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Constantly Seeking External Approval Can Drain Your Mental Reserves

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The quest for external validation has become a pervasive part of our daily lives. From social media likes to workplace accolades, many people find themselves in a never-ending cycle of seeking approval from others. But what toll does this constant need for affirmation take on our mental health? And how can we break free from this self-imposed emotional prison?

The relentless pursuit of external validation can lead to a host of psychological issues, including anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. This cycle often creates a dependency where one’s sense of self-worth is intricately tied to the opinions of others, making them vulnerable to emotional fluctuations. The time and energy spent on seeking approval could be better utilised for personal growth, self-discovery, and building meaningful relationships.

The irony is that the more we seek approval from external sources, the less likely we are to find lasting satisfaction and happiness. Breaking free from this cycle requires a conscious effort to cultivate self-awareness, self-compassion, and emotional resilience.

The psychological underpinnings of approval-seeking behaviour

The need for approval is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. As social animals, humans have always relied on group cohesion for survival. Being accepted by the tribe meant access to resources and protection. This innate desire for social acceptance has morphed into an unhealthy obsession for some. Studies have shown that chronic approval-seeking behaviour can lead to increased levels of anxiety and depression.

While our ancestors needed social approval for practical reasons like safety and resource sharing, the stakes are often much lower in modern society, yet the emotional impact remains high. The transition from a survival necessity to a psychological burden highlights how our evolutionary traits don’t always adapt well to contemporary life. The mismatch between our ingrained social needs and the realities of modern living can exacerbate mental health issues, making it crucial to address approval-seeking tendencies.

The social media trap

In the age of social media, the need for approval has been amplified to unprecedented levels. Platforms like Instagram and Facebook provide instant gratification in the form of likes, comments, and shares. But this digital validation is fleeting and often leaves individuals feeling empty and unfulfilled. A study found that limiting social media use to 30 minutes a day resulted in significant reductions in depression and loneliness among participants.

The ephemeral nature of social media validation creates a vicious cycle where the initial high from receiving likes or comments quickly dissipates, leading individuals to seek out more approval to fill the emotional void. This can result in compulsive checking of social media platforms, taking a toll on both mental well-being and productivity. The constant comparison with others on these platforms can also distort one’s self-perception, leading to feelings of inadequacy.

The study’s findings on reduced depression and loneliness suggest that the constant quest for online approval is not just emotionally draining but also counterproductive to our mental health. It’s worth noting that while social media can offer a sense of connection, it often provides a skewed representation of reality, where everyone else’s life appears perfect. This can further deepen feelings of inadequacy and perpetuate the cycle of approval-seeking.

Setting boundaries on social media use can be a practical step towards breaking this cycle and fostering genuine self-worth.

The workplace dilemma

The workplace is another common setting where people seek validation. While it’s natural to want recognition for hard work, an excessive need for approval can hinder professional growth. Employees who are too focused on pleasing their superiors may avoid taking risks or voicing their opinions, ultimately stifling innovation and personal development.

In a professional setting, the constant need for validation can create a culture of yes-men and yes-women, where the fear of disapproval outweighs the potential benefits of innovative thinking. This not only limits individual career progression but can also have a detrimental impact on the overall success of a team or organisation.

The paradox is that by constantly seeking approval, employees may actually become less valuable to their employers, who often value independent thought and the ability to problem-solve without constant reassurance.

The workplace then becomes a microcosm of wider approval-seeking behaviour, with the same detrimental effects on mental well-being. Learning to balance the natural desire for recognition with the courage to stand alone is key to both professional and personal growth.

The impact on relationships

When the need for approval extends to personal relationships, it can create a toxic dynamic. Partners may feel burdened by the constant need to reassure and validate, leading to emotional exhaustion. In friendships, approval-seeking behaviour can result in one-sided relationships where one person’s needs and desires are continually sidelined.

In romantic relationships, the constant need for approval can lead to an imbalance of emotional labour, where one partner is always seeking validation while the other becomes the validator. This dynamic can strain the relationship and may eventually lead to its breakdown, as it becomes difficult to meet the emotional needs of both individuals. Similarly, in friendships, the person who is always seeking approval may find themselves isolated over time, as friends grow weary of the emotional toll it takes to constantly provide affirmation.

The friendship becomes transactional rather than reciprocal, eroding the trust and mutual respect that are the cornerstones of any healthy relationship. The irony is that the very approval one seeks to secure relationships can be the catalyst for their undoing. Therefore, it’s crucial to recognise and address these patterns not just for individual well-being, but also for the health and longevity of personal relationships.

Breaking the cycle

So, how can one break free from the shackles of approval-seeking? Self-awareness is the first step. Recognising the patterns and triggers that lead to this behaviour can help individuals take corrective action. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective in treating approval-seeking tendencies by helping individuals reframe their thought patterns and behaviours.

Beyond self-awareness and CBT, building a strong support network can also be invaluable in breaking the cycle. Friends and family who provide unconditional love and support can help reinforce the idea that one’s worth is not solely based on external validation.

Additionally, setting achievable goals and celebrating personal accomplishments, no matter how small, can help shift the focus from external approval to internal satisfaction. By combining these strategies with professional guidance, individuals can work towards a more balanced emotional state where the need for external approval is diminished.

The road to self-validation

Ultimately, the journey towards emotional independence involves learning to self-validate. This means acknowledging your worth and accomplishments without needing external affirmation. It’s a challenging path but one that leads to a more fulfilling and emotionally stable life.

Embracing self-validation doesn’t mean completely disregarding the opinions of others; rather, it’s about finding a healthy balance between external feedback and internal self-assurance. Learning to self-validate is also an ongoing process that requires consistent effort and self-reflection.

It’s not a destination but a journey, one that is likely to have its ups and downs. However, the rewards are significant: a life less burdened by the opinions of others, greater emotional resilience, and the freedom to pursue one’s true passions and interests without the constant need for external validation.

Final thoughts

The relentless pursuit of approval is not just a harmless quirk; it’s a draining cycle that can take a significant toll on your mental health. While the desire for validation is a natural human instinct, it’s crucial to recognise when it becomes an unhealthy obsession. By taking steps to understand and address the root causes, individuals can break free from this emotional trap and move towards a more balanced and fulfilling life.

Holly Bishop, PsyD is psychologist specialising in behavioural psychology and emotional well-being.

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