It is very important to understand that we are social creatures and our desire to have a sense of belonging makes us dependent on some form of “approval” from our society. What we call “socialization” – the process of learning what is acceptable in our society and what is not – involves kids’ main “socializing agents” – their parents, their teachers and other family members – giving them messages of approval and disapproval. So, unless we live all by ourselves, totally isolated and without any human contact, we can never claim that we do not need approval.
We define our identity through our communication with the people around us. We experience things and get feedback that directs us towards a desired, productive and agreeable behavior. Even the words we use require some form of agreement. For example, if I started writing here in another language, you would leave the website and even get a bit angry at me, because we do not have an agreement that I can write to you in a different language.
It is not easy to recognize when external approval becomes a kind of social trap. In fact, many people reject the idea by saying that we cannot really live without approval. If you feel you cannot live without approval, it must be right for you!
The fact we consider encouragement as approval is not a real problem. There is no person on Earth that does not enjoy it and feel good about it. The problem appears when we are sucked into an approval power game, because it is addictive and turns approval into a need for us.
Wanting to be loved, accepted, part of a group, approved or a source of pride for someone are all natural feelings that help us succeed in life, but when we cannot succeed (or function) without them, we are trapped. It happens slowly, like putting a frog in hot water and heating the water slowly, so the frog cannot feel it is being cooked slowly up to its death.
When people are young, they watch their families in this trap and think to themselves, “That’s life. Therefore, I must do the best I can for others will love me, accept me and approve of all my actions, thoughts and ideas”.
When they become teenagers, a conflict starts between finding significance and getting love and connection and it is very painful. With every action, teenagers ask themselves, “How much of my uniqueness should I sacrifice for others to love me?” Those who find the balance between the two and understand that we cannot live completely on our own and must compromise slightly, succeed. Those who compromise most of the time or compromise on everything have officially fallen into the approval trap. Unfortunately, most teenagers are in that trap already. If you examine their home environment, you will find that most of them live with parents who are also trapped.
By adulthood, most people are already in that trap. They are mature enough to be independent by law, but they are not independent in their thinking. As adults, we adopt concepts of status, fashion and coolness. Some of us do everything to stick out, make people think highly of us and feel significance and approval. Some of us do everything to blend in and feel accepted. Either way, we remind ourselves just how low our self-esteem is and develop a dependence on others. This causes stress and anxiety in our life as we compromise our health, happiness and wellbeing for external standards.
We then have relationships based on mutual approval (and break them up when there is not enough approval anymore), we bring kids into the world and the cycle starts again.
Most people, in fact, 90% of them, do not have an answer to “Why do you do what you do?” If they do answer, it is with another question they cannot answer “Isn’t it what I’m supposed to do” or “Isn’t it what everyone else is doing?”
“Supposed to” and “everyone else” are part of the trap. When you make others more important in your decision making, in your mind, you do not have much say in any matter in your life.
There you have it, a formula for disaster.
Approval is a drug
When everyone zigs, zag!
– Marty Neumeier
People often like “zigging” (being like everyone else), because of their high need for certainty. They think that going with the crowd reduces their risk and in some ways, it does.
When Gal and I lived in Thailand, we had a rule of eating where there were lots of people already. Yes, we needed to wait a bit longer for our food, but it was usually a sign that the food was fresher and tastier. Many people already eating the same food reduced our risk, so that was useful.
However, there are some parts of life where following the herd is taking away you control, like when you take drugs because your friends do. You see, the approval trap is like an addiction. It starts nicely and with lots of pleasure, but the more you use it, the more you need it and the more of it you need. Pretty soon, you cannot go back to the times when you made your own decisions and chose whether to live by others’ rules or not. You are hooked and you walk around like a junky, looking for your next approval “score”.
The first step in getting out of this trap is admitting you are in it. It is tough, I have to admit, but please bear in mind that if you are trapped, you are there because you are in a cycle that you have never chosen to create, but you do have the choice to break.
Here is a simple way to find out if you are suffering from Approval Addiction. The formula to painful life is “When you take something that makes you feel good and turns into a need, you lose control of your feelings and give your feelings control over you”. When you make the desire for approval a need that you cannot live without and direct your life around it, you sentence yourself to life in prison. It is a special prison, because you are the prisoner and the prison guard – it is all in your head.
Join me next week when I list 100 approval-seeking behaviors. It will help you find out if you are trapped and how deep you are in it. A week after that, solution time!
Until then, may the force be with you,
This post is part of the series The Approval Trap: