For the first 30 years of my life, getting other people’s approval was the most important thing in the world to me.  It was the main motivator in my life. I got great grades… mostly because that earned the approval of my parents and teachers.  I practiced the violin a LOT, got two college degrees in performance, and made that my first career… mostly because playing well earned the approval of parents, teachers, conductors, and audiences.  I was really nice to everyone all the time because… well, you can guess.

Lucky for me, the things that got me approval were mostly beneficial to me.  But, I started to see the downside when I learned that getting approval was just a way to cope with the feeling “there’s something wrong with me.”  As long as OTHERS liked me, I could ignore that voice deep inside for a little while longer.  The cost of ignoring the “something wrong with me” voice was that I also buried many other internal voices, like the one that could tell me what really mattered to ME.

I’ll never forget the time that a close friend who often was in big crisis was having yet another major drama, and I was preparing to jump in and do whatever I could to make it better.  Another friend asked me, “Do you want to rescue her again?”  It was such a perplexing question to me, nearly incomprehensible, actually.  The words, “Do you want,” just didn’t make any sense.  I realized then that I was so dependent upon others’ approval, that I rarely (if ever) stopped to wonder if I was doing something because I wanted to.  It was hard to even connect with what I wanted.

I work with clients on this issue all the time, too.  When I suggest that this survival mechanism is something they can unlearn, they get scared. ” Am I going to turn into a competitive jerk?  I don’t want to be THAT guy!”  But that never happens, because the alternative to this coping mechanism is to express one’s uniqueness, and our uniqueness is the part of us that is connected to everyone and everything else in the world.  So, expressing uniqueness actually invites others to express their uniqueness and well-being. It’s a win-win.

One of my clients recently had a big breakthrough in this realm recently.  Someone in her work group suggested a strategy that seemed like the group would agree to, but my client thought it was a bad idea.  It’s a situation she’s been in with this group before and disagreeing hasn’t gone well for her, but she did it, anyway.  And to her great surprise, the strongest voices in the group immediately agreed and said they were thinking exactly the same thing.

This is a phenomenon I see a lot – when my client makes a fundamental change how she feels about herself (this time in the realm of expressing her opinion), the people around her seem to shift their feeling and behavior towards her.  We really underestimate how much of others’ behavior towards us is directly generated from the feeling with which we express ourselves.

As for myself, I can say that life is so much easier now, not having to constantly guess what might make someone happy at any given moment.  When someone asks me what I want to do, I can actually answer and feel comfortable saying it out loud.  And that friend who was always in crisis?  When I stopped jumping in to rescue her, she started to find more inner strength and resilience, and she seems happier these days.  Like I said, it’s a win-win.

Do you do things mostly for other people’s approval or so they’ll like you?  Or do you find yourself obsessing over what other people think of you?  I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.