On "Not Good Enough" and the Bottomless Pit of Approval Seeking
Most of us want the approval of others, it's a part of typical human development that begins in childhood. As young children, we learn and grow mostly from the support of our attachment relationships--our caregivers. When they are pleased with us, we feel good about ourselves. So good, we are willing to brace any uncertainty or anxiety we may experience when meeting a new developmental milestone, from walking to potty training to our first day of school!
But seeking approval can also be unhealthy. Often when children live with "Too Much" Anxiety, they might frequently seek approval as a way to feel reassured. The problem with reassuring Anxiety, is that it doesn't work and can end up strengthening the Anxiety. See my related blog post here.
For adults, approval seeking can also be understood as behavioral attempts at reducing Anxiety, but again, will only serve to strengthen it in the end. Often, we have developed negative beliefs or fears about ourselves--that we're not good enough or unlovable or unworthy. Sometimes these beliefs are a result of experiencing rejection, abandonment, or another kind of interpersonal betrayal or trauma. Other times, adults who experienced a neurological difference--like ADD or ADHD--can grow up believing that they aren't good enough. For others, these beliefs can be an intrinsic part of living with an anxious temperament. Regardless of where these beliefs or fears came from, we often seek approval in order to "talk back" to the Anxiety caused by these beliefs and fears about ourselves.
The problem is, this way of "coping" with the beliefs and related Anxiety aren't effective. It becomes a bottomless pit of seeking approval that is literally never enough. We seek approval again and again, and even when we get it, it doesn't make us feel better. There's always some reason why that approval didn't really count. Approval seeking and reassuring simply doesn't work.
What To Do Instead
First, recognize your wish for approval. Validate it. Everyone wants to feel recognized and praised for their accomplishments and efforts.
Next, redirect your wish for approval away from others, and give it to yourself. Just as we would do for a child, give yourself 4 positive pieces of feedback to every 1 area of growth. Be genuine here. Don't give yourself a bunch of fluff. Look honestly at both your strengths and your areas of growth. We all have both! With children, when they ask if you like something they've done, you can even redirect the question and ask them what they like about it.
Notice if the desire for approval is indeed coming from Anxiety related to some distorted belief about yourself (not good enough, unworthy, etc).
If it is, recognize the Anxiety, notice how it feels in your mind, in your body. See it there. You do not need to act on the Anxiety. You can sit with it. Breathe through it. Remember, approval seeking and reassurance don't work to make it better.
Once you've spotted the Anxiety and the beliefs/fears behind it, stand up to them. Separate your intrinsic worth as a person from the things that you do. Tell yourself: Even if you fail at ___________, you are still a human being that is worthy of love and respect. Separate your intrinsic worth as a person from the approval of others. How do you feel about your choices, decisions, actions?
Write a Mission Statement for yourself, for your life. Just like a business or non-profit might do, write one for yourself. Identify your values. Instead of looking to others for approval, maintain your path consistently by checking in with where you are and where you want to be. Keep the focus not on what you achieve, but how you are getting there. Do you keep going even when things get hard? Did you try even though the risk was high? Change your definition of success. Defining your values and mission will boost your confidence and make your self-talk that much stronger.
Finally, consider working with a therapist. Creating Space Counseling and Wellness can not only help you to implement and practice all of these steps, but can also help you to explore where these distorted core beliefs came from, so that you can begin to really feel and genuinely see the untruth behind them. When we begin to see that these beliefs aren't actually reflective of who we are, we can finally be free from the bottomless pit of approval-seeking.
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