Do you change your behavior depending on who you are with? Maybe you feel less worthwhile if you don’t get praise? Or, perhaps status and appearances are very important to you? If so, you might have the approval-seeking/ recognition-seeking schema.
To answer any questions you may have regarding this schema, this article will cover the following topics:
The approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema is one of 18 early maladaptive schemas (EMS). While everyone likes to fit in and get praise, those with the approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema prioritize gaining outside approval and/or recognition to the detriment of developing a stable inner sense of self.
There are two subtypes of this schema – those who seek approval and want to fit in with and be liked by others, and those who seek recognition and want admiration and praise. Both subtypes depend upon external sources to feel good about themselves and are overly focused on the opinions and reactions of others.
In general, early maladaptive schemas develop in childhood when a primary caregiver is not attuned to their child’s needs. Typically, children develop the approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema because their caregivers value what is socially desirable over what is a better fit for their child. As a result, such children internalize that it is more important to fit in and/or get praise than to develop their own ideas, preferences, and opinions.
Caregivers of children with the approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema may have placed a lot of importance on what other people thought and were concerned with outward appearances. Therefore, they may have been quite restrictive regarding their child’s activities or future pathway. Such action may result in these children having a greater focus on success, status, appearance, and material possessions.
This schema may also develop if the child did not receive enough attention from their caregiver. Children need consistent positive feedback from their caregivers in order to develop positive self-belief and self-worth. If they do not receive this feedback, or are regularly criticized, they may find it difficult to trust their own judgment. Consequently, they might look outside of themselves for approval and recognition. A lack of attention may happen more often in large families or if caregivers have mental or physical health problems. As such, these children may have only felt that they were loved and accepted whenever they did something noteworthy to please their caregiver, such as receiving a high grade at school.
Additionally, children who have experienced abuse, bullying, or traumatic challenges tend to look for external validation through peer approval and/or recognition.
Wanting approval or to be recognised is very normal. From an evolutionary standpoint, if we or our actions were not approved of, we would likely have been abandoned by our tribe, leaving us defenseless. However, needing approval or recognition for all aspects of our lives and to the detriment of our personal development is not healthy.
The approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema may seem very similar to other schemas, such as the self-sacrifice schema, the subjugation schema, the entitlement/grandiosity schema, and the unrelenting standards schema. However, where these schemas differ is in their motivations. People with the approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema behave in ways to gain external approval and/or recognition in order to feel good about themselves. They do not behave in this way because they think it is the right thing to do (self-sacrifice schema), are afraid of negative consequences if they do not (subjugation schema), or to feel superior or manipulate others (entitlement/grandiosity schema). Finally, they are motivated by external values and not internal ones (in contrast to the unrelenting standards schema).
The signs of the approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema in childhood and adulthood are as follows:
Children with the approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema believe that in order to be loved and have a feeling of worth they need to gain approval and/or recognition from others. This belief may have been unwittingly reinforced if they were praised for doing well, e.g. getting the highest grade in school. These children tend to do well in school and be well-behaved. They also tend to be accepted into social groups easily, as they are either helpful and accommodating or impressive and high-achieving. As such, having the approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema as a child often goes unnoticed. Instead, it is usually within late adolescence and adulthood that the individual will start feeling the strain of continually acting in a way to gain approval and/or recognition instead of behaving authentically.
Adults with the subjugation schema typically believe that if they voice their needs or emotions they will either disappoint someone or be retaliated against. They may also fear they will be unable to deal with the consequences of speaking up. As a result, they feel that they must prioritize the needs and emotions of others over their own. This prioritization may trigger feelings of frustration and anger toward others. However, any attempt to prioritize themselves may trigger feelings of guilt and thoughts that they are selfish.
It is not uncommon for those with the subjugation schema to work in areas that require serving other people, particularly if they are self-sacrificing, e.g. medicine, teaching, therapy, hospitality, etc. They may take on more than their share of responsibility and work, and feel uncomfortable asking for help when needed. Out of mistaken obligation to accommodate others, they may feel that they are unable to say no when asked to do things that cross their boundaries. This inability to protect their boundaries can result in such individuals being taken advantage of by others.
Given that individuals with this schema are strongly focused on what others think about them to the detriment of their own self-development, they may lack a sense of identity. Consequently, they may not know what their needs, wants, and feelings are. Not being their authentic selves means they are unlikely to truly connect with others deeply. A lack of authenticity, paired with the feeling of having to act in a way contrary to their core beliefs, can lead to feelings of frustration, resentment, loneliness, and emptiness.
Hyper-sensitivity to rejection means that someone with the approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema can get extremely upset and emotional. Close friends and partners may recognise that they have rapid mood swings, particularly after social situations, but also that they apologize often and easily, even when they are not at fault.
Someone with this schema may ruminate over social interactions and experience feelings of self-doubt about decisions they made. This can lead to feelings of emotional exhaustion, low self-esteem, and anxiety. Understandably, such feelings may lead to a great deal of stress in their everyday lives. In order to feel better and relax, they may develop unhealthy coping strategies, such as drug or food misuse.
Finally, it should be noted that it is not unusual for individuals with the approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema to be proud of how they act and what they have achieved. After all, their actions have been consistently reinforced by being recognized, accepted, and approved of. However, by putting external validation first, they are at risk of isolating themselves from true connection and a stable sense of self.
If you would like to know how highly you would score on this maladaptive schema, as well as the others, you can take the quiz on maladaptive schemas here.
People with the approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema usually fall into one of three main ways of coping when triggered: avoidance, overcompensation, or surrendering.
It is very rare that someone attempts to deal with their approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema by avoiding anything that triggers it. This is because they would need to avoid any situations where they feel moved to gain another person’s approval and/or recognition. The only way to avoid this altogether would be to fully isolate from other people.
Sometimes, people with the approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema overcompensate for their beliefs through their behavior. This means acting in ways contrary to their belief that they need the approval and/or recognition of others. Doing so may look like actively choosing lifestyles that are contrary to the mainstream, even if they would prefer not to. Furthermore, they may also sabotage their own success, even at things they enjoy.
Some may deal with their approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema by surrendering to it. These people believe firmly that they need approval and/or recognition from others in order to feel good about themselves. So, they continue to gravitate to, and attract, those who are unlikely to give them approval and/or recognition, even when it is overtly deserved. This need for approval may be taken advantage of by others.
Those with the approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema may need help developing an internal sense of worth. Schema Therapy focuses on the therapeutic relationship and experiences of early childhood to challenge maladaptive schemas, like the approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema. It’s important to note that while maladaptive schemas are difficult to change, with hard work, consistency, and appropriate treatment, it is entirely possible to improve.
Learn about yourself
Developing an awareness as to when you are most triggered and feel the need to gain approval and/or recognition will benefit in changing behavior. Make a list of when you want other people’s approval the most. For example, is it when you are at work or in your personal life? By doing this you will become aware of when you are most likely to succumb to your schema and be better able to course-correct when you are in these situations.
Next, work out what your preferences are. Take notice of when you would prefer to do something different to others and act on it. Start small, and over time and with enough practice, you will be able to act on bigger and more life-changing preferences.
Take some time to yourself
“You’re always with yourself so you might as well enjoy the company.”
-Diane von Fürstenberg
Spending time by yourself may be challenging for those who rely on approval and/or recognition from others in order to feel good. However, with enough time it will become more comfortable and you’ll realize that you don’t need outside approval to do activities you enjoy.
Before you spend time by yourself, make a list of potential activities you might enjoy doing alone. For example, visiting a museum or going for a walk. Once you become more comfortable and sure of your preferences, you will find that you can decide in the moment instead of consulting the list.
Challenge your mindset
Those with the approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema view external approval and recognition as going hand-in-hand with being worthwhile as a person. This link needs to be broken. You are worthwhile as a person, regardless of achievements and approval. Try talking to yourself as you would a cherished friend; we are often far more generous when we talk to others than to ourselves. Moreover, if you find yourself using social media as a way to measure your worth, try to limit your access to a set amount of time per day and unfollow accounts that make you feel bad about yourself.
Additionally, challenge the fixed mindset that feedback or criticism is a sign of failure and disapproval. Recognize that while feedback may hurt initially, it is also a chance to grow.
Finally, when your schema is triggered, it may be useful to recite some positive affirmations, such as “I am worthy,” or “I have value.” When the time comes to act, instead of focusing on how best to gain approval and/or recognition, focus on what you think the next best step is.
Be mindful during social interactions
If you are used to letting others have their way in order to gain their approval, you may need to work on becoming more assertive – even if it triggers fear of disapproval. Acknowledge that emotions are not facts and that being assertive doesn’t mean others will disapprove of you. To lessen the impact of these emotions, it is important to build your tolerance to them. Meditation and mindfulness practices help you to sit with your feelings and thoughts and accept them for what they are. Another way to manage and express emotions is to externalize them through writing, music, or art.
Being mindful may also mean asking yourself whether you are seeking approval or validation before you ask for advice. It’s normal to check-in with others occasionally to see if your opinion was valid or your behavior was appropriate. This is seeking validation – it’s not the same as approval-seeking, as your emotional state and feelings of self-worth are not affected by the other person’s opinion. Validation means understanding that your point of view is just as sound as someone elses’, but that you may be able to learn something new from their perspective. However, if you find you are seeking approval instead of validation, it’s best not to ask for advice.
If you have the approval-seeking/recognition-seeking schema, you may need help addressing issues of low self-worth. You may also want help in becoming more assertive and reducing approval-seeking behaviors. A therapeutic relationship is the best condition in which to explore these factors. But, keep in mind that a schema develops over many years. While treatment cannot necessarily “cure” you, it can give you the necessary tools to better manage your thoughts and feelings.
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Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. E. (2003). Schema therapy. Guilford Press.