Approval Addiction: Humble Beginnings
If we are real with ourselves we must admit that we groomed at a very young age for approval.
The approval isn’t some unconditional acclaim lavished upon our supple minds.
Instead, it’s contingent upon performance.
This seems innocent enough. It’s bare bones cause and effect.
The cause is a killer cartwheel and the effect is a round of applause from the guardians.
The sharper the technique, the more acute the cheer.
By five years young we learned that praise feels good, or rather euphoric, and the more superb the performance the better the kick.
It’s the drug every human being first ingests.
Then it’s probably processed sugar, but that’s a different story.
The problem with the productivity-praise pattern is threefold:
(1) you easily develop tolerance and,
(2) it creates artificial stage characters and masks that obstruct authenticity and serenity, then,
(3) it becomes the primary factor in the development of your identity.
In this article, we will be unpacking these three components and hopefully in doing so provide you with the insight to begin detoxing from this emotionally devastating addiction.
Drug tolerance “is a pharmacological concept describing subjects’ reduced reaction to a drug following its repeated use. Increasing its dosage may re-amplify the drug’s effects; however, this may accelerate tolerance, further reducing the drug’s effects.”
In other words, every subsequent effect requires a more potent cause.
The drug we are discussing here isn’t a common one of concern, but it’s just as deadly at destroying our quality of life.
This is the substance of approval.
We can define it as “the desire and subsequent tailoring of behaviors in order to produce a specific response of approval in persons.”
The approval provides a few things.
On a surface level, it provides warm sensations of esteem and superiority.
On a deeper level, it creates security by subliminally declaring that you made the cut, that you stand as a hand-selected pick to continue to be a part of the herd.
On an even deeper level, it crafts a specific self-image, a picture of how you should appear to others to maintain this approval, an archetype of sorts.
This notion conveys the simple “if/then” truth: if the performance falls flat then you’ll be cut.
What a shitty way to live.
The problem with the performance-praise pattern is the cartwheel only induces approval for a short duration and over time the praise fails to increase in intensity, so it gets boring.
It fails to elicit the same feeling, the same rush, the same security. So, now you’re doing cartwheels, backflips while juggling bowling pins.
Unfortunately, soon another variable enters the stage: competition.
You realize mid-cartwheel that your guardian’s attention is not on you. Somewhat dismayed and curious you try to follow their gaze and it lands upon your sister who is doing all the same things but on a unicycle. Ouch!
Your sister isn’t actually the enemy here, it’s insecurity.
It’s the overarching assumption that as a resource, praise and approval are limited, so you have to outthink, outperform, and outmaneuver everyone else.
Thus, tolerance isn’t merely a psychological phenomenon, it’s also in the economic shape of limited emotional resources.
In other words, you need more approval but subsequently, there is perceived to be less around – so the demand is extreme.
It’s not just an addiction, it’s a cultural program.
This program can be best understood as a cultural screenplay because it’s largely based on a story we continuously tell ourselves.
It provides a character, or multiple characters, that you embody to adequately play the part and the performance must always be Oscar-worthy.
Another important thing to understand is that the role that you’re so attached to i.e., the good mom, the incredible employee, the amazing partner, the wild party animal, the badass, whatever, was created as a stress response.
In other words, the role allowed you to adapt and adjust to a discomforting time in your life.
This is right and good, give yourself a break.
However, as this pattern becomes more and more maladaptive it’s time to tweak the script a bit.
You’ll soon discover that you’re a method of dealing with it will be by addressing the symptoms of the character, such as anxiety, depression, rumination, obsessive compulsions, and the like, but it provides no lasting relief.
Why? Because you’re merely cutting the weed down to the surface rather than tending to the root.
The Real Problem
The weeds can be likened to masks.
Their primary purpose is to camouflage the identity of the character.
The root is the stress response system that activated the program.
It should be noted that these roles develop as part of our personality.
You’re not, therefore, attempting to eliminate your personality. Yet, within reason, you want to identify what gave birth to this character and what is continuing to drive it.
Specifically paying attention to the symptoms e.g., the masks.
You want it to be governed by something more concrete, such as values and principles that in and of themselves provide security and direction, not emotional whims, the byproduct of which is insecurity and aimlessness.
That being said, all addiction can be treated by tracing the masks to the stage characters or archetypes and then back to the rudimentary elements within the stress response of the cultural program.
This treatment will be unpacked in the following sections.
One of the best means to begin this type of treatment is by examining how the character you embody thinks about itself and what it thinks others think (that’s a mouthful!)
What’s it trying to accomplish? Why is it driven so aggressively? Why cling to a mask that produces angst, worry, rage, and pain?
Well, as noted above, its ultimate “why” is validation because this conveys safety and security.
In attempting to maintain this validation the character always needs to be a step ahead of the thoughts of others. An impossible task even for the mind reader.
The minute competition steps onto the scene, the character starts to produce various masks to avoid reality.
I don’t want you to confuse the mask with the character, though admittedly they presuppose one another.
The Spiritual Giant
To illustrate, I had a stage character named “the spiritual giant.”
This role needed to be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually fit at all times.
Obviously, that’s absolute nonsense.
It defies the imperfections of human nature. It’s impossible and silly.
Yet, somewhere all the lines I came to unconsciously believe I needed to be this way to maintain approval and ultimately my survival.
Since it’s not possible, I needed an alibi to compensate.
One of the masks I called “the chronically and physically ill.”
All my anxiety, fears, worries, and paranoia, I shoved into this mask and in consequence kept my character pure.
Another mask I called “adrenal fatigue.”
In other words, I used sickness and sleepiness to avoid being vulnerable and admitting I wasn’t a spiritual giant.
I would back out of social gatherings because I was sick.
I would bail at the last minute on an outing with friends because I was too tired.
I would refuse invitations to speak to groups because I, unfortunately, came down with something.
I would even end up in the hospital (manifesting very real sickness) in order to keep this gig going.
I had to maintain coherence between the obvious contradiction of my stage character and real life.
In doing so, I could control what I thought you thought about me.
It’s all about adaptation and the ability to evolve and adjust to your environment. The character served you well at one point, it just needs to likewise evolve as you grow.
I encourage you at this point to stop reading and try to identify the main character you are playing right now.
You’ll be able to identify it fairly quickly because it will be something absolutely vital to your well-being and simultaneously utterly contradictory to your experience.
Now trace the contradiction to the masks.
Remember these masks attempt to resolve the contradiction. They usually do a fairly good job bearing in mind the impossibility of the task.
Again, all your anxieties, pains, depressions, worries, obsessions, and the like are lodged in these masks.
Because the negative feelings would corrupt the purity of the main character.
This is why if you just deal with the masks (the weeds, or the symptoms) you’ll only find new masks that pop up.
It’s the main character that you need to get honest about. This is where recovery begins.
So, identify the main character of your story and give him or her a name.
Also, identify two masks, or more, that keep you from addressing the character head-on (give them names also).
Once you’re done, come on back and reestablish your identity on something other than a stress-response scripted character and its comrades, the avoidant masks.
An identity constructed upon stress, which is the performance-praise pattern, creates an insatiable need to control others’ thoughts and is thus a colossal setup for frustration and suffering.
So, what’s the alternative?
We are social creatures through and through. This is ultimately what it means to be human. Hell, psychiatrists are even writing “social prescriptions” that are essentially intentionally communities.
So our social essence is undeniable.
Any attempt to refute it with words is immediately self-defeating. What purpose could language serve if we were designed to live outside the herd in isolation?
All day long we rely on community and never even consider the contrary. For example, when it comes to household items such as shampoo, razors, cleaning supplies, furniture, and various decorations we usually rely on someone else to provide these items.
Furthermore, we have the funds to purchase them by either relying on employment or by providing some service to others.
This give and take exists on every level.
Sure, greed corrupts this process exponentially but this doesn’t nullify the very fact that at our core we are social. It’s not just how we survive (the level of development that the characters and masks exist) but how we thrive (higher stages of development).
If it weren’t for others I would probably be living in a shoddy makeshift dilapidated teepee with the most uncomfortable furniture imaginable.
Furthermore, I’d probably smell like onions wrapped in sewage.
Yeah, not good.
Luckily, I rely on the community to provide these commodities while I do my utmost to give back via my niche.
This is where it can get odd.
We rely all day on the tools and resources of others but then, when it comes to our emotional health, we “got this.”
What better way to satisfy one’s emotional nature than in total isolation?
What better vehicle for emotional fulfillment than selfishness?
Of course, that works about as good as a cheese grater used as a skin moisturizer.
So, what can we do to create lasting change?
The Heart Needs To Change
What about the heart needs changing?
Well, let’s presuppose that approval addiction is a sign of a social disorder.
The aforementioned cultural program forges an identity.
This particular form of identity is a lonely one.
It’s important to understand that loneliness has nothing to do with people, it’s a mindset.
That may be hard to take in but it’s true. Sure, you might be thinking, “I wouldn’t be lonely if others were around.”
Yet, this doesn’t account for those that voice feeling alone in a room full of people.
So from the outset, we see two types of loneliness.
- Distance-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder loneliness
- Existential loneliness
The distance-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder variety is straightforward, namely once the object of one’s desire is satisfied they are no longer lonely. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
Existential loneliness is a bit more cunning. The object of one’s desire is life’s meaning, purpose, value, and direction.
For many individuals, this seems unattainable. Why? Because of the conditions in which we live.
Religion is branded as silly and make-believe. Science provides a world of irrationality, randomness, and chance. Psychology has all but evaporated the imagination with its rats and levers. And, the human mind is left, once more, with her thumb up her ass unable to interact with her environment.
What’s the problem?
With our incessant need to have all the answers, we’ve unfortunately discarded the ultimate answer, which is the ability to connect and interact with our immediate and present conditions.
We instead fantasize about what conditions must exist in order for the interaction to successfully occur.
This is a tragedy, yet we call it “growing up.”
For instance, children naturally interact with their environment, they don’t place necessary conditions down prior to the engagement.
This is true freedom.
Oh, but not us.
We’ve enslaved ourselves through a process of what I term “the plight of the sophisticated.”
We use our heightened capacity to think and we’ve somehow managed to rid ourselves of meaning, purpose, value, and direction.
This has been done by dividing everything up into its smallest constituent parts, first of the universe with the sciences, then of ourselves with existential philosophy.
Consequently, we’ve created for ourselves tiny little compartments of identity that barely scratch the service of what it is to be human.
Therefore, I affirm that all loneliness is fundamentally synonymous with these tiny little pockets of identity that prohibit legitimate interaction with anything other than ourselves.
Of course, those tiny existential flats house the stage characters and masks.
To escape these compartments is to disarm loneliness and destroy the foundations of the cultural program.
Forgiveness Enables Awareness
Loneliness always has a companion: guilt.
Therefore, forgiveness plays a crucial role in the escape.
It gets a little heavy here, so read slowly and pay close attention.
To think of one’s self as separate and independent of others is what needs to be forgiven. It’s all a big misunderstanding!
To start, just assume that there is no “self”.. that all people and all things are in fact one great fuller Self. Additionally, the belief on the contrary is what created the cultural program.
Nonetheless, what is this nebulous self? Let’s examine this a bit.
A new theory has emerged which attempts to convey the interdependency of the Self, called Ontological Addiction Theory.
William Van Gordon, editor of Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness and one of its main proponents writes,
Most psychological models relating to the self and human functioning imply that the self exists as a discrete, independent entity. However, ontological addiction theory asserts that the self (and indeed all phenomena) does not manifest as a discrete standalone entity but relies on innumerable causes and conditions.
To take the human body (i.e., a key part of the self) as an example, it exists in reliance upon the wind, rivers, oceans, plants, and animals – we breathe in others’ out-breath and they breathe out our in-breath. The fact that phenomena are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent (i.e., to the point of being without discrete boundaries) means that they are of the nature of ‘non-self’. In other words, we are ‘empty’ of an inherently existing self but we are ‘full’ of all things.
This emptiness can exist without the fullness. It is a result of living bound, of a curved and/or non-existent teleology.
Teleology: the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arise. In other words, reason or explanation for something is a function of its end, purpose, or goal.
Now, I’m not prepared to argue for the existence of the self, which I do believe in, but I am open to the “fullness” of this self, the parameters of which extend much further than usually understood.
Moreover, I believe this can provide the needed teleology for the human spirit.
This is the charted course for breaking free from the cultural program.
It may seem complicated but I can assure you it’s not. It’s actually common sense.
This is not our world, we are in it and a part of it. If the planet is an organism we are simply like another molecule, another cog on the wheel.
This may sound like it surrenders our autonomy, but this is far from the truth.
Could you imagine the heart deciding to abandon the body? This isn’t autonomy, it’s suicide! (See Ken Wilbers description of Holons if you’re struggling to make sense of this)
Thus, the interdependent and interconnected self is jam-packed with significance, purpose, and with an overall goal. It works together with all other things, with a common agenda: life-flourishing.
As previously mentioned, children naturally engage their conditions with this form of the self.
If you offer them a garden, they’ll dig it; offer them dishes to clean and they’ll scrub it; offer them love and they return it. The interaction is seemingly endless.
The real question is, “Why have we removed ourselves so far from this paradigm? Why are we trying to be an autonomous heart?”
The Story We Author
More practically speaking, all-purpose, goals, significance, and meaning are void without a tale to tell them. A theater is hollow without its script being actualized through performance, through expression.
Forgiveness is, therefore, the beginning of the process of allowing oneself to “re-author” their narrative.
The stage character is tweaked and the script is utterly rearranged.
The guilt of not being able to hack it, of not being good enough, of having to prove or justify self-worth through performance can be overturned by the simple understanding that the self is validated by merely being a part of everything else.
In this story, you author your role and emphasize your specific contribution (e.g., social and/or environmental involvement) as a necessary part of the functioning of the whole.
Recall, this is not our Earth, we are part of it, another molecule.
The key to understanding this transition, from self to interdependent self, is narrative.
All current reality is interpreted through the lens of our story, specifically its beginning (our past) and its end (our goals).
To properly transition we must first change our perception of our beginning and thereby establish a new direction, a new ending, a new goal.
However, to begin to re-write this tale we must first observe where it went wrong.
The origins of the cultural program as it were.
The True Self Enables A Counter Culture
Let’s examine why the independent self produces this existential loneliness and why it’s always accompanied by guilt.
For starters, this independent self needs to prove itself worthy. It needs to justify its existence through behavior. Elsewhere I’ve referred to this as Performance-Based Justification or PBJ.
It’s the infrastructure of the productivity-praise pattern.
Why is this?
Well, as already noted, culturally, life has become a tryout and you either make it or get cut. That’s horrifying. If this doesn’t demonstrate the performance-driven nature of our Western culture then I’m not sure what does.
Back in the day, one’s existence was validated by their tribe and their identity was forged within their specific group. There were no tryouts. You were already a part of something.
For example, if I were to introduce myself only a few hundred years ago it would most likely sound like this:
Greetings, I am the son of Gerard, son of Harry, hail from Connecticut.
I identified with my group, my people, and my area. my identity was grounded in something outside of and greater than myself, something I had no influence over. I made the cut by being born into it.
This satisfied the feelings of inferiority and inadequacy but didn’t really stymie the competition.
Sure, this has its flaws, group exclusivity (ethnocentrism) being one of them, but it was on the right track.
Nonetheless, it fulfilled three vital purposes: it provided meaning, value, and direction, all the necessary ingredients for a healthy identity.
Our current culture is the first in the history of humanity to be tribeless. It promotes little meaning, renders values completely subjective, and fosters selfish goals. It’s truly bizarre.
No tribe. No vulnerability. Just fear and existential dread.
We have tiny families that live in artificial homes and each individual resides in their own separate compartments.
We socialize on the internet and sacrifice face-to-face interaction.
We bond with Netflix rather than with each other.
We prefer a fern in the living room to a downtrodden path in the forest.
We have 10,000 friends on Twitter but no one to eat dinner with.
We’ve separated ourselves not just from each other but from the world.
Loneliness? This isn’t a feeling anymore but a lifestyle, an identity.
Consider how we define ourselves: by vocation, by style, by tastes, by fashion, by attitude, and so on and so forth.
In each category, we are measured by how well we succeed in being the best in our vocation, the most stylish, with the finest of taste, the most culturally fashionable, and the best attitude per our niche.
Heck, for some folks, it’s about being the best at the exact opposite culturally. But in any event, it’s about being the best.
Here’s the caveat: this makes us all, more or less, utter failures.
A few become the best and transform into an idol for the average Joe, but they usually succumb to the pressure in a short time. Hell, that’s what gave birth to the tabloids!
And then, when they do fall, they too feel the guilt of the stumble, and lonely because no one can understand their plight. Oh, how the mighty have fallen!
Moral of the story? Whether you’re the so-called best or worst you end up lonely and guilty. Surely there is a better way… Nancy Colier, author of Inviting a Monkey To Tea: Befriending Your Mind and Discovering Lasting Contentment, thinks so, she states,
What happens when we stop trying to change ourselves into something better is nothing like what we imagine: We envision stepping off the self-help train and landing smack inside someone incomplete and unsatisfactory. And yet in truth, the simple (but not easy) act of inviting ourselves into our own life has the effect of placing us at the center of something beautiful and extraordinary.
Giving ourselves permission to be as we are miraculously creating a kind of love for ourselves—not so much for our individual characteristics, but for our being. It’s not just for our being, but for the truth, whatever that is. It is as if whatever we find inside ourselves, whether we wish it was here or not, is okay and we are okay. Ultimately, we shift from trying to become lovable to being love itself. And amazingly, from this place, the not-enough person we thought we were has simply vanished, or more likely, never was.
Retelling The Tale Enables Transformation
Retelling stories is not only a powerful teaching method but as noted, who we are is in sum the story we continuously tell ourselves.
That’s why ancient tribes told magical tales of their ancestors, fables with a memorable moral fabric and inspirational characters worth emulating.
The story defined tribal identity! That’s how powerful the story is.
Let’s take a gander at Alcoholics Anonymous as an example of the power of the story.
A practice in their famous meetings is to have an individual share their personal story – a testimony as it were.
The story is to have three integral components:
- Where the individual was prior to their recovery
- What happened that motivated them to change
- What they are like currently and how they are growing, changing, and transforming.
Yet, within the retelling of each narrative, something magical occurs.
First, a new understanding of “where they were” occurs. They start to comprehend their life in a more positive and instructive light, if for no other reason than to help someone with a similar story.
Then they explain what happened and what motivated them to change – usually pain but not limited to it.
However, once they move on to the present day the embellishment begins and this is of necessity.
Let’s call it vision.
Most likely when they retell the story it’s a bit better than their life is in actuality, but eventually, it becomes their reality.
The more they practice the lifestyle, the more they discuss it with others, and the more it becomes a part of them, eventually, in the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “they can preach the good news wherever they go and only if they have to, use words.”
Tell a new tale.
Share a new testimony.
Interact with your environment.
Don’t be the autonomous heart.
Make your beat mean something.
Will it be difficult? Undoubtedly.
We are working against a culturally ingrained narrative. What happens when you go against the grain? You get splinters.
So it may feel odd, but the results are in the interdependent-interconnected self creates fulfillment, rest, and satisfaction.
By providing an abundance of meaning, purpose, direction, connection, and value to your life.
It’s amazing the identity that can be forged when you’re a part of the world rather than the center of it. It’s equally astonishing from this vantage point how quickly the whole world changes for you.
So go on, make your beat mean something.