Is a Need for Approval Killing Your Talents and Creative Energy?

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Do you have an overwhelming need for approval from family, friends and colleagues? Does a need for approval make you anxious when it’s unpredictable? Maybe you have panic attacks, or heartburn when you try hard and don’t succeed in getting your need for approval granted.

Need for approval – a deep seated longing to be included, to belong and feel accepted

Keith a 35-year-old deputy manager in a retail chain feared sharing ideas for better customer care with his boss. He was bursting with visions of themed displays, including artists in residence and musicians doing exclusive performances that would enhance the profile of the chain. But his massive need for approval from authority figures closed his throat and blanked his mind.  Keith’s need for approval made him unable to risk sharing creativity that may yield rejection.

For as long as he could remember he always felt he wasn’t accepted by members of his family regarding his interests in painting, wood carving and horticulture. His parents dismissed those interests as impractical and not worth pursuing. The only thing they wanted from Keith was straight A’s or A+’s in academic subjects. Keith’s need for approval was satisfied only when he was acknowledged by his parents for his intellectual abilities. But his brother and sister didn’t like him for being better than them academically, and excluded him from their activities. Keith grew up lonely, longing to be loved. The only way he knew how was to play down his academic excellence and become a “don’t know!” sort of person. The need for approval made him swap his talents for helplessness so that others would interact with him, include him in their group and make him feel wanted.

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Need for approval from one set of people results in disapproval from another

Keith’s need for approval was satisfied at school when his teachers singled him out for his excellent grades recommending admission to classes for gifted children – but  dashed when he was ostracized by his peers, pushing him to lower his academic performance so that he would be accepted and included by his classmates. He never spoke of his artistic interests and talents to avoid upsetting his peers, once again feigning poor skills, latching onto anything the other kids got excited about – seeing it as a sure-fire way of being included.

Need for approval led Keith to be helpless and panicked

After finishing college and leaving academic life, Keith had no way of pleasing his family. He was left without a structure and strategy to feel connected to them. Keith felt lost when considering how to join peer groups that he could comfortably belong to. Feeling socially inept, empty and unstable, he relied on the structure provided by his father telling him what to do and how to do it. In other words, he became dependent on an authority figure to think and plan for him because if he did it right, his need for approval would be satisfied.

Keith did the same with his boss. Any ideas of doing things off his own bat including pursuing his artistic talents resulted in fully fledged stress related panic attacks, acid re-flux and nausea.

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Need for approval made Keith fearful of wasting his life as he faced middle age

As he approached his 40th birthday Keith became extremely anxious and agitated. His panic attacks became more frequent and he was alarmed that he wouldn’t be able to make enough money, buy a house, get married and have a family of his own. Keith felt really trapped in his job and couldn’t see any improvement in his prospects. He was more insecure than ever.

The thought of making wood carvings and selling them made him come out in a sweat. The idea of setting up a small market garden for specialty herbs made his head spin and filled his mouth with nausea. He talked himself out of everything that reflected his unique talents that ached to be fulfilled. Staying in the safety of a structure imposed by authority figures felt necessary for survival.

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Need for Approval or Approval of Self?

The escalation of his panic attacks brought Keith into individual counseling. He was desperate to feel normal, and was afraid that he might find out there was something really wrong with him. He felt tongue tied and unable to get his words out, hoping he wouldn’t be seen as a nut job and sent off to hospital! Gradually he felt the interest of his psychotherapist and began to talk about his deepest fears, and the shame of having done stupid things to get in with his peer group at school and college. His need for approval from the therapist was apparent right from the start, wanting to do the right thing at the right time to ensure that he wouldn’t be fired!

Need for Approval Transformed with psychotherapy into Trust for Self

Each time Keith asked the therapist what to do or whether he should consider doing something, his therapist pointed out that he had a good mind and was able to make his own decisions but was wedded to a need for approval. But it was different from the kind of reassurance that a friend may give him, brushing off the seriousness of his internal torture. He was taken seriously and shown his good mind. Keith came to understand that he was approved of in therapy for respecting his ideas and wishes and acting on them when they furthered his growth, development and comfort with himself.

Keith’s dependence on the need for approval shifted to a faith in himself- but only after he had consistent, reliable and stable faith in him demonstrated by his therapist. He was encouraged to reclaim his academic brilliance, his artistic skills and supported when he was ready to dip a toe in the water of venturing out of his comfort zone.

Over time Keith discovered that when he did his own thing he was approved of, he was seen as taking care of himself and that made him more attractive to others. He joined organizations where he could learn more about horticulture and found that his ideas were not only welcomed but eagerly taken up.

The need for approval abated as Keith’s shame diminished and he embraced his natural born talents as something desirable, useful and life affirming.

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Need for approval turns into self-reliance and trust in self and no more panic attacks.

Keith got approval from his therapist that was of the right sort; what he should have had growing up so that he developed his social skills and personal gifts – not because he was supplicating himself in order to get approval and become dependent on the therapist.

He needed to approve of himself and use that to develop his self-esteem; sense of self-worth and trust in himself to use his god given creativity and intelligence to feed himself and stay fed. He finally gave up depending on his family and boss to dictate to him in order to feel wanted and acceptable. But it took bravery to go into therapy and expose his shame, acid re-flux and panic attacks.


Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2019

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