I think most people know the feeling of wanting to be liked and needing people’s approval. Survivors go to huge lengths to be liked. It often means denying their own wants and needs, and sometimes even doing things that they are not comfortable with. So part of the core curriculum for anyone recovering from abuse is this famous quote:
“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”
— Dr. Seuss
Proving My Worth
Part of the reason I was trying so hard to be liked, is because I lacked confidence. Having been under the influence of a toxic person, I have had my sense of self nibbled on, until there was none left. I have been told that I was unlovable, incompetent, unimportant and the list goes on.
In order to prove to myself that I am not any of those things, I often catch myself overcompensating. As soon as I felt someone did not like me, I immediately started to believe all the bad things I was ever made to believe about myself. So in order not to feel like that, I had to make sure that I was liked and appreciated. It was a constant battle to prove my own worth.
Everyone’s Approval Does Not Equal Self-Worth
Of course the opinion of others does not actually say anything about my worth, everyone knows that at some level. Functioning in this world without an internal sense of self-worth is hard though, and it inevitably leads to a pull toward external validation. But external fulfillment is a dangerous game.
Research shows that people who base their self-worth on external sources (like appearance, approval from others, or academic performance) experienced more stress, anger, conflicts, and had higher levels of drug and alcohol use as well as symptoms of eating disorders (from the American Psychological Association).
The study goes on to say that people that look for external validation are much less likely to reach their goals and sustain that validation. The anxiety and stress that is caused by the constant pursuit of self-esteem makes it far more likely that the person will fail at their endeavors. Besides, where having an internal sense of self-worth is something you carry with you always, putting that source outside yourself means there is a risk of your self-worth being destroyed not just by your own perceived shortcomings, but also by the actions of others.
That Which Is easily Given, Can Be Easily Taken Away
The game of push and pull is one that toxic people play exceptionally well. So when a survivor is looking for validation, they stand out like a beacon to toxic people looking for their next fix, the next person they can play their cat and mouse games with.
I have run into a few toxic people in my life (aside from my mother). It seemed that in every job I’ve had, I have crossed paths with a trouble person. In some cases it was direct managers that really made my life difficult, in other cases it was co-workers that just sucked the joy out of my life. I was constantly out-doing myself and taking on extra responsibilities, just to prove to everyone how great I was at my job. So what the external validation got me was jobs where I was manipulated into taking on responsibilities that I was not paid for, and many many weekends spent washed-out on the sofa.
So How Did I Get Over That?
Like all survivors, I was trained to focus on all my shortcomings (whether real or invented by my mother). So instead of telling myself what I was failing at, I started telling myself what I was succeeding at. I began focusing on my talents, and sharing those with the people around me. At first I focused on just my partner and my closest friends. Slowly but surely I began sharing my talents with strangers too, or at least with my barista, former school friends and other acquaintances
By focusing on my talents I began to find more strengths than I was ever aware of (like carrying a conversation with a stranger ;)). I also began to realize that some of my ‘weaknesses’ were just made up by someone else’s narrative. For the record, I still have some weaknesses left that I can learn from – but the list is very different these days – and considerably shorter.
The American Psychological Association suggests finding goals that are greater that your individual needs. To me that translates to the feeling of making a contribution to the world. I have transformed my thinking from my own survival, to the larger question of what I add to the lives of the people around me. All of a sudden giving someone a gift is not about them liking me, it is about having a positive influence on someone else’s life, The goal is their happiness, not mine. And by that shifted focus I manage to feed my own happiness far more effectively.
I will be honest and say that there are still days where I am a validation junkie.
How can that be? I am only human, and that is perfectly normal. On those days I look at my dearest to get me through. I trust my dear friends and significant other to boost my ego that little bit when I need it, and I trust them not to take advantage. It is their opportunity to contribute positively to my life I suppose.
The learning process was slow and bumpy, it really required one thing only: kindness for myself. It is about learning to love yourself. The good, the bad, the successes and the lessons, the sunshine and the rain. It is about trusting that your best IS good enough. Trusting that the world will reflect what you put into it. It is not a one on one trade though, sometimes it takes a while to see your life transform. Still, trust that treating yourself and those around you with love, kindness and encouragement will result in you receiving love, kindness and encouragement in return.
You are not perfect, but you are perfect in your imperfection.