Are You Still Searching for Approval?

How to stop letting others define you.

Posted Apr 16, 2020

When I saw the CEO’s email praising my workshop, a familiar jolt of pleasure hit me like a sugar high. Of course, I was glad my talk went well, but there was something else—that old pattern of craving approval, of letting others’ reactions determine my sense of self-worth. And there’s a vital difference.

Diane Dreher photo
Source: Diane Dreher photo

I grew up searching for approval from an emotionally confusing mother. At social gatherings she was charming, charismatic, and the center of attention, but around me she was unpredictable, sometimes warm and welcoming, other times harshly critical. I was continually insecure and off-balance, never knowing what to expect.

I realize that we had different personalities. I loved school, books, nature, and animals. She loved shopping, fancy clothes, and parties. I grew up trying to please her, watching over my little brother, washing the dishes, dusting, vacuuming, scrubbing the bathrooms, and polishing the silver, but it was never, ever enough.

When I’d go to my room to read a book, she’d say that she didn’t raise me to be an introvert and give me another chore to do. I quietly pursued my own dreams, working my way through college, graduating with honors, and receiving a graduate fellowship to UCLA. But in her mind, I was a failure. She told relatives, “Diane couldn’t get anyone to marry her so she has to go to graduate school.”

Searching for approval is a game we cannot win. It's addictive, bringing only a temporary jolt of pleasure that is never enough. It makes us dependent upon other people’s reactions instead of trusting ourselves.

What we need is not approval but acceptance. Psychoanalysts John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth recognized that to thrive, infants and young children need the acceptance that comes from secure attachment, a warm and predictable relationship with their caregivers that provides a solid foundation for their emotional development. But if their parents are neglectful, undependable, or abusive, children develop insecure attachment, which affects their developing brains, leading to psychological dysfunction and profound insecurity in their relationships with themselves, significant others, and their world (Bowlby 1969; 1970; 1980; Siegel, 1999).

Growing up with alcoholic or abusive parents or living in violent neighborhoods can lead to insecure attachment, but so can comfortable middle-class environments can if parents are too self-centered, busy, or preoccupied to connect with their children.

Fortunately, Seattle psychologist Meg Van Deusen has found that even if we experienced insecure attachment in childhood, we can develop self-acceptance as adults by building a stronger relationship with ourselves. Drawing upon recent research, Van Deusen explains in her book, Stressed in the US (2019) how we can develop this secure attachment to ourselves through mindfulness meditation, which develops a “nonjudgmental, compassionate relationship with ourselves.” She has found with her clients that practicing mindfulness builds “an internal working model of secure attachment, helping us engage in the world honestly and openly.”

Mindfulness means simply noticing, without judgment as you bring your attention to the present moment. If you don't have a mindfulness practice, you can begin with these simple steps:

  • Take a long, deep breath and slowly release it.
  • Close your eyes and spend a few moments focusing on your breathing—slowly breathing in and breathing out, feeling your body relax more with each breath.
  • Notice the subtle sensations, thoughts, and feelings that come up for you.
  • Just notice. Don’t judge. Recognize your body’s sensations and watch the stream of thoughts and feelings flowing through your mind.
  • That’s all. Take another slow, deep breath and gradually release it.
  • Then smile as you gently open your eyes.

You can add a mindfulness ritual to your life by repeating these steps for a few moments at the beginning and end of the day to increase your awareness and understanding of yourself and the world around you. For more insights and information about mindfulness, check out Jon Kabat-Zinn’s website, mindfulnesscds.

Mindfulness is the first step in self-compassion, developing a kind and supportive relationship with yourself. 

The next time you’re stressed or anxious, instead of spiraling into self-criticism or incessant worry, you can build greater self-acceptance and peace of mind with this simple practice recommended by University of Texas psychologist Kristin Neff:

  • First become mindful of how you’re feeling and label the feeling—sad, worried, scared. 
  • Then tell yourself it’s only human to feel this way, recognizing your common humanity.
  • Then treat yourself as you would a dear friend. Tell yourself, “Poor dear, I know you’re scared and worried (or whatever you’re feeling). I’m here for you. I’ll take care of you. You’re not alone” (Neff, 2003; 2004).

With these simple practices, you’ll increase your self-acceptance, developing a kinder, more supportive relationship with yourself.

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This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.

References

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss (Vol. I: Attachment). New York: Basic Books; Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss (Vol. 2: Separation.) New York: Basic Books; Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss (Vol. 3: Loss, sadness and depression). New York: Basic Books.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2020). https://www.mindfulnesscds.com/

Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-10; Neff, K. D. (2004). Self-compassion and psychological well-being. Constructivism in the Human Sciences, 9(2), 27-37. For more about Dr. Neff’s research and self-compassion exercises, see https://self-compassion.org/about/

Siegel, D. (1999). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York, NY:  Gilford Press.

Van Deusen, M. (2019, December 9). Personal communication. All quotes are from this interview. An earlier version of this information appeared in Dreher, D. (2020). Why loneliness is harzardous to your health, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-personal-renaissance/202001/why-loneliness-is-hazardous-your-health. For more information on dealing with the stress of insecure attachment, see Van Deusen, M. (2019). Stressed in the US: 12 tools to tackle anxiety, loneliness, tech addition, and more. Los Angeles, CA: Story Merchant Books.