A lot is written about standing up for yourself, about having your own identity, about NOT needing others’ approval.
Perhaps not so often talked about, is how approval-seeking can have some positive uses.
THE FUNCTION OF APPROVAL-SEEKING
There are at least three ways in which human minds and bodies have developed to seek approval:
To gain additional information from a peer group
To gain support from a peer group
To avoid being inhibited by a peer group
Watch a baby. From the get-go, it watches its caregivers obsessively, seeking clues as to their responses, likes and dislikes.
Before too long, it has learned at least three ways to gain freedom:
Using caregivers as a proxy information device for the outside world. (e.g. parent shouts at child to stand back from the road – danger inferred)
Using caregivers as a support system (e.g. parent indicates circumstances under which they will support child’s efforts and behaviour)
Ensuring caregivers do not damage freedom too much (e.g. child learns what NOT to say or admit to parents, so as not to trigger dispproval)
We do the same thing as adults – it’s just a bit more subtle and disguised.
Think, for instance, of a group of friends or colleagues you are part of. You use the same strategies:
You use your friends as an emergency information system. (e.g. the group is expected to warn each other about mutual dangers)
You use your friends as a support system. (e.g. you are aware of the social rules your group imposes if you are to benefit from their support)
You keep some personal boundaries from your friendship groups (e.g. you don’t tell them everything, because they might cramp your style)
In the above ways, approval-seeking can be viewed as part of an elaborate, biologically-based system for managing interactions with those around you so as to:
Gain information to keep you safe and well-informed. (The more you keep in with others, the more you learn.)
Gain support and resources. (The better you are at demonstrating you follow others’ rules, the more they will trust and support you.)
Secure some limited freedom. (The better you judge WHEN to keep quiet, the more personal freedom you can enjoy.)
This system can go wrong, especially in childhood. In particular:
If a peer group fails to protect an individual, then that individual may stop looking to it for information. (e.g. school fails to protect child, child dismisses school as not worth paying attention to.)
If a peer group fails to offer a support system worth having, an individual may stop obeying its rules. (e.g. child observes that parent is not providing help when needed, child loses motivation to seek parent’s approval by ‘behaving’.)
If a peer group is overly-invasive. (e.g. parent is so watchful that child has no private life, so child develops obsessive secrecy and self-control behaviours to compensate)
Just for today, maybe watch yourself interacting with your own peer groups. These can be friendships, colleague relationships, family relationships, or any social groups you may identify with.
Are you feeling protected? Supported? Is your privacy respected when necessary? If not, are you showing signs of rebellion by dismissing others, misbehaving towards others, or indulging in obsessive secrecy or self-controlling behaviours?
Now maybe turn the tables and think of the peer groups you form an important part of. Are you protecting your members? Are you supporting them? Are you respecting their personal lives and privacy?
We rightly encourage people not to be too obsessed with seeking approval.
But, to balance this, we need to appreciate the important role approval-seeking has had in our life.
Seeking others’ approval is a normal social function, but things can go wrong.
We can be vigilant, to make sure that, given this instinctive need for approval, our relationships are mutually supportive and respectful.