I hate to say it, but several people I work with have annoying habits. Some interrupt too much, some don’t say what’s really on their minds, some are so detail-oriented they make my teeth ache. But I too inflict an annoying habit on others: I often indirectly ask for recognition. This ‘addiction to approval’ is a habit I’d like to break.

What’s wrong with seeking approval? Not much if done in small doses, but I’ve become dependent. Do I really need to ask my wife to praise me for taking the trashcans to the curb? Yes. So with the idea that I am not the only person on earth cursed with this affliction, I herein submit my self-improvement process. Perhaps you or others might benefit from my efforts:

I’ve tried unsuccessfully to stop asking for recognition before, so I sought help from Carrie, one of my coaching colleagues. Her challenging questions and insights yielded surprising results.

When I told Carrie I wanted to stop asking for approval, she encouraged me to be more realistic. So I set a different goal: to reduce my reliance on others for validation. I asked why it was important to avoid setting a goal to ‘stop doing’ something. She explained that a development goal should pass the ‘dead man’s test:’ if a dead man can do it, it shouldn’t be a goal. Okay then.

She then asked me to list all the behaviors I engage in that prevent me from reducing my reliance on others for approval. I offered her the following list:

  • I often ask people for feedback on my work when I know it went particularly well. I know before they even open their mouths that they will say it was great. In other words, I manipulate people to get the recognition I crave.
  • I praise people with the secret hope that they will reciprocate by recognizing me. They often do.
  • Sometimes I use reverse psychology: I dismiss my performance as mediocre, so people will disagree and tell me my work was outstanding. Admitting to Carrie that I engage in ‘strategic self-deprecation’ was particularly embarrassing.

Habits serve a purpose.

Carrie then asked what positive value these behaviors gave me. I replied that my tactics provided reassurance that I am doing a good job. I also said that when clients praised me, I believed it would reinforce their confidence in me and keep them from finding someone new to work with. And of course, receiving approval lights up my pleasure receptors.

Carrie noted that given my logic it was natural that I would be a ‘praise junkie.’ In fact, she said, it was clear that my addiction to external sources for validation provided powerful benefits. She even questioned why my development goal was important to me in the first place. I said that I didn’t want to live the rest of my life dependent on others for my self-esteem. I think she was testing my conviction.

After I reinforced my commitment, Carrie shifted her questions. She asked, what did I think would happen if I no longer manipulated people for approval? In other words, what was the disaster I feared that kept me in my current behavior pattern?

I stammered that I’d never receive recognition again. And, people wouldn’t know how good I was if I didn’t remind them. In fact, they’d reject me. I’d lose my clients, my lifestyle, and everything would come crashing down!

Fears hold us back

Carrie became quiet and asked whether what I said was really true, or were these thoughts based on negative assumptions. I said they were obviously true. She disagreed, saying this was a story I made up based on powerful, but inaccurate assumptions.

To prove her point, she asked if I ever received positive feedback without soliciting it. I meekly said yes. Point for Carrie. She asked how often I was rejected based on the quality of my work. Never. Another point for Carrie. And so on.

Carrie helped me realize that my negative story keeps me in this cycle where I depend on others for my self-worth. She called it my ‘crazy tape.’ I asked what I should do about it.

We designed some behavioral experiments that tested my negative assumptions. For the following weeks, I spent one day doing nothing different than my usual behavior. On the next day I did not ask for any recognition at all, and so on. Surprise: there was absolutely no difference in peoples’ reactions to me under these two conditions. I’m learning that I don’t really need others’ approval, I only thought I did. This is a different and more helpful story, which has started to liberate me from overly caring what people think of me.

I’m still a work in progress, but am learning to check myself before fishing for compliments. Still, I have a question for you: How do you like this blog post?