Continuing on from my earlier work on people-pleasing, I’ve seen so much more of this over the years that I realised I needed to follow up with it (you can review my older work here https://theinspirationallifestyle.com/self-sacrifice-10-signs-that-you-are-a-people-pleaser/).
Today I’d like to review approval-seeking and people-pleasing, to help you a) recognise if this is a problem you suffer from, b) understand why you are like this, and c) start taking steps toward a healthier future.
I want to keep this as concise and hard-hitting as possible. For some of you, this will be a rude wake-up call. You might even hate me for some of the things I say. Good. Use that anger to become courageous enough to make changes. If hating me is the price to pay for you to become a more confident person, I welcome it.
SEEKING APPROVAL VS BEING GENUINE
If you’re an approval-seeker, you will think a lot of your behaviour is ‘nice’ and acceptable. As I’ve mentioned in previous works, it’s not about the behaviour, it’s about the intention behind the behaviour. If the intention is toxic, then the behaviour is ultimately going to be fucked up.
Why do you do nice things?
There’s two answers to this question, 1) the story you tell yourself, and 2) the real reason underneath that story. You might tell yourself that you’re generous, kind-hearted and loving, but in reality, most approval-seekers are self-serving and manipulative. If you can challenge yourself to ask about the real reason behind the story, you’ll generate much-needed self-awareness and insight.
Here are some examples to give you guidance on how to tell the difference:
Genuine: You’re willing for people to hate you to do the right thing, any time. Approval–seeker: Most of the time your main priority is to be seen as a positive person and to be liked.
Genuine: You ask for permission before helping someone, and believe that deep-down every individual knows what is best for themselves. Approval-seeker: You assume people need your help and dive in without checking with them or asking how they’d like to be helped (e.g. doing chores for others without them asking you to).
Genuine: You’re non-judgmental and accept people for what they are, believing everyone is of equal status. Approval-seeker: You give advice without being asked for it. You feel frustrated watching someone do it “wrong”. You look down on “losers” while looking up at “winners”.
Genuine: You are willing to sit back and let someone else take the glory for something you helped them with, and/or you’re willing to remain anonymous; you’re simply happy to have helped. Approval-seeker: You feel defensive or unfairly treated if you don’t get recognition for the part you played. You expect gratitude and respect for your hard work.
Genuine: The only time you ask for other peoples’ feedback is when you want to gain insight on how to improve your technique. When it isn’t asked for, you assume it says more about them than it does about you, so you ignore it. Approval-seeker: You need other peoples’ feedback to know how ‘good’ you are. If someone criticizes you, you take it personally and assume it’s about you.
Genuine: You don’t care about winning; it’s just about playing the game. Approval-seeker: You see losing as a failure and it ruins the game for you. One of your greatest fears is public embarrassment.
Genuine: You’re willing to lose someone in order to remain honest with them. Approval-seeker: You hide anything true about yourself if you think it will make someone leave you (e.g. talking about work on a date when you’re really thinking about sex).
Genuine: It doesn’t matter what situation you’re in, you remain relatively consistent as a personality. Approval-seeker: You change to suit each situation, to meet the expectations you believe others have of you, believing there are rules to follow (e.g. “I must be ‘professional’ at work”).
Genuine: You are unwilling to compromise your principles. Approval-seeker: You aren’t even sure of what your principles are, and will talk yourself out of living by them in order to gain validation from others (e.g. agreeing with someone just to avoid an argument).
And most importantly…
Genuine: You don’t care how the other person reacts, you’re doing it because you believe it’s the right thing to do to live by your values. Approval-seeker: You need to see a positive reaction from the person to enjoy the act (e.g. putting your name on the gift you gave someone and making sure you’re there to see them receive it).
UNDERSTAND WHERE APPROVAL-SEEKING COMES FROM
What it all comes down to is avoiding abandonment. Approval-seeking is about trying to gain as much ‘evidence’ as possible that you are not going to be left alone, and that you are “good enough” in the eyes of others.
This most often stems from perceived neglect in childhood or early teens. Common examples from my clients include:
- Abusive and neglectful parents, including having a parent who does not support your achievements and instead focuses on your ‘failures’, and parents who favour siblings over you. Also common are parents who are emotionally unstable, leaving the child to feel unsafe, unprotected and unsupported.
- Bullying in school, as well as social isolation for being different (e.g. being the foreign kid who doesn’t speak the language). Even one-off acts of bullying, like being “ditched” by your friends for no reason, can cause trauma and fear.
- Being taught that emotionality is ‘weakness’ and that feelings like anger, fear and confusion are symptoms of a problem that need to be solved, rather than just normal human emotions.
- Being conditioned to believe that people liking you should be your top social priority, and that you connect with people by ‘making’ them like you (e.g. be nice, wear make-up and look your best, don’t talk about your ex on a date, prove yourself in job interviews, etc.).
There are also inverse conditioning issues that arise, training you to worship external approval. Some examples include:
- Children who excel academically in school being promoted to the ‘special’ class and being provided with more resources than others.
- Movies portraying the winners as being better people overall than the losers.
- People being praised, privileged and commended for being popular.
- Being told it is inappropriate to challenge the parent or teacher’s authority.
Our toxic messaging to children around the world as they grow up is that being liked by many people is preferable to being disliked by some. Seems rational, right? Think about this: given the vast variation of people and tastes on the planet, do you really think there’s any chance of being liked by a majority while remaining completely genuine?
Think again. There is only one way to ensure that you are liked by a large range of people: you must fake it. Moderate yourself to each person’s individual preferences and hide who you truly are. This is the message you’ve been raised with, often contradicted by being told to “Just be yourself” at the same time.
Make no mistake; you can either be ‘yourself’, or you can be liked by many. You can’t have both. You’re either genuine or an approval-seeker.
HOW TO CHANGE SO YOU CAN ENJOY AUTHENTIC LIVING
Approval-seeking is most simply understood as “trying to make people like you”. It’s in this definition that we can find guidance on how to change. The key word is “trying”; when are you actively making an effort to influence people into viewing you positively? That’s the behaviour you need to question and modify.
Remember, there’s nothing wrong with being nice; it’s all about the intention. The most effective strategy for letting go of people-pleasing – and all the toxicity that comes with it – is to change your intentions. Basically, find a healthier reason to do what you do, and stop doing things that have only toxic motives.
Let’s say the reason you introduce yourself to new people is to find a partner, or make friends. Right from the beginning you’re trying to get something, which spews out of you in waves of neediness, driving away potential connections. You can change your intention by choosing to meet people for other reasons, like to practice honesty, or give fearlessly, or to invite them to play in your world. All of these alternatives do not require anything from the other person; you could still achieve these aims if they ignored you completely.
Maybe the reason you don’t stand up for yourself at work is because you’re there with the intention of keeping your job. If instead you decide to go to work with the intention of living by your values, eventually you will be forced to choose between playing it safe or having integrity. You can then check in on your intentions, and if necessary make the choice to risk your job in order to maintain your self-worth.
Perhaps on the first date you try to make people laugh, impress them, or show interest by asking lots of questions (to keep the conversation going). These all have needy toxic motives. You can set out for the date with a different plan, such as aiming to make yourself laugh, having fun, and showing interest through making statements about how you feel about them.
And every time a needy motive sneaks up on you – which will keep happening for a while – you can catch yourself doing it and change in the moment. The easiest way is immediately find a way to give freely; try to make someone’s day in a way that you’ll get no recognition for (keep it anonymous so you can show yourself that you are truly generous).
Keep an eye out for my next book on authenticity, where I’ll reveal effective methods to become more genuine and live with a self-rewarding integrity.
And if you’re truly ready to put away the toxic approval-seeking strategy you’ve been unsuccessfully living by, and learn how to be powerfully YOU in all social contexts, flick me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions.