’t handle being rejected or disliked. If you tend to turn on yourself when you don’t get the approval you seek, you may need to replace self-criticism with a hefty dose of self-compassion.
For example, if a colleague or a friend isn’t too keen on a choice you’ve made or something you’ve done — and gives you the cold shoulder — remind yourself that your value as a human being doesn’t come from whether or not someone likes you.
Bottom line: Just because someone else thinks something about you, doesn’t mean it’s a fact.
Recognize the approval-seeking behavior listed below?
- Have trouble speaking up when you see something done incorrectly or inefficiently?
- Always say yes to new tasks and responsibilities, even if it infringes on your existing projects or professional boundaries?
- Feel attacked when someone criticizes your work?
- Go out of your way to do professional or personal favors for colleagues?
- Feel compelled to thank people profusely and pay them unnecessary compliments?
Your need for external validation didn’t start in the workplace; it has its origins in your childhood.
In the book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, clinical psychologist Dr. Lindsay Gibson delves into the intricacies of enmeshed relationships.
Since an emotionally immature parent or caregiver depends on the child for emotional validation, he or she will foster a relationship that provides “a sense of certainty, predictability, and security that relies on the reassuring familiarity of each person playing a comfortable role for the other.”
The child will notice which behaviors they need to perform to receive a reward of approval and which actions generate disapproval, anger, or indifference. Once determined, the child will subconsciously build his or her “early childhood survival strategy.”
In other words, you, the child, learned to adapt to the role demanded of you—a role that served not only your parental figure but yourself as well. Since the “real” you who existed independently of your primary caregiver’s emotional needs weren’t recognized or honored, you learned to meet those needs in order to induce the “feel-good” state that takes over in the absence of a healthy sense of self.
During childhood, you observed that “proving” yourself, by meeting certain conditions, gained you warmth and acceptance.
And this behavior of repeatedly establishing your self-worth accompanied you into adulthood.
According to Antoinetta Vogels, author of The Motivation Cure, the pitfalls of living with your “Substitute Sense of Self (SSOS)” as an adult are manifold. Without self-awareness—the ability to recognize your true Self—you may suffer long-term damage to your self-esteem.
And when your SSoS is in charge of your life, it’s difficult to build and maintain healthy levels of self-confidence and the motivation you need to achieve your goals and dreams.
“A Sense of Self (SoS) is cultivated from birth, but only when primary caregivers truly see and acknowledge their child as an autonomous being as opposed to (unknowingly) considering them to be an extension of themselves. A Healthy Sense of Self is profoundly significant because it is the foundation for living an authentic life, a life without shame, regret, or anxiety, as opposed to a lifetime of addiction to approval.” –Antoinetta Vogels
The emotional energy required to sustain a “feel-good” state is substantial and robs you of your ability to focus on other demands of adult life, including your career, health, and personal relationships.
If you’re an approval addict, you may find that the more you work for your fix, the harder and longer it takes to get it.
Not only do those bestowing their approval have power over you, but you are digging yourself into a hole of insecurity as you affirm your dependency on this approval over and over. You’re taking one step forward, two steps back.
This is time and effort you could spend elsewhere, on a more durable endeavor: establishing your self-worth from the inside out rather than the outside in and reinforcing your authentic self, which will serve you much better than a substitute sense of Self with a flimsy foundation.
What are some steps you can take to manage your approval-seeking behavior in the workplace? Here are 4 really good ones.
1. Recognize criticism as feedback, not as disapproval. Accepting critical feedback as constructive and impartial instead of destructive and personal will help you put other people’s reactions to your work in perspective.
2. Decide what success means to you. Remember the definition of success from earlier? Is that what success means to you, or does it mean something else? Developing emotional self-awareness can help you clarify what your desires are, and whether your goals are in fact aligned with those desires.
3. Exercise your right to say “no.” Saying no to a new assignment, project, or role may feel like denying yourself an opportunity. But no can be an opportunity, too. Not only will you feel good for standing your ground, but you will be able to keep your energy focused on what you’ve decided are your priorities. And who knows? Maybe someone will notice and be impressed that you said no for once.
4. Open yourself to the possibility of feeling unconditionally loved and living as your own person. Working toward a restored sense of self is an ongoing process—one that will reward you with a feeling of stability and inner knowing that you haven’t yet had the opportunity to enjoy.
When you learn that you don’t need to earn your independence—that there’s a version of yourself that exists independently of others’ opinions, desires, and needs—you will be on your way to helping your healthy Sense of Self regain its foothold.
If you’d like to learn more about your current Sense of Self (SoS), a good place to start is by taking our quiz. It may help you gauge where you stand right now.
Gibson, Lindsay C. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-involved Parents, 2015. Print.
Vogels, Antoinetta. The Motivation Cure, 2017. Print.
Article written by Lindsay Dick: Lindsay writes for the Healthy Sense of Self editorial staff. She takes pride in crafting content that is clear, conversational and draws people in with what we all want to hear: a good story. And she’s all about overcoming approval-seeking behavior. Her love for compelling narrative and rigorous research led her to pursue a history degree in college, the equivalent of Spartan military training for reading and writing.