Learn How to Avoid Needing It
I first became aware of my need for approval around the second grade.
A girl at my school had a pair of crisp white shoes with a blue label on the back. I noticed another girl owned them, and another. I soon realized many of the girls at my school wore these shoes.
My shoes looked similar to theirs, but they didn’t have the same, I don’t know, sturdiness, maybe? They looked…I didn’t know the word then… but, they looked…well…
My shoes looked cheap.
And that’s because they were. My shoes had come from the Fred’s Dollar Store. Their shoes were Keds.
This was my entry into the world of approval, and at seven years old, I’d already failed.
So by fifth grade, I did what any normal, second-grade girl who desperately needed approval would do: I got my mom to purchase me a random pair of Keds at a thrift store (which were way too big, by the way), and I tore the label off and hot- glued them to the back of my Fred’s shoes.
And honestly thought I could fool people. (Oh, fifth-grade me. Bless you.)
I was seeking the approval–and the acceptance–of my peers.
I didn’t know how powerful and necessary it was to enjoy the acceptance of others at that age. While any school full of children around the same age breeds a Darwin-like form of natural selection, a large, public school in a suburb of a capitol city is like Darwin times 1000. Nothing prepares you for the real world quite like being singled out for your name, your clothing, your trashy family, your house…You name it; at public school, they will find any flaw you have and pick it apart like a pack of dogs licking a bone clean.
I love my family, and over many years and through a lot of therapy, I’ve come to appreciate what God gave me. But let’s just say that neither my mom nor my dad had a care in the world for what other families in our town thought about them. Of course, as an adult, I now understand why, but back then?
I couldn’t for the life of me get why my parents didn’t try harder to make us fit in.
Fortunately for me, I had an older brother, who, unfortunately for him, was picked on mercilessly. So I learned really quick what got you bullied and what people my age were willing to let go.
Not the nicest house? Meh. They’d overlook that. But stick your mom out on the front porch in a flannel shirt and bandanna, chain-smoking Marlboro 100s? They were gonna say something.
Clothing from a department store that wasn’t designer? You’d pass. Clothing from Walmart? You were done for.
Not exactly select-sports team good but played at least something? They might let you by. Spent your Saturday mornings playing outside or watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Oh, man. You were gonna be destroyed come Monday.
It didn’t take me too long to figure out that the only way I was going to make it in school was to use a tiny bit of attractiveness I had and a whole lot of fearlessness when it came to doing any and everything I wasn’t supposed to do at that age.
I learned a couple of super valuable lessons in my years spent attending kindergarten through twelfth grade:
- The kids didn’t make the rules. What I witnessed by the time I got to high school and blatantly noticed the way teachers, the “good” parents and others in the community treated me compared to my better-off peers made it obvious that my fellow classmates had learned how to treat each other by watching the adults around them. They’d formed an ignorant dog-eat-dog mentality by listening to and studying the behavior of grown-ups. Don’t be fooled, future mamas and daddies. Teachers play favorites. (Sorry, teachers, but I’m one, too, and we do.) Most teachers, especially in elementary, love the bow-heads and Polo-wearers, the kids from “normal” families, and the children who don’t come to school dragging loads of emotional baggage behind them. I get it. And other parents don’t want their kids around the ones who will most likely go down the “bad road,” which I never understood, because, speaking of bad behavior…
- The rules didn’t apply to everyone. By the time I was in tenth grade, I was already beginning to understand that certain people at my school could get away with absolutely anything. If I drank on a Friday night, the entire school heard about it by Saturday morning and it was talked about at length. (There was even a time I purposely didn’t drink and still was accused of being drunk by Monday, but that’s a story for another day and has a whole lot of “birds of a feather” vibes attached to it.) The “good” girls (meaning the ones who dressed right, came from money, and had a “stable” family–in my town, “stable” meant well-known) could do whatever they wanted to. If they told their friends to zip the lip, nothing was said, and even if it was discussed, there was no judgment, stigma or label slapped on their foreheads. It was that easy.
Now before anyone thinks this is the bitter blog post of a girl who hasn’t gotten over her bullying, let me say that I actually don’t consider myself to have been “bullied.” When I was younger, did people make comments about my family, my home, my outfits, my smell (aka, the Marlboro 100s)? Sure they did. But I also took dance lessons from the same school as the “good” girls, which helped me fit in. And by the time I was older, I’d learned so much about etiquette, behavior and how to fake the good life, I passed for popular. I had to completely disgust myself in order to do it, but I did.
I called it survival.
What research has shown is that peer approval is actually hard-wired into our brains, making it more biological than a form of consciousness. Take this study done on binge drinking, as discussed in this edweek.com article:
In a study of binge drinking, Mr. King found adolescents who are deciding to drink weigh negative effects such as having a hangover or getting in a fight less than they weigh perceived social benefits, such as increased confidence and the ability to speak with others.edweek.com
To get real “sciency” with it, the article, “Need for Approval and Children’s Well-Being,” published on https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, says:
Prominent early (Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934) and contemporary (Cole, Jacquez, & Maschman, 2001; Harter, 1998) developmental theories suggest that children’s sense of self-worth emerges from an internalization of the views of significant others. Yet, as children begin to develop a more coherent and stable sense of self over the course of development, individual differences likely arise in the extent to which children’s self-worth remains contingent on approval from others (Harter, Stocker, & Robinson, 1996). The present research examined the emotional and social correlates of these individual differences in need for approval. More specifically, this research evaluated the hypothesis that a heightened need for approval has trade-offs for children’s well-being.
Now that I have children of my own, I realize that there are some children who don’t really care whether they are “popular” or not, and that a lot of worry over popularity follows interest. I have two children who were pretty “mainstream” for public school, meaning they liked sports, cheer, etc. But I also have two other children, just as well-liked as the previous two, who were into anime and manga and all things “nerd.” All four of my children had their separate struggles, yes, but they started school much differently than I did because they had loving, stable parents who made a decent income and were able to give them the “leg-up” needed to survive public school.
I’ve since learned that not having those things is what probably made me hyper-focused on noticing that others around me did have those things.
The lack in my life made me notice the abundance in others.
I hope if you’re reading this, you’ll forgive yourself.
If you’re a parent who put a high price tag on popularity, forgive yourself for caring so much about these things. We are human, and biologically we are wired for survival of the fittest. Most parents do not want to see their children hurt, and sometimes we tend to focus on what we think we can control, like how our child appears to others. It takes awareness to pull us in the other direction and teach our children to be kind to everyone.
If you’re a parent who didn’t care enough or for whatever reason, couldn’t seem to do or give the things your child needed to “succeed” in public school, forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know. If, like me, you’re a little of both, forgive yourself for that, too. I tried so hard with my first two children, forcing them into all the things I thought would make them popular. And some things did, but many activities were not their desire or their passion, and it caused a great deal of stress in our home. By the time I had baby number four, I was old enough to understand how people become “popular,” and what I realized was that people who are popular are popular because they’re popular. It’s a whole chicken and egg thing, and it’s not something that can be created or forced. It just is.
If you’re a person who was bullied, forgive yourself–and those around you, including teachers, parents and peers–for not having the tools necessary to not be bullied. Oftentimes we take our adult brains and try to place them on our childhood-selves. We have to remember that a twelve year old doesn’t think like a forty year old. We know things now that we didn’t know then, but even now, we’re still just doing the very best we can with what we know.
If you’re one of the lucky ones, forgive yourself for not understanding that you did absolutely nothing other than hit the biological “jackpot.” Understand that you’re not any better or worse than anyone else. And if you happened to bully someone, forgive yourself for that, as well. (If you’re still attached to that bully mentality, get out of high school and get some help.)
Approval is powerful and often, we don’t outgrow our need for it.
Sometimes I’m saddened by the heavy burden we still carry around on our backs because of what was said and done for a very short twelve years. We should never base our beliefs in ourselves on external conditions, and yet, many of us are carrying the hurt of words said so long ago when we were so young.
Words are strong, even more powerful than our need for approval. Used incorrectly, the tongue can unleash a pain that sears the heart for decades to come.
If I could tell little second grade me anything, it would be that in twenty years, no one will remember that I had Fred’s Dollar Store shoes, and if they do, it says more about them than it does about me.
And I would tell myself that the thing I should focus on most for the next few years is not how others should love me, but how I should love myself. And how, in accepting who I am and where I come from, my peace would emanate as love to others.