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Are You Addicted to Approval?

Find out how you may be undermining your personal freedom and happiness.

Source: A and N photography/Shutterstock
Source: A and N photography/Shutterstock

Of course you want approval. Most of us like to have the approval of others, especially of those whose judgment we respect. But do you demand it? Are you addicted to getting the approval of others?

The concepts of “want” and “demand” are quite distinct: “I want to be loved” is not the same as “I demand that others love me.” The first can be healthy, while the second is usually self-defeating because you cannot make others love you. You are far less likely to be disturbed by someone’s rejecting you if you have not told yourself that you must be liked by this person. You need only reflect on how it feels to tell yourself, "I must have his approval" vs. telling yourself that you would prefer it. As Buddhist Lama, Surya Das, advises, “Let go of the need for approval … Die to all that, and fly free ...”

As a life consultant, I have found that many people waste much of their life obsessively catering to others, doing things against their better judgment, jeopardizing the welfare of self, friends, family, and much more that they later come to regret. Unfortunately, many of us never really get at the root of why we act in such self-destructive ways: “It seemed right at the time. After all, I was winning favor and influencing people I wanted to impress. Man, was I wrong!” But wrong about what? We often chalk our misfortune up to bad luck or, if we are a bit more honest, bad judgment. Like any addiction, we may live in denial of our addiction to approval, refusing to accept that it's an addiction, and that it is wrecking our lives.

I want you to consider how much you are influenced by a pervasive demand for approval: Do you tell yourself that you must have the approval of others, and that if you fail to get it, you are somehow not a worthy person? Are you making your value as a person dependent on what others think of you?

Philosopher Immanuel Kant provided a good antidote for this type of thinking. He admonished us to treat individuals, ourselves included, as “ends in themselves,” not “mere means.” He meant that we should not judge our value as dependent upon whether or not we achieve some external end, such as satisfying others. When we do so, we treat ourselves like “mere means,” that is, like an object. For example, the value of a pen or a table depends entirely on its usefulness for some purpose. What do you do with your pen when it runs dry and stops writing? You throw it away, right? Like the pen, does your worth or dignity depend on some external goal such as being liked or approved of by others? Are you ready for the trash can when you are odd man out, or when that person you have been trying to impress gives you a thumbs down? If you feel like saying yes to this latter question (even if your mind bids you to say no), you have probably been influenced by the demand for approval.

Getting the approval of others is sometimes a good thing, but not at others: Indeed, sometimes it is better to stand your ground against people who ask you to sell your soul. Paradoxically, others are more likely to respect you if you remain true to your rational principles and better judgment.

On the job, establishing yourself as a person who has integrity is much better than being known as the one who will do (almost) anything you are asked to do. The latter people are often the ones who take the fall for the connivers and manipulators who use others for their own self-aggrandizing motives. Better to choose wisely what you are willing to do for others, even if you hazard not getting their approval.

A corollary of demanding approval is blind submission to others—a form of servitude that can enslave you mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and physically, destroying your prospects for self-respect and happiness. It can encapsulate your life in relentless anxiety about whether or not you will be anointed with self-worth by those upon whom you bestow this awesome power. It can therefore be edifying and liberating to see through the thin veneer of assessing your own self-worth according to whether or not others approve of you.

If you have come to this valuable realization about the demoralizing capacity of demanding approval, the next step is to practice resisting your craving for approval: Someone asks you to do something that is against your better judgment, but you still want to gain his or her approval. That doesn’t mean you must have it. You can still exercise your willpower, and do what you think is right. This doesn’t mean being indiscreet, rude, or deliberately oppositional. Indeed, these are extremes to avoid. Instead, your choices should be driven by rational ideas and emotions, not irrational, blind demand for approval.

Reframe the misguided assumption that approval will somehow bring you self-worth, dignity, and happiness.

Like any other deeply ingrained habit, the demand for approval does not die easily. Overcoming it requires practice and perseverance; be prepared to work diligently, and remind yourself:

  • “I am a worthy person whether or not I have the approval of others.”
  • “I am a person who has free will and can determine the direction of my own actions without being driven by the demand for approval.”
  • “I am a rational, self-determining person with inherent worth and dignity.”

These and other like edifying insights can help you to build a habit of responsible choice. You can still prefer to have the approval of others, and feel good when you get it. But you can also feel like a worthy person when you don’t get it. You do not have to constantly live in a state of anxiety about whether you will soon fall from grace, and you do not have to sell your soul to gain anyone’s approval. Indeed, you have the power to relinquish the insidious demand for approval, and to set yourself free!

More from Elliot D. Cohen Ph.D.
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