“If validation is your only source of nourishment, you will hunger the rest of your life.”
– Author Unknown
“You’re wasting your time,” he told me. “It’s all just a popularity contest.”
I was speaking with a colleague from work about the Employee of the Year Award. Each year, the company selected one stellar employee and awarded him or her with a plaque at the annual Christmas party. Coworkers seldom came to me for advice or assistance despite my years of experience. This was a chance to stand apart from the crowd – to be noticed by upper management and acknowledged as a valuable and resourceful team member.
“Look,” my co-worker explained, “it’s always the same people who win: Al last year, Tim the year before and before that, Al again. The managers choose it, so unless you’re on their A-list, you won’t even be considered. Besides, is a pat on the back that important to you?”
It was important to me! I was determined to prove my cohort wrong. I was going to be the ultimate employee – the perfect worker bee – and receive the validation I deserved.
Before beginning my journey of self-esteem building, I was desperately trying to get approval and acceptance from others. I never felt good enough, and I was terrified of rejection. I could blame it on my upbringing where the focus was primarily on what I was doing wrong – everything apparently. As I grew up, I knew intellectually that I did a great many things well, but I couldn’t shake the unreasonable need to have someone tell me so repeatedly.
Like many people, I believed my fundamental sense of self-esteem and worth came not from within, but from the approval and attention of those around me. To get my addiction “fix”, I became the perpetual people-pleaser and thus was easily manipulated by others.
Here’s how it all starts: as a child, your entire existence is dependent upon others, primarily your parents. Children who are hurt continuously (physically, emotionally or both), invalidated or rejected grow into wounded adults whose sense of personal value is distorted or blurry at best. If we never come to terms with this wounding or learn to heal it, we will be forever dependent on the opinions, judgments, acknowledgements and perceptions of others.
I wanted to prove to my employer and my colleagues that I had value – that I was worthy of the position for which I had been hired, and a good person. I wanted to be acknowledged as the best – though deep down inside, I felt anything but worthy and deserving. I came in early and worked late. I joined every committee and took on every project whether I had time to do it or not. I worked weekends and evenings, burning the candle at both ends, nearly having a nervous breakdown. In the end, no-one seemed to notice my effort.
“If you’re an approval addict,” wrote Harriett Braiker, American best-selling author of Who’s Pulling Your Strings, “your behaviour is as easy to control as any other junkie. All a manipulator need do is a simple two-step process: give you what you crave then threaten to take it away.”
When we begin to build our self-esteem, we begin to heal and move from surviving to thriving. We learn to more accurately assess ourselves instead of relying on the often inaccurate interpretations of others. We learn to draw strength from within, and a stronger “self” connection begins to develop. As a result, we start to feel like powerful adults instead of powerless children. We recognize and accept our strengths and weaknesses and learn to self-validate.
Even though I wasn’t acknowledged for my hard work, thanks to my inability to say no to extra work I was asked to be on the committee that chose the Employee of the Year. Al and Tim were on the shortlist, but I didn’t vote for either of them. The prize went (deservedly so) to our hard-working office manager, a single mom raising two children who performed her job with skill and decorum while remaining active in her kids’ lives and involved in her community.
Over time, I learned to curb my people-pleasing tendencies and make better choices. Though I still occasionally felt the need for validation, I was able to acknowledge my worth and give myself praise instead of always trying to win the approval and admiration of others.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert.