We’ve all seen people on treadmills—either at the gym or on TV shows or in movies, and it’s always the same thing: someone is devoting a great deal of time and energy trying to race forward, but the truth is they aren’t actually getting anywhere.
Did you know that there are “mental treadmills” that we often put ourselves on? We focus our thoughts, time, and mental energy on something that gets us nowhere. Worse than this, it keeps us from devoting our limited resources on more productive things that would actually help us achieve our goals in life. Not a good formula for lasting success, is it?
One unfortunate but popular mental treadmill is the endless effort to gain the approval of others, which often leaves us unhappy, unfulfilled, and feeling worse and more rejected than before. We spend countless hours—in our daily lives, online, in our interactions with others, and in our decision-making regarding everything from what we wear to what we say and how we behave—trying to get others to approve of us, and it can be thoroughly exhausting. It forces us to expend a lot of effort without really getting us anywhere.
Let’s take a closer look at the approval treadmill and discover how we can get off of it once and for all!
It’s natural to want approval.
First off, breathe—it’s completely normal to want to seek the approval of others. The truth is, humans are social creatures and we’re wired to seek the company and acceptance of people we encounter—from peers and colleagues to acquaintances and neighbors and everyone in between. Simply put, we want to be acknowledged and liked, as it reinforces our sense of self and our life choices, and it provides a boost to our self-esteem.
Furthermore, seeking the approval of others can be a strategically adaptive life tool. For example, having a positive mentor or role model in our lives whose approval we are constantly pushing ourselves to attain can really help us achieve our goals.
A problem arises when we become hyper-focused on the approval of others. This need for external approval and the resultant boost of good feelings it can bring can literally become like a drug, and once we’re hooked it’s tough to get free from it. We tend to want and need larger and larger doses of it to feel “whole,” and we lose the ability to feel contentment or fulfillment from within. Ultimately, this need for external approval is not a sustainable formula for happiness, and we’re left feeling rejected, exhausted, and alienated from our friends and family. And chances are, the people around us feel frustrated by our constant neediness.
It isn’t difficult to imagine a scenario where an intense focus on seeking approval from others can blow up in our faces. Imagine being the person at work who’s always second-guessing himself or herself and asking people for their opinions on every single work task and project. Imagine spending way too much time obsessing about your outfits every morning, full of anxiety about what others will think? Imagine feeling the pressure of wondering how everything you say, every gesture and bit of body language will be received by those around you? It’s exhausting!
There’s just no way that coworkers and colleagues will be able to keep up with your never-ending demands for approval, and the end result will be them getting frustrated and turned off by your neediness—and you’ll wind up feeling rejected and unhappy, which could even affect your work performance.
This “backfire effect” from seeking the approval of others isn’t just a workplace phenomenon. It can negatively affect all aspects of your life, so it makes sense to take this seriously and try to end the vicious cycle.
Get off the approval treadmill.
Here’s the bottom line: if you spend a great deal of time and effort on seeking the approval of others, don’t beat yourself up—it’s a natural human urge. But if it’s ultimately leaving you feeling rejected, use the following strategies to try and free yourself from the approval treadmill.
Learn to find approval from within.
Some people are naturally good at finding internal motivation and self-satisfaction, while others struggle. Which one best describes you? If you’re among the latter, that’s ok—it isn’t a terminal condition! Give yourself the power to approve of your life decisions and feel confident in your choices. After all, you’re the most important person in your life, so trust yourself and your opinions, and be good enough to yourself to realize that the only approval you really need is your own!
Don’t try so hard.
Here’s an interesting facet of human social interaction—most of us can tell when someone is trying too hard to get others to like him or her, and it’s usually a real turnoff and has the reverse effect. So, not only are you spending extra energy at trying too hard, it has the reverse effect of what you’re hoping for! People usually respond best to those who are genuine and true to themselves, and don’t seem desperate to receive the approval of others, so it’s worth giving a try.
Be your best self.
Not trying too hard does not mean not trying at all and giving up! We do want people to think well of us, we just don’t want to be insincere. We should always strive to be our best possible selves and to make good decisions with the feelings and needs of others taken into consideration. What’s the best part about this approach? When you share this great version of yourself with the world, that approval from others that you’re seeking will come naturally!
Move on when it’s time.
Here’s some more truth for you: not everyone that you encounter in life is going to like you (hard to believe, I know), and there are just some folks who’ll never provide that approval that you’re seeking. When you encounter these people, be polite, but don’t beat yourself up or waste too much effort trying to constantly get their approval—it just isn’t going to happen. Cut your losses and move on—there’ll be plenty of people that you’ll come across in life who will like you for who you are and let you know it!
End the rejection.
It’s okay to admit that you’ve taken more than a few runs on the approval treadmill—we all have at one time or another, and though it’s more than likely that the experience left you feeling worse than you did before you started, you can now see that there are ways to get off of it and end the rejection. Good luck!