We live in society, which means that we depend to some extent on social approval. As children, we seek approval from our parents and then compete in school for the teacher’s approval. The need for approval is not a negative thing. In fact, at an early age it is rather an instinctive search for the points of reference we need to understand how society works and to insert ourselves successfully into it.
As we grow, we become more autonomous and independent people who develop their own values and benchmarks, so the need for approval should lessen. However, the truth is that social rejection and disapproval continue to hurt us. So much so that they activate the same areas of physical pain in our brain, as researchers from the University of Michigan confirmed.
That means that, in some way, our brains are “wired” to seek approval from the others. However, in some cases that search can translate into dysfunctional behaviors that cause us great discomfort and prevent us from growing as people to reach our potential.
When seeking validation turns against us
Sometimes when we care too much about what other people think, we become dependent on external approval. This search for validation causes us to feel compelled to subordinate our needs and desires to the others, out of fear of disappointment or rejection. As a result, we end up sabotaging our happiness and sacrificing our personal satisfaction and fulfillment.
The problem is that sometimes we do not realize this self-sabotage, so we continue to repeat dysfunctional behavior patterns more oriented to seek the approval of the others than to satisfy our needs and feel complete.
1. Be extremely perfectionist
Sometimes perfectionism does not arise from the desire to improve yourself, but is a reflection of the need for approval. If we feel compelled to do everything superlatively and want to set ourselves apart to receive accolades, we are probably pushing our limits for the wrong reasons.
That kind of perfectionism actually hides the feeling that we are not good enough, so we try to go the extra mile to prove ourselves. In other cases, it arises from the belief that we are not worthy of being loved and appreciated for who we are, so we try too hard to get the love and approval of the others.
The problem is that this perfectionism ends up being pathological because it generates great anxiety and prevents us from relaxing. We continually push ourselves to the limit, putting in unnecessary efforts just to seek approval from the others.
2. Do not take risks for fear of failure
There is a saying: “No pain, no gain”. However, if we fear social disapproval, we will tend to stay in our comfort zone and avoid those new situations in which we could fail, even if they represent a good opportunity.
A study carried out in the late 1990s at Columbia University verified this phenomenon in children between the ages of 10 and 12. They found that when the need for approval was activated by praising children for their intelligence, they chose the easier problems, enjoyed homework less, and their grades plummeted, compared to children who were praised for their effort.
If we end up equating failure with disapproval, we are likely to resist undertaking projects where we are not guaranteed success, so we end up limiting ourselves. This way, not only can we lose good opportunities, but we will never know how far we are capable of going and we will end up parking our dreams, sacrificing them on the altar of social approval.
3. Give up our needs
The search for approval leads to dependent and submissive behaviors that dilute our “self”. It is likely that we do not dare to say what we think for fear of rejection, or that we hide our feelings to avoid being judged. By dint of conforming to the others, we end up losing our identity.
When we constantly ask ourselves what the others will think, we gradually lose the touch with our needs and desires. Instead of looking inside, we look outside, to the point of forgetting that we also have the right to make mistakes, go against the tide, or disagree.
If we always prioritize the needs of others, we end up relegating ourselves to the background. The need to seek approval from the others is likely to lead us to believe that we must always be available and willing to sacrifice. This type of maladaptive behavior sets the stage for other people to take advantage of us, so we might end up being victims of the doormat effect.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that, although no one is a complete island in itself, as John Donne said, we must find a balance between the need to connect and feel validated and the need to differentiate and reaffirm ourselves as unique people.
We all need support in the form of approval. External approval confirms that we are on the right track and often gives us the necessary strength. However, when the search for approval becomes an obsession that limits us, we have to stop along the way to understand its causes and get rid of its harmful influence.
Kross, E. et. Al. (2011) Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; 108(15) 6270-6275.
Mueller, C. M. & Dweck, C. S. (1998) Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 75(1): 33-52.