The Halo Effect: Are You Too Good for Your Own Good?
Then, disaster. I missed a note. For a moment I thought I could recover, but the error had a domino effect, and I started messing up all over the place. My fingers began to shake. I stopped breathing and started sweating, horrified that I was ruining Cookie's listening pleasure. In case you're not already marveling at the depth of my mental illness, let me reprise that for you: I was reduced to a nervous wreck because I couldn't play the piano correctly for my dog.
It was one of those moments when the cheesecloth of denial rips right through and you're left staring at the ugly truth. That day I finally admitted what I had become: I was not just a nice lady. Not just a people pleaser. I was an approval whore.
Causes and Consequences of Approval Prostitution
We approval whores are people who will do anything to get affirmation and acceptance from others. We're similar to crack whores, only more dysfunctional. At least drug-addicted prostitutes know they're not being virtuous when they sell themselves to get high. Approval whores like me, on the other hand, tend to think that we're being good (saintly! angelic!) when we let others have their way with us in exchange for a hit of praise. The people in our lives are likely to reinforce our sickness, because we'll do pretty much anything to please them, and what's not to love about that?
Here's what: Being dependent on approval—so dependent that we barter away all our time, energy, and personal preferences to get it—ruins lives. It divorces us from our true selves, precludes real intimacy, and turns us into seething cesspools of suppressed rage (of course, I mean that in a nice way).
This is a good time of year to see what I'm talking about, because during the holidays even the most upstanding citizens are pressured to act a little slutty, approval-wise. You know the story: You coo in false delight while gnawing Aunt Wanda's petrified fruitcake or simulate ecstasy over a hand-knitted sweater that makes you look like an Amish land whale. Don't be ashamed; a little social prostitution during the holidays is virtually universal. However, if you are an approval whore year-round, this season may deepen your dysfunction to the point where your efforts to please become truly exhausting and other people's appreciation is less and less rewarding. If you feel drained or angry as the season progresses, it's time to get off the street. Learn to respect yourself. Give yourself the gift of the real you, clean and sober.
Pleasing others is like sex: When we do it because we really want to, it's a wonderfully life-affirming way to strengthen a relationship, but when it's motivated by obligation, powerlessness, or calculated advantage, it's the very definition of degrading. The key to an authentic emotional life, like the key to an authentic sex life, is to follow your real desires.
Suppose that every morning of this holiday season, you asked yourself what you really, truly wanted to do that day, and then did just that. Would you spend time you don't have buying things you can't afford for people you don't like? I didn't think so. Would you bake goodies, decorate, light the menorah or the Kwanzaa candles? Maybe. Would you engage in activities you love, in the places you love, with the people you love? Oh, yeah. That would be terrific!
So do it.
If this suggestion shocks you, if you're thinking, Oh, I couldn't possibly, I regret to say you're on the trampy side. You've been selling out your passions to fit someone else's model of celebration. You probably think this is virtuous. I beg to differ. Acts of love done in the absence of love are obscene. This holiday eliminate them from your life. Learn to tolerate the anxiety of allowing people to disapprove of you.
Even I, one of the most hardened approval whores on earth, can do this. For example, when I lived in Southeast Asia, I was told that modest women always keep their heads down and their eyes on the ground. Here's what I saw during my first weeks in the exotic Far East: dirt, dirt, dirt, a snail(!), and dirt. I began to feel strangely shrunken, somehow less than a person who could look at the sky.
Finally, I decided to hold up my head no matter what the locals thought of me. Many Asians really were appalled. Women glared at me; men waggled their eyebrows (and occasionally other body parts). It was unnerving, but not as unnerving as assuming a posture that made me feel literally low. I vastly preferred being high on something more nourishing than approval: doing what felt right to me. I didn't lose my compulsion to seek social validation—like any addict, I'll always want my drug—but I learned to keep this desire from overwhelming me.
Here are some strategies I've found helpful:
1. Clarify your own morality. In our world of commingled cultures and traditions, we may confront innumerable moral codes, all different from one another. There is simply no way to gain approval from each of these disparate sources; trying to do so will make you feel even worse. Instead, clearly define your own moral code and then stick to it whether or not others approve. Right now think of something you plan to do during this holiday that you don't want to do: host a boorish guest, send greeting cards to folks you barely know, overspend to the point of serious financial strain. Then pretend that your best friend, rather than you, is the one contemplating this action. What would you say is her moral obligation? Don't think manners; think ethics. Would it be truly immoral for your friend to invite only guests she likes, or send no greeting cards, or buy fewer presents? Take some time figuring out your real beliefs.
If you decide your unpleasant plans aren't moral requirements, but you do them anyway, you're pimping yourself out. Anything we do solely to please others, in the absence of either real desire or moral necessity, is a way of selling ourselves, our lives, our energy. Ask yourself whether the dose of approval you expect to gain from this behavior is worth losing a piece of the real you. I'd be the last one to judge you if the answer is yes. All I ask is that you be aware that this is prostitution, not virtue.
2. Get approval for getting disapproval. One of the best ways to break your dependency on approval is to set up a situation in which the only way to get approval is to get disapproval. When I taught college-level sociology, I used to assign students to choose a social norm they thought was wrong or just plain silly, then deliberately violate it. The more disapproval they got, the higher their grade.
Once they were pursuing my approval (not to mention that of 90 classmates), some of my most people-pleasing students became embodiments of civil disobedience. One coed brought a homeless woman to lunch at her sorority house. A popular football player wore his grandfather's lederhosen to a nightclub. Another student went to church with "Resist religious intolerance" written on each forearm in magic marker. They all succeeded in garnering high levels of disapproval, which meant high levels of approval in my class. The realization that they could tolerate social censure was a major liberation; suddenly, these students felt free to be true to themselves, even when others condemned their actions.
To use this strategy, call a friend, tell her you're going out to get some disapproval, and ask her to lavish you with praise afterward. It works even better if you have several people—your best buddies, your therapy group, your sewing circle—waiting to hear the tale of your rebellion. The genius of the technique is that whether or not you carry through with your intentions, someone is going to disapprove. Learning to deal with that could prevent a lifetime of selling out.
3. Agree to disagree. When approval whores disagree with others, we react by not reacting. Instead of voicing our real position, we smile, nod, make cheerful mumbling sounds. As a result, everyone from the John Birch Society to the Hells Angels may think we agree with them. Some of us fear that if we begin voicing disagreement, we'll lose our friends and family. If this is true for you—if these people accept you only because you agree with everything they say—they're not friends or family, they're just customers from whom you regularly obtain your favorite drug. This is a thoroughly unhealthy situation.
Next time someone voices an opinion that contradicts your own, don't play dumb. Voice your thoughts and see what happens. At worst, you'll weaken a bond that wasn't authentic. At best, you'll find that you can disagree with someone and still be loved. This is the way to build genuine relationships instead of tentative, bartered alliances based on the currency of compliance.
These strategies won't eradicate your desire for approval or the anxiety you feel when disapproval comes your way. What they will do is give you practice accepting such desire and anxiety without relinquishing your integrity. Ironically, I've found that when I do this, I actually net more approval in the long run. I'm more fun to be around, and I do better work. I get happily lost in making my own kind of flawed and awkward music, music that always seems to sound sweetest in the moments I forget to care who's listening.
Martha Beck is the author of The Joy Diet (Crown) and Expecting Adam (Berkley).
More Insight From Martha Beck
- How to cure self-consciousness
- 20 questions that will change your life
- How to keep from being overwhelmed
From the December 2003 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.