Recently I published the second edition of my book, Cognitive Therapy Techniques, in which I describe 125 techniques that an experienced CBT therapist can use. I have found that many therapists often rely on just a few techniques and then keep drilling away with the few that they know. I think that we need to be as flexible and resourceful as we can in giving clients as many tools as we can. Today I want to take a quick look at some simple techniques that people can use to overcome their need for approval. Keep in mind that there may be another 50 techniques that you could employ just as successfully.
1. Identify the situation. This can be the trigger for your concern about what people think. For example, perhaps you are thinking of making a request of someone that they change their behavior, but you immediately start feeling anxious because of your underlying thoughts and feelings.
2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of always needing approval? This is the motivational piece for you to examine your assumption that you need approval. What are the costs to you? The costs are that it may make it difficult for you to be honest, it may make it hard for you to get your needs met, you may worry about what will happen, and you may let people take advantage of you. But you may still think that you will be liked by everyone if you need their approval or that this will keep you from being a narcissist. Is it working?
3. What negative automatic thoughts are you having? This can include thoughts like, “She will think I am unfair or mean"; "She won’t like me"; or, “He thinks I am obnoxious." You might also think, “It’s awful when someone doesn’t like me” or “I can’t stand arguments."
4. What do these thoughts mean to you? For example, one person said, “If she doesn’t like me then I am wrong, or I am a bad person." Another person thought, “People will talk about me and I won’t have any friends." These implications may be driving your need for approval.
5. Examine the evidence and the logic of your thoughts. For example, are you really a bad person, or wrong, if someone disagrees with you? Could it be that you simply have different information, interpretations, or ideas? Or could it be that you are right? If you think people will be upset with you, ask yourself if you have ever disagreed with someone who still remained a friend.
6. Use the Double-Standard Technique. If someone disagrees with you, do you always get extremely upset? Do you write them off forever? Try to think of yourself like you would think of supporting your best friend: What advice would you give a friend if someone didn’t like what they said? Would you conclude that they are bad? Why would you be more tolerant of other people than you are of yourself?
7. What could you still do if they didn’t like you? I like to think about putting things in perspective so I can let things go. Let’s say that you are skillful and respectful in asserting yourself with someone and now they don’t like you. What can you still do? Can you see your partner, your family, your kids, your friends, and your co-workers? Can you still engage in all the activities that you engaged in before? If you can pretty much can do everything you did before, then what difference does it make if someone doesn’t like what you say—or if they dislike you?
8. How will you feel about this in the future? We often get upset about something happening now but fail to realize that all of our emotions are open to change. Have you had the experience that you were unhappy with an interaction—say, three months ago—but now you don’t think about it? That’s because other experiences have taken over, you have put it in perspective, and you have let it go.
9. Normalize disapproval. We often get upset about something that happens to everyone. Do you know anyone who is approved of by everyone they meet? Why is that? If everyone has someone who doesn’t like something that he or she says or does—and they still survive and thrive—then why would you be the one person who has to have universal approval?
10. Practice being assertive. The best way to overcome anxiety and fear is to practice the behavior you are anxious about. For example, if you are concerned about disapproval, go to a store and request a 50 percent discount on something you have no intention of purchasing. You will find that the clerk will look at you as if you are crazy, and you can say, “I thought I could get a bargain today." The point is that by purposefully collecting harmless disapproval, you can come to realize that nothing important changes — except that now you are able to assert yourself.
A friend once told me, “No matter what you do, some people won’t like you." That helped me let go of the need to be liked by everyone. Our concerns about approval are part of being human. We don’t want to go around being hostile, selfish, and disrespectful. But you can be diplomatically assertive and sensitive to others, and still do things that some other people won’t like. The only way to get through life is to tolerate some disapproval.