Are You an Approval-Seeking Junkie? Article by: Jim Rohrbach

I describe myself as “a nice guy in recovery.” I used to basically go along with what others asked of me, never making the effort to define what my needs were — heck, I didn’t think I even had any needs. I would tend to cave in to others’ requests whenever I might have shown any resistance. And I chose to feel guilty whenever someone expressed surprise that I didn’t immediately acquiesce.

Fortunately, I gave up feeling guilty one year for Lent, and it never came back. I realized I actually did have needs, that they were important, and that I could begin to ask for what I wanted regardless of others’ reaction. And when I started to make clear requests, I started to get what I asked for — funny how that works, huh?

So yes … I was an addict, an “approval-seeking junkie” — a person who will do anything asked because he wants to be liked, and above all else to be seen as “a nice guy.” Here are five scenarios to help you decide if you’ve got this same monkey on your back:

  • Your boss comes by at 5 p.m. and says he’d really like to have a certain report completed for a meeting the next day. You agree to finish it and call your spouse to put off plans you’ve had for months to go to the opera that evening.
  • You think you might like to go skiing for a few days over the holidays, when your parents mention they’d like you to hang around to help “just in case.” You don’t go, and they don’t need you at all.
  • You want to get an advanced degree to increase your career opportunities, so you intend to begin a weeknight home study schedule. Your friends invite you out on one of the first evenings for a “goomba night” of eats, drinks, and laughs. You get home with the help of a designated driver at 2 a.m.
  • You have done a lot of work on a proposal to a seemingly wellqualified prospect. After your presentation the prospect says, “That was great! Why don’t you call me at the beginning of next month?” You smile, shake hands, and then spend the next three years in voicemail hell trying to get back in to see him.
  • You’ve shared your thoughts about a startup business. A couple of well-meaning relatives ask you what your backup plan is. You begin to worry that maybe going out on your own isn’t such a good idea and put it on indefinite hold.

In all of the instances above, the people I described are afraid to ask for what they want. At the root is the “fear of disapproval” — the fear of what other people might think about you or say about you if you were to really do what you wanted to do and say what you wanted to say. I believe people become unwittingly addicted to approval-seeking behavior at an early age. In a way it’s more insidious than other addictions because it has no physical symptoms. But if it goes unchecked, it fosters stress, “overwhelm,” and feelings of resentment … and can lead to depression if not alleviated.

Where does this rampant addiction come from anyhow? It begins for all of us in childhood — when we’re young, we need the approval of our parents or we’ll literally die. So we learn to want what they want for us and become good little approval seekers. Unfortunately, it can become a problem when we get older and start generalizing this approval-seeking behavior with our teachers, our powerful appearing peers, and then our bosses. Somewhere along the line we lose (or never develop) our ability to decide for ourselves what we want. And the habit is set, often for life.

So what does it take to kick the habit? To start, let me suggest this: Whenever someone makes a request of you, silently ask yourself, “Do I REALLY want to agree to do what this person is asking, or am I afraid to refuse because the other person will be mad/upset/disappointed with me?” And listen for the answer. That way, if you say yes, you’ll be making a conscious choice to go along. And if the answer is no you’ve got the opportunity to assert your needs and negotiate an outcome that works for both of you.

Let’s see how this works with the five examples above:

  • You tell your boss about your plans and ask if it would be OK to finish the report first thing in the morning. Understand that I’m not suggesting you get fired over this — just making sure you ask for what you want so your spouse doesn’t “fire” you!
  • Let your parents know you’ll be there on the holiday, then available by cell phone at the ski resort. They’ll live, and you’ll get over your guilt. (Trust me on this — my father was Catholic and my mother was Jewish, so I’m a Zen Master of Guilt).
  • Tell your friends you’ll take a rain check but that you’re looking forward to attending the basketball game with them on Saturday. Of course they’re gonna taunt you about being a “wuss,” but someday they’ll probably be working for you.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your prospects pointed questions like, “What’s our next step? Can we set a date and time to reconvene?” When I tell people to do this, their fear is that they’ll be perceived as a “pest.” I help them reframe the situation by asking, “Would you rather risk being a ‘pest,’ or go out of business?” That usually gets their attention.
  • There will always be “doubting Thomases” for anyone who intends to start a business. This last situation actually happened to me in 1993 when I was just starting out as a full-time business coach. I’ll bet those relatives of mine are STILL wondering what my backup plan is …

Finally, be clear on this: I am NOT suggesting you become arrogant, egotistical, obnoxious, or over-demanding in your dealings with others. I just want to encourage you to kick the approval-seeking habit by just saying NO whenever your own needs won’t be met. By asserting yourself consistently, you’ll be a happier “nice guy/gal in recovery.”

Success Skills Coach Jim Rohrbach, “The Personal Fitness Trainer for Your Business,” coaches business owners, entrepreneurs and sales professionals on growing their clientele. He has helped hundreds of individuals to achieve their goals since he developed his first coaching program in 1982. To arrange a Free Consultation with Jim, go to