Confessions of a Recovering Approval Addict
Approval addiction has been a defining force in my life, although the extent of the problem never occurred to me until my early 30’s.
I was always a high-achieving kid who took pride in good grades and gold stars—the stereotypical first-born child—but I never thought there was anything wrong with that. Then one day I just admitted to someone that I had zero self-confidence, and it was like a lightbulb went off.
I realized I’d been trying to compensate for low self-esteem my entire life by being a people-pleaser and trying to win approval from anyone and everyone.
That’s the textbook definition of approval addiction. At least I’m in good company. Comedian Faith Salie wrote an entire book about her complicated relationship with approval. In Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much, she recounts the sometimes ridiculous things she’s done to try to earn it—including seeking approval from people she eventually realized would never give it to her.
Although my desire for approval never led me to the stage or compelled me to undergo an exorcism, I absolutely identify with her struggle. Here’s what approval addiction looked like for me.
One of my earliest memories of school was bringing a plastic bag of E.L. Fudge cookies to recess in first grade and watching them disappear within minutes. I kept giving them away until I realized there wasn’t a single one left for me. As I got older, I started giving away homework answers, school supplies and even some of my ideas, allowing other people to take the credit for them.
When I was about 8, I remember my grandma giving me a “worry stone” that I could hold when I felt anxious—which was all the time. But I didn’t worry about monsters under my bed or ghosts in the closet; I worried about performance and acceptance. My best friend wasn’t going to be in my class this year—what if I didn’t make any other friends? What if I failed a test? Struck out? Couldn’t finish the dreaded mile run for the President’s Challenge fitness test? Didn’t score high enough on the SATs to earn a scholarship? I set high standards for myself, but I was more afraid of disappointing others than anything else.
It was like a broken reflex. Someone would bump into me, and my immediate reaction would be, “I’m so sorry!” A coworker would complain about having to go back and fix errors I pointed out, and I’d apologize for creating extra work. One of my friends didn’t like the way another friend was acting. I’d apologize on his behalf and even make excuses for him.
It’s healthy and normal to be attracted to confident people. But I was turned off by confidence because I had so little of it myself. I believed if they didn’t need me, they would eventually leave me. So I sought out people who I believed needed me more than I needed them—people who seemed more lonely, more awkward or just a bit less experienced with relationships. Insecure people made me feel more secure.
Somewhere along the line, I remember hearing that no one can laugh at you if you laugh at yourself first. Sure, it’s good to laugh at yourself if you trip on the stairs or fall out of your chair, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stand up for yourself or someone else who’s being mocked. As long as I was laughing or smiling, I was likable and agreeable—no matter how I really felt.
For as long as I can remember, praise from others has been my primary motivation for doing things. I worked hard in school not because I was particularly interested in the subjects or had big dreams for myself, but because I wanted to be the best. I wanted people to praise my essays, my artwork—even my mastery of random historical facts. As a small-town reporter, I looked to my boss and others in the community for that praise. When I inevitably had to cover things that made people furious or upset, I felt physically ill.
As an approval addict, I desperately craved attention. But I’m also an introvert, so I didn’t exactly command attention upon walking into a room. I had to be sneaky about seeking it. That’s how I found myself going out to bars with friends and making it my goal to get someone to buy me a drink. I was never outright deceptive about my marital status. My wedding ring was clearly visible to anyone who was looking. But there were times when we’d be 20 minutes into a conversation before it came up. I wasn’t looking for anything more than conversation and a compliment. I craved those compliments—even though there was no shortage of them from my husband.
My deep-rooted insecurities about my appearance surfaced in strange ways. When the guy in the Stanley Steemer van whistled loudly in my direction, I bragged about it later. When an older man hollered, “Daaaamn girl, bring that ass back over here!” as I walked down the street, I should have been annoyed. Instead, I just smiled, thankful I was still getting attention.
I didn’t like to be the naysayer. When I had concerns about a project deadline or an idea I didn’t think would work, I hesitated to bring them up. Everyone else seemed to be on board, so…I’d just make it work. My colleagues told me how “nice” and “agreeable” I was, and it took me a long time to realize that wasn’t necessarily a compliment.
At a certain point, I realized I had been so desperate to please other people that I had no idea what I actually wanted.
Did I even like where I was living? What I was doing? The rhythm of my daily life? This is one of the dark sides of people-pleasing—eventually, you’ll find you haven’t given enough thought to what you actually want for yourself.
I’ve gotten a lot better about recognizing approval addiction and people-pleasing behavior. Although the tendencies are still there, I no longer feel the need to keep the peace at all times. I don’t hesitate to tell a client that they need to adjust their expectations to align with their budget. I’ll call out someone I love when they’re engaging in destructive behavior (or just being a jerk.) I set healthy boundaries with my time and my friendships.
But there’s still a part of me that wonders whether my future children will have to learn all this the hard way like I did—especially if I have a daughter. While I believe a lot of people-pleasing or approval-seeking is learned behavior, there must be some innate aspect to it as well. I don’t see this same need to please in my sisters (though maybe it’s just harder to recognize.) And my parents were never the kind of people who pressured us to excel; I put that pressure on myself.
Knowing what I know now, I hope I can help them have a healthy relationship with approval. As Salie says, it’s OK to seek applause—but the best applause to seek is from yourself.
Confessions of a Recovering Approval Addict
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