How to Stop Depending on Others for Approval and Validation

A reader asks:

A lot of choices we make stem from gaining approval/appreciation of others. As some call it “status anxiety”. How can one tune out that part and learn to make more autonomous decisions?

Much of approval seeking—including seeking status in order to look good in front of other people—is a symptom of not knowing what you really want.

In his book, Wanting, Luke Burgis talks about Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire which says that most of our desires are imitative; that is, we don’t so much want things because they really matter to us but because we see other people wanting them and then desire them by proxy…

  • Do I really want the newest iPhone? Or do I want it because most of my coworkers have it and are always talking about how cool it is?
  • Do I really want to get married? Or do I want to get married because all my friends are getting married and that’s what everyone around me in their early 30s seems to be doing?
  • Do I really want to leave my role working on product to become a manager? Or do I want to get that promotion to manager because it’s a promotion and that’s what everyone else is aiming for?

Of course, when we’re stuck in cycles of mimetic desires—wanting what other people want—we also depend on other people’s validation and approval of our desires to make sure we’re wanting the “right” things.

And I think this is the core of a lot of problems with approval-seeking:

If you don’t know what you want it’s only natural to imitate what other people want and then go back to them for validation.

The way out of this trap is to uncover and cultivate what Burgis calls thick desires. These are relatively stable desires that are based on our own authentic values and interests. And while there’s no formula for doing this, I think a good place to start is by spending time reflecting on your personal values.

One more little tip… What are you afraid of? Like, really afraid of?

We tend to avoid the things that scare us because, well, they’re scary and it’s uncomfortable to feel scared. But often we only discover our deeper desires amid struggle and conflict. So if we tend to avoid struggle and significant challenges, then we lose out on that opportunity to discover what we’re really excited and passionate about.