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Who’re You Trying to Impress? 5 Ways to Overcome Your Approval Addiction
Unsplash / BBH Singapore
Lorelei Yang
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Wonky consultant with a passion for words
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Although we might be loath to admit it, many of us are probably guilty of checking engagement (likes, comments and thumbs-ups) on our social media posts more frequently than is probably healthy. I know I'm guilty of this, at least — I'm interested in seeing who's interested in my life based on my Instagram story views. 

However, as Instagram's trial of a version of its app without a publicly-viewable "like" count illustrates, there's a high probability that social media is amplifying approval-seeking behaviors that harm our mental and social health. This is especially true for teens: in February 2016, Tech Insider reporter Madison Malone Kircher spoke to numerous teens who reported deleting Instagram posts that didn't garner enough likes and were actively assessing follower to like ratios to assess the quality of an Instagram account.

While this seems like a frivolous example, it speaks to a larger, more troubling trend: approval addiction. Thanks to the ubiquity of social media, along with other external validators of our self-worth, more and more of us are becoming quite literally addicted to others' approval to validate ourselves. How can we break this harmful habit?

Approval addiction, defined

Gregory Jantz, an author of several books about addiction, notes, "People who are addicted to approval have a fragile ego. Their sense of self-esteem is dependent upon whether or not someone likes them, so in order for them to feel OK about themselves, they need to know they are liked." People with approval addiction rely on others to soothe their insecurities and satisfy their emotional needs and struggle with establishing self-confidence without others' external validation.

Signs of approval addiction

According to Hale Dwoskin, author of "The Sedona Method" and HuffPost Life contributor, having several of these telltale signs may indicate that you're an approval addict

  • You describe yourself as a "people pleaser
  • You're more interested in how many "friends" you have on Facebook versus how many you have in real life
  • You'll do anything your boss or romantic partner asks of you, even if it's unreasonable or puts you under excessive pressure
  • You have trouble saying no to people
  • You measure your success based on others' evaluations of you
  • You take on extra obligations at others' requests, only to resent them later
  • You haven't pursued your own dreams because someone else told you not to do so
  • You aren't sure what you want for yourself
  • Much of your free time is occupied with fulfilling others' needs, versus your own
  • Your guilt is overwhelming when you do something that someone doesn't approve of

What causes approval addiction?

Approval addiction can have a number of root causes. According to Habits for Wellbeing, these include: insecurity, poor self-image, low self-esteem, self-loathing or self-hatred and distorted thinking (defined as a sense that you aren't enough). Albert Ellis and Robert Harper, authors of "A Guide to Rational Living," argue that a need for approval often disguises and covers up feelings of worthlessness, which need to addressed in order to overcome approval addiction.

5 ways to overcome approval addiction.

1. Ask yourself why you're seeking someone's approval.

As a first step, Dwoskin suggests asking yourself why you're seeking someone's approval before doing so by asking the following questions. In many cases, you'll find that you don't actually need the other person's approval — and recognizing this fact is a step towards overcoming approval addiction.

2. Reframe others' opinions as merely stories, not statements of fact.

By thinking of others' opinions as interpretations of, rather than definitions of, the truth, you'll decrease their power over you. This will help you break away from allowing others to define your self-worth for you via their opinions. Related to this point, finding people who support you will also help you break free of approval addiction. This doesn't mean that those who support you can't criticize you when warranted; it merely means that your community should generally support your aspirations and identity.

3. Define what you want and pursue it.

Clearly defining what you want for yourself and boldly pursuing those goals will help you focus on yourself, rather than what others think of you. This will help you block out the noise of others' opinions and be true to yourself.

4. Replace irrational beliefs with positive ones.

Ellis and Harper contend that irrational beliefs cause distress and emotional problems, including approval addiction. If you believe that you need approval in order to love yourself and feel that you're valuable, that will become the case. To break out of this mindset, Ellis and Harper suggest replacing these beliefs with new, rational beliefs. As an example, you could say, "I'd like people's approval, but it's not a necessity. I'd rather accept myself as I am."

5. Develop — and repeat — a self-affirming mantra.

Writing for Psychology Today, Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D. suggests developing a self-affirming mantra to "[r]eframe the misguided assumption that approval will somehow bring you self-worth, dignity, and happiness." He suggests the following self-affirmations to remind yourself of your worth

  • “I am a worthy person whether or not I have the approval of others.” 
  • “I am a person who has free will and can determine the direction of my own actions without being driven by the demand for approval.”
  • “I am a rational, self-determining person with inherent worth and dignity.”

Breaking free of approval addiction can help you live a more authentic life, ignore the noise of others' opinions (especially when they're negative) and improve your mental health. With these tools at your disposal, you're well on your way to breaking free of approval addiction and living a more authentic life.

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