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 would 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 5 scenarios to help you decide if you’ve got this same monkey on your back:
• Your boss comes by at 5 pm 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 am. • You have done a lot of work on a proposal to a seemingly well-qualified 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 3 years in voice mail hell trying to get back in to see him.
• You have done a lot of work on a proposal to a seemingly well-qualified 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 3 years in voice mail hell trying to get back in to see him.
• You’ve shared your thoughts about a start-up business. A couple of well-meaning relatives ask you what your back-up 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 to 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? 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 5 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.
• The “uncommitted prospect” can come up for clients of mine. Some of them are afraid to ask their prospects certain questions like, “What’s our next step? Can we set a date and time to reconvene?” 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 back up 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.”
PS – To learn more about how to become assertive, pick up a copy of When I Say No, I Feel Guilty. This is the all-time classic book on systematic assertiveness training. It’s loaded with actual dialogues to show you how to effectively handle uncomfortable confrontations rather than avoiding them or blowing up at people.