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Kick the Approval Habit

By Thelma Mariano

Years ago I based my feelings of self-worth on performance and how much I could achieve in school or in business. When I turned to professional writing, my internal rating system focused on the number of sales. But guess what? My need for external approval was a bottomless pit. I could never get enough.

Since then I worked on my personal development and have gradually gone from being self-critical to self-accepting. Many of us look outside ourselves to gain a sense of our own value, through:

  • what others think of us
  • our performance through education, work or sports
  • how we look (e.g. thin, sexy, well-dressed)
  • how wealthy we appear (including status symbols)
  • how we compare to others

Unfortunately, we can lose favour with the people we are trying to impress, our performance may suffer or our looks fade. And even sizeable assets can take a beating on the stock market.

The only true source of approval is found within. The more we accept ourselves, the more easily we will believe praise when it comes from external sources. Self-acceptance means acknowledging our positive qualities as well as our little "quirks," paying attention to our feelings and allowing ourselves to be different. When we truly know and appreciate ourselves, we trust our own judgment and create a life that is meaningful to us. The questionnaire below will help you determine your OWN level of self-acceptance.

How Self-Accepting Are YOU?

  1. I allow myself to make mistakes, realizing that we all learn from failure.
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  2. My value as a person depends greatly on what others think of me.
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  3. Whether I'm celebrating a success or getting through a rough period, I "reward" myself in self-defeating ways, e.g. overeating, drinking too much, or going on a spending spree when I am already in debt.
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  4. I have trouble asking others for favours and tend to apologize a lot.
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  5. I'd rather keep an unsatisfactory item than return it to the store. In a restaurant I'll eat a meal, even if it isn't what I ordered, rather than return it to the waiter.
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  6. I berate myself for saying or doing the wrong thing, calling myself "stupid."
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  7. I would do something against my better judgment rather than risk another person's disapproval.
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  8. When I look at myself in the mirror, I see only my flaws.
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  9. I think of how my life would improve if only I were smarter or better looking.
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  10. I graciously accept compliments and praise instead of tossing them aside.
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  11. I do things which nurture, strengthen and relax my body.
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  12. I am able to accept my vulnerable feelings like sadness, fear or anxiety.
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  13. When I need comfort, I am able to turn to friends or family and let them know how I feel.
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  14. I am comfortable expressing my angry feelings.
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  15. I am able to assert my needs and wants with family members, colleagues or my partner.
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  16. I recognize and value my need for solitude or "quiet time."
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  17. I actively pursue and maintain friendships with people I truly like.
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

  18. I balance my life with pleasure and fun, recognizing that I work harder when I am well rested.
           a) never or hardly at all, b) sometimes, c) frequently, d) very often

Now add up all your points as shown below:

Question 1: a-1, b-2, c-3, d-4
Questions 2 through 9: a-4, b-3, c-2, d-1
Questions 10 through 18: a-1, b-2, c-3, d-4


1-18 POOR
You rely heavily on other people's opinions and find it hard to assert yourself in your professional or personal life. You are so anxious to please others that you often ignore your own needs and wants. You are also prone to rewarding yourself in self-destructive ways (e.g. overeating). It is important for you to do things that will nurture you - such as reading a book, swimming, walking in nature or just listening to music.

19-36 FAIR
Although you make sure that you honour your commitments to others, you are often self-critical and overly demanding of yourself. You are quick to blame yourself when things go wrong. Learn to be more tolerant of your own mistakes and pay less attention to what others may think. You do manage to find time for what's important in your life, which gives you a feeling of satisfaction.

37-54 GOOD
You know who you are and what you need to be happy and usually are willing to take the time to do something that will fulfill you. You are always trying to improve yourself and surround yourself with supportive friends or family. You see your strengths but may need to learn to work with your weaknesses. For example, you may have a short attention span and work best in spurts. By recognizing this and giving yourself frequent breaks, you will be more productive.

Congratulations! You have a deeply developed sense of self and are self-nurturing. You respect your own feelings as well as those of others and have no qualms about turning to friends or family when you are in need of comfort. You are patient with yourself. If you feel a resistance to doing something, you get to the root of your feelings instead of forcing yourself to go ahead. You lead a healthy, well-balanced life.

Improve your level of self-acceptance
There are a number of ways to do this. Several are listed below:

So often we act according to logic or what we feel we "should" do and ignore our feelings. Journaling will help you get in touch with your emotion and give you a safe place to let things out. By regularly listening to yourself in this way, you will feel freer to be yourself and more self-accepting. (See my article on Journaling - a Tool for Self-discovery.)

Acknowledge and follow your Life Values
Determine your most cherished values and define how you can achieve them in your current life (e.g. autonomy, creativity, fitness, communication, learning, personal growth, love and affection). By taking even the smallest step towards your inner values and goals, you grow in self-acceptance. (Email to obtain the Life Values exercise.)

Search for the gold
We all seem to know our weaknesses or flaws but rarely consider our strengths. Find ten things you admire about yourself, relating to your personality or abilities - e.g. resourceful, articulate, good with children, can make people laugh, sensitive to others' feelings. Write these down and consult the list whenever you feel "down" on yourself.

In our image-conscious society, many of us are obsessed with appearance. An exercise that can help you to accept your physical self: when you look at yourself in the mirror, instead of focusing on what's wrong (large nose, frizzy hair), find three positive things to say about your appearance. For example you have good skin, white teeth or nicely developed calves. If you have a poor self-image, you will at first find this a challenge. Put your observations on paper and watch the list grow!

Remember that someone meeting you for the first time sees the WHOLE person and he or she is unlikely to be focused on your flaws. Also you cannot realize the effect of your dazzling smile or the warmth in your eyes.

Change your self-talk
Pay close attention to your thoughts - observe whenever you are being harsh or critical of yourself. In particular avoid generalizations, e.g. after making a mistake you say to yourself, "I can never get anything right." Replace self-criticism with kindness: ask yourself if you're tired or stressed and what you can do to feel better.

Allow yourself to fail
It's OK to rate your performance in various activities but NOT to base your feelings of self-worth on how well or badly you do. You are an imperfect but lovable human being who needs encouragement, not self-condemnation, to keep going. Give yourself points for effort! Then determine what went wrong and how you can do better next time.

Surround yourself with supportive friends or mentors
Beware those who do not respect you or your values and discourage you from doing what makes you happy. If family members fall into this category, you need to cultivate friends who accept you as you are and give the support you need.

Valuing and honouring your true self will increase your self-confidence. When you are confident in who you are and what you can do, you are more likely to take the steps you need to achieve a fulfilling life.

Thelma Mariano left the corporate workforce to follow her passions as life coach and writer. She is founder of U-Unlimited and runs a Dream Achievers Program in Montreal. As a life coach, she helps people to align their life values with their interests and skills and to connect with their inner guidance. She also encourages and inspires others through her writing.


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