Do you find yourself pleasing others sometimes at the cost of your own personal preferences and happiness? Do you feel utterly dejected when faced with criticism? Do you find buying yourself gadgets and products not because they cater to your senses but because they are in trend? Do you engage in endorsing religious or moral content in virtual space, not because it appealed to your inner self but thinking about the impact it will have on people’s perception about you? Do you find yourself agreeing on debatable topics with the majority, be it related to political or social discourse even though your inner self is filled with doubt and questions related to the theme? Are you a victim of frantically trying to finish watching a series on Netflix or other platforms even though it is not appealing to your interests but because everybody else seems to be watching and talking about it? If your answer to the above questions is a ‘yes’, then it’s worth the time to understand more about social approval and its psychological underpinnings.
The need for social approval motivates people to act consistently with social standards to gain acceptance and avoid rejection. Human beings as social creatures have the desire to be recognized to establish a sense of self-worthiness. Approval, inclusion, or rejection by relevant others or in a social circle is often central to our lives. In real life and in virtual space, we come across different types of individuals. There is one set of people who are busy in pleasing others and presenting the most ideal image of themselves to secure access and acceptance in certain groups. Some simply don’t care about what others might think of them, though their percentage appears to be relatively small. Another vast majority finds itself oscillating between pleasing others and finding peace with their independent thinking.
There is no harm in seeking social approval or engaging in social validation unless this need grows to the extent that our self-worth gets dependent on others opinion. It has been noted that excessive striving for approval is often rooted in feelings of inferiority and inadequacy, where the person struggles hard to please everyone around and gain acceptance in society to nurture his self-worth positively. Such people starving for approval, attempting to get acknowledgement from others for their self-validation begin to end up living on the edge or dissatisfied when their desires are not met. For instance, they post a picture on Instagram or a witty articulation on Facebook and keep frequently gazing at the post for somebody to like and comment. If the post doesn’t receive the expected attention; it leads them to a vicious cycle of negative analysis.
The question here that requires contemplation is why many of us feel so deeply the need for social approval?
In a research published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience by Dar Meshi, Carmen Morawetz and Hauke R. Heekeren; it was detected in brain imaging that a certain kind of pleasure is activated in a specific area of the brain when people get constructive feedback about themselves. However, the researches are further inconclusive about the effect of such pleasure being authentic or healthy for one’s self-concept. The psychoanalytic concepts address some of the hidden reasons behind experiencing such pleasure in receiving praise and validation. According to psychoanalysts, approval-seeking is often a ‘psychological defense’ and it makes people feel good when it is used to successfully conceal something that a person does not want
to see about himself. When we are unconsciously looking for approval, we attempt to neutralize the self-doubt that permeates the inward life of most of us, at different levels. Even the people around us who appear extremely confident can have fragments of self-doubt in their psyche. When we go chasing for social approval, it implies that we are living more at the surface of ourselves, dependent on our Ego (the social component in us) to guide and give us a sense of identity.
For most of us, the feeling of social approval begins at a very early stage and manifest all through our lives in one form or another. After all, what is the primary thing we do as children when we accomplish something? We look up to our parents for an acknowledgement (approval) and validation of our achievements. As a child, our existence and well-being greatly depends on others’ validation & acknowledgement. When people are harmed, negated, and rejected in numerous obvious and profoundly unpretentious ways as children; later as grown- ups, they tend to identify with themselves, through sentiments of unworthiness, shortcoming, and irrelevance. As adults, we are emotionally attached to this unconscious identification with our childhood experiences. These experiences stay with us and influence the way we see and validate ourselves. To unconsciously suppress or deny our identification with these childhood memories, we create a psychological defense. Such defense serves as a disguise that proclaims our outward happiness to others. We seek others approval as defense against our recognition of unconscious acceptance to adapt with inner criticism. This criticism originates from our Super Ego (the moral component in us) in the form of unconstructive self-judgments. When this defense is effectively-recognized and acknowledged in the social world, it produces a sense of gratification and pleasure to our inner psyche. The sense of gratification is, however, impermanent that our Ego (the social component in us) experiences as a reward for concealing the inner turmoil. In the long run, continuous use of such defense may produce adverse symptoms in personality, such as difficulties in emotional and behavioural adjustments (Cohen H, 2018).
If we persistently and heavily rely on allowing our self-concept to be defined by not how we see ourselves but how others are acknowledging us, it can create several problems. First, we will constantly be depending on others approval to feel good about ourselves. Secondly, we may feel disgrace, outrage or other agonizing feelings when somebody nullifies them, which at that point frequently leads to malfunctioned behaviour to manage the ‘affect’ it creates in us. Thirdly, if we value someone else’s opinion and approval over our sentiments and beliefs, it may lead us to seek the validation of others on a continuous basis, giving them the power to influence the critical decisions of our life.
So, what could be the alternative way out? It seems wiser here to engage actively in self- validation rather than social approval and gratification. Self-validation means accepting ones’ emotions, acknowledging our efforts, progress, strengths, successes and treating oneself with kindness. It is also about recognizing and accepting our limitations, flaws, and mistakes. When we rely more on self-validation, we tend to acknowledge our own experiences and learnings as important and valid. It isn’t about concurring with somebody or actively engaging in analyzing others opinions or response to form a judgment about self. The idea is to be our own cheerleader rather than seeking it externally and embracing our evolving self wholeheartedly.
Dr Farah Naqvi is a writer, academician and behavioural scientist. She started her career with Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and worked with institutions like ICFAI Hyderabad, IBA Bangalore and Center for Organization Development, Hyderabad as Asst Professor. Currently, she is associated with Indian Institute of Business Psychology (IIBP) as Senior Researcher. Website: https://farahnaqvi.com/