In a world that often feels like it’s passing judgment at every turn, the need for approval can become a pressing concern. Many of us, whether consciously or unconsciously, find ourselves seeking validation from others. This might be in our careers, relationships, or even casual interactions.
But you’ve probably also realized the pitfalls of this habit. You have no control over other people, and therefore you may not always receive the approval you want. This can lead to strong feelings of stress, frustration, or anguish. Needing external validation can also strain relationships and lower your self-esteem. And perhaps most importantly, it makes it harder to grow as a person and to be authentic to who you are.
The good news is that there’s an antidote to needing external approval: self-validation. In this article, I’ll break down both approval and self-validation so you can become more emotionally independent. Read on to liberate yourself from the cycle of external validation and take the reins of your own self-worth.
What does approval mean?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines approval as “good opinion.” Approval is associated with acceptance, agreement, encouragement, and support. Approval is a positive reaction to something or someone.
Some of us are preoccupied with the approval of others. I remember introducing my friends to a new boyfriend, desperately seeking their approval for the choices I’d made in my love life. And feeling deeply wounded that they didn’t view him in the same rosy way I did.
Only recently have I come to understand how approval has affected my life. I sought approval to help me feel real. The criticism and disinterest I usually received from my father made me feel unsafe and unloved, so I had to work extra hard to appease him. My efforts didn’t always work.
While our relationship with approval and our need for it stems back to our childhood, we can learn to change the rhetoric.
Why do we need approval?
If you want to change the way your mind works, you have to understand the directions coming from behind the curtain. Let’s have a look at two big reasons why you might feel the need to look for approval.
1. You have an anxious attachment style
You may have already heard the term “attachment style”. It describes how children develop relationships with their parents, and later in life, their romantic partner as well. Psychologists define four attachment styles:
- Anxious attachment style.
- Avoidant attachment style.
- Secure attachment style.
- Disorganized attachment style.
Studies have found that the anxious attachment style in particular makes people look to others for approval.
Why? Well, this attachment style means a person is highly dependent on others and seeks excessive closeness. At the same time, they worry if their partner really loves them. They likely grew up with caregivers who gave them a mix of conditional acceptance and rejection. This made them adopt a negative view of themselves and a positive view of others.
Therefore, they tend to have deep-seated doubts about their lovability and worth. So, they look to others for confirmation that they are indeed lovable and worthy. Their self-esteem fluctuates dramatically in response to perceived approval or rejection.
2. You have low self-esteem
Another big reason studies have found for a need for external validation is low self-esteem.
This means you have a rather negative view of yourself. This is probably due to early experiences of failures that made you conclude that you can’t meet other people’s standards for acceptance. Because low self-esteem people don’t feel included by others, they are hyper-alert to noticing whether others seem to accept them or not.
And in order to compensate for their perceived deficiencies, they look for validation. They tend to base their self-worth on the reactions and feedback they receive.
The complexities of seeking approval
According to Jay Reid, the author of “Growing Up As The Scapegoat To Narcissistic Parents”, many people raised as the scapegoat child of a narcissistic parent struggle to feel that they are real.
They seek approval to feel valid and claim their place in this world. I would elaborate on this and suggest it’s not only those who grow up in narcissistic households that learn this approval-seeking behavior; it’s anyone who grows up in an unhealthy household.
Children instinctively know that even a poor relationship with a caregiver is better and safer than no relationship. So they try to appease the problematic caregiver and seek their approval to guarantee their safety.
In this study, children who experienced negative approval endured heightened emotional distress, whereas children who experienced positive approval elicited more socially competent behavior.
Approval and encouragement from primary caregivers are essential to raising children as confident and well-adjusted adults.
This article in PsychCentral summarises the point well when they say:
“When a child is repeatedly given approval, they build up their sense of value. They eventually become confident in their internal sense of validation: they don’t need outside approval because they can often validate and approve themselves.”
The article suggests that children raised in unhealthy homes may struggle with poor self-esteem, affecting their ability to validate themselves. So they turn to people-pleasing behaviors to adulthood in a desperate bid to seek approval.
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What is self-validation?
If you want to stop needing approval from others, you still need to get those feelings of satisfaction and validation from somewhere else. A much better and more stable source for this is yourself. This is what we call self-validation.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker Sharon Martin breaks down what self-validation means:
- Encouraging yourself.
- Acknowledging your strengths, successes, progress, and effort.
- Noticing and accepting your feelings.
- Prioritizing your needs.
- Treating yourself with kindness.
- Saying nice things to yourself.
- Accepting your limitations, flaws, and mistakes.
What is not self-validation?
And, it is also important to keep in mind what self-validation is not. This way you can eliminate the toxic habits that might be standing in your way.
Self-validation is hampered by:
- Comparing yourself to others.
- Minimizing or denying your needs and feelings.
- Judging yourself harshly.
10 ways to stop needing approval
Sure, we all like to be given compliments or know others like us. But it can become problematic if our sense of worth and confidence relies on this.
Here are our top 10 suggestions for how you can stop needing approval.
1. Identify your thoughts and emotions
We often look to others for approval when we feel a little freaked out by what we encounter in our own minds. An emotion feels overwhelming and scary, or a thought may make us hesitate if it’s normal to think that way. When others validate them for us, we can sweep them aside: “Okay, that’s normal, I don’t have to worry about it.”
But if you want to detach from this need for validation, you will have to get comfortable with diving deep into the emotion yourself. Think of it like exploring a new house. You walk around all the rooms and find out what’s inside them all. Similarly, you need to “walk around” a little inside your body and notice what sensations come up, and where.
It can take some practice, but make sure you ground yourself and don’t dissociate, daydream, suppress, or numb what you feel. Really listen to yourself — without judgment. You’re not here to categorize your emotions as good or bad, but first and foremost to recognize them.
This can be challenging, especially with negative emotions. But remember that ignoring or demonizing emotions can be even more challenging. When you learn to accept them, you can let them pass and build emotional resilience, so they don’t have such a strong grip on you.
2. Know your worth
In the self-care world, people regularly talk about knowing your worth. But what does this mean?
It’s taken me a while to learn my worth and to recognize my value. It’s not something that we can figure out overnight. A great start to this process is to learn to see yourself how your greatest cheerleaders see you. Look at yourself through the eyes of your best friend.
Often the harsh words or criticism from childhood plays on a loop around our subconscious mind. We are quick to reject positive comments and equally quick to accept negative comments as those are the ones we feel more deserving of.
I challenge you to list 10 things that make you a worthwhile and valuable person. Don’t be shy or modest. If you are truly stuck on this, ask a trusted friend to help you.
3. Think of reasons why your emotions are normal
You might feel like you’re the only one who feels a certain way, or like your emotions are crazy. But chances are, it’s much more common than you might think.
I have found myself surprised to hear things like this on multiple occasions. For example, there’s one Instagram travel couple who has a seemingly perfect life, and an even more perfect relationship. But recently, they did a series of self-love and relationship coaching webinars with experts. In them, they revealed that they too have conflicts just like any other couple.
So whatever it is you’re feeling, don’t put it on a pedestal — chances are, it’s much more normal than you think. Try to think of some reasons why a person might reasonably feel or think something.These two questions may help:
- Did you have any past experiences that shaped your thoughts and feelings? For example, “It’s acceptable and understandable to be afraid of conflict, because I saw my parents hurt each other during arguments when I was a child.”
- Is this a common feeling that many other people may feel, even if you don’t like it? For example, “I don’t like feeling sad because I got rejected from a job, but I know that many other people would feel the same.”
If you struggle with this process, it may be helpful to talk about your feelings with a therapist. You’ll have a safe space to discuss what you feel, and a third person’s perspective that will help you slowly let go of needing approval.
4. Don’t over-identify with your feelings
When we feel something, we tend to say “I am sad” or “I am jealous.” But what is a feeling? Is it really a part of us?
Think about it: you live most of your life without feeling this feeling. You don’t shift identities when you are or aren’t sad. A feeling doesn’t define who you are. So it would be much more accurate to say “I feel sad” or even “I am experiencing sadness”.
A feeling doesn’t mean anything about who you are as a person. Just because you feel jealous, doesn’t make you a jealous person. It just makes you a person who under a certain circumstance, feels jealous. And that description could fit any human being on the planet.
This can help take the pressure off in terms of needing approval, because the stakes are much lower. You don’t need validation for the type of person you are, just for a temporary feeling. That’s much easier to give to yourself.
5. Foster self-compassion for yourself
Why do we need approval? What it comes down to is wanting to feel understood. We want to feel like what we are experiencing is okay. And if we want to stop needing approval from others, we will have to learn how to provide this feeling to ourselves.
What this comes down to is self-compassion. And indeed, a study has found people with high self-validation also had high self-compassion as well as self-insight.
This can be challenging for some, and Licensed Clinical Social Worker Sharon Martin offers two great tips to make it easier.
- Give yourself the love you never got. Maybe you never felt like you got the love and compassion you needed from your family, and that makes you crave it even more badly from others. But don’t forget, you can always give it to yourself. You’re the one person you can always rely on to give you love, at any moment you feel you need it.
- Treat yourself like a friend. If you’re having a hard time being compassionate towards your feelings, imagine a dear friend is in the same situation. What would you say to them? We’re often much more understanding with our loved ones than we are with ourselves — and we need to learn how to give ourselves the same compassion.
6. Remember, you don’t have to agree with every thought to validate it
We all experience thoughts that may go against our values or feel out of character for you. It can be hard to validate these feelings, because it can seem like it means you must agree with them or approve of them.
But actually, to validate a feeling all you need to do is understand and accept it. It doesn’t mean you think it is justified. If you think about it, you probably do this all the time already with your friends. You may understand why a friend is angry that someone else got promoted instead of them, but at the same time not agree with that reaction. The same goes for feelings you have yourself.
If you try to fight the thoughts or feelings or judge yourself for having them, you’ll just create an internal conflict inside yourself. You’ll also miss out on truly getting to know yourself as a person, which would help you know how to manage your intense emotions better.
7. Get to the source of the issue
I have read countless books on people-pleasing and how to boost low-self esteem. But none of what I read helped me get to the root of my issues.
Don’t get me wrong; I made significant progress with my healing journey through my research. But it wasn’t until I started working with a therapist that I learned why I had developed my traits, including my deep desire for approval and acceptance by others.
Understanding how we are the way we are is instrumental in unraveling our tangled brain yarn and helping smooth everything out when we understand the why and how we can start working on long-term solutions instead of short-term fixes.
8. Jump off the social media merry-go-round
Social media is one big melting point of one-upmanship. Sometimes
I can handle the noise of social media. Other times I find myself getting caught in its merry-go-round and seeking approval from others via social media.
Examine how you use social media and whether you rely on it as a source of approval. Science shows that social media use increases anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances.
Social media engagement can cause a downward spiral in our well-being and plummet our self-esteem. One knock-on effect of this is an increase in approval-seeking behavior.
I strongly suggest that you limit your use of social media, unfollow accounts that don’t make you feel good about yourself, and maybe set time restrictions or remove the apps from your mobile phone.
9. Practice self-love
I’m a big believer in practicing self-love. Self-love isn’t about shopping and spa treatments. It’s more than that. It’s about learning to believe in ourselves and showing up as our own best friends.
Use loving kindness mantras during meditation to help engage with your inner child.
Most of us who seek approval seek it on behalf of our hurt inner child—the damaged child from our youth who still resides within us.
I’ve learned to show compassion and understanding to my inner child. I make sure she knows she is loved, safe, and cared for; above all else, her traumas are not her fault.
This healing process is helping me find a place of acceptance instead of feeling I need to prove myself and find approval.
10. Become comfortable with disapproval
One of the hardest things for approval seekers is hearing negative comments, disapproval, or no comment. Being passed over or disregarded, and discarded is excruciatingly painful.
But once we work on our need for approval, not only will we stop needing approval from external sources. But we will also learn to let criticism wash over us. We become comfortable with the idea that not everyone will like us and that we are not for everyone.
Logically we understand that we don’t like everyone. Let’s now become comfortable with the fact that not everyone will like us. And that is perfectly ok.
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I hope this article has given you some clarity and useful tools for getting the validation you need from the best source you have: yourself. As you put these tips into practice, remember that any kind of personal development is a skill you need to practice. Start out slow, and give yourself the space and time to start out slow and then get used to relying on external validation less and less.
Is there anything you do differently to tackle your need for approval? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!