It’s easy to glorify the value of living up to the demands of others; doing so provides you a blueprint for how to go about life and provides a destination for what constitutes success. And often, reaching that destination absolutely feels fulfilling. Until it doesn’t, that is. It’s easy to fall into the trap of living in line with the demands of others only to no longer feel fulfilled by their approval.
The thing is, learning how to stop seeking approval isn’t easy, either. The idea of ignoring what other people think and to solely focus on your inner voice sounds logical, but doing so requires making difficult choices. When we say yes to ourselves, we inherently say no to others. Choice is so hard because it requires making a change—giving up one path to get somewhere else.
Going after the job of your dreams might mean taking a pay cut. Setting boundaries with your boss might mean disappointing them. So, how can you approach decisions when your value for belonging conflicts with your desire for independence and personal freedom?
4 reasons it’s tough to opt out of the approval trap
1. Cultural values you may have been taught
Focusing on yourself requires going against certain values that might be engrained, like “family over everything.” Collective cultures prioritize the needs of the group over the desires of the individual. This means that the behavior of the individual reflects on the identity of a group.
On the contrary, in individualist cultures, personal needs are paramount. It can be helpful to ask yourself what type of connection was most valued in your home or community and how that impacts how you show up in the world.
For example, if you believe your sense of self is a result of your relation to others, you might struggle with asserting part of your identity that your family might not welcome. One powerful aspect of collective cultures is the emphasis on group support and loyalty, while one potential challenge to navigate is the pressure to conform, as standing out might be viewed as disrespectful.
2. Your attachment style
Attachment theory helps us understand how we relate to others and why we end up in particular dynamics. If you have a more “anxious” attachment style, you might feel very concerned about the way you are perceived, fearing that disappointing another could lead to rejection or judgment.
Many anxiously attached children were required to attune to their caregiver’s needs or had a parent who did not nurture their independence, learning that in order to “get,” they had to “give” first. This made it difficult for them to trust that they are loved for who they are at their core, not solely for what they do for others. Their perceived lovability quotient may have been dependent on a sense of approval.
In order to determine if your early attachment experiences could be holding you back from listening to what you actually want, ask yourself two questions: What did I need to do to receive love and approval in my family? Am I replicating this role, playing in my adult personal and professional relationships at the expense of my authentic self?
Capitalism values being busy as a metric of enoughness and personal importance. It says that what we do determines our value. Many folks grow up wondering “what am I valued for?” rather than “what do I value?” We are taught to seek status, wealth, and material goods in order to lead a “successful” life.
Capitalism says that what we do determines our value.
This pursuit keeps us disconnected from our feelings, wants, and needs so that we continue to produce. But, feeling is at odds with doing, since feeling requires slowing down and reflecting. So, contemplate what it would be like to live a life based on what you love not on what’s the most productive. Would your days look or feel differently than they do now?
4. Social comparison theory
Developed by American psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954, social comparison theory says that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others. In 2023, we not only have the opportunity to compare ourselves to the people in our immediate circles, because thanks to social media, there are now infinite ways to feel less than ideal.
Remember, comparison narrows our field of view. We typically size ourselves up to people we believe are doing better than us (ignoring those who might not be doing as well), and we compare our internal messy worlds to other peoples’ external filtered representation. Get curious about how the person you are aspiring to be might actually feel living their life and what it requires of them to maintain the things they do, rather than simply focusing on how it appears.
Here’s how to stop seeking approval from others in 5 steps
1. Ask yourself “why?”
“Why am I getting married?” “Why am I saying yes to this party invitation?” “Why am I saving my money for a house?” Getting clear on your “why” will help you differentiate if you’re living life in line with what you’ve been taught is valuable, right or good, or if it’s because it is something you truly care about. If you have trouble coming up with your “why,” it might be time to pause instead of continuing to invest time and energy into doing and attaining.
2. Understand that “disagree” doesn’t necessarily mean “dislike”
Often, we avoid asserting ourselves because we believe that having a divergent opinion or way of being might lead to exclusion or rejection. While this may have been true in certain relationships, with many self-aware people, it is not the case. I like to tell my clients that the choir can sing more than one tune and that truth exists in multiplicity. We can each have an experience that is true without it impinging on the validity of the other.
3. Shift the goal from being liked to being respected
Sometimes when we set boundaries with others, they might dislike that they do not get what they want from us. But as long as we are communicating our realities with “I” statements and being clear about our needs, it’s possible that they can still respect us. Ask yourself if you’re living in line with your definition of integrity, defined as expressing what is true for you, and if you can live with someone else not thinking you are perfect.
4. Stop running from the insecurity
When we are in people-pleasing mode, we tell ourselves we are being agreeable because we don’t want to disappoint anyone else. This may be true, but there is also another motive: When we are keeping up with the demands of others rather than asserting our own desires, we get to avoid experiencing the negative emotions.
Instead of running from sadness, fear, anger, guilt, and nervousness by saying yes when you mean no, remember that these feelings are signals from your body to tune in.
Instead of running from sadness, fear, anger, guilt, and nervousness by saying yes when you mean no, remember that these feelings are signals from your body to tune in. They are the reminders of your unmet needs, providing you with valuable data points about what you know on the inside when you aren’t so focused on how you’re perceived on the outside. Consider leaning in to them and getting to know the message they have for you, rather than pushing away from them to gain approval and escape yourself.
5. Just because it feels wrong, doesn’t mean it is wrong
When we start to tell the truth, our body may have new reactions. We might have heart palpitations or break out in hives. While you may have been told that discomfort is a bad sign, it can, actually, indicate that you are going in the right direction. Our nervous systems reject things until they feel less new. Remember that if a conversation or new form of self-expression brings up anxiety or fear, it’s possible that the more you practice, the easier it will get.
When you’ve lived inside the mold that someone else created for you, breaking out and expanding beyond it will bring up a variety of uncomfortable reactions because change is hard. Charting a new path requires getting lost, rerouting, failing, and experimentation. But all of these aspects are crucial parts of the journey to authentic living.