Around 11 p.m. every night, I lie alone with my thoughts and contemplate the very worst things about myself.
I know I should be doing something more supposedly restful like counting sheep. Instead, night after night, I lie wide awake in the dark, facing the wall, worrying about what people think of me. As if turning the pages of a frustratingly dull book, I’ll leaf through my shortcomings as a friend — text messages I haven’t responded to, birthdays I’ve missed, nights out I’ve bailed on. I think about how I disappoint my extended family — forgetting to call elderly relatives, leaving too long between visits, for being too “difficult” and assertive when I do visit.
When my mind turns to work, and specifically my own writing, that’s when things get darker. I imagine every possible criticism someone could levy and convince myself that my peers, journalist friends, and even colleagues all think those things about my work. I relive minor interactions with complete strangers — was I rude to the man on the Tube? Should I have been more friendly when I ordered my coffee?
These thoughts don’t just come to me as I’m trying to drift off to sleep. When I message guys on dating apps, I wonder if saying no to a last-minute date will make me seem selfish. When I tweet, I worry afterwards whether people might perceive my tone as too mean, too lightweight, too predictable. On Instagram, I worry if my captions and Stories aren’t witty enough, that I’m posting too many selfies, that I seem vain and self-obsessed.
“You seriously need to stop caring what other people think of you,” a former boss once told me. But the thing is, I wish it were just that simple. “Just tell me how!” I wish I’d said back then. Honestly though, I long to flip a switch in my brain to make me give less of a shit about other people’s perceptions of me, but it just doesn’t work like that. It’s going to take a hell of a lot of work to dismantle my need for other people’s approval.
At the end of 2019, I hit my human limit on the number of times I could possibly tell myself “you need to stop caring what people think.” Simply telling myself that I was caring too much was having little impact on those thoughts. So, if you’re constantly worrying what other people think of you, or you’ve noticed approval-seeking tendencies in your behaviour, what exactly can you do about it? I asked mental health professionals for tangible ways to address this if you’re finding it bothersome.
Know that it’s just human nature
There’s a reason you care how others see you. Consulting psychologist Dr. Mara Klemich — co-author of Above the Line: Living and Leading with Heart — told me that when we feel insecure and lose our inner value, we compensate with approval-seeking behaviours. “As humans, we all share an innate drive to connect with others,” said Klemich. “We are wired towards inclusion. Rejection means exclusion and thus understandably triggers fear.”
“We are wired towards inclusion.”
In fact, according to neuroscientist, psychologist, and change specialist Dr. Lynda Shaw, being part of a group was once key to human survival.
“Attack or famine were more likely if you were on your own. Group membership developed into social acceptance, so caring what others think of you became imperative if you wanted to belong,” said Shaw. “Having approval makes us feel good, we get a rush of our happy hormones including endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. When you can’t get that same effect without someone’s approval is when problems arise.”
Understanding that your desire for approval is innate in all humans is really helpful. Klemich added that “neuropsychological and neurophysiological research has shown that social rejection activates many of the same brain regions involved in physical pain. This certainly helps explain why disapproval hurts us emotionally, and why disapproval runs deep.”
Take a break from the online attention economy
As a person who might be described as “extremely online,” I often look at my own personal achievements through the prism of online validation. When an article of mine is published that took weeks, or even months, to research, I feel like I’ve failed if I tweet it and it doesn’t get much of a response. If I post a picture of myself that I like, but it doesn’t get very many likes, I question my judgement, my ability to self-appraise.
Author Jia Tolentino wrote in her book Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion(opens in a new tab) that “the internet is governed by incentives that make it impossible to be a full person while interacting with it.” She noted that critics have observed(opens in a new tab) that humans exhibit “classic reward-seeking lab-rat behaviour, the sort that’s observed when lab rats are put in front of an unpredictable food dispenser.”
“That is what keeps us scrolling, scrolling, pressing our lever over and over in the hopes of getting some fleeting sensation— some momentary rush of recognition, flattery or rage,” Tolentino added. Depending on likes and retweets from social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, she noted(opens in a new tab) in a New Yorker piece, is akin to “playing a slot machine that tells you whether or not people love you.”
Try to establish some hard limits in your screen and scrolling time. In Trick Mirror, Tolentino wrote that she gives herself boundaries like no Instagram stories, no app notifications, and uses apps that shut down her Instagram and Twitter usage after 45 minutes of daily use.
Niels Eék — psychologist and co-founder of mental wellbeing and self-development platform Remente — recommended a digital detox. This involves “switching off all your screens for a certain length of time, ideally for 24 hours. If you feel that 24 hours is too long, then try to first switch off all of your notifications for a few hours, and then proceed to switch off the devices altogether for longer and longer each time.”
Identify where your own approval-seeking comes from
Everyone is different and our need for approval and validation can manifest in very different ways. Eék gave me some examples of how this behaviour can be exhibited including: “Changing your opinion when noticing that others disapprove of what you’ve said and done; not complaining when you feel that you’ve been mistreated; pretending to know something when you definitely don’t; and apologising too much, even when you know you’ve done nothing wrong.”
Klemich suggested being courageous and honest with yourself by asking the following question: Where does my approval-seeking come from? You might have to look back into your past to figure that out, which isn’t always comfortable. “Approval-seeking is usually a childhood-created coping strategy. Did you feel a need to get love from your parents and create ways to gain their approval? Did you struggle to make friends at school, and subsequently develop a fear of being rejected?” she said. “By identifying where the approval-seeking started, you can identify the types of situations that trigger your need for approval in your current life.”
If you’re struggling with a fear of rejection, you can develop a need for validation, which manifests as people-pleasing. Klemich said this means people expend emotional energy worrying what others think of them, even sometimes running through mental scenarios and practicing what to say in different situations so that everything goes exactly the way we want it to.
“Sometimes we simply care too much about what people think of us, usually when we suffer from low self-esteem or seek extra stability in our lives, perhaps if we have been excessively judged in childhood, or have been made to feel we are not good enough or were bullied,” Klemich said. “Our self-worth becomes overly entangled with what others think about us. This in itself can then lead to low self-esteem and lack of confidence as we go about our daily lives thereby needing extra validation from others.”
To begin to start caring less about other people’s perceptions of you, it could be worth giving journaling a go. If that doesn’t sound like something you’d usually do, stay with me. Eék pointed out that there are a lot of benefits to journaling — boosting self-esteem can be one of them.
“Most importantly, it provides you with the time and space to reflect. Too often we spend time on mundane day-to-day tasks, but not nearly enough time reflecting on our past and present, so try to consider recent events, how you’re truly feeling about your life at present, where your priorities lie, and what you hope to achieve long-term,” said Eék. “Journaling is also an outlet for processing emotions, and doing it on an ongoing basis can help increase your self-awareness.”
Set clear boundaries
When we’re hellbent on keeping other people happy, it can be difficult to establish clear boundaries. But it’s extremely important. “When we can’t say no because our need to be approved by others is greater than our ability to set appropriate boundaries, practice explaining your reasoning of why you would like to do something but that you can’t right now,” said Klemich. “Start being honest with yourself when you take on a new task or commitment — ask yourself, are you doing it because it is ‘right’ for you, or because you want to get approval and avoid disapproval?” Evaluate your weekly tasks and consider which of them might be driven by people-pleasing — make a list if that helps. Klemich advised working through that list and making some honest decisions about whether or not you need to do it.
Evaluate your weekly tasks and consider which of them might be driven by people-pleasing.
Sarah Griffiths — a specialist trauma and abuse therapist — advised asking for change if situations arise that might violate your boundaries, like if someone speaks to you in a way that you don’t like. “With tone of voice, if you decide that contempt, impatience and irritation is not acceptable, the next time it happens, simply say, ‘Please don’t talk to me like that,’ and just be firm and don’t engage when someone is speaking to you in a tone that is unacceptable to you,” she said. “Another good one is to ask, ‘Why are you speaking to me like that?’ ‘What is your motivation for what you just said?’ or ‘Why did you just say/do that?'”
Boost your self-acceptance
When you feel approval-seeking urges affecting your wellbeing, working on your self-acceptance can be really helpful, Eék said. That includes body acceptance and believing in your own self-worth. Accepting your body doesn’t happen overnight, but there are techniques for working on self-esteem and body image that can help.
“The path to self-acceptance will vary from person to person so you will need to explore and find what works best for you,” he added. “Research has found(opens in a new tab) that mindful-attention and meditation training can have an effect on the amygdala (the gland in the brain which processes emotion) response to emotional stimuli, lowering the brain’s response to feelings of stress and anxiety, and, instead, providing you with the space to face inwards and practice self-acceptance.”
When you don’t get the validation or approval you’re seeking from others, this can feel like rejection and disapproval. Practicing self-management means “suppressing any negative emotions such as self-recrimination and focusing on the positive aspects of yourself,” according to Kelmich. She advised learning to “reframe negative situations so that you see the opportunities in them, rather than perceived criticism.”
Klemich also advised paying attention to your language, “self-talk,” and your behaviour, and figuring out “when it’s coming from wanting someone else to say you’re OK, that you made the right choice, or that you did the right thing.”
“Instead, when you do make a decision, check in with yourself that it feels right, remind yourself that it is your choice, and give yourself validation for just being you,” she said.
No matter what people tell you, it’s never going to be as simple as flipping a magic switch in your head to make you stop thinking a certain way. To be human is to care what other humans think of you. Just know you’re not the only one.