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Getting to the Bottom of Your Need for Approval
If you ever worry about what other people may be thinking or expecting of you, you’re in good company: human beings generally care what other human beings think of them. It’s a self-conscious reflex that is so universal, it can’t be a cultural or biological defect. Or can it?
The need for approval and acceptance begins early, and cultural and social norms encourage it. However, the roots of this mindset can stretch further back, and if you’re not careful, damage your personal growth in the years to come.
Understanding why you care so much about how others see you is the crucial first step to breaking the pattern, and freeing up your psyche for more important things.
Where It All Began: The Group Mentality
Like many human behaviours and attitudes, this social quirk is likely rooted in evolution. The need for social approval can be traced to your early ancestors and their survival instinct.
Before humans were sitting pretty at the top of the food chain, there was safety in numbers: a group could defend against the looming threat of big, nasty predators better than a single person. Not being accepted into the group could mean the difference between life and death.
While there are no longer clear and present threats from other species, there’s still physical, social, and psychological competition with other people. To be accepted means more than just the comfort of community — it can shape the way in which you view yourself and interact with the world around you.
The Link Between Approval and Self-Esteem
Some experts trace the need for another’s approval to your own sense of self-worth. Since your earliest years, you are granted praise or dealt criticism based on your actions, and that judgment begins to take a very central role in how you view and value your personality, skill set, and all aspects of your individual life.
Author and life coach Tom Ferry believes the need for approval is so strong, people tend to value the thoughts of those around them more than they value their own ideas. This is certainly problematic, but there are reasons to explain that approval-seeking urge.
Nobody likes rejection — it’s a terrible feeling, because it denies something you’re proud of, happy about, or confident in. When you find yourself asking lots of questions to get someone’s approval before proceeding to do anything, you’re probably trying to sidestep rejection, and that’s perfectly natural.
However, acting and reacting out of a fear of rejection will eventually diminish your own ideas, and by extension, your confidence and independence.
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Approval Can Be Addictive
Receiving a kind response or congratulatory word from someone is pleasant, and like other things that bring on good feelings, that gesture of approval can breed a desire for more. If you let it take priority, you might find that you’re making major life decisions, big purchases, or stylistic changes for the invisible — but oh so tempting — approval of others, instead of following your own values or passions.
You may not even realize just how far that desire has taken you until you step back and honestly evaluate your life choices.
Although your mind can get carried away when it comes to seeking approval, there are some clear advantages to caring about what other people think of you. In fact, following expectations and anticipating reactions can put you one step ahead in many social situations.
Empathy and Bonding
There are times when tailoring your approach can help you connect with people in healthy and healing ways. For instance, holding back your opinion or easing your reaction can spare feelings, and that’s generally as helpful for everyone as it is compassionate.
In other situations, it simply isn’t appropriate to completely be yourself regardless of how others would react — even naturally funny people wouldn’t crack jokes at a funeral, after all.
It’s clear the way you present yourself can have immediate positive or negative effects. In order to put yourself at an advantage in important social situations, you’ll want to adhere to expectations.
Walking into a job interview in an outfit better suited to a beach party would work against your best interests, so you opt for the suit and take extra care to groom well (even if that isn’t quite in line with your everyday personality). Caring what others think of you can bring you clear rewards.
The Dangers of Relying on the Opinions of Others
Seeking approval might be common, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Sure, there are occasions that call for a second thought about what others may think or expect, but there are some major problems that come with relying too much on outside opinions.
Opinions Can Parade as Facts
People tend to be drawn to the truth. It’s embedded in human nature: we want to know more about everything around us, and it’s easy to take any and all information as hard facts to add to your understanding of life.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of opinions very cleverly disguised as facts, and that can muddle your perception.
It’s vital to remember that whatever anyone else thinks of you, it’s merely their opinion. Rarely will you find another person that feels precisely the same way, because everyone sees things differently.
In turn, it never makes sense to elevate one opinion as truth — rather, take it as advice or commentary to add to your understanding, not as a replacement for your own opinion.
Seeking Approval From Others Means Disapproving of Yourself
You are a unique person, with unique thoughts informed by your unique life experience. When you start to favor other people’s opinions of you, you foster self-criticism, negative self-talk, and a feeling of incompleteness. And it gets worse: disapproving of yourself breeds more fear, worry, and dependence, a damaging cycle that gets more and more difficult to break.
Learning to accept yourself as you are — without anyone else’s input — can be difficult to do. You have to let go of that intense pull to the group, and this can take some re-training.
But it’s well worth the effort: when you don’t have to look outside of yourself for approval, you become more powerful, comfortable, and fearless, which can expand your life and happiness enormously.