The need to please is common in our culture. While there’s nothing wrong with being nice and helping people, it can be overdone when we feel the need to edit ourselves and compromise on what’s important to us. The key to finding balance is identifying when you’re valuing the opinions of others far more than your own. Look out for these eight most common approval-seeking behaviors that diminish your self-esteem. (Estimated reading time: 7-8 minutes)
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”— Eleanor Roosevelt
Growing up, I often heard the phrase, “Log Kya Kahenge?” (What Will People Say?).
This is a catchphrase in Hindi and Urdu that’s pervasive in traditional Indian and Pakistani families. A similar sentiment is present in other collectivist cultures like East Asian and Arab.
The main intention behind these words is to keep the rebellious streak of the younger generations in check. When parents and relatives repeat it enough, the fear of going against expectations is internalized by children, and they pursue clichéd life paths approved by their family.
Fortunately, I was spared from the brunt of this heavy cultural conditioning. My parents were more free-spirited than others in our community. I still picked up on it, however, as I was surrounded by conservative circles.
Nosey aunts and uncles would give their unsolicited opinions on my choices, offering suggestions that were more in alignment with tradition (i.e. the “right” way of doing things) than on what I wanted for myself.
Fortunately, this exposure was balanced out by the (perceived) unconventional values that I picked up from the media I consumed. I lost myself in the stories of strong, feminine characters in Disney animated movies, and in the personal development books I read that were peppered with self-affirming credos such as:
“Be your own person,” “Don’t let your life choices be dictated by others,” “Listen to your authentic self,” “Express your true self.”
People from community-based cultures may carry a heavier burden to please others, but it doesn’t make those who grew up with personal freedom immune to needing the approval of others. Social conditioning plays a significant role in how you wade through life on your own, but what ultimately dictates the direction that you take is how much you value and trust yourself.
How self-esteem impacts our need for approval
Over the past decades, psychologists have unveiled self-esteem as being a critical determinant of a healthy personality. Broadly speaking, self-esteem is an inner sense of feeling good enough and worthy of love. The more worthy you feel, the more likely you are to thrive.
According to one study, our self-esteem is influenced by our genes as well as the quality of our home environments between the ages of 0 to 6. Participants who reported high self-esteem later in life had healthier parental relationships and stronger role models who modeled self-esteem.
In contrast, those who grew up in poverty, faced trauma and abuse, and who had dysfunctional relationships that were detrimental to their early development had lower self-esteem that stuck with them through to adulthood. Individuals who grow up in such environments are more prone to needing others’ approval to feel good about themselves. The validation of others becomes essential to fill that emotional void.
When it comes to breaking approval-seeking patterns, the first place to start is with ourselves. Depending on how deeply rooted our sense of inadequacy is, we need tools and support to know our strengths, areas of growth, and undo the negative beliefs that block our prosperity.
The need for approval runs deep. As social beings, we are wired to seek approval from others. This has run true throughout human history – in ancient times, our very survival depended on it.
Getting to know our “instinct to please”
Our need for approval is an instinct common to all human beings. In an article in Psych Central, psychotherapist Sharon Martin, wrote, “Our need to please is actually more of a need to belong. And our need to belong was probably written in our DNA millions of years ago.”
When people grouped to pool resources and shared their workload to survive as a unit, not being accepted or existing as outsiders could lead to death through starvation or being preyed upon by animals. Because of the extreme consequences of rejection, our evolution wired us to crave inclusion.
The primal fear of abandonment remains with us to this day. Our fear of rejection, driven by biological and psychological forces, is a key driver in our decision making, our behavior around others, and how we expect to be treated.
Given that approval-seeking is an ancient survival tactic that runs deep, trying to get rid of it completely is futile. Whether we like it or not, we’ll always care about what others think, especially in situations where it counts most, like our careers and intimate relationships.
Staying in integrity with our values
A significant part of our self-esteem is derived from our professional success and social status. To climb the ladder of success, we must make a good impression and convince others of our capabilities.
How do you know when you’ve crossed the line of healthy self-promotion and veered into the addictive approval habit-loop that disturbs your inner peace?
You’ll know you’re there when you experience anxiety, depression, moodiness, and irritability. You’ll have a sense that you’re betraying yourself and that you’re out of integrity with yourself.
Getting back to integrity requires us to go within and reconnect with our “authentic power,” a term coined by spiritual author, Gary Zukav. He describes it as a state where we align our thoughts, emotions, and actions with the highest part of ourselves.
Aligning our personality with our soul will open doors and increase our chance at happiness. We avoid the false path of being attracted to individuals and vocations for the wrong reasons – attention, fame and money. We make choices based on our deepest desires and inclinations.
This doesn’t mean that you make yourself the centerpiece of every single decision. In some cases, consulting the right people, those whose advice you value, is essential to your growth. You may also need to factor in those you care about and how your actions impact them.
The key to finding balance: Recognizing approval-seeking behaviors
Approval seeking can be as addictive as a drug. The highs of getting validation, whether from a family member or romantic partner, can make us do things that don’t feel right. When the high wears off, we experience a crash and a sense of emptiness.
As with any addictive behavior, the key is gaining self-awareness and identifying when you’re valuing the opinions of others far more than your own. Some approval-seeking behaviors are textbook cases, while others are more subtle. Look out for these eight most common approval-seeking behaviors that diminish your self-esteem:
1. Doing and saying things with the sole intention of getting compliments and attention
You post pictures on social or media or share details about yourself with the prime motive of getting more likes and for people to compliment you. While it’s okay to get feedback from others and share content about yourself that would improve your personal, social, or financial situation, you should recognize when you’re overdoing it.
2. Changing your opinions to appear agreeable and likeable
If you find yourself agreeing with someone when deep down you have a different opinion, you’re not being true to yourself. Depending on the situation, you can either choose not to react, disengage, or share what you really feel about the issue with confidence and assurance.
3. Saying mean things and gossiping at the expense of others
Spreading bad news and gossip about someone so you can bolster your own reputation is a telltale sign of low self-esteem. Another way this can manifest is gossiping about someone else so that you can fit in and be accepted.
4. Saying “yes” to everything because you’re afraid to say “no”
When you don’t have the time or energy, always saying yes to others’ requests and demands stems from a need to please. Constantly saying yes, when you instinctively want to say no, leads to exhaustion and compromising your priorities.
5. Hiding parts of yourself that you believe others won’t like
We’re all social chameleons to some extent, but if you feel the need to constantly hide the parts of you that are integral to who you are, you’ve in the approval-seeking territory. If you sense that someone will leave and reject you, you’re willing to hold back and mold your identity based on what they like.
6. Taking criticism and disagreements to heart and feeling the need to defend yourself
Criticism can sting, especially if it’s not delivered in the right way. If you find yourself deeply impacted by it and you see it as a reflection of your inadequacy (instead of as feedback to help you improve), you’re overly attached to others’ view of you.
7. Saying nice things and offering praise that isn’t genuine and sincere
This is a common tactic that’s used to get into the good books of others, especially those who have more power – whether that be a boss or a lover you’re trying to woo. While you may defend yourself by saying that you’re trying to be nice or that telling the truth will hurt, the reality is that insincere compliments are fake, no matter what your motive is.
8. Being willing to compromise your values and lower standards to please others
Happiness is having the freedom to express your individuality. This isn’t always easy to do. If you’re unwilling to stand up for what you believe in and ask for what you need, you’re vulnerable to unhealthy compromise. Pay attention if you’re doing things for others that go against your core beliefs and that steer you away from your life path.
You are unique. Someone quite like you will never exist again. Not allowing that to shine through your personality and your actions is not only a disservice to yourself, but to the rest of the world. When you become the only person whose approval you seek, you’ll find it much easier to become the most exalted version of yourself.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: Do you identify with any of these approval-seeking behaviors? What do you think is the root cause and how can you begin to shift them?
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