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3 Ways Approval-Seeking Is a Threat to Love Relationships

9 signs approval-seeking is an issue and how individuals and couples can cope.

Key points

  • Approval-seeking schema is a pattern repeatedly triggered in an individual who feels compelled to find others' approval.
  • Approval-seeking schema originates in early childhood unmet emotional needs.
  • Over time, the person with the schema may feel resentment, and the partner may feel burdened with demands and unexpected hurt feelings.
Source: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash
Source: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Approval-seeking schema is a pattern of thoughts and feelings repeatedly triggered in an individual who feels compelled to find the approval of others such as friends, loved ones, and coworkers. Originating in childhood experiences of emotional neglect, approval-seeking feels like an addiction, in the sense that one never feels they get enough; is always looking for more reassurance that they are accepted, validated, or loved; and is always trying to do more to get approval. Approval-seeking is a sign of low self-esteem and the feeling that you are not enough as you are.

9 Signs of Approval-Seeking Schema

  1. Saying what you think people want to hear
  2. Difficulty making decisions without someone “signing off”
  3. Feeling unsure about what your real tastes or preferences are
  4. Adopting the tastes or hobbies of loved ones rather than your own
  5. Feeling hurt when others disagree with you
  6. Having difficulty saying “no”
  7. Apologizing too often
  8. Fishing for compliments, angry when they don’t come
  9. Feeling resentful or angry when you don’t get enough approval

What Causes Approval-Seeking?

Approval-seeking, as outlined by Jeffrey Young in schema therapy, is one of the schemas originating in early childhood unmet emotional needs. As they develop, children look to their parents for confirmation that they are doing the right thing and that they are loved. As part of human attachment, think of parental attention as information that’s crucial to help the child feel like they exist. If they are unable to get this crucial feedback from caregivers, they feel a deep need to actively seek that feedback. They need to know that they belong, that they are loved, and that they are enough as they are. Feedback and approval are practically as important as food and air.

Children raised in a context of being chronically overlooked, such as in a large family, or neglected, as with parents with debilitating personal problems, are missing this feedback. So they often feel unsure about who they are and what they need to do to feel whole. They are aware that it’s unfair to be overlooked and try to cope by seeking approval. This drive for approval becomes engrained in the form of a schema that gets triggered in adult attachment relationships.

3 Ways Approval-Seeking Causes Problems in Relationships

Approval-seeking schema may not be an issue in the relationship at first, as approval-seeking behavior is initially well-received. After all, for the partner, it means getting attention and agreement, and things going very smoothly. But the schema starts to cause stress over time, as the person with the schema starts to feel resentment and the partner feels burdened with demands and unexpected hurt feelings. Here are some signs:

  1. The approval-seeker feels resentment and anger toward their partner, seeing them as withholding or detached.
  2. The partner feels the approval-seeker’s needs have become intrusive and oppressive.
  3. This forms a cycle, where the partner feels pressured and smothered and avoids giving approval, leading the approval-seeker to be even more demanding, causing a cycle of alienation.

How to Cope With an Approval-Seeking Partner

Once you identify the schema as an issue, having an open dialogue can help.

Share this article with kindness and compassion and invite your partner to consider whether they have the schema. Then have a discussion and address the following points:

  • How does your partner feel you are falling short with their needs? Is this reasonable?
  • Share the ways you feel pressure around their approval-seeking.
  • Discuss ways your partner can be more aware of the schema (see below), and you can support your partner with developing their own interests, activities, and tastes.

If this discussion goes well, agree to a weekly check-in to discuss each of your needs around the schema. If more challenges are raised, you may want to consider couples' therapy.

Be cautious, though. Remember, just because someone may have approval-seeking schema doesn't mean they "should" be getting all the approval they need. Often, people with approval-seeking schema are drawn to partners who can be detached. Dialogue will help identify areas where more approval may actually be fair and appropriate. Each partner may have some growth opportunities here.

How to Cope With Your Own Approval-Seeking Schema

Understand your history:

  • Think of your childhood, your family and caregiver situation, and how child-you felt neglected and how this led to approval-seeking. Honor your child self for doing what they needed to do in a tough situation. Journaling is great for this.
  • Focus on the ways you are already enough in your adult life, and how the past is over.
  • Take stock of your life achievements, relationships, and positive qualities and imagine yourself feeling grateful for what you have, and how others value you.
  • Distill these thoughts into one image of you as lovable and valuable just as you are. Work with a photo or a memory of a recent time in adulthood when you felt valued and loved.

Manage triggers:

  • Notice signs of the schema trigger: situations in which you are likely to seek approval or feel deprived of approval. Take brief notes in your phone on your triggers so you can prepare for them in future.
  • When you are triggered, bring the image of “adult you” into your mind, and remind yourself the past is over.

Cultivate the culture of you:

  • Focus on your own tastes, desires, and interests, journaling about what moves you.
  • Set goals to engage in activities that are only about you. Ask for your partner’s support on this.

You can consult my book for more on how to do journaling and self-talk and to notice triggers. Remember, this schema is about how child-you felt unappreciated or noticed. Think of these tips as a chance for adult-you to finally offer child-you the feeling of being valued. And if after taking the above steps you feel the schema is still a problem, consider psychotherapy.

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