We live in society, which means that we depend to some extent on social approval. As children, we seek our parents' approval and then compete at school for teacher approval. The need for approval is not a bad thing. Indeed, at an early age it is rather an instinctive search for the frames of reference that we need to understand how society works and to successfully fit into it.
As we grow, we become autonomous and independent people who develop their own values and benchmarks, so the need for approval should decrease. But the truth is, social rejection and disapproval continue to hurt us. Enough to activate the same areas of physical pain in our brain, as confirmed by researchers at the University of Michigan.
This means that, somehow, our brains are "wired" to seek the approval of others. However, in some cases that research can result in dysfunctional behaviors that generate discomfort and prevent us from growing as people to reach our potential.
When the quest for approval turns against us
Sometimes, when we worry too much about what others think, we become addicted to external approval. This seeking of approval makes us feel compelled to subordinate our needs and desires to others, for 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 don't realize this self-sabotage, so we keep repeating patterns of dysfunctional behavior that are more oriented towards seeking the approval of others than satisfying our needs and feeling complete.
1. Be extremely perfectionist
Sometimes perfectionism does not arise from the desire to improve, but reflects the need for approval. If we feel obligated to do everything superlatively and want to stand out for recognition, we are probably pushing our limits for the wrong reasons.
That kind of perfectionism hides the feeling of not being good enough, so we try to do what we can to challenge ourselves. In other cases, it stems from the belief that we are not worthy of being loved and valued for who we are, so we try too hard to get the love and approval of others.
The problem is that this perfectionism ends up becoming pathological because it generates enormous anxiety and prevents us from relaxing. We continually push ourselves to the limit, making futile efforts just to seek the approval of others.
2. Don't take risks for fear of failure
There is a saying: "nothing ventured nothing gained". However, if we fear social disapproval, we tend to stay in our comfort zone and avoid those new situations in which we may fail, even if they present a good opportunity.
A study conducted in the late 90s at Columbia University verified this phenomenon in children between the ages of 10 and 12. They found that when the need for approval was triggered by praising children for their intelligence, they chose the easier problems, had less fun solving them, and their grades got worse, compared to children who were praised for their effort.
If we end up equating failure with disapproval, we are likely to resist taking on projects where success is not guaranteed, so we will end up limiting ourselves. Thus, not only can we miss good opportunities, but we will never know how far we are capable of going and we will end up putting aside our dreams, sacrificing them on the altar of social approval.
3. Give up our needs
The pursuit of approval leads to dependent and submissive behaviors that dilute the ego. We may not dare to say what we think for fear of being rejected or that we hide our feelings to avoid being judged. By dint of conforming to others, we end up losing our identity.
When we constantly ask ourselves what others will think, we gradually lose touch with our needs and wants. Instead of looking inside, we look outside, to the point of forgetting that we also have the right to make mistakes, to go against the grain or to disagree.
If we always prioritize the needs of others, we end up relegating ourselves to the background. The need to seek the approval of 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 could 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. But when the pursuit of approval becomes a limiting obsession, we must stop to understand its causes and get rid of its harmful influence.