Live for Approval, Die from Rejection

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Live for Approval, Die from Rejection

How often do you catch yourself living for the approval of others?

It isn't always obvious at first; the gradual shift from striving for internal motivation to seeking external approval can be imperceptible. But when you take a step back, it's easy to see how powerful these forces can be in our lives.

We all want approval – it's part of being human. We want other people to validate our opinions, plans, and goals so that we feel accepted and loved. Constantly seeking approval is an exhausting endeavor, though, which is why you'll find plenty of articles talking about the merits of living for your own approval and no one else's. 

A connection rarely made, however, is the one that exists between needing approval and fearing rejection. We talk about each of these problems on separate occasions when, in reality, they stem from similar root causes. 

The more you seek approval and require permission from other people to live your life, the more intensely you will fear rejection. These are two tendencies that make one another much worse. If they are allowed to become stronger over time, you may reach a point where a single rejection – be it a job, a relationship, or anything else – can completely unravel your life. 

So, what can you do to break the cycle and escape this vicious circle of approval-seeking and rejection-fearing? And what can we learn by acknowledging the link between these two issues?

Let's talk about it. 

The Habit of Seeking Approval

I'll start by breaking down exactly what these two habits look like, beginning with approval seeking. 

As we know, validation seeking is the act of looking to other people – usually those we consider important or influential – to approve of our decisions, opinions, and actions. We look to these people for permission to do something or for a sign that it's okay to continue the path we are on. 

You might not recognize it at first, but approval-seeking can take many forms:

  • Asking your friends and family for advice before making any decision, no matter how small; 

  • Feeling like you need to explain yourself in order to avoid judgment; 

  • Seeking out compliments from others as a way of boosting your own self-esteem; 

  • Making decisions based on what other people will think rather than what is best for you; and 

  • Always needing validation or permission before pursuing something. 

Seeking approval is insidious; it's a behavior we could spend our entire lives engaging in and never be consciously aware of it. Since a lot of these tendencies start in childhood, it's easy to assume that they are just a part of our nature. 

Of course, the implications can be pretty serious. Looking to others for approval is essentially taking some of your power and autonomy and giving it to someone else. Without even realizing it, you relinquish your freedom of thought and expression; you suppress your authentic wants and needs in favor of what other people think is best. 

Why Do We Do It?

As with every behavior we engage in, approval-seeking has a grounding in our biology. 

Some fascinating research from a group of college scientists in Denmark found a link between external validation and the reward pathways in our brains. They discovered that when we receive external validation, it triggers the same chemical reactions as when we get a reward such as food or money. 

The implications of this are pretty significant: It means that seeking approval is essentially something our brains crave like any other type of pleasure. 

This study even managed to find out who out of its participants was most likely to be influenced by others. That's how strongly our need for validation is reflected in our neurochemistry; it also shows us that different people have varying levels of dependence on external validation. 

The Root Cause

It's important to think about the biological and neuroscientific reasons why we seek approval – but beyond that, what can we trace our need for approval back to?

Counseling psychologist Dr. Preeti Kocchar explains that the behavior ultimately starts during childhood.

"...we all begin life in a state of complete reliance on external validation. As children, we rely on it to learn appropriate behaviors; as adults, it’s a necessary part of tribe life.”

Where the tendency gets out of hand, however, is when we build an over-reliance on it. It can become a crutch, something we use to make up for our own insecurity and low self-esteem. 

It's also important to note that external validation isn't just about making sure you look good in front of other people; it's often about feeling accepted and loved. We want to feel like we belong somewhere, that we are part of the group or team or family, so seeking approval is an attempt to secure those feelings. 

The Fear of Rejection

We've established what approval-seeking looks like, but what about rejection sensitivity? Let's take a closer look.

Everyone faces rejection at points throughout their lives. It's not always about being turned down for a job or a date; it can be as simple as not getting the answer you want from someone or even reading negative signals from their body language. 

While it's natural to dislike rejection, some of us will develop a more intense rejection sensitivity – a fear of being rejected that ends up preventing us from taking risks and trying new things. This might look like:

  • Only applying for jobs you are over-qualified to fill

  • Staying in relationships or friendships that are no longer healthy 

  • Avoiding social situations that could potentially end badly 

  • Feeling like you need to be perfect at all times, or else other people won't accept you. 

Fearing rejection is like walking around in a straightjacket, but often, you don't even know it's there. You're prevented from reaching your potential because the idea of failing or being turned down is so overwhelming that it stops you from trying at all.

Why Do We Do It?

Similarly to validation seeking, we develop rejection aversion due to low self-esteem. It's born from the belief that we aren't enough; that if someone were to reject us, it would be a reflection of our worth. 

Remember the piece of research I mentioned that linked external validation and reward pathways in our brains? It turns out that rejection triggers a vivid mental response, too; it is processed and recognized as pain. Ouch. 

No wonder we avoid it. Self-esteem aside, being rejected literally physically hurts. Pair the pain with a crushing feeling of worthlessness, and it's a recipe for disaster.

Unfortunately, rejection aversion can become self-perpetuating: the fear of rejection leads to more rejections because we don't take risks or put ourselves out there, leading to even lower self-esteem and a greater need for external validation. It's something that needs to be actively worked on in order to overcome it. 

Where Approval and Rejection Collide

Ever heard the saying, "If you live for approval, you'll die from rejection"? 

This isn't just an airy sentiment; it reflects the real and daunting consequences of living for external validation. 

The logic here is straightforward: if you believe that your well-being and success rely on the approval of other people, you'll be more determined than ever to receive said approval. And since rejection is essentially the opposite of the approval you seek, it becomes impossible to ignore and an even greater source of emotional pain. 

It works the other way, too. An intense fear of rejection will cause you to limit yourself and stay clear of challenges; that way, it's easier to meet expectations and stay in the approval zone. But that's a surefire way to stunt your personal growth and stifle yourself from achieving what you're capable of. 

The Self-Esteem Link

A common thread between validation seeking and rejection sensitivity is poor self-esteem. 

You can pull both of these concepts apart as much as you'd like, but ultimately, they come down to a lack of belief in yourself and a deficit of self-worth.

Living with self-doubt is like playing a guessing game on a large scale; you tune out your own wants, needs, and gut feelings and instead try to gauge what other people want from you. It's a miserable way to live. 

Ironically, the kinds of people we end up seeking approval from are the ones who live as though approval isn't what matters – and so we must learn to do the same. 

Repair Your Self-Esteem

If you truly want to stop looking outside of yourself for approval – if you want to live without the constant fear that others will reject you – then your self-esteem is the place to start. Become the person you seek approval from; be the source of validation for your own life. 

1. Stop punishing yourself. 

I hear people talk angrily about themselves all the time. If that approach were really effective, it would've worked by now – so stop ragging on yourself for a lack of confidence or progress.

Here, it helps to trace your validation-seeking tendencies back to their potential causes. Did you struggle to gain the approval of your parents as a child? Are you living with a toxic mindset that has been passed down through generations in your family? Have you unknowingly developed a fixed mindset instead of a growth mindset?

The point of getting to the bottom of these questions is not just to understand where your tendencies come from. It's to develop self-compassion. Empathise with the child inside you who needed approval from people who may not have been able to provide it. 

A place of self-compassion is the ideal starting point when trying to rebuild your self-esteem.

2. Take back control in little ways. 

A lack of self-esteem is usually indicative of a power imbalance in our lives. We feel powerless in our own skin and helpless to do anything about it. 

In reality, there are plenty of little changes you can make to feel more in control:

  • Give your days more structure. Add a wake-up time, morning routine, or bedtime ritual.

  • Start a creative project to work on in your spare time – one that has not been assigned by an employer or professor. 

  • Join a therapy group to hone a specific skill set, whether it be self-confidence, communication, emotional regulation, or another area of mental discipline you're interested in.

  • Find one new activity or challenge or hobby you can sign up for today that hasn't been recommended or assigned by anyone else; something that puts you in the driver's seat but still ultimately pushes you to grow outside your comfort zone. 

Sometimes, all we need to trigger a confidence boost is to reclaim autonomy and agency. It reminds us what we're capable of. It's a welcome and refreshing change from constantly feeling like we're at the mercy of other people's opinions.

3. Reframe rejection and approval. 

I spoke about rejection in more detail for one of my recent newsletters; there, we explored the idea that rejection shouldn't be viewed as a negative. How many times have you been rejected from a job or a relationship, and it ended up leading to something better?

The same goes for approval. Don't let yourself view validation as an inherently positive thing. If approval means letting another person dictate how you live your life, it isn't positive at all – it's a danger to your autonomy and a huge red flag. 

Make sure you're able to discern the difference between healthy approval and unhealthy validation-seeking. Work on reframing these two concepts and the role they have in your life. 

Wrap Up

Seeking approval and fearing rejection aren't exactly the same thing, but both come from a very similar place. One exacerbates the other (and vis versa) until we feel like we're stuck in a worthless, powerless loop – but it doesn't have to be that way. 

If you're struggling with low self-esteem, I hope today's newsletter is the boost you need to get started on the path to self-compassion and confidence. It's time to stop living for others and regain agency over the choices you make. 

Have you overcome this struggle in your life, or are you currently on the road to regaining your self-worth? Share your story in the comments below – I'd love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading!

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Write me at or tweet at me @ScottDClary and I’ll do my best to get back to everyone!


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