A Coaching Power Tool Created by Kate McShane
(Career Coach, UNITED STATES)
There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls. Self-Validating vs Approval Seeking – Howard Thurman
How many of our actions, thoughts, and feelings are influenced by what others may think of us, or our fear of rejection, or dread of conflict? How is it that some of us, more often than not, find the courage to override these fears and focus on liking and approving of ourselves, while others look primarily for their self-esteem from external sources? Do we know our own values and act from them, or are we inauthentic in our effort to fit in and get along? In other words, are we approval-seekers or self-validators?
What qualities define a self-validator and how do they differ from the approval seeker? Does approval-seeking behavior serve us? What are the costs of looking to others for approval and self-esteem? Can one ever get enough approval, or can this tactic become a lifelong trap?
A self-validating person is self-assured and focuses on being their best self as they define it. They have the capacity to hear and trust their own intuition and act by their goals and unique life purpose. Their personality, opinions, and values are consistent and do not shift depending on their audience. They accept that some people may judge or criticize their actions and decisions. They are their own advocate and supporter, and while they may like admiration and praise, they do not require it to feel good about themselves.
Conversely, an approval-seeking person is concerned with how they are perceived by others and look for validation outside themselves. At its core, approval-seekers feel insecure and unworthy, so they count on others to assure them that they matter and belong. At some point, they came to believe that affection was conditional and must be earned and do so by adjusting to society’s norms and meeting the expectations and needs of others. With their own energy so focused outside of themselves, the approval-seeker struggles to discern how they want to live their own authentic life and is trapped into looking for approval in all the wrong places.
In our earliest years as a species, a sense of belonging was nurtured through connection with nature, the family, the tribe, and the shared community. Its members did not need to earn their belonging, it was woven into the fabric of the day. Conversely, our modern-day competitive culture extols the virtues of individuality and not connection. We value self-improvement, self-reliance, and competition. We view ourselves as separate, and our right to belong is not a given; it must be earned through being nice, achieving, and conforming to society’s expectations. We are steeped in comparison; if you win, then I lose and therefore am defective. We measure our worth by the number of likes we have on social media. We envy the idealized lives we see on Facebook and conclude we have somehow missed out. We are bombarded with impossibly high standards for appearance, success, goodness, and performance. Opening a magazine and seeing a photo of a skinny model leaves us with body shame, the achievement of another leaves us feeling unaccomplished, a certain tone of voice or critical feedback leaves us feeling like a complete loser.
Many of our society’s messages promote approval-seeking behavior; be your best, be successful, don’t be selfish, look a certain way, act a certain way, get along. And while helping others and a sense of success and belonging is a rich part of the human experience, the primary difference between the approval-seeker and the self-validator is their motivation to help and fit in; is it from a place of inner lack or a place of inner fullness. The first is futile and depletes one’s life force, while the second adds to life’s warmth and meaning.
Brene Brown in her book “The Gift of Imperfection” makes the distinction between fitting in and belonging.
Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.
Here are some common strategies for fitting in.
- You do or say things out of line with your values to be accepted by others or the group.
- You crave compliments and may even try to coax them out of others.
- You believe your worth is tied to your accomplishments.
- You give inauthentic compliments to get others to like you.
- You dread the prospect of hurting anyone’s feelings.
- Criticism is taken personally and leaves you feeling devastated.
- You agree with someone’s opinion even if it conflicts with yours to avoid disagreement.
- You hide some aspect of yourself for fear that if revealed, someone will disapprove.
- You say yes to doing something you really do not want or have time to do. You hate the thought of disappointing anyone.
- You quickly spring into action to help somebody, oftentimes without even checking
with the person to determine their need for help.
- You so mold yourself to get the approval of others, you lose sight of or don’t know your own values.
- You avoid conflict at all costs. You do not want to be a bother to others. You do not feel comfortable having others accommodate you.
- Your personality changes depending on who you are with.
- You pride yourself on being a ‘nice’ person.
- You are always apologizing for your behavior and over-explaining your perceived mistakes even if no one has indicated there is a problem.
And while the methods for gaining approval may vary, all approval seekers are hoping to earn their own worthiness. Their self-worth is calibrated to the approval awarded them by others, but because they lack awareness of the real cause of their approval-seeking behavior, their attempts are ineffective and intensify the very void they are attempting to fill.
Both Brene Brown in her book “Daring Greatly” and Tara Brach in her book, “Radical Self-Acceptance” explores the issue of shame as the generator of approval-seeking behavior. Guilt or regret is about feeling bad for something you did, whereas shame, they argue, is about feeling bad for who you are. With shame the belief that I am bad, I am not enough, and therefore unworthy of belonging runs rampant. Human beings are wired for connection to the belief that we are not worthy of acceptance is intolerable. We work frantically to cover our shame and grasp for our worthiness by pleasing and performing.
Our attempts to get away from and mask our feelings of shame positions us on what Brene Brown refers to as the “worthiness hustle” and fuels our approval-seeking behavior. We need so desperately to belong and falsely believe that by winning the approval of others we will ensure our worthiness and connection. Because we feel such shame around our flaws, we attempt to deny and hide them, giving our shame great power to inflict suffering. We fear having our real flaws exposed and contract as a result. What if someone finds out what a bad dancer I am, or that I was a bad mother, or a bad writer…what then? We don’t want to be seen and we dare not let the real self be revealed. We try harder and harder to earn our right to belong by pleasing, by trying to fit in, by being perfect, by achieving. But our attempts to achieve and please, provide us only momentary, if any relief. Even if we win the approval and praise we yearn for, we struggle to accept it. Underneath we still feel unseen as the unworthy person we really are. We feel trapped and become exhausted, resentful, and depressed. The problem is we are trying to fill our inner void the wrong way.
So, if accomplishments and people-pleasing do not work, if the worthiness hustle is a failed strategy, what then is the path out of approval-seeking and into self-validating behavior?
It is an important first step to realize that approval-seeking in all its forms, is not the solution for filling the void of ‘I am not enough, I am defective, I am not worthy of belonging’. That, in fact, approval-seeking behavior will never provide us relief from these fears.
The next critical step toward making the shift to self-validating behavior is accepting that we are all flawed, it comes with the territory of being human. Instead of striving for perfection to earn our right to belong, we should strive instead for wholeness. We no longer aim for perfection but aim for self-acceptance, right now exactly as we are. Here are some helpful strategies to guide us toward self-acceptance and shift us to self-validation.
- Develop a mindfulness practice. Notice the tone of your inner critic and how often it speaks. What is it saying to you? Now, be the observer of your thoughts and see them for what they are just thoughts and not the truth of who you are. Begin to reflect on what you would say to your best friend or a suffering child. Now start to hold yourself with similar compassion and kindness.
- Reflect on your interests, talents, gifts, and passions. Who would you be if you did not fear the judgment and criticism of others? Who would you be if you were able to accept your flaws as part of being human? What makes you unique and what brings you joy? What kind of person do you want to be? Who are you if you are being true to yourself?
- Write a values statement and from that develop your goals, both long term, and short term. Review these at least once a week. It will be far easier to stop pleasing others if you are clear about your strengths and your agenda and you are working toward being your best authentic self.
- Distance yourself from toxic people who leave you feeling less than and surround yourself with positive people who love you for you and not for what you can do for them.
- Accept that everyone is not going to like you. Focus instead on really liking yourself.
- Let go of perfectionism. We often fall into the trap of thinking if I do “it” perfectly, then I will get everyone’s approval and admiration. Begin to understand that all human beings are flawed and there is no such thing as perfection. Instead of aiming to be “the best”, strive for being “your best” and celebrate your effort and the lessons you learned along the way.
- Begin to realize just how little time people are actually spending thinking about and judging you. There is a good chance, it is a whole lot less than you think. Other people’s heads are mostly filled with their own thoughts, worries, and life issues. There really is not much space left over to be spending a lot of time thinking about you.
- Begin to understand that for those that do criticize and judge you; it is usually is saying more about them than it is about you.
By building toward a place of self-acceptance and wholeness, we can come to understand our true authentic selves and from that place of wholeness begin to channel our thoughts, feelings, and actions in a manner that is consistent with who we are. We release ourselves from the shame that has left us feeling so defective and begin to live life more fully.
I recently found myself vacillating between approval-seeking and self-validating behavior regarding choosing my life partner. If I followed my heart, I sensed that I would be happy, but I risked losing or straining relationships with my family and friends. My loyalty to them and fear of disapproval pressed me toward the option that would win their approval but ultimately disappoint me. For eight months, I agonized, fearing a loss of connection and isolation. Ultimately, I went against their advice and followed my heart. Many of my worst fears were realized as family and friends shunned and distanced themselves from me.
As a lifelong approval-seeker, disregarding the advice of my support team was a huge risk for me and initially caused me feelings of isolation and shame around my choice. But with time, I realized I was quite happy and had done what was right for me. A quiet peace emerged, and the feelings of shame and isolation melted away. Some people returned slowly back into my life, while others did not, and I realized that was alright. Much to my surprise, I gained new confidence in my own ability to shape my life. A lifelong fog lifted and bolstered my self-acceptance and clarity. Today, I am much clearer and more comfortable with who I am and what I want for my life. I have since made other tough decisions, only to find more energy, more confidence, and a clearer sense of direction than ever before. And while I would not suggest that my approval-seeking days are completely behind me, as I believe that battle will be lifelong, I am aware that its grip on me has loosened to great benefit.
Moving from approval-seeking to self-validating is a powerful tool. Acting in concert with my authentic self, liberated me. I have come to realize that living by what others believe is the right thing for me is an ineffective strategy for living life fully. Many people struggle with making the shift from an approval-seeker to a self-validator so as a coach, I believe this will be a valuable power tool to utilize.
Questions for Self-Reflection
- Pay attention to where you devoted your energy over the last week. How much of it involved people-pleasing and approval-seeking, and how much was done by your goals and needs.
- How clear are you about who you are and what you want out of life? Have you taken the time to explore who you are outside of the opinions of others?
- What aspects of yourself are unique? What qualities do you have that you really like? How often do you celebrate those parts of yourself?
- What are the flaws that you find so unbearable and want to hide? How much of your life has been consumed by trying to overcome these flaws? What might you do to accept these flaws? How would that change things?
- Write a statement of values and from that develop a set of your long-term and short-term goals. How does that make you feel? Now, imagine setting boundaries with this new clarity? Is it easier or harder and why?
- How comfortable are you with self-care? How often does your self-care get skipped so that you can take care of others? What can you do to give taking care of yourself top priority?
Application for Coaches
Coaches, especially new ones, need to guard against the approval-seeking trap. Anxious to demonstrate our competence and skills, we wonder; will the client like my approach, what is the next powerful question I can ask, do they like me, am I being helpful, what if I can’t think of something to say, all of which will interfere with the session’s flow. Our effectiveness as coaches diminishes if we do not protect against this understandable tendency. Our very best coaching is only possible when we enter each session with an empty and curious mind and trying to impress our client, prevents us from being fully present. Once again, engaging in a mindfulness practice minimizes our inclination toward approval seeking. Allow time before each session to quiet your mind and center yourself. Pay attention to your thoughts and view them without judgment. Are you attached to a particular outcome, do you think you know what is best for this client, are you viewing this session as a chance to prove your worth as a coach? Acknowledge these thoughts and let them go. Now focus on your ability to trust your training and the coaching process, empty your mind, and be curious. Your ability to go with the flow will improve and your effectiveness will grow.
Brene Brown: Daring Greatly and The Gift of Imperfection
Tara Brach: Radical Self-Acceptance