In the high-stakes, high-pressure world of law, the need for external approval can become an almost tangible force, quietly driving many of your decisions and actions. This unsettling dynamic can hinder your career trajectory and diminish your personal well-being. Perhaps you’ve been there—fixated on how a client or partner perceives you rather than focusing on your own values and objectives. It’s a trap that can impact your well-being and erode your sense of self.
Understanding the Urge for Approval
Seeking excessive approval or validation in adulthood often stems from either a lack of or an excess of external validation during childhood. This can impact emotional management, personality, and even how you form relationships. A 2016 study highlights the role of maternal emotional validation in developing emotional intelligence. Lack of childhood validation can lead to emotional dysregulation and may also manifest as trust issues, heightened anxiety, and fear of rejection.
Daniel’s Story: Enough Is Enough
Meet Daniel, a bright, hard-working mid-level associate at a top-tier law firm. On the surface, Daniel was the epitome of success: diligent, meticulous, and always prepared. Yet, a large part of his daily motivation came from an insatiable need for external approval. He constantly questioned, “Did I get this right? What would others think? Do they think I’m smart enough? Capable enough? Good enough? Do I belong here?”
One evening, Daniel was discussing a case strategy with one of his partners, and upon hearing Daniel’s idea, the partner said: “Well, that makes no sense at all.” A wave of panic and shame washed over him, feeling like a neon sign flashing, “You’re Not Good Enough.” He spent the rest of the evening and all night stressing out and feeling anxious about it. He couldn’t sleep and, the next day, felt drained, exhausted, and defeated. But later that, the same partner emailed him to say: “On second thought, let’s go with your idea. Flash it some more, and let’s talk later today.”
Daniel sat there for a moment and thought to himself: “Enough is enough.” He realized the draining pursuit of external approval was jeopardizing his own well-being and professional growth. How did Daniel tackle this? Through a series of actionable steps—steps that you, too, can implement.
I. Practice Letting Go of Self-Judgment
The first pivotal realization Daniel had was that he was invariably his own worst critic. Like quicksand, self-judgment was pulling him deeper into a pit of negative self-worth.
- Identify Triggers: Keep a journal and document moments when you feel the need to seek external approval. Daniel, for instance, noted that he felt particularly vulnerable when partners asked him for his opinion on a case or when he had to speak in front of others during meetings.
- Explore Its Value: Every time you catch yourself in self-judgment, ask, “How is this thought helping me, AND how is it working against me?” Because we never hold on to a pattern or a habit (even the most negative ones) unless they help us in some way. For example, could this self-criticism serve as a wake-up call, motivating you to address an issue you’ve been ignoring? On the flip side, how is this thought eroding your self-esteem or causing unnecessary stress? Could it be magnifying a mistake and making it seem like an insurmountable issue? Constantly devaluing yourself without constructive action only feeds into a negative cycle of self-judgment. If Daniel caught himself thinking, “I’m incompetent,” he would pause and ask, “Thinking this way helps me stay on my toes and work harder, but it also undermines my confidence.” This reflective process allows you to disarm the critic.
- Amplify Your Self-Compassion: Every time you find yourself in the throes of self-judgment, deliberately choose kindness. Practice talking to yourself like you would to a dear friend in a similar situation. Over time, this becomes a habit, making it easier to let go of self-judgment. Daniel started treating himself as he would a respected colleague who had made a similar mistake. Gradually, he found that self-compassion became his default reaction.
II. Master the Art of Self-Validation
Approval, at its core, signifies acceptance—either of who we are or what we’ve done. When we seek it from others, it often indicates a lack of self-acceptance. The antidote to the addictive pull of external validation is nurturing a robust sense of self-validation.
- Deepen Self-Awareness: Create a “Success Snapshot,” a list of your skills, strengths, and accomplishments. This is not about ego; it’s about owning your capabilities. You are stating facts. Daniel listed his skills, accomplishments, and strengths and kept the list close by, reviewing it every few days and adding more items to it.
- Identify Your Own Success Metrics: Develop a set of internal metrics for success. What will satisfy you irrespective of external feedback? For example, instead of gauging his worth based on pats on the back or acknowledgment, Daniel decided that a successful day would be one where he had solved complex legal problems, regardless of whether anyone noticed.
- Celebrate Small Wins: Regularly acknowledge and celebrate your achievements, no matter how small. Each win builds your reservoir of self-validation. Daniel took five minutes at the end of each day to jot down what went well, which continued to fuel his confidence.
III. The Support System Strategy
A support system is often an overlooked element when trying to overcome the need for approval. People around you can be pillars of strength or enablers of insecurity, depending on whom you choose to surround yourself with.
- Lean on Your Supporters and Champions: Identify people who motivate you, inspire you, and champion you. Their impartial insights can be invaluable. Ask for their honest feedback about both your strengths and your opportunities for development. Embrace their constructive feedback, knowing that it’s coming from a good place.
- Cultivate Positive Relationships: Maintain a network of colleagues and friends who uplift you rather than seek to undermine your self-worth. If you realize that you have toxic people in your life (especially if it’s people that you can’t avoid, like family or colleagues), look to set boundaries. Daniel started networking with professionals who had a balanced approach to work and life. He learned to recognize toxic traits in colleagues and set boundaries.
By implementing these strategies, Daniel found a balanced, healthy way to approach his career and life. Over time, he noticed that the less he sought external validation, the more naturally it came to him.
The never-ending quest for approval and validation from others is like chasing a mirage: it’s elusive and leaves you thirsting for more. The journey toward self-validation, on the other hand, is empowering and fulfilling. Start by following these practical steps today. And remember, your value doesn’t decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth.