Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Approval Junkie

I recently wrote a short note, published it on facebook and then asked my husband if it was okay. He responded that he wasn't going to tell me that anymore. If you had seen inside my mind in that moment it's likely you would have been laughing or sadly saying "this woman needs serious help." My first internal reaction was shock and panic and desperation wrapped into a whirring ball that quickly lodged in my stomach. How could he not tell me if what I was writing was okay? I needed that feedback! I needed that approval and affirmation and "good job."

That instant of desperation gave me a glimpse of my inner approval junkie. The people pleasing middle child perfectionist who is afraid to speak up without preplanning what to say, wants everyone to be happy, wants to avoid conflict, and would rather have people assume she has nothing to say than to open her mouth and risk sounding stupid is still hiding inside. She shows up after almost every social event when I turn to Jess and ask, "Did I do okay?" She comes out when I'm trying to decide what the heck to wear. She doubts my ability to choose paint colors, raise children, write anything meaningful and coherent, and to handle new and unknown situations. She has been internalizing messages of approval and disapproval since I was born and she knows that I should not trust myself to know what to do, how to do it, or if what I'm doing measures up. She also knows that I shouldn't trust my own emotions, that at any given time I'm over reacting, afraid of something that is nothing to be afraid of, or being a worry wort.

As a parent I want my children to grow up knowing who they are, not internalizing who they should be.

When you internalize from birth who you should be in order to gain approval or love or affection from the adults in your life (or to avoid pain, punishment and criticism) it is amazingly difficult to know as an adult who you really are. It's disconcerting to realize that you aren't who you are, you are who other people wanted you to become.

I'm pretty sure I was 21 years old before I made a major decision that did not have my parents' approval. Here I am, 21 years after that, no longer seeking anyone's approval, but still struggling to figure out who I am beneath the ingrained messages and conditioned responses. It turns out I am many things I used to think that I was not, including: creative, smart, brave, and fun. My self-discovery continues and my inner approval junkie's need to surface is decreasing as I learn to separate my own voice from the messages from my childhood. My children and I are discovering who we are as we explore life and our interests together. What a blessing that they didn't have to live for two decades before they started this journey.

Alfie Kohn mentions "praise junkies" in the following essay: "Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job." http://www.alfiekohn.org/parenting/gj.htm

You might also want to read "Parental Love with Strings Attached"

and for the larger picture read his book "Unconditional Parenting."


  1. While working with children and my own children I have worked VERY hard not to say "good job" or anything telling the child they did a good job. The child should be able to look at their work and feel proud of it themselves without approval from someone else. Not sure where I learned that but it was long ago. I am sure it is hard as an adult to unlearn that approval. Everyone likes to be told they did a good job but it gets too much after awhile if it's over and over. Keep up the good work!! It's hard to change something about ourselves!

  2. I'm going through a similar process at 41. It was my instinct several years ago that my daughters would be better off if they were free from compulsory approval-seeking (i.e., school), but of course the struggle has been much harder than just homeschooling. I realized that I need to actually be an example of what I want them to be—someone who knows who she is.

  3. Thank you for sharing this, Jenna. I can really relate to this-- though it's difficult for me to describe as well as you have!

  4. Wow, Jenna, I'm REALLY looking forward to someday meeting you and Jess because this blog post and his recent one about depression both resonate so closely with my experience and personal journey. It's deeply reassuring to know I'm not alone in dealing with these challenges -- ummm, I mean growth opportunities. ;-) Thanks for sharing!!