One expression that’s become common when self-psychologizing is “I have a need for [x].” “I need to be liked.” “I have a need for approval.” Most of us understand what we mean by that—this “need” is unusually forceful and controlling of our behavior. We struggle to hold positions that are not immediately validated, or take actions that upset others, because our “need” is so strong. When we have wounding around these particular needs, they become both inflated and hypersensitive.
Being liked and validated are, to an extent, desires that all humans have in various amounts. We are social creatures, and experiences such as being liked, validated, and approved of are to some extent implicit to belonging. Yet we are also individuals, able to recognize when our relationships and communities need challenging, which requires the willingness to take a stand that may cost us some social currency.
As I explore this in therapy, I find that a “need to be liked,” for example, is only one facet of the problem. Along with that is a sensitivity to being disliked. It seems obvious when written out like this, but the thought was illuminating to me, for it suggests two facets of a problem that may on the surface look singular. Some people truly aspire to being liked, while some people don’t actually care if they’re liked but are really bothered when they’re disliked.
More important is that this inflated and hypersensitive “need” for something is akin to a person who is starving yet cannot take in the nutrition they need. We recognize when someone has a “need for approval” (or sensitivity to disapproval) as they seem unable to choose without others’ opinions, or disagree with a person in authority. That person often solicits approval, over and over, in various ways—even putting themself down to invite others to argue with them. One wonders, how much approval do they need before they have enough?
The problem is, though this person is desperate for receiving approval, they never allow themself to take it in. Indeed they may argue with the approval—inwardly or out loud—or become overwhelmed with discomfort. The reasons for this are myriad and unique to each of us.
What this perspective offers, in my opinion, are options on how to work with one’s inflated and hypersensitive needs. In brief:
- Recognizing that my “need” is a healthy, normal human need that for whatever reason I have trouble getting met
- Practicing being present with and taking in the positive feedback I desperately crave, and not immediately invalidating it
- Practicing managing the pain I feel when I feel this need has been invalidated (or my secret fear that I am “not worthy of” the need is validated)
Suggestions for how this could go:
For #1 — When you start getting down on yourself, you might say something like, “It’s okay that I want to be liked/approved of/included, but I would feel the most fulfilled if I could be liked/approved of/included as my true self, even if I say things people don’t agree with.”
For #2 — When someone gives you a compliment, take a deep breath, check in with how your body feels as you hear the compliment, and say “Thank you.” Only “Thank you.”
When you find yourself spinning and needing approval, find someone you feel willing to take a risk with, and acknowledge something like: “I’m feeling a little tender today. Could you tell me something you like about me/my work?” (You might ask for honest critical feedback as well. I’ve learned that people who are honest with me about my faults are also people whom I trust when they compliment me.)
For #3 — To be honest, this one is too big for a blog post, and depends on what arises in you when your secret fears are confirmed or your deep need shrugged away. Perhaps a good place to start is to think about what you’d like to hear in those circumstances—ideally when you’re relatively calm and in a good place. Asking for help effectively when we’re already in the middle of great pain and feel invalidated is incredibly difficult. Some ideas: write a letter to your wounded self that you can read when you’re in the midst of your pain. Or write some tips and pointers and give them to trusted people you can call when in the middle of it.
Another option is to practice what in Internal Family Systems is called “unblending.” Recognize that the pain you’re feeling is a part of you that carries this wounding and vulnerability. It is not the entire truth of you. Inwardly acknowledge that part, let it know you are here and listening, and see what it needs.