There is a rarely discussed addiction that can be as enslaving as drugs and as devastating to self-respect, self-confidence and healthy functioning as alcoholism. The obsessive need for approval brings with it a lot of baggage! It promotes failure and disappointment, wastes time, energy and money, and fosters dependence, anxiety, depression and exhaustion. If this is your drug of choice, you can expect a life where you are trapped in the stress zone.

In this type of existence you are not the architect of your own life. Rachel Naomi Remen, physician and early pioneer in the mind/body field, asserts, "To seek approval is to have no resting place, no sanctuary. Like all judgment, approval encourages a constant striving. It makes us uncertain of who we are and of our true value. Approval cannot be trusted. It can be withdrawn at any time no matter what our track record has been. It is as nourishing of real growth as cotton candy. Yet many of us spend our lives pursuing it."

When you care too much about the acceptance and applause of others, you give your power away. Just as the junkie who craves drugs is controlled by dependence on the substance, the approval addict who craves validation and appreciation is dependent on the whims of other people. Trouble for sure. Dependence is a slippery slope. You find yourself relying on others, hoping they will treat you with the same kindness and consideration they wish for themselves. Dependency enslaves you, giving others the ultimate power over how you perceive and feel about yourself. Do you really want to surrender something so personally vital to others?

This is dangerous territory. People often have their own agendas and prejudices that may serve neither to assuage your fears nor promote your best interests. Or they may tell you the truth, something you probably don't want to hear if you're struggling with this particular affliction. The truth might crush you because you seek only approval and are wholly unprepared for anything else. You may believe that you are unable to be okay when the feedback you receive is critical or disapproving. But worst of all, by not being your own primary source of approval, by depending on others for what you should be providing for yourself, you make it supremely difficult to be healthy, happy and prosperous.

How Does This Happen?

Just how does this ineffectual, paralyzing approach become a way of life? There's a very good chance that you developed this as a result of messages from significant people in your formative years. They may have reinforced you for seeking approval, or they may have criticized you unduly or inappropriately, resulting in feelings of fear, helplessness and inadequacy. Or they may have lived their lives in their own approval trap, thus modeling the behaviors and thinking that are inherent in that particular pattern of dysfunction.

Sometimes parents, often unwittingly, reinforce approval-seeking behaviors beyond what is healthy. Why would they do this? Well, it can be very rewarding for them. They look like great parents because the child is so compliant. They find the child's interactions to be very pleasing. And the parenting job is so easy with a child like this! The child, however, is learning to wear the shackles of the approval trap, often interpreting what is occurring as a successful way to approach life, both within and outside the family.

Perhaps your parents or other important people in your life expected too much. And when you weren't able to meet those expectations you were criticized and ridiculed. When individuals are subjected to a steady diet of criticism, especially as children, they become fearful of being criticized, so they may put inordinate amounts of energy into findings ways to avoid the slings and arrows. To avoid criticism the child may find ways to hide from the source or may direct the lion's share of his energy to garnering approval and applause. This approach is so exhausting.

Children also can learn to make approval-seeking a way of life when they see these behaviors modeled by important people in their lives. When parents, older siblings and other significant people in a child or adolescent's life are approval junkies, youngsters often conform to the behaviors, expectations and thinking processes of those they love, need, admire or fear.

The Benefits of Getting Out of the Approval Trap

You have much to look forward to when you emancipate yourself from this unhealthy addiction. And though it may take some time and a heap of persistence, if you choose this route you are going to like yourself and your life so much more! Among the many gifts you can anticipate:

Independence, self-reliance

You choose for yourself. You become your own cheerleader. You decide what things matter and what things don't. People are far less likely to be able to take advantage of you when you are the primary source of your own approval. You no longer believe that others have a right to judge you. You believe that the control of your life comes from an internal place and not from the opinions of those outside of you. You believe you have the right and the responsibility to decide how the behavior and opinions of others will affect you.

Self-confidence and self-respect

Self-confidence and self-respect come from believing in your abilities and taking responsibility for your own life. You accept yourself, warts and all. You are able to emancipate yourself from the expectations of others, opening up so many ways to get to know and respect yourself.

Healthier, more robust relationships

When you're not ensnared in the approval trap, you're far better able to develop the fundamental building blocks of flourishing personal relationships: trust, mutual respect, self-respect, appropriate boundaries and a balance of power.

Increased ability to problem-solve and reach your goals

When the approval of others takes a back seat, you are able to face the challenges in your life from a position of power. Of course, it is often wise to consult with specific people about problems and goals, but this is a far cry from depending on others to dictate what you should do. You understand that your decisions, beliefs and behaviors are powerful in determining the outcomes in your life.

Increased ability to tolerate conflict and rejection

Because you do not consider others to be your ultimate judges and because you believe others have their own issues, you are able to respond to conflict and rejection in more
adaptive ways. And with each conflict or rejection, you learn that you can become stronger.

Decreased vulnerability to depression and anxiety

You will be less susceptible to the learned helplessness that so often factors into depression and anxiety. Learned helplessness is the state in which you believe your actions do not affect what happens in your life. The person dependent on the opinions of others so often is beset by this belief. Your own self-approval is contingent on the approval of one or more persons in your world.

The Way Out of the Trap

Okay, so you're up to your neck in the sludge of the approval trap. Please don't despair. Instead, let me encourage you, no matter how long you've been in the sludge or how deeply you're in it, to make the changes that will set you free and keep you from returning to your own personal hell. To accomplish your escape from the trap, you will need to develop approval-free beliefs, expectations, self-talk and behaviors.

Beliefs: You need to replace old, ineffectual beliefs with beliefs that are antithetical to the approval trap.

*You are responsible for your own life
This is a key belief in having a healthy, prosperous and happy life. When you believe that you are the center of your own life that you are the one who decides what is important for you, and how you will achieve your goals, that what you think and do affects the outcomes in your life, you make it unlikely that you will be addicted to approval.
* Your happiness is something only you can make happen
* You can gain control over your reactions to the behaviors of others
* The approval that is most important is your own
* You get to decide what the approval of others means to you
* The opinions of others do not have to influence what you think of yourself
* Just because others tell you such as you are inept, lazy, stupid, a failure, a disappointment, etc. does not mean it is so
* You can overcome the fear of disapproval
* You are capable of making good decisions for yourself
* Mistakes, failures and criticism need not be an indictment of you and your abilities
* Your goals and successes are your responsibility
* Disappointing others is not a catastrophe
* The judgment of others does not have to be how you see yourself
* It is counterproductive to be preoccupied with how others react to you
* Positive relationships are based on a balance of give and take from involved parties
* Paying attention to your own needs is at least as important as the paying attention to the needs of others
* You are not ultimately responsible for the feelings of others. If someone else is unhappy, it is not necessarily your fault or responsibility
* Self-criticism should be limited and constructive

Expectations

* You don't expect to be perfect
* You're realistic about what you expect from others
* You don't expect others to approve of everything you do
* You expect criticism, failure, mistakes, etc. all along the way
* You don't expect others to appreciate the things you do for them

Behaviors

* You identify, communicate and enforce boundaries between you and others
* You practice assertiveness
* You make decisions for yourself

Just as in other addictions, conquering the beast takes information, a well-developed plan, support and a whole lot of tenacity. The rewards are definitely worth the effort. For more information on Positive Psychology, look for my book, It's Your Little Red Wagon… Six Core Strengths for Navigating Your Path to the Good Life (Embrace the Power of Positive Psychology and Live Your Dreams), available on Amazon.com

Copyright 2009. Sharon S. Esonis, Ph.D.

Author's Bio: 

Sharon S. Esonis, Ph.D., has spent close to three decades helping individuals live their dreams through her work as a licensed psychologist, life coach and author. An expert in human behavior and motivation, Dr. Esonis specializes in the burgeoning field of Positive Psychology, the scientific study of optimal human functioning and the core strengths that can lead to the achievement of one's personally-defined goals. She earned her bachelor and masters degrees at Ohio University and her doctoral degree at Boston College.

Dr. Esonis is licensed in psychology in Arizona and Massachusetts, and in addition to her many years of private practice as a clinician and coach, she supervised masters and doctoral students in their clinical work at Arizona State University. She has served as a hospital staff psychologist and has lectured on topics ranging from stress management, meditation and relaxation training to assertiveness and sleep management. Today, she teaches Positive Psychology in the Extended Learning Program at California State University San Marcos, and she has a private practice in the San Diego area dedicated to personal and professional coaching.

Her latest book, It's Your Little Red Wagon... 6 Core Strengths for Navigating Your Path to the Good Life (available on Amazon.com), is Dr. Esonis' contribution to the field of Positive Psychology, presenting proven success factors and strength-building techniques that can lead individuals to a life of purpose, motivation and personally-defined happiness. Her website is at PositivePathLifeCoaching.com.

Dr. Esonis is a member of the American Psychological Association (APA), the Association for Behavior and Cognitive Therapy (ABCT), the San Diego Professionals Coaches Alliance (SDPCA), the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), and is a Founding Member of the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP).