A Coaching Power Tool Created by Natalia Tamburini
(Career Coach, UNITED STATES)
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Through his studies of human motivation, Maslow created a five-stage model for the hierarchy of needs. The model, in its nature, states that human needs are hierarchical and a human cannot ‘move up’ the ladder without the fulfillment of the previous needs.
In the five-stage model, the stages are broken down into deficiency and growth needs. The deficiency needs are established through deprivation, grow when they continue to be unmet, and include stages 1-4 of the hierarchy: physiological, safety, belongingness and love, and esteem needs. Growth needs are not motivated by their lack, but rather by an individual’s desire to grow, and includes the self-actualization need.
As a life and career coach, I expect that my clients will already have their basic (physiological and safety) needs to be met and are striving towards esteem and self-actualization. I believe that one of the places where we get stuck as humans is in the third rung of the hierarchical ladder, belongingness, and love. In a society that has become dependent on “what we have to show for it”, we have been trying to meet our need for love and belonging through approval, which is a fickle and feeble substitute. You can see the disconnect between approval and belong in social media, the more we use social media, the lonelier we feel (source).
When a client comes into coaching with the goal of self-actualization and growth, it may be tempting to jump right into goal setting and planning for action, but I believe the first thing that needs to be addressed is the client’s sense of belonging and love. Moving towards a goal with steps and to-do items will not amount to much if the goal is one created due to the need for approval rather than the sense of belonging.
…Fitting in and belonging are not the same thing…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. Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, pg. 25
Approval is defined by Merriam Webster, as “the act of expressing a favorable opinion of something [or someone]”. We have all learned to be a certain way to get external approval and validation. We rely on the opinions of others to give us a sense of self-worth and value.
Seeking approval might take a variety of shapes and forms throughout our lives and shape many decisions, big and small: from how we dress, what music we listen to, the careers we choose, where we live, and if and whom we choose to marry.
When we are in the approval-seeking mode, we may ask ourselves questions like these:
- What will they think?
- How will I be perceived?
- What would my mother/father/friend do in this situation?
- She said it was a bad idea, am I making a mistake?
Certain behaviors are giveaways that we are looking at a situation through an approval-seeking lens, such as:
- Struggling with setting boundaries, saying no, or being direct with other
- Inadvertently leaving details out or omitting the truth out of fear of someone’s opinion
- Changing actions based on the fear of how others will react
- Changing your mind after a decision has been made when someone else gives you a contradicting opinion
The module on releasing judgment explains that humans tend to feel guilty when they believe they are being judged. “Research into the way the brain functions, tells us that this is because strong negative emotions like guilt and fear, actually bypass the cognitive pathways of the brain.” (Releasing Judgement, pg. 1), or “emotional hijacking” as Daniel Goleman calls it. When this happens, our brain jumps into action to try and make this guilty feeling go away—for some that may look like getting defensive, for others, it might look like bending to please and stop being judged.
This mindset goes hand in hand with approval-seeking: we do things to be approved of or not judged, and in the end, we are judging ourselves constantly and forget who we are.
Let’s take a look at the opposite side of this, belonging, and find a way to let go of this judgment and belong to ourselves.
The simple dictionary definition of belonging is a “close or intimate relationship”, but I believe Brene Brown defines it best in her book The Gifts of Imperfection: “Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us…true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance” (p. 26)
While in the approval-seeking mode we strive to fit in, blend it, and be “perfect” to receive external validation, through a lens of belonging we thrive in being our truest selves, imperfections, and all.
Some questions we might ask ourselves when in this space are:
- What do I think?
- How can I improve?
- What emotions am I feeling? What are they trying to tell me?
- How does this align with my values and beliefs?
- What do I need?
When we strive towards a sense of belonging rather than approval, we also lean into awareness and compassion and away from perfectionism.
Let’s look at an example: Cleo just graduated from college with a degree in Psychology. Her parents are so proud, calling their daughter “the family’s psychologist.” With her diploma in hand, she now has to decide what’s next for her. Her family has always valued higher education, six-figure salaries, and job security. Cleo took a few art classes in college and had a job as a florist’s assistant and felt alive and fulfilled during those experiences. Now she has come to a coach to figure out what to do with her career as a college graduate. She is lost, confused, and has no idea where to begin.
Cleo has a tight-knit relationship with her parents and they have always supported her, financially and emotionally. Both her mom and dad have postgraduate degrees in science and are leaders in their fields. They work at an office, they manage teams, and they spend many hours in business meetings. Whenever they talk about Cleo’s future, they talk about it in those terms: job stability, offices, upper management, and postgraduate degrees. Cleo is lost because she does not want to disappoint her parents; she feels that doing anything besides getting her Master’s in Psychology or working at an office would let them down and change their opinion of her.
Through this perspective, Cleo is focusing solely on what others will think and how other people will see her. Her sense of worth is dependent on the level of approval and validation that she receives from the people around her. She is determined to be the “perfect” daughter and wants to live up to the version of Cleo that her parents imagine her to be. Yet, she does not feel excited or motivated to follow this path, which is leaving her confused and believing that she has failed.
Flipped Perspective: Belonging
When we consistently bend to fit in, we will eventually break. That is where belonging comes in. Through a perspective of belonging, Cleo can focus on how her strengths, values, and interests fit into the bigger context of the world. Instead of trying to fit in like a puzzle piece, she begins to see herself as a part of an orchestra, different in sound and pitch, but innately valuable and worthy.
Instead of only focusing on what her parents want, Cleo can listen to her parents, take what she needs from it, but also focus on what she cares about, what brings her joy, and what aligns with her values. She will work towards a future of her own making, knowing that she will belong when she truly shows up, authentically and imperfectly. She may tune into her feelings about art and work with her hands, and explore what those emotions are telling her in this part of her journey.
Tools and Exercises for Reflection
Below are some tools that can help flip our perspective from approval to belonging:
- Values Game: This exercise can help a client explore and define their personal values and begin to notice which values are truly theirs and which they have acquired through the need for approval. Defining core values can help create a north star for the client.
- Wheel of Life: This exercise can support the client in taking a “helicopter view” of their life. They can zoom out and look at various roles or areas in their lives and assess each one to see where they are at, and how they envision their future looking.
- Odyssey Plans: Created by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans, Odyssey Plans are meant to reframe the belief that we must figure out one single life plan and move forward with it. It encourages clients to play and plan out various possible life adventures to help shake off the idea of perfectionism and introduce a little lightness into the journey of self-actualization.
I believe individuals get stuck on the way to self-actualization because they are not striving for belonging and love, but rather for approval and validation. As a coach, we can partner with our clients to challenge the belief that “fitting in” is the way to belong and support them in the exploration of what is possible when they tune into their most authentic selves.
A preface to motivation theory. Psychosomatic Med., 1943, 5, 85-92.
Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality (3rd ed.). Delhi, India: Pearson Education. p. 159
Social Media and Perceived Isolation Among Young Adults in the U.S. Can be found here: