Do I need to be liked? Absolutely not. I like to be liked. I enjoy being liked. I have to be liked. But it’s not like this compulsive need to be liked, like my need to be praised.”Michael Scott, The Office, Season 4
Can anyone else relate to Michael Scott from “The Office”? If you’re unfamiliar with that reference, for seven years Steve Carrell played Michael Scott, regional manager of the paper company, Dunder Mifflin. Michael was the goofy, sometime cringey, excessively needy yet beloved boss whose deep flaws at times exposed our own struggles. And yes, I’m raising my hand, because the need to be liked and praised are all tied into a need for approval, my Achilles heel.
My Battle with the Need for Approval
There has been a war within me for many years, one where I’ve been battling my desires. On one hand, I want to be true to myself, bold, unfettered—not caring what others say or think about me at all. And on the other hand, I have internally craved acceptance, approval, praise, and to feel like I am making an impact—that my efforts are resonating with others. While both are natural human inclinations, I’ve found myself disliking the “Michael Scott” part of me that feels “needy,” the one wanting approval and acceptance. The root of the need, and the dislike of it, trace back to my childhood wounds.
I’ve shared before about how I was silenced by trauma from a very young age. When that happened, I did not feel safe, so I was unable to express my deepest needs to others in a way that was fully received. Misunderstood, I was often dismissed and told how to feel, or that my feelings weren’t acceptable. Too young to know yet how to properly manage difficult emotions from abuse, I often felt ashamed of my feelings, and pushed them down. I pushed them down so far that I became unaware of what I was feeling or how to properly express those feelings. The one thing I knew was that if I was pleasing to others—especially if I was funny, helpful, pleasing, and compliant—then they would like me. This is common for victims; since we are stripped of self-worth, we search for external ways to cope and survive.
A few of my big coping mechanisms were in perfectionism and people-pleasing, which were tied to trying to find worth externally, all in an effort to win approval. Since I felt silenced and unseen in essential ways, I created these other ways to feel seen and heard. It was merit based, driven by what achievements I could earn, and how happy I could try to make others around me.
My coping mechanisms formed unhealthy attachments, which created a type of enslavement to a need for approval. To clarify, I don’t think validation is a bad thing, as it can serve as confirmation or help us form connections with others through healthy communication that deepens our understanding; yet I do think a consistent need for validation from others is not healthy. Why? Because I think it reveals a lack of confidence in God and self to know that whatever you are thinking, feeling, or deciding is right, good, and true without someone else’s valid stamp on it. If we’re constantly second guessing ourselves and/or God, we don’t trust Him, ourselves, or our ability to discern or hear His voice—or perhaps a combination of those.
Is Seeking Approval Always Bad, Though?
Approvals aren’t always wrong. We’re given advisors in college to help us choose our courses to fulfill our requirements for our majors, a process which requires approvals. Sometimes we might need to get an OK from our boss before sending something or making a major decision. Other times we might be wondering if our discernment is right about an important decision, so are looking for guidance from a spouse, trusted confidant, or spiritual director.
I have a mentor that serves on the board of my nonprofit, whose expertise I consult to help me navigate decisions I need to make. The difference is, I’m not referring to these types of healthy supportive structures in our lives which provide guidance, but rather a disordered attachment in which we require others’ approval to make decisions or to feel worthy.
Evaluating Your Need for Approval
There are a few fundamental issues with the approval attachment. Scripturally, I like to think of this in light of the parable in Matthew 7:24-27, where Jesus illustrates the difference between building the foundation of a house on rock versus sand. Christ shows wisdom in building a firm and proper foundation on the rock, Him. When we seek wisdom and try to live that way, it permeates our way of thinking and flows into our behavior, because knowledge forms sound decisions which then display actions based on good judgement. But, if we try to build our worth or base our decisions on the shifting sand of others’ thinking—which can be fickle, judgmental, or erroneous—then we’re foolish, because that worth lacks a proper foundation, so it will not stand up against tests and trials.
I think the simplest and hopefully most effective ways to evaluate areas where we have unhealthy attachments that need approval are to pose them in the form of questions. So, if you too are struggling with the need for approval (whether a lot or a little, because most of us humans do to some degree—even if it’s just #6), you can pray and ponder through these to see what insights the Lord wants to give you.
- Are you bound to the approval of certain people or to mostly anyone who expresses their opinions about you?
- How do you react (what do you say or do) when other people show disapproval?
- How do you manage “letting others down” when they disapprove?
- When is enough ever enough concerning approval for you? Has the approval of others ever truly satisfied you? If not, what do you think you are internally trying to compensate for?
- Do you see any difference between people loving you while also not always approving of some of your actions, behaviors, or decisions? Or do you consider any signs of disapproval as a general disapproval of you?
- Are you often posting things online, like on social media, to feel validated by others? If they do not like or respond to your posts positively, how does that affect you?
How Do I Break Free from the Need for Approval?
To address any deep-seated human struggles, we first need God’s grace, and the surest ways to have God pour out His grace upon us are through prayer and frequenting the sacraments. Remember, the one you most need approval from is God; so, are you living in a way worthy of Heaven, responding to His call on your life affirmatively, and seeking to remain in a state of grace?
Second, we need understanding. I shared with you where I traced the root of this issue back to my trauma. If we want to address something, finding the root will give us the understanding we need in order to know the why, why we think and behave the way we do. That understanding will help us to address those thoughts and behaviors in a productive way, one which begins with self-compassion, in acknowledgement and acceptance of ourselves and our needs. And from there, we can evaluate areas that aren’t rooted in truth and goodness, and work on rescripting those areas of faulty thinking linked to behaviors driven by a need for approval.
Third, get an “accountability” partner. If this is a therapist (I’ve got one), it’ll be an added bonus, because they’re trained professionals that know how to navigate these types of pain points. Yet it can be any person who knows you on a deeper level that can show empathy to you while serving as a truth-teller to help you objectively see where some of your blind spots, pitfalls, and/or “room for improvement” reside. Having a third party is helpful, as we can’t be our own advisors if we truly want to experience authentic, lasting growth and restoration.
Fourth, ask God to deliver you from the need for approval. This requires a humble surrender to the Lord to bring about this change in you. Then be watchful to see how He brings that about in your life through the circumstances and situations around you.
It’s not only OK but healthy to be able to express our needs. Sometimes we all need some encouragement and validation. But that’s different from a woundedness that requires continual external approval to feel justified. If that is the case, when we abide and remain rooted in God and not in a need for approval, then we can trust that He will be at work within our actions, words, and opinions.
May we have the grace to abide and to break free from any enslavements to the approval of others, so that we can live in confidence with Our Creator. May He also provide others to affirm, encourage, and lift us up on our way, as these are healthy expressions of love and care that help to keep our spirits nurtured along our restoration journey.