Where it comes from, why it’s holding you back and what to do about it

A guest blog by Helen Mason, Women’s Leadership Coach, Team Facilitator and gender equity specialist.

Do you ever feel a glow when a colleague tells you ‘well done’? Do you get a stab of shame when someone notices a mistake you’ve made? Do you avoid difficult conversations at work for fear of upsetting another person?

If you feel like this, don’t worry – it means you’re human. We have a biological need to belong, to know that we matter.  

Becoming reliant on approval however, can lead to problems where not getting our ‘fix’ of praise or feeling the sting of disapproval sends us into a poisonous downward spiral. This can impact our work, our relationships and even our health.

In my nearly 20 years as a business professional in the veterinary industry, I have learned many things about approval and its hold over us. Here I share my main principles that will help relinquish some of its power.

Women and the need for approval

You don’t have to look too far in history to find a time when women had few legal rights and couldn’t even spend money without a man’s permission. That generational impulse to please others will take some time to unpick.

The Equal Franchise Act was only passed in 1928, meaning women haven’t yet reached 100 years of having equal voting rights with men.

In a 2022 Instagram post, Clinical Psychologist Dr Nicole Pera wrote about ‘Good Girl Conditioning’, which included the sentiment that women are rewarded in childhood for being ‘agreeable, polite and nice’. This has carried on into their working lives. Thousands of people responded to the post about how that resonated with their own experience.

When women do poke their head above the parapet, both the visibility and viciousness of criticism make standing out a challenging prospect. A report from Oxford Brookes University1 found that ‘women in the public eye are under constant and hostile scrutiny, and are at risk of psychological and physical harm’. This scrutiny can deter young girls from pursuing high profile roles. This is even more the case at the intersection with race, with the study stating that ‘Black women leaders [are] unfairly treated in sexist and in racist ways.’

Is it any wonder that women’s reactions to criticism can be so visceral? We only feel safe when we feel approved.

The irony is, getting trapped by the need for approval isn’t safe. Constantly shape shifting to get your hit of praise is exhausting, often leaving women struggling with their identity. There is mounting evidence that it could affect your health. A new branch of science known as affective immunology suggests that supressing emotions can also suppress your immune system2 .

Dialling down the power of approval over us

How do we strike the balance between seeking approval and not feeding our addiction to it?

During my time as a Women’s Leadership Coach, I have developed a set of principles that have helped both myself and my clients reframe the need for approval.

  • Seeking approval and avoiding criticism can be a way to avoid your own uncomfortable emotions

I used to be that person in the office who proudly ‘never let anyone down’. When I found the courage to dig under the skin of why this is, the REAL reason I would never say no or disagree was to avoid my own feelings of shame that came with the potential disapproval. Seeking approval or avoiding criticism is often about controlling how another person views you. This can be a difficult concept to get your head around, and people often (myself included) reject this principle at first because it’s so opposite to how they see themselves. If you can get to a place where you see people-pleasing as a strategy to avoid your own discomfort rather than an act of kindness, the easier it is to lighten your need for approval.

  • Feedback doesn’t tell you about you, it tells you about the person giving it

If you get feedback from a client that your communication is too direct, is it then a fact that you are too direct? I would argue not necessarily, but it does tell you that the client does not like directness. Another client later in the day may appreciate being told straight. Feedback is rarely factual, it simply gives you data about your audience’s preferences. Focus on the feedback that gives you data about the likes and dislikes of the group you need to influence or reach and allow that to filter into your thinking; let the rest go.

  • Disempower criticism by updating unhelpful beliefs

Have you ever noticed that some criticism washes over you, while other times it really stings? I had a boss who said I was ‘too nice’ – inferring I was weak. This false compliment was triggering for me in the moment, unsettling my view of myself as there was a part of me that believed I was indeed weak. Often the issue isn’t the criticism but the unhelpful belief we hold about ourselves. After many years of coaching and self-development, eventually I unseated the belief that nice and weak are synonymous. Now, if I get described as weak for being too nice it’s no longer a trigger, because I hold a firm belief that it’s simply not true. Consider what beliefs you hold about yourself that might need updating.

Reframing how you view approval

Applying these principles will help you break yourself out of the need for constant approval during the working day. It’s OK to feel that little glow of pride when you get some praise and normal to feel a bit hurt when you receive criticism, but these feelings will pass. Don’t let the opinion of others, whether positive or negative, hold too much power over you. Use these reframes to ensure these feelings don’t hold you back from making the impact on the world that’s important to you.


Helen Mason is a Women’s Leadership Coach, Team Facilitator and gender equity specialist. She spent nearly two decades working as a marketing professional for veterinary businesses including MSD Animal Health and IVC Evidensia.

A qualified executive coach and member of the Association for Coaching, she has been working with coaching clients since 2019. She specialises in empowering women to define their leadership style and have impact in the way that matters to them. If you want to build your confidence and resilience or have a team member who you think might benefit from coaching, visit Helen Mason Coaching or find her on LinkedIN.


References

  1. Report on findings for ‘Girls, Leadership,  and Women in the Public Eye’ research project (n.d) Oxford Brookes University https://radar.brookes.ac.uk/radar/items/f3748ce1-e81f-4252-a61a-30f16848d36e/1/

Further Reading

Mohr T. Playing Big Chapter 4. Penguin Random House 2014

Maté G and Maté D: The Myth of Normal Chapter 23 Penguin Random House 2022

Chapman B, Fiscella K, Kawachi I, Duberstein P and Meunning P. Emotion Suppression and Mortality Risk Over a 12-Year Follow-up. J Psychosom Res 2013 75(4): 381-385. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3939772/


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