Q I am becoming aware of how dependent I am on other people’s opinions of me. I am a man in my late thirties and still constantly feel the need for my boss and my colleagues to like me. Whenever I am in a group I get self-conscious about what people are thinking of me. I’ll pretend that I know the issues and topics of conversation even when I am not following much. There is a voice inside me that makes me doubt my ability and contributions. I wish I could be free of this need and just be myself.
A We are social creatures needing support and acknowledgment from other human beings to help us grow and explore ourselves and our life more fully.
One of these types of supports is called mirroring. When someone mirrors you positively, he or she is reflecting back to you traits that they see in you. For example, if you give a presentation and people respond in a positive way that helps you feel valued, you feel positively mirrored and confident that you are liked and appreciated. If they look disinterested or yawn, you’re being negatively mirrored. This can feel disappointing and even shaming, depending on how much you need their positive feedback and appreciation.
There are several reasons why people get stuck in needing others’ approval. It may be that they didn’t get enough appropriate mirroring when they were children. Parents were preoccupied, or mis-attuned to their child’s needs. They may have also been critical, disapproving, and negative. Emotional nourishment, empathy, and appreciation for the child’s struggles and triumphs was lacking. This leaves a child with a sense of deficit, and constantly needing to be told and shown that he is worthy. For some this can become a preoccupation, where most of one’s choices and motivations stem from this incessant need for approval and appreciation. Such a person doesn’t seem to have a center because he doesn’t know what he wants or cares about. There is too much external focus.
Being aware of yourself is really the key. This is not easy, as most people are not conditioned to be self-aware. Developing relationships with people who you can allow to see your positive and negative traits without judgment can also be very powerful. None of us are wonderful all the time. We don’t need to be.
We need to be mindful of internal and external negativity. It can easily sabotage and obstruct the positive feedback. Sometimes we need to challenge “critic attacks” by actively talking back to them.
As we begin to receive enough acceptance for our whole self, warts and all, it gets easier to like ourselves, though it takes time and work. Once we learn to value ourselves, we can incorporate positive feedback more deeply.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in the Bay Area. 650-325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com