The marketing campaigns of major industries are based around the idea that you derive your worth from other people’s opinions of you. They of course didn’t create this idea: society is saturated with it, and ads are just milking the idea. Ads in general seem to promise happiness from their products but, more specifically, they often allude that using their products will garner you the treasure that is others’ approval: open up a bottle of this soft drink and you have an instant party with adoring friends, shave your legs with this razor and you’ll win the attention of men, etc.

We absorb the ubiquitous toxic messages that our worth is predicated upon others’ positive opinions of us. As a result we look for esteem from outside of ourselves instead of from within. I think any esteem from without is going to be weaker and more ephemeral than any self-esteem cultivated from within yourself. This is what I’ve seen in my own life, at least: any boost in confidence from someone else’s praise more easily dissipates, especially if it’s contradicted by someone else’s criticism.

I am not advocating abandoning noting others’ opinions of you completely—constructive feedback can be good! Neither am I advocating constructing an echo chamber that builds up false confidence. What I am advocating is being selective about whose opinions we value.

I don’t know how common this is, but I usually filter out positive feedback and focus on negative feedback, to the detriment of my mood and mental health. I will value an opinion about me from someone I barely know over the opinion of a true friend who knows me well. I can definitely deconstruct this habit and see that it’s not an accurate way of viewing reality, but I still struggle with it. I think I’ve been way too prone to suggestion most of my life and have absorbed implicit messages from my culture about whose opinions I should value.

It can be disappointing to realize how much in life can depend on others’ approval of you—so many dreams that people want to come true, for example, strictly depend on it. Common ones like landing a dream job, getting married, or traveling the world all rely on it: someone either has to approve enough of you to hire you for that job, or people have to be interested in a product you’re selling if you try and create your dream job (people have to want to buy what you’re selling and people have to believe in it enough to give you a loan to even start your undertaking); someone has to like and love you enough to spend their life with you; and traveling requires money, so, once again, you need to be hired somewhere, receive a loan, etc.

Maybe it would be healthier to dream of things that don’t require others’ approval—like self-acceptance and inner peace through rooting out toxic thought patterns (which is, I suppose, what I’m trying to do!). Maybe the traditional dreams are just symptoms of this toxic cultural idea of worth derived from others’ approval.

I recently saw this tweet:

This is, of course, good advice for any gender and any age group, but I appreciate that it’s riffing on those ridiculous posts that dictate what women should/n’t wear in order to be respected by others. There are ridiculous, arbitrary standards imposed on us by others; the way I see it, we can either wear ourselves out trying to live up to those standards (which, I think, is usually futile because those standards conveniently shift just enough from person to person, guaranteeing that you will never fully succeed in pleasing everyone), or we can reject and ignore them and replace them with our own.

Up until now, I have chosen to accept standards imposed upon me. Instead of recognising that certain standards are both arbitrary and unrealistic, I have bent over backwards to try and satisfy them. I have even imagined them sometimes–no one was even espousing them in reality and I was making assumptions about how people would judge me. Classwork was frequently a struggle for this reason: I assumed that the grader or professor was going to size up my entire character in general based on one assignment. I therefore put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. Instead of thinking, ‘Even if that is true, that would be an unfair, incorrect judgment on their part’ and ignoring the threat of harsh judgement, I decided to put my all into preventing them from thinking that I was worthless. (This, by the way, is faulty thinking because I have never been a super villain who can control others’ thoughts. Even though I can influence others’ thoughts, I can obviously never control them. I think it’s a kind of magical thinking to believe that I can. Plus, I do not aspire to be any kind of super villain, and an attempt to control others’ thoughts seems pretty maniacal!)

I distinctly remember one specific assignment that distressed me enormously because of this insecure thinking and assuming that someone would determine my character based on one assignment. When I look back, I can see that this kind of thinking heavily contributed to me becoming deeply depressed and having to take time off of school to recover. There were a lot of factors that went into the depression of course, but this was a major one. The assignment in question was for a class during the semester that radically changed my life and set me on a new path because of the downward spiral of depression I fell into (it lead me to fail my classes and drop out of school).

The assignment was for a class I was really interested in and passionate about, a cultural history class. It was one iteration of a weekly assignment where we would pick an artifact from a certain epoch, first describing it literally, then explaining the historical context, and finally analyzing how it was a symbol of the time period in general. The unit was 1200 A.D. and my artifact was the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II’s falconry treatise. I spent a good amount of time researching a unique artifact. However, my fear was that whoever read my report would assume that it was the first thing I found, my analysis was BS, and I was not sincere. That was seven years ago now, but that illuminated manuscript artwork has been etched in my mind ever since!  I recognised it immediately when I revisited it moments ago:


As I said a few paragraphs above, it’s been up until now that I fretted so extremely about others’ opinions. I’m finally turning it around. I think we are all subject to these doubts as a result of living in a culture that tells us we’re only worth as much as others approve of us. I do wonder though why it has affected me so extremely. I think the main reason is that I very easily recognise and then, unfortunately, internalize implicit messages. Someone doesn’t have to tell me directly that my worth depends on others’ approval; I glean the idea from actions and words infused with the idea, like ads.

If I’m talking about the origins of fretting so seriously about what others think of me, I can’t in the name of honesty neglect religious influence. From an early age, I learned that I should think and behave in a way that god would approve of. My focus was not on getting rewards, but I still internalised the message that my eternal fate depended on his approval. I sat through lesson after lesson that taught that it was crucial to care what god thought of me: every action came with a label of divine approval or condemnation, and those who didn’t care were foolish. Obedience to god’s commandments was paramount since life was a test that tried your devotion and faith.

I was about to say that this combined with my intense fear of disapproval from authority figures caused me so much sorrow growing up, but as I give it a second thought, I don’t think those two things were combined: I think one caused the other. I think my fear of god’s disapproval fueled the panic I felt when, for example, I thought a teacher was mad at me (e.g. I have memories from Kindergarten of feeling ashamed when the teacher thought I was being disruptive). I learned to “fear” authority figures (as it’s phrased in the Bible) through my beliefs about god. God was supposed to be the ultimate authority, a perfect and just judge, and that’s why I could trust that his opinion of me was correct. What god thought of me was the objective truth. I wanted to be a good person, so of course I wanted him to approve of me.

I can’t remember one lesson on cultivating self-esteem and self-love. Maybe I did have one or even multiple ones, but the point is that if I did, it wasn’t memorable and was drowned out by the more frequent message that I needed god’s approval. The more I think about it, the more I see how frequent the message was that worth is dictated from divine external sources. Even if I felt a spiritual confirmation of my worth, that was from the spirit, who communicated on god’s behalf—it still wasn’t coming from within but from without.

I am only beginning to understand the psychological effect this all had on me—so desperately wanting approval from not just an authority figure but from a paternal one who had, at least in the past (e.g. in the Old Testament) killed people whom he disapproved of! Of course I was scared of being considered “wicked” when god had destroyed people he considered wicked. I still think the strongest confidence comes from within, but what would have been the difference if the person whose approval I craved was female, or mortal, or my age? In other words, more like me? It’s strange to think about the effect of trying to win the approval of someone who is so different from you.

Let me be clear: I understand the bountiful messages about god’s love, redemption, and forgiveness. I understand that not everyone was affected the way I was by certain religious teachings. However, the fact is I was affected, very seriously and negatively. Those teachings moulded my psyche in a major way, and I have to work so hard to unlearn bitingly harsh thought patterns. Again, I understand that the same teachings don’t affect everyone the same way, and so many people, if they heard my story, would dismiss me as simply misinterpreting facts and taking things the wrong way. At this point, to be frank, I really don’t care if people think my suffering is my own fault because I had a skewed perception or cherry picked teachings—those teachings were still ubiquitous. If anything, I think I tried my hardest not to cherry pick and instead tried to evaluate everything, not just what was pleasant.

I am still unweaving the complicated origins of my fear of disapproval. I am glad to say I am making progress, and being able to write about this is proof of that.

discussion questions

  1. Have you struggled with caring too much about approval? Why or why not?
  2. Why do you think the message that worth is contingent upon approval is so ubiquitous?
  3. How have you rejected unrealistic standards, real or imagined?