Why Approval-holics Are So Afraid

Carol Dweck, in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,[1]describes two mindsets:  fixed or growth. A fixed mindset is one in which talents and abilities are viewed as immutable. In other words, you are who you are, your intelligence and talents are fixed from an early age, and your fate is to go through life avoiding challenge and failure. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one in which you see yourself as a work in progress. In essence, overly praising intelligence and ability doesn’t foster a healthy self-esteem, nor does it lead to accomplishment, but can actually jeopardize one’s success.

On the other hand, the feedback we get early in life from the people we admire is often “improvement” feedback (“You need to get your grades up”) or feedback that compares us with someone else (“What is with this “D” in math?  Your sister never had trouble with math.”). Negative or comparative feedback can be particularly distressing for those persons whose self-worth is threatened by disapproval because they have a tendency to overreact to, or place a disproportionate emphasis on, such judgments.[2] For the most part, many of us tend to pay more attention to negative feedback than we do to positive feedback. Over time, whether the distortion in our reality is positive or negative, we will become accustomed to that distortion. 

Consider the experiment in which college students were asked to wear special eyeglasses for one month that turned everything upside down.[3] At first, they stumbled around, tripped over things, and generally had great difficulty with perceptual judgment. Their brain knew how things were supposed to be and rejected what their eyes were telling them. But, after just a few days they adjusted, and their brains became accustomed to their upside-down world. After an entire month, the students reported that the glasses posed no challenge for them at all. In fact, they were able to navigate just as easily as their right-side-up counterparts! Ultimately, they began to see this previously distorted view as perfectly normal.

The same phenomenon holds true with our acceptance of approval or disapproval from those who are important to us. Over time, approval causes us to build our positive self-view and feel worthy and valued. However, if we experience continuing disapproval, we begin to believe it and feel distressed whenever we receive “constructive criticism” or when we realize that we are not meeting others’ expectations. The distress is real, but the reaction is counterfeit. This distress often leads us to try too hard to please another, which becomes annoying or is perceived by others as “kissing up.” It also provides us with a million excuses for past behavior, allowing us to play “the victim,” never appearing responsible for our decisions. Neither of these responses is healthy. 

Becoming overly reliant on others’ feedback has taught us to become dependent on them, not just to gain their approval, but also as models for what it means to be a “good” child, adult, parent, employee, or leader. One problem with this paradigm is that these models are often unrealistic or idealistic and can never really be emulated. Another problem is that we need to accept our strengths and challenges for what they really are, even if they are not “approved of” by others.  Our realization that others may be better or worse than us at some things needs to be tempered by a similar recognition that we may be better or worse than they are at other things. This self-inventory is a solid foundation for recognizing the fullness of our potential for personal and professional development. The roadblocks to discovering this inventory, however, lie in our anxieties about, and fear of, disapproval.  

The primary underlying fear for Approval-holics is loss of approval from others and their primary response to that fear is continuously seeking approval or avoiding disapproval at all costs. If you are an Approval-holic, here is an exercise to help you focus on the underlying beliefs and motivations for social approval:

  1. For the next 2-3 weeks, describe in written form (e.g., a journal) some examples of the approval problems and situations you experience in your work, school, and family relationships.
  2. For each of the problems identified in Step 1, list the beliefs (causes) that account for your need for approval. 
  3. Identify behavior, beliefs, attitudes, and feelings that need to be changed in order to resolve the problem.

Here’s a more specific example:

  • “At work today I was asked to completely change a report I worked on because my boss decided that she needed the information in a different format. I am sure she doesn’t think how I did it is good enough.”
  • “The last time I turned in work she asked me to redo it because it had some errors. I’m sure she just said she needed a different format because I didn’t do it right again.”
  • “I need to take my boss’ words at face value. I must realize that “I am not the report” and that a critique of my work is not a critique of me, personally.”

You might also try this:

  1. List of positive affirmation self-talk scripts you can use to affirm yourself on the highly-rated characteristics. Do not think further about the characteristics rated “low.” Your task in this exercise is to work on understanding the relationship between what you value in others and your own perceptions of those characteristics in you.



[1] Dweck, C.S. (2006).  Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. NY: Random House LLC.

[2] Rudolph, et al. (2005). 

[3] Reported in McGraw, P.C. (2005) Self Matters, Hyperion Press.

Originally published at Psychology Today