When we’re a child, we’re biologically wired to seek the approval of adults around us. Otherwise we would die. Humans are born with very poor individual survival instincts, so we are reliant on our parents and other caregivers to teach us how to avoid threats to our well-being.
We are born to instinctively trust our parents and to seek their love and approval, however misguided they may be. We learn pretty early on in life to do what we can to keep them happy. And while we also develop our own ideas about what we want quite young, often we get punished harshly when our desires conflict with those of our parents. Some parents withhold their love and approval when we disobey, which uses the power of our own instincts against us.
This is why you see so many parents giving their children behaviour-reinforcing proclamations like “good boy/girl!” or admonishments like "bad boy/girl!"
Unfortunately this teaches us as children that our self-worth is conditional. When we do what our parents want, we are “good” and when we don’t we are “bad”. These messages easily translate into “lovable” and “unlovable” respectively, and since the desire for love is so strong, we can easily end up projecting the fear driving these forms of manipulation way beyond just our parents.
Sometimes the behaviour being reinforced or discouraged really is in the child's best interests, and other times it’s just convenient for the parents or aligned with their personal values.
Either way it’s classic Pavlovian conditioning at work, and it’s very powerful.
Fast-forward to adulthood and this latent childhood desire for parental approval can translate into a long-lasting fear of what other people think of us. At least, that’s what happened for me. It manifests as social anxiety, self-consciousness and a generalised fear of what other people think of me; especially if I’m doing something a little outlandish that my parents might not approve of. Any time I do something that didn’t fit their ultra-conservative value system, I start feeling anxious as if I was still a child waiting to be punished for exercising my will instead of theirs.
All this boils down to a constant need to seek other people’s approval. It is exhausting.
As adults, other people can easily become unconscious proxies for our parents; especially authority figures perceived as having power over us. If the problem wasn’t our parents, perhaps it was the teachers at school who dealt out harsh punishments or the bigger kids in the playground who dealt with their insecurities by bullying other kids. All these experiences can leave us feeling that we have to keep other people happy long into adulthood, and that will basically keep us stuck emotionally as a perpetually approval-seeking child in an adult’s body.
As if the obvious problems associated with this weren’t enough, I've recently identified the number one reason why you should stop seeking other people’s approval:
People Are Idiots
Even a cursory glance at much human behaviour shows that people are idiots. They don’t move down the back of the bus. They elect leaders who campaign for things that will adversely affect them. They espouse opinions about things they know nothing about. They’ll argue a point that’s clearly wrong rather than check the facts. They believe superstitious nonsense despite the success of modern science. They routinely self-sabotage.
50% of people have a below-average IQ. I said that half-jokingly to a woman I was briefly involved with once, and she replied “Oh really?!?”. That told me which percentile she fell in. It didn’t last.
In supposedly developed countries, we eat junk food designed to fool our taste-buds into thinking that it’s good for us. A large proportion of the population smoke. We destroy the environment that sustains our own life for short-term gains enjoyed mostly by a few. We keep electing leaders who help make this happen. We stick at jobs that we hate and relationships that destroy us; yet we only seek help or make changes when a real crisis hits.
If you need further proof that people are idiots and happen to live in an apartment complex with separated waste recycling, just take a quick peek inside your communal recycling bins. You will marvel at how many people can’t even follow simple sorting instruction come trash time even when the planet is at stake.
And don’t get me started on the billions of people who blindly follow mythological and/or narcissistic religious leaders, gurus, gods and teachers.
People are idiots. If you live your life seeking the approval of idiots, it should be no surprise when your life goes down the toilet. Stop trying to please your proxy parents in the form of other people. You don’t need to read a mountain of self-help books to work this out. You just need to start thinking for yourself.
So in future, any time you're worried about what someone else will think if you do what you want, just think for yourself and repeat after me: "People are idiots".