10 Steps to Self Esteem: Step 6 - Stop Seeking Approval

Welcome to the sixth step of your 10 steps to self esteem.

ACTION POINT! Remember to fill in your Progress Checker before you start!

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To seek approval is to have no resting place, no sanctuary. Like all judgment, approval encourages a constant striving. It makes us uncertain of who we are and of our true value.

Rachel Naomi Remen

The moment you stop craving approval and being shackled by the need to please is the moment you walk out of a darkened room into the light of a beautiful new day.

As we’ve seen, it’s natural to compare ourselves to others to some extent.  As long as we don’t make thinking errors when we do it, or do it all the time.

These thinking errors include:

  • not seeing yourself clearly because of the warping effects of strong emotion

    (feeling inadequate is an emotional experience)

  • failing to see your positives while over-amplifying real or imagined negatives

  • seeing others as more superior in some ways than is really the case

  • always thinking in terms of who is up or down or better or worse, rather than focusing on connection

  • globalising – making generalised ‘blanket’ negative statements to yourself or others about yourself from single specific instances

Low self esteem pushes us to want to please others more than is natural, or useful.

We can live our lives trying to please other people at the expense of ever pleasing ourselves. Tragically, we then end up resentful and dissatisfied.

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But what’s really weird is that even the very people we are so busy trying to please often end up dissatisfied with us too. Why is this?

People like people to be real

When people constantly get the impression that you only ever tell them what you think they want to hear, they can get the feeling that, in a sense, you are being dishonest, not real with them, or even untrustworthy.

In this way people pleasing can really backfire, as people start to feel they can’t rely onyou to be straight with them.

Balance in all things

Of course, some of the motivation we all need to get on and achieve things in life does come from wanting to be approved of by other people.

We all start off early wanting the approval of our parents (well, at least until we become teenagers!). After that, we might crave approval from our peers, and perhaps crave disapproval from older generations.

If none of us cared about approval from people around us at all, society would grind to a halt. Social groupings are important to our welfare and the welfare of others, so caring, to some degree, what other people think of you is fine and good.

But when all you care about is what other people think, and that’s the only factor that matters, then your life really ceases to be your own. You can start to feel ‘invisible’, as if you don’t matter at all. Peer pressure and ‘group think’ are all very well in their place, but not if they stop us thinking for ourselves.

A common way of getting approval is to ‘appear’ to agree with people, even when we don’t. If we do this too often, we can end up almost forgetting who we really are. We become a sort of ‘blank canvas’ that’s just there to be covered, filled in and illustrated by the whims of other people’s notions.

Refusing to trust our own eyes

A telling experiment, repeated many times over the years, is the Asch conformity study, originally run back in 1955.

The lead researcher Solomon Asch took student volunteers and placed them individually in rooms with some other people who, unbeknown to the volunteers, were actors. Asch then showed them a card with four single straight lines of different lengths drawn on them. Two lines were the same length. All were asked to say which lines were the same length. The actors, primed beforehand, always went first and always gave deliberately incorrect answers.

The real volunteers would become noticeably uncomfortable, hesitate, and show clear signs of uncertainty regarding their choice. A surprisingly large number of them went so far as to deliberately answer incorrectly themselves, just to match the actors’ choices.

This research on deliberately going against what you can clearly see right in front of you in order to ensure approval has been replicated many times. It’s frightening how many people would rather have the approval of those around them – even complete strangers – than speak out what they know to be the truth.

Craving approval should never be allowed to override what we ourselves genuinely feel or think to the extent that we continually lie to others, or even to ourselves.

Of course, sometimes we might want to save someone’s feelings. Sometimes it is simply kinder to say you like that new hairdo just as they’re going out on that all important date. But sometimes we need to speak the truth as we genuinely see it, regardless of whether or not it’s going to get approval.

And the crazy thing is that when you do this more, people respect you more anyway. And then, there’s that ultimate sign of approval in life, that great-seeming cure-all for any sense of exclusion or neglect that we all seem to want nowadays – celebrity.

The fame game

In our culture, celebrity is the new religion, the greatest aspiration for millions, the ultimate recognition of worth. What could be better than the adulation of the approving masses? Surely this is the ultimate corrective to any sense of rejection?

Well, no, as it turns out.

Firstly, rather few people (out of 7 billion and counting) actually get to be famous. Properly famous.

But an awful lot of us either expect to be famous or spend thousands of hoursdaydreaming of being famous.

The problem is that you can completely strangle your inner self if you play too much to others. Studies have shown that nothing is as detrimental to our happiness as making it contingent on the approval of other people.

Focusing on whether who we are and what we do is liked and appreciated by others drains genuine enjoyment and satisfaction in life – if that’s all we care about.

In yet more research, it was found that children enjoying an activity (such as painting pictures) found it less rewarding after adults had complimented them on how well they were doing. It appeared that getting the compliment made them notice the approval, so they stopped doing the activity ‘for its own sake’ and became concerned instead with doing whatever would get more approval.

Intrinsic v extrinsic rewards – or how approval can sap enjoyment

Many of us have gotten into the habit of craving approval as a reward for who we are and what we do. However, there is real evidence that when we get too much extrinsic (outside) reward, perhaps in the form of positive approval from others, then intrinsic reward (internal enjoyment of doing the activity) drains away.

This is quite easy to understand if you think about it like this:

Imagine you are playing tennis, a game you love, and you are ‘in the zone’ and enjoying each and every movement for its own sake, totally connected to the experience, totally in mental and physical flow. Now imagine that people start telling you how good you are, that you are going to win your next match, and the one after that... and they start comparing you to other tennis players, and describing your game to you, and analysing everyone of your shots...

All this may have its own satisfactions and uses, of course, but it may well take away the simple enjoyment of playing tennis for its own sake – because now you start seeing it all from the ‘outside’, in terms of what other people think and expect.

Exercise • Approval audit

  1. Make a list of some of the things you know you do in order to please others, to gain their approval.

  2. This is an exercise in understanding, not anopportunity for self-blame (see Step 3).

  3. Beside each item, write down whose approval you seek through that activity or behavior.

  4. Write down whether you always get that approval, sometimes get that approval, or never get that approval.

  5. Write down any other reasons you may have to continue with that activity/behavior.

  6. Is the potential approval more or less important to you than the other reasons?

  7. Decide whether you will continue or not. Be clear with yourself why you are doing it.

Remember, seeking approval is neither right nor wrong, in itself.

The dangers of overdosing on approval

Everything in life, including approval, needs a correct dosage level.
It can seem that if something is beneficial and satisfying in small doses it will surely be even better in larger doses. But

  • a small dose of alcohol may make you feel good, a massive dose can kill you

  • a little medication can help you recover from an illness, too much can create a much worse one

  • some exercise is good for you, but too much can be worse than none at all.

Everything needs the right dosage in life – not too little and not too much. And believe it or not, that includes approval.

We can all feel that we need more approval (from others) than we really do. There are two obvious problems with wanting a lot of outside approval:

  • other people have power over us – because they can choose to either give or withhold our ‘fix’ of approval

  • we have little control over whether we get approval or not – because what people approve of (or not) is largely contingent on their mood or particular biases of thought.

And the fact is, some people wouldn’t offer you approval if you levitated across the water or got the Nobel Peace Prize. Trying to get what others don’t have to give (approval) is never going to work anyway.

It’s not that we shouldn’t care about approval at all, just that we shouldn’t have to depend on it to feel valid, useful, resourceful or even attractive. Once you become less dependent on approval, you become stronger – and happier.

Progress indicators

  • you notice you are feeling less concerned with the approval of others

  • you feel good about what you do, or how you are in somerespects, regardless of whether others show approval

  • you enjoy more activities and situations for their own sake rather than for the approval they might bring

  • you don’t worry so much whether things are ‘okay’ with others – people can ‘like it or lump it’

Once again, we’ve been digging deep here. As you work through this material, absorbing it and making it your own, remember to go easy on yourself. You don’t have to make all these changes all at once. It takes time to reshape your life.

Watch out for next week’s blog for step 7.

In the meantime, if you would like some hypnosis support to supplement what you are reading in these blogs, please get in touch.

Emma x