By Adam J. Pearson
The Game of Approval Seeking
For many years, I found myself playing a game that was not only futile, but excruciatingly painful and destructive. Usually without even fully being conscious of what I was doing, I would try to seek approval from other people. It was as if there was this deep part of me that truly believed that if others approved of me and praised me, then I would feel good enough. If others believed I was successful, then I wouldn’t feel like a failure. If others praised me, then I would feel worthy. I would hustle for worthiness by acting and speaking in ways that I hoped others would approve of so that I could feel a temporary boost of self-esteem from their approval. In some cases, I did and said things that were inauthentic and contrary to what I really believed and who I felt I really was. In other cases, I pushed myself hard to achieve things that I still consider valuable to this day. However, underlying even these positive accomplishments was, in many cases, a deep-seated need for approval which was really a need to feel, not better than others, but good enough.
There was, however, something very peculiar about this game of hustling for approval in order to feel worthy: it never worked. It never filled the void within me, a void that, for many years, I could neither name nor understand. When, for example, I graduated from Champlain College with the highest overall average in the college, my parents and teachers told me how proud they were of me and I got a great deal of approval. I was even given the Governor General of Canada’s Academic Medal for my achievement. But I felt nothing. I did not feel proud of myself. I did not feel good enough. If my theory were correct, and approval equaled worthiness, then I should have felt massively worthy. But I didn’t.
If approval-seeking is a game, then I was losing. Every time. Not only was my strategy not working, but it was hurting my social relationships. It made some people see me as arrogantly bragging, when I didn’t really feel superior and was just trying to feel good enough. It made some people question my real motives and beliefs. It created frustration in my relationships. It made me feel inauthentic and fake. And in many cases, it hurt. It was a game that was born out of suffering and that ended in suffering each and every time. The simple truth is that approval seeking always failed to achieve what it promised: a sense of worthiness. It always failed to fill the void.
Shame Is the Void That Approval Cannot Fill
For many years, I didn’t know why approval seeking failed to fill the void. Wouldn’t many people’s judgments that we are good enough or have done well be enough to convince us that we were worthy? That was what I asked myself. But the answer was “no,” and I didn’t know why. It didn’t help that I neither understood nor had a name for the very void that I was trying to fill with external validation.
The breakthrough I needed came when I read social work researcher Brene Brown’s fantastic book, Daring Greatly, and learned about the concept of shame. As I’ve shared in other articles, Brene Brown defines shame as a feeling that we are in some way fundamentally flawed or not good enough in some respect, and are, as a result, not worthy of love and belonging. Shame involves a deep fear of disconnection, a fear that there is some part of us that if others saw it, they would neither accept nor love us. Shame is the name of the feeling that we are not good enough.
It came as a tremendous revelation and a powerful epiphany when I realized that shame was the name of the void I had felt for years and never understood. Shame is the void that approval cannot fill. It is because we feel shame that we try to seek approval and validation. The void within us drives our approval seeking. If we keep in mind that shame involves a fear of disconnection, this makes perfect sense. Seeking approval and validation from others is an attempt to reach out to them and connect with them in a way that we hope will make us feel worthy. The sad part is that it fails. Approval seeking doesn’t make us feel worthy of love and belonging on a deep level. Moreover, when we frequently seek approval, others may actually disconnect with us out of frustration, annoyance, a lack of respect, or suspicions about our sincerity. Approval seeking can thus become a form of self-sabotage.
Why Seeking Approval Cannot Conquer Shame
When I understood that shame is the name of the void within, I became very curious about why seeking and obtaining approval failed to conquer it. The reason, I realized, is that when we really buy into the messages that shame feeds us, we begin to consider them to be the real truth about who we are. What do shame messages sound like? They can take all kinds of forms, but often they sound like “I’m not ________ enough.” I’m not successful enough. I’m not smart enough. I’m not pretty enough. I’m not muscular enough. I’m not sexy enough. I’m not rich enough. I’m not interesting enough. In short, they sound like “I’m not enough.”
When we buy into the story that “I’m not enough,” that becomes our fundamental truth. It becomes an unquestioned assumption that drives us. The unconscious logic that we hold on to is that : I’m not enough, so I need to seek approval. The problem with this is that it is bound to fail from the start. If it is really true that on a deep level I am not enough, then if other people say I am enough, or praise me, they must be wrong.
Consciously or unconsciously, we cling to the story that they only think I’m so special or good or talented or successful because they don’t see the real me. If they saw how flawed I really am, they wouldn’t say these things. As a result, when we buy into shame messages, then we don’t believe the approval messages are accurate. We suspect them and reject them. We silence the praise we receive with our own disbelief of it. And that’s why the praise and the approval and the external validation never hits home. Because in our hearts, we don’t believe it. We believe the feeling that we are unworthy, not good enough, not deserving of love and belonging.
In this way, a painfully ironic situation begins to take form; the very shame that pushes us to seek approval from others invalidates that approval once we receive it. The rejection of the approval sustains the shame and makes us seek validation once again, only to disbelieve it when we get it. It’s a painful cycle and it brings us nowhere but right back where we started.
The Antidotes to Approval Seeking: Shame-Resilience, Compassionate Self-Talk, and Cultivating Worthiness
How, then, can we overcome our tendency to seek approval? The key point is to realize that approval seeking only a symptom of a deeper malaise within us, and that is shame. In order to address approval seeking in my own life, this means that I had to address shame. The best way to healthily handle and begin to heal the void of shame is by cultivating shame-resilience. I wrote a whole article about what shame-resilience looks like in practice, which you can read for a detailed explanation and a real life example that breaks down all of the steps. In essence, however, shame-resilience involves four steps:
(1) realizing when we are in shame and what triggered it,
(2) reality-checking the shame messages (e.g. “I’m not _____ enough,” “I don’t deserve to belong or be loved because ______”),
(3) reaching out to someone we trust
(4) speaking shame (putting the feeling into words that we can work with).
What I found in my own life is that the more I began to reality-check the messages that shame was telling me and reach out to others when I was feeling vulnerable rather than try to repress my vulnerability and seek approval instead, the more worthy I began to feel. However, there were two other small, but life-transforming changes that helped me as well.
The first is compassionate self-talk. In short, I began to change the way I talked to myself in my mind. I stopped beating myself up and instead started to talk to myself in a way that was caring and compassionate. I began to inwardly speak to myself in the way that a loving mother or father would talk to their own child or that I would talk to my own best friend if he were struggling with shame. What I have found is that the more loving and compassionate I am with myself, the more loved and worthy I feel and the less shame messages tend to arise within me.
Finally, both cultivating shame-resilience and practicing compassionate self-talk helped me reach the third element that I consider the antidote to shame and approval seeking: cultivating worthiness. If shame is the message that I am unworthy, then we need to counter it with the message that: “I am worthy of love and belonging, just as I am.” As Brene Brown writes in Daring Greatly:
Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It is going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.
If we don’t feel worthy by default, then we need to lovingly cultivate the belief that we are worthy. We need to treat ourselves with the same respect that we offer to others. We need to recognize that we, like everybody else, deserve to be loved and to belong. We need to realize that we have value within us that does not need to be externally validated, that we are enough, and that we can find our value in ourselves. And we need to see our own worthiness so clearly that we no longer need to go hustle others for approval because we already approve of ourselves. We no longer need others to validate us because we already validate ourselves. If you’re in the midst of shame, this may sound like a distant reality from what you are experiencing, but as a recovering approval seeker, let me tell you that it is achievable. You’re not alone. You can do this.
Final Thoughts on Healing the Void
Brene Brown points out in her TED talks and in Daring Greatly that the only people who never experience shame are sociopaths who are incapable of human connection. Almost all of us feel it at one point another. The good news is that this is okay. It’s a normal human emotion and with shame-resilience, we can handle it in a healthy and empowering way. The more we practice shame-resilience, the more we talk to ourselves in a compassionate way, the more we come to believe in our own value and worthiness, the more the inner void of shame begins to close up. We begin to heal it through these powerful practices.
The more we heal the inner void, the more the urge to seek approval begins to dissolve. We may still catch ourselves doing it from time to time, but it ceases to be a destructive and painful force in our lives. Instead, it’s replaced with a great sense of well-being and wholeheartedness. We begin to see that we can be authentic to ourselves, true to our own beliefs, and pursue our own goals without needing others to praise or validate what we are doing.
We are worthy. As we begin to deeply see this truth, we can begin to grow into the powerful, wholehearted, and authentic people we were meant to be.
This article is part of a series on shame, vulnerability, and resilience.
For a detailed and practical explanation of shame-resilience, see this article.
For reflections on the power and vitality of vulnerability, see this article.
For another author’s take on extreme people-pleasing and its effects, see this article.
For a brief reflection on the disarming effect when people express sincere vulnerability, see this article.
For a short discussion of vulnerability in romantic relationships, see this article.