You Need Nobody to Make You Somebody

Recognition, attention, and  acceptance are gifts most people hunger for. Songstress and diva Madonna confesses: “I became an overachiever to get approval from the world.” Unlike Madonna, however, most people don’t admit they desperately yearn for recognition and respect. If I were to claim people are starving for approval, would I be overstating the case? American psychologist William James didn’t think so, for he wrote, “The deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”

Take another look at what William James wrote. He taught that we crave approval; he didn’t say we need it. This is an important distinction, for just because we want approval doesn’t mean it’s necessary for our happiness. True, some psychologists teach that we need approval, but theymay be confusing the needs of a child with that of an adult. When I was an infant, I needed diapers, but as an adult I don’t need them any more (okay, that may be a bad example, for in a few more years, I may need them again).

Although young children need approval from their parents to develop confidence and feelings of self-worth, mature adults are independent and do not need the approval of others. How many brilliant thinkers, visionary leaders, imaginative inventors, and creative artists were laughed at and scorned by the then unappreciative masses? Fortunately for the world, those who were ahead of their time did not let the disparaging remarks of others stop them. If the world is to benefit by our contributions, no matter how small they may be, we must follow the examples of those brave souls who did what they thought was right with no regard to the criticism they received.

When you look for approval from others, you lose the freedom to be yourself. The Latin Poet Claudius Claudianus expressed the same idea, “The person who seeks all their applause from outside has their happiness in another’s keeping.” Even more to the point was The Tao Te Ching, which was written in China about 2400 years ago. In it, it says, “Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner.”

Yet, many people still believe they need the approval of others for their happiness. Their minds are full of destructive thoughts such as: “I can’t stand it when people disrespect me. I have to be appreciated by others because if I am not, that means I am worthless. I must get the recognition I deserve from others.” As adults, we are capable of rational and critical thinking, and we need to use it to dispute and challenge any ideas that threaten our happiness.

Let’s begin by using critical thinking to analyze the above negative thoughts. “I can’t stand it when people disrespect me” really means “I am unhappy when people disrespect me.” Who says you can’t stand to be disrespected? Who says you can’t live without approval, can’t stand being rejected, hate to be ignored, and must get attention? You do! You make your own rules for life. But why would you want to make rules that work against you? Don’t you realize it’s impossible to be appreciated by everyone? Isn’t it impossible to go through life without being disrespected by someone? So, if you believe that you must be appreciated to be happy, you automatically condemn yourself to unhappiness! Does that make sense? Is that rational? The lesson, then, is don’t demand approval. Don’t expect it. Simply prefer it. We don’t need approval from everyone any more than we need an unlimited amount of food. Obviously, we need some food for survival and happiness, and so it is with approval.

Besides, what is this nonsense about not being able to stand it? What exactly will happen if someone disrespects you? Will you melt? Change into a pillar of salt? Explode into a thousand pieces? No, you will simply fume. Why will you get angry? Because you made it your rule. So, change the stupid (irrational) rule. Change it to: I not only can but will tolerate disrespect and criticism from others because my happiness is more important than their weaknesses. Aren’t others rude to you because they feel threatened by you, feel insecure, lack confidence, or are jealous or envious? Why get upset about their weaknesses?

Let’s analyze the second negative thought, “I have to be appreciated by others because if I am not, that means I am worthless.” The first part of this thought means, “I will be unhappy unless I am appreciated.” That’s just a stupid (irrational) rule, so change it for the reasons already given. The part about being worthless is equally irrational. Will the value of the Mona Lisa decline if you do not appreciate it? Of course not! Why will your value disappear just because someone does not appreciate it? The answer, obviously, is it will not fade or disappear, but remain intact. So, give up that silly notion.

Now, let’s look at the third and final example of a negative thought: “I must get the recognition I deserve from others.” The first part is based on an irrational rule (“I must”), so change the rule. As for the rest of the negative thought, what’s the problem about getting the recognition you deserve? I always get the recognition I deserve. I get it from myself. Why would I need someone else to tell me what I already know? Don’t you know when you do something worthwhile? Isn’t that enough recognition? Admittedly, it’s always pleasant to be recognized by others, but it isn’t necessary. So, don’t make your happiness contingent on the whims of others. As long as we do worthwhile things, we will become a worthwhile person, thereby receiving all the self-approval we hope for.

It is helpful to remember how much others want to be accepted and appreciated. Why? Because armed with that knowledge, we can make their lives more pleasant by treating them with respect. Not because we are obligated to do so, but because we want to do so. For like St. Francis de Sales, we will come to realize that, “God is present everywhere, and every person is his work.” So, you see, when we become bearers of gifts and offer our approval to everyone we meet, we become more than kind; we become Godlike.

Example Case Study

A reader writes, “I read your article about the need for approval and I wanted some more insight because this is something I deal with on a daily basis. Here are some questions I have.”

1. “I understand what you said about not needing approval from people but, why is that when people disrespect me I feel terrible?”

A: It’s not surprising that you feel hurt when others disapprove of you. After all, the craving to be appreciated is an intrinsic part of us. It serves a useful purpose. You see, the wish to be accepted causes us to act in a way that the group approves of. When we all act as expected, harmony prevails. That’s the benefit of this innate desire to be appreciated.

But there are disadvantages as well. For example, what if the group you belong to is prejudiced and treats a minority unfairly? At such a time we shouldn’t behave in the same way to win their approval because their behavior is damaging, detrimental, divisive, and destructive. There’s no point in promoting harmony in a small group when a larger group will suffer. No, at such a time, you must stand up for what is right. But lead by the power of your example, not by the example of your power. That is, don’t try to force others to change and don’t attack them, as that will only create resistance and cause them to dig in deeper.

Make it a rule to always do your best and do what is right, for when you do so, you will win the approval of yourself, and won’t be dependent on others. Remember, if you are worried about the approval of others, you become their prisoner. Don’t fall into this trap. Set yourself free by being your own standard-bearer.

2. “I am troubled by events that happened years ago. I know it shouldn’t bother me but it does.”

A: When someone disrespects you, the first thing to do is consider the source. For example, if you realized the attacker was mentally ill, rather than feeling hurt, you would feel sorry for that person. What if the person attacking you was prejudiced? If their attacks were based on misinformation, misrepresentations, half-truths, distortions, and false conclusions, wouldn’t you want to correct them?

Read this carefully. A major cause of your problem is the attacks you are experiencing come from a biased person. That prejudiced person is you and the attacks are your own self-talk. It is time to fight back, time to challenge your thoughts. The next time you find yourself thinking that someone is disrespecting you, ask yourself a barrage of questions such as, “Why am I so mistrustful of others? Do I really believe everyone has nothing better to do than spend their time thinking about how to attack me? Does thinking it is so, make it so? Do I really believe people are so mean, or is it just my imagination that is being fueled by my own insecurities?”

3.  “Recently I stopped helping coworkers at my job because I felt the teamwork wasn’t reciprocal and I was never thanked, so I didn’t feel appreciated. Did I do the right thing?”

A: Do you realize what you are saying? You withdrew your support because the cooperation wasn’t reciprocal? Do you mean your support was conditional? You felt that you would help them, but only if they helped you? What type of cooperation is that? Do you really think you can feel that way without the members of the team sensing how you feel? Tell me, would your feelings drive others away or attract them to you? You complain about being disrespected, but you disrespect others by judging and evaluating their performance. While they were working, you were taking notes on how well they reciprocated. Your cooperation did not flow from your heart, and they could tell. And note that you do not approve of your team members. Isn’t your non-approval driving them away from you?
Even a thief loves those who are kind to him. Even a gangster cooperates with those who reciprocate. But we are called upon to do better. We are asked to do what needs to be done and asked to do the right thing. Shouldn’t our only wish be to do that which ennobles us? When we live by these principles, life itself will shower us with approval. What more can we ask for?

We have to give away what we wish to receive. Do you wish to be respected? Respect others and you will be respected! Do you want cooperation? Cooperate with others! Do you want kindness? Be kind to others! But this law only works when we act with a pure heart. If you are polite to others because you want something in return, it doesn’t work because people will see through you and realize you are insincere. But when you act out of love, the world will come clamoring to your doorstep, anxious to help in every way.

Here’s another point: “People who want the most approval get the least and people who need approval the least get the most.” (Wayne Dyer) This idea was expressed differently by Maurice Chevalierwho said, “Those whose approval you seek most give you the least.” Can you understand why these two statements are true? You see, when you badly want approval from others, they see you as needy and desperate. This drives people away. But, if you are comfortable with yourself and don’t demand that everyone treat you with respect, others will find you easy to get along with, which will result in many friends.

 4. “Nowadays its hard for me to even fake a smile because I don’t want people to try to take my niceness for weakness and disrespect or mistreat me.”

A: Think of someone nice. Perhaps a relative, former school teacher, or friend. Do you think that person is ‘weak’? Of course not. Kindness is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. The fear that kindness will be thought of as weakness is a sign of weakness. Stop listening to that negative self-talk in your head and start challenging your negative beliefs.

5. “People rarely approach me, probably because they think I’m standoffish.”

A: People don’t avoid us because they think we are standoffish; they stay away because we are standoffish. The best way to make friends is to become one. Friends don’t have conditional relationships; they don’t judge and evaluate one another. Let go of your fears and be the friend you want others to be. Follow this suggestion and you will end up with more friends than you can handle.

Isn’t it great to have problems? They give us the opportunity to develop our problem solving skills, grow stronger, acquire wisdom, understand more about the complexity of life, and experience the joy of overcoming difficulty. Author Elinor MacDonald speaks to everyone – including me and our reader – when she writes, “All of your problems and difficulties are the instruction of life, pointing out to you where you are wrong, where you are lacking in wisdom and understanding, where you need to change so that you can open yourself to a greater degree of good than you have yet experienced.”


I NEED YOUR LOVE – IS THAT TRUE?: How to Stop Seeking Love, Approval, and Appreciation and Start Finding Them Instead by Byron Katie and Michael Katz

APPROVAL ADDICTION: Overcoming Your Need to Please Everyone by Joyce Meyer

THE DISEASE TO PLEASE: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome by Harriet B. Braiker


LOVING YOURSELF Getting Beyond Approval and Perfectionism