In my personal and professional life, I have met and observed many people who are desperately trying to get approval and acceptance from others, who never feel good enough, and who are terrified of social rejection.
For many, hurt and invalidation starts very early and continues throughout their life in one form or another. As a result, many people learn that their fundamental sense of self-esteem and self-worth comes not from within but from others, and so they constantly seek other people’s approval or attention.
The mechanism behind it
When you are a small child whose whole existence and well-being depends on others, rejection actually equals existential death. And since we are constantly hurt, invalidated, and rejected in many overt and highly subtle ways as children, a lot of us grow up into wounded and self-less adults whose self-perception is skewed or blurry. If we never explore or even recognize this phenomenon, we are doomed to be dependent on other people’s opinions, judgments, and perceptions of us—which makes us vulnerable to being manipulated, and potentially being manipulative ourselves.
For many, it means that they are defined by others. For example, if others think you’re great, you must be great, or if someone thinks you’re bad then you must be bad. And if they perceive you as flawed (accurately or inaccurately), then you feel horrified.
Here, such a person has two problems.
One, they constantly need other people’s approval and validation to feel that they are a good person, to feel pleasant emotions, or to even feel alive. And two, they feel shame or guilt or anger or loneliness or anxiety or confusion or other painful emotions when someone disapproves of and invalidates them, which then often leads to dysfunctional behavior to manage all of it.
To give a few simplified examples, if someone likes your post on Facebook, then everything’s well and good. But if they don’t, then you feel terribly anxious or empty or invisible. If someone agrees with you, then you must be right and you feel confidence and joy. But if they don’t, then you feel threatened, lonely, upset, self-doubtful, socially anxious, and so on.
So you might spend your whole life—and many do—chasing after acceptance and validation, and feeling terrified of rejection.
As a coping mechanism, some individuals become people-pleasers who are afraid to be their true selves or take care of themselves. A lot of them don’t even know who they really are, what they actually feel, what they truly think, or what they like. Their mental boundaries are closely enmeshed with others’ because they were raised to take care of others and neglect themselves.
Others have developed different tendencies that fall on the other side of the spectrum, where they disregard others, their boundaries and their humanity, and only care about themselves. This is often what people refer to when they use the terms narcissism or antisocial behavior.
Whether it’s people-pleasing or narcissistic, antisocial behavior or something in between, the underlying and often ignored question is why? Why would a person harm themselves or hurt others? Yes, they may want to be “nice” or want power—but why? Because deep down they are hurt and feel empty, or insecure, or anxious, or lonely, or ashamed, or guilty. Both those sets of behaviors can be referred to as low self-esteem. (Although narcissism is often falsely perceived as high self-esteem when actually it’s the opposite.)
That deep, early fear of rejection and abandonment can haunt us forever. That urge for validation and acceptance and that terror of rejection can be omnipresent. In many cases that’s the root cause of people’s problematic and unwanted behavior: people are just trying to regulate their emotions by using the methods they learned when they had to adapt to their stressful past environments.
But it doesn’t have to be this way forever.
What’s on the other side
When we start healing, growing, and thriving, we learn to evaluate ourselves and do it more and more accurately. We understand that you can learn to accurately estimate yourself instead of only relying on another person’s interpretation of you, which, for better or worse, is often grossly inaccurate. Our sense of self-esteem actually starts coming from the inside, not from the outside.
We don’t rely on others to validate our existence or define us. We feel increasingly more connected with ourselves. We are stronger now so we can accept certain things about ourselves that our psyche didn’t allow us to accept before. As a result, we realize that we are grown individuals now, not dependent, powerless children anymore. So we are less and less frightened by rejection and we are less likely to psychologically depend on others.
We can recognize and accept our strengths and shortcomings. We can learn self-validation. We can step out of our comfort zone. We can change our behavior. We can change our false belief systems. We can slowly let go of old survival mechanisms because they don’t aid us anymore. We can start making better choices. We feel that we are enough. We can live a more conscious, more proactive, more loving, and more fulfilling life.
Photo by Pabak Sarkar
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.