Approval Seeking: Breaking Free from the Maze of External Validation

Imagine for a moment that you’re navigating a labyrinthine maze with towering walls and narrow, winding passageways. With each step, you’re greeted by signs—some pointing toward “Acceptance,” others toward “Rejection.”

Your heart pounds as you make each decision, partly guided by the ever-watchful eyes painted on the walls, their gaze following your every move.

It’s as if they’re judging you, compelling you to pick the right path, to make the “right” choices that will lead you to that elusive center of the maze.

A place tantalizingly labeled “Approval.”

Sound familiar? Perhaps this metaphorical maze resonates because it mirrors an internal struggle we all face: the quest for approval. You might not be stuck in an actual maze, but you’re navigating the social labyrinth of life, ever conscious of the approving or disapproving eyes of family, friends, coworkers, and even strangers. You adjust your route accordingly, picking paths that you believe will win you validation, love, or status.

Why do we do this?

What’s at the core of this nearly universal human behavior?

And perhaps more importantly, how can we escape this confining maze to seek approval from the most important judge of all—ourselves?

This journey we’re embarking on will delve into the psychology of approval seeking, explore its emotional and relational costs, and arm you with practical tools to find your way out of the maze. So, are you ready to take the first step?

The Psychology of Approval Seeking

“Why do I care so much about what others think?” Have you ever caught yourself pondering this question? Well, you’re not alone. The drive to seek approval is deeply embedded in the human psyche, and multiple theories suggest it stems from our evolutionary desire for social belonging.1

A sense of belonging to a group improved our ancestors’ chances of survival; therefore, they evolved to seek approval as a mechanism to ensure they remained part of a community. Studies like those published in the “Psychological bulletin” have demonstrated the evolutionary underpinnings of approval-seeking behavior, linking it back to these survival mechanisms.

Our Brain’s Role

Our brains have a fascinating role in reinforcing this behavior. Whenever you get a thumbs-up, a compliment, or a pat on the back, a like on IG, your brain releases dopamine—a feel-good neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward.

This biochemical response acts like a carrot on a stick, luring you to seek more of these validating experiences. A range of neuroscience research confirm this dopamine-driven cycle as the biochemical basis for our craving for approval.

So, the question arises: if approval-seeking behavior is wired into our brains and has been shaped by evolutionary forces, is it even possible to break free from its grips? The answer is yes, but it requires self-awareness and intentional action.

The Root of the Matter

Early in human history, belonging to a tribe or community wasn’t just about social comfort—it was a matter of life and death. Being part of a group meant access to shared resources and protection from predators. Those who were ostracized were often left to fend for themselves, reducing their chances of survival.

This reality cultivated an instinctive need to be accepted, to gain the group’s approval as a way to secure one’s place within that protective sphere.

Many studies explore these concepts in depth, pointing out that our prehistoric ancestors who were good at getting along with others had a survival advantage. This evolutionary pressure sculpted a part of human behavior, making us natural approval-seekers.

But we’re not fending off saber-toothed tigers or hunting in packs. True, but the neural pathways shaped by those evolutionary forces are still present, influencing our modern lives in ways both big and small. The stakes might not be as high now, but the yearning for social acceptance and validation remains, manifesting in myriad ways—from obsessing over social media likes to conforming to societal norms and expectations.

Does that mean we’re destined to remain in this cycle, like a hamster on a wheel? Not necessarily.

Personal Reflection: The Dopamine High of Social Media

I remember the first time one of my social media posts got a hundred likes. The sensation was akin to a little burst of euphoria. Every new notification seemed to validate my sense of self-worth. It was as if my brain was reveling in a dopamine high. But over time, I noticed something disconcerting: I started crafting my posts, not based on what I wanted to share, but based on what I thought would garner the most likes. The dopamine hits were great, but they led me down a path where my content—my voice—wasn’t genuinely mine anymore.

So here’s the million-dollar question: If our brain is wired this way, how do we break the cycle? Can we step out of this biochemical loop that keeps us craving external validation? The short answer is yes, but it demands a certain level of self-awareness and a commitment to change. After all, understanding the “why” behind our actions is the first step toward meaningful transformation. Are you ready to take that step?

The Downside of Approval Addiction

What happens when the quest for approval becomes more than just a social nicety? When it turns into an addiction? Approval addiction may not be as immediately harmful as substance abuse, but it’s an insidious issue that can quietly erode your sense of self and well-being. Let’s delve into the shadowy side of this behavior.

The Emotional Toll

Constantly seeking validation from external sources can lead to emotional exhaustion. It’s like being on a roller coaster that never stops, full of highs when you get that nod of approval and lows when you don’t. People who rely heavily on external validation for their self-worth experience higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, and lower levels of self-esteem.

Relational Costs

In relationships—be they friendships, romantic partnerships, or familial bonds—the quest for constant approval can distort the dynamics.

You may find yourself suppressing your opinions, needs, or desires to avoid potential conflict and ensure you remain in the other person’s good graces.

But what’s the cost? Such behavior can lead to inauthentic relationships, where you’re loved or liked for the persona you project rather than who you genuinely are.

The Paradox of Inauthenticity

Here’s the irony: the more you contort yourself to gain approval, the less authentic you become. And people are pretty good at sniffing out inauthenticity.

The result?

The very approval you’re seeking remains elusive because people are naturally more inclined to approve of and connect with individuals who are genuine.

The downside of approval addiction is significant, affecting both our emotional well-being and the quality of our relationships. But awareness is the first step toward change.

Do you see elements of approval addiction in your own life? If so, how might you go about reshaping those tendencies?

The Road to Self-Approval

You have the power to change, to rewrite your narrative, to become the author of your own life story.

Cultivating Self-Awareness

The first step in breaking free from approval addiction is cultivating self-awareness. Know thyself, as the saying goes.

What are your triggers?

What situations make you most vulnerable to seeking external validation?

By understanding these patterns, you can become more proactive in addressing them. Various psychological studies have emphasized the importance of self-awareness in behavioral change.

The Power of Affirmations

Words have power—especially the words you say to yourself. Have you ever tried positive affirmations? These are short, potent statements aimed at creating a positive self-image.

When done consistently, affirmations can help shift your mindset and reduce the need for external approval. Affirmations can be effective tools in modifying behavior and thought patterns.2

Set Personal Boundaries

Creating and maintaining personal boundaries is like installing a sophisticated security system around your self-worth. These boundaries help you navigate social interactions without losing yourself in the process.

Saying ‘no,’ expressing your preferences, and standing up for what you believe in are all ways to exercise your boundaries. These actions signal to both yourself and others that your self-worth is not up for negotiation.

Develop Inner Metrics for Success

Shift your focus from external validation to internal metrics for success. What genuinely matters to you? Is it integrity, creativity, kindness, or perhaps something else?

Make those qualities your criteria for self-approval. ‘Instead of measuring your worth by the yardstick of other people’s opinions, develop your own internal compass.

The road to self-approval isn’t a straight path; it’s more like a winding journey. There will be setbacks and detours, but each step you take, however tentative, brings you closer to a more authentic, fulfilling life. Are you ready to take that first step? Because you, just as you are, are more than enough.

Practical Steps to Break Free From Approval Seeking

Here are some practical steps you can start implementing today to break free from the shackles of approval addiction.

Journaling for Self-Insight

Sometimes, our thoughts and feelings become clearer when they’re laid out on paper. Journaling is an excellent tool for cultivating self-awareness.

Write down instances when you felt the need for approval, analyze what triggered it, and explore how you could respond differently next time.

A study in the “Journal of Psychological Science” found that expressive writing could lead to significant psychological benefits, including reduced stress levels and increased emotional well-being.

Challenge Your Thoughts

Every time you catch yourself seeking external validation, pause. Ask yourself: “Is this really important? What am I hoping to achieve? Will this matter in a week, a month, or a year?”

Challenging your thoughts helps you assess whether your approval-seeking is a necessity or a conditioned response.

Seek Supportive Company

They say you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If you’re surrounded by individuals who perpetually demand conformity and suppress individuality, breaking free from approval-seeking becomes a Herculean task.

Seek out relationships that enrich you and offer emotional safe spaces for you to be yourself.

Learn to Self-Validate

Every time you accomplish something—no matter how small—celebrate it. Don’t wait for someone else to pat you on the back.

You could keep a ‘wins’ journal to record these achievements or even share them with a trusted friend who celebrates your individuality.

Take Small Risks

Start with small acts that express your genuine self, even if you’re concerned they might not be received well. It could be as simple as suggesting a different restaurant for a group dinner or wearing an outfit that’s more “you” than what’s typically considered fashionable.

The more you practice, the easier it becomes to be authentic.

Finding Your Own Way in the Maze

Life is often compared to a journey, but it can also be a maze—a labyrinth of choices, pathways, and dead-ends, populated with the voices of others telling us which way to go. The cacophony can be overwhelming, making it easy to lose our way, to forget that we have our own internal compass that can guide us through the complexities.

In your trek through the maze, remember that the walls are not as impermeable as they seem. They’re constructed from social expectations, past experiences, and self-doubt—elements that are mutable, changeable. You hold the chisel and the hammer, and you have the power to reshape your path. Isn’t that liberating to consider?

In your own life, are you ready to confront the walls you’ve built? Can you pause and listen to your internal compass, acknowledging that the most valuable approval comes from within?

The process of change may be gradual, full of twists and turns, but every step you take is a piece of the puzzle falling into place.

So go ahead. Challenge the norms, question the status quo, and most importantly, be unapologetically yourself. In doing so, you’re not just finding your own way in the maze—you’re also creating a map for others to follow. What could be more fulfilling than that? Take that first step. Your journey to self-approval and authentic living awaits, and it’s a trip worth taking.

  1. Baumeister, Roy F., and Mark R. Leary. “The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation.” Psychological bulletin 117, no. 3 (1995): 497.
  2. Harris, Peter R., and Tracy Epton. “The impact of self‐affirmation on health cognition, health behaviour and other health‐related responses: A narrative review.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 3, no. 6 (2009): 962-978. (Full PDF) ↩︎

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