A psychologist’s guide to valuing your own needs properly—and gaining new confidence in yourself
‘But why can’t I just be happy with what I have….On the surface everybody thinks my life is perfect. Even I feel like I have it all ….but still I feel empty inside. Will I ever be able to feel happy and satisfied?’
My client, Monique, looked at me with despair. Her perfected exterior provided a powerful camouflage for her fragile sense of self. The realisation had finally hit home. No amount of beautiful clothes, admiration from men, jealous colleagues, or successful ventures at work were able to hit the spot. She still did not feel good about herself. Something deep inside of her was calling for her to change…
As a psychologist, there is not a day that goes past without someone in clinic presenting with a lack of self-love and a deep-seated wish to feel better about themselves. To not feel so dependent on others. To not have to feel so insecure all the time. To stop comparing oneself to other people and envy their achievements.
If you are someone struggling with low self-worth, you might already have noticed that the ‘work’ you put into getting liked by others — is not paying off. You might even resent those who do less of ‘pleasing others,’ yet end up getting all the rewards.
With or without realising it, you might be stuck in an unhelpful pattern of people-pleasing, self-editing, and a perpetual ‘chase’ for things outside of yourself. Meanwhile, your emotional needs may be neglected or suppressed. The boundaries that should be in place to protect your personal needs may be non-existent, weak, and contact with the self and your heartfelt values diminished. You might not even know who you are.
If this is you, please do not worry. While feeling depleted and emotionally drained makes for some terrible feelings — it is important to understand that it is you and only you that is keeping yourself stuck. Even if it sounds harsh at first, there is also a sense of empowerment in knowing that you have what it takes to change and that you don’t need to wait for anyone or anything else to get it started.
So if this resonates, start by making a firm decision that you have had enough pain and that you need to change.
Being ‘needless’ might appear to make life easy at first. It does, of course, often make life easy for people around you. Too easy in fact. Sadly, operating without expressing or fulfilling your personal needs will inevitably lead to feeling as though you have let yourself down. It also goes without saying that other people will seem to disappoint you since their actions are unlikely to match your hidden needs.
Your true and authentic self cannot gain its full expression if you are not prepared to be honest and upfront about what you need in order to be happy. For most people, some of the habits that are based on low self-worth are barely operating consciously, and they may require that you put yourself under the microscope and open up to learn about yourself and your habits.
Excessive external validation goes hand in hand with low self-worth and a feeling that lacking the approval of others means something important about one’s own value.
The perpetual chase for other peoples’ approval may be a response that was acquired early in life. Growing up in a family with overly critical, emotionally volatile, addicted, or unavailable parents—or a lack of unconditional love—a child might learn early to adjust themselves, to suppress their own needs, and to ‘hyper-monitor’ their environment for other peoples’ feelings and opinions about them.
Constant appeasing of parental needs may become a way to keep unpleasant situations unfolding or simply to feel loved and ‘good enough.’ Early in life, the behaviours may even have made sense, if they helped you survive in your environment. In some circumstances (and also to avoid pathologising or passing blame on others) there is a totally benign reason for why emotional needs went unmet, such as many siblings, parental illness, or absence due to work.
There could, of course, be other reasons why some people start becoming overly dependent on external validation. Being keen to be liked by others and achieving approval and admiration from those around us is a completely normal need that most people have. But when we try to gain approval from others at the expense of our own internal validation, the balance has definitely tipped over. We should never have to abandon ourselves to be liked by others!
Whilst the effects of being hooked on external validation may seem fairly innocent on the surface, the impact is often more far-reaching than people would even dare to imagine. By continuing to operate as though you are a person who does not place a high value on yourself, you can be sure other people will follow suit and treat you the same.
At the end of the day, we have to teach other people how to treat us.
Below is a small list of behaviours that can keep you stuck in a dependency on other peoples’ opinions of you. Are any familiar?
Checking for admiration online
Like a pigeon in a ‘Skinner-box’ pecking at a lever until the reward comes in, you check frantically on your phone for any sort of attention or approval. Could be “likes” on your latest picture on social media, a response to something catchy you posted, or any signs that you are being noticed and admired.
The disappointment if you don’t receive any is huge, but that doesn’t stop you from checking again and again. When something finally comes in, you feel like you hit the jackpot and delude yourself into thinking it was all worthwhile.
When in a state of deprivation, even small drops of adoration can feel powerful and get addictive. In reality, the shortage in supply has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with you not liking yourself enough to start with. The internet can be a slippery slope even for those who start out on social media with reasonable self-esteem.
You do lots of things for other people — sometimes way more than you actually want to. While much of it feels honest and as a true reflection of ‘who you are,’ from time to time you can’t help but feel bitter and resentful that others don’t do as much for you. You feel a bit taken for granted in general and cannot understand why those who are less giving and saying ‘no’ seem to be getting all the props. You watch them grudgingly as they ‘cash in’ on favours, attention, promotions, and ‘the best,’ most loving partners. This makes you doubt yourself further and leads to more over-giving, in a desperate attempt to win people over.
You often find yourself in ‘performance mode’
You have become so skilled at acting the chameleon with others, that you actually don’t know who you really are underneath. You tell yourself that there is no way you can be honest about who you are, or what your needs are, since previous attempts to show the world the true you — have never quite seemed to impress others.
For the record: often, the real reason for failed attempts has to do with the choice of audience rather than an actual flaw or lack in you.
You engage heavily in people-pleasing
Being too nice, too understanding, too accommodating, and constantly feeling a bit frightened to upset others or gain disapproval. You operate with a preoccupation of what others will think or feel about you, even if logically you can understand that their opinion should not be all that important.
You are known to say YES when really you would like to say NO
Saying NO feels almost impossible for you. Yet, you feel a little jealous of other people who comfortably decline things that don’t suit them. Sometimes you even bitch a bit about them… but inside, you wonder why they are able to ‘get away’ with it when you feel like you wouldn’t.
The real reason they are getting away with it is that healthy boundaries send out to the world a message of worthiness and value. The boundaries communicate:
‘I am not going to expect to be treated badly, dumped on, taken advantage of, or anything else unpleasant. If people don’t treat me with respect, I am not going to stand for it, and I will walk away from it.’
You overshare ideas, views, opinions, etc., constantly
You do this not so much because you find it engaging, but merely because you are thirsting for approval, peoples’ agreement, and other forms of interest that might temporarily boost your feelings about yourself.
The trouble is that baring your soul for people who have not earned your respect or trust will make you feel vulnerable and ‘in need’ of a particular response in order to have your shared material validated. When this doesn’t happen, you feel twice as vulnerable and likely to think it must have been something you said.
You have a habit of chasing
Be it material things, academic accolades, money, or people, you often feel as though you have to work hard to get what you deserve. (Paradoxically, you still don’t feel you get what you deserve). You feel ‘hooked’ on the opinions of others, and you yearn for approval. You have little boundaries on what you would be prepared to throw in to get the desired effect, be it your time, money, efforts, or dignity. Anything goes.
At the end of the day, you feel a distinct feeling of ‘empty hollow’ when you reflect back on actions. Even if the discrepancy between input and output is in your face, the habit of chasing is so compulsive that you struggle to stop.
You compare yourself to others
And you try to identify traits, themes, and behaviours in others that you quickly replicate in the hope that it will be successful for you also. If nothing else, at least you might feel like you are working on yourself.
Rather than turning your attention to your amazing inner world and its creativity and uniqueness, you churn your energy into trying to ‘figure out’ what it is that others have done to succeed. Needless to say, this misallocation of your attentional resources will backfire badly. Not only are you making yourself dependent on other peoples’ paths, which aren’t necessarily suited for you, but you are also keeping your own abilities and skills ‘rusty’ and unused.
In my work with clients, I often explain the difference between short-term vs. long-term emotional gains. Although it may be obvious for many of you, I find that this knowledge really is critical for change. Without this understanding, there is always a risk that the short-term effect gets interpreted as an accurate indication of whether a behaviour is useful or not.
Our emotional brain is constantly seeking short-term gratification. It knows of nothing worse than discomfort of any kind — and certainly does not like the idea of rejection and disapproval. These are states that could have got our ancestors into seriously negative situations, as they depended on belonging to the herd in order to survive. The trouble is that this part of our brain does not have any real intelligence or reason, and hence it will allow itself to be ‘programmed’ by the feeling we achieve short-term from any given behaviour.
One part that often gets overlooked is how the emotional brain warms not only to the things that feel good in the short-term but also to whatever action that results in feeling ‘less bad.’ At times of emotional struggle, it will gear you towards any actions that can relieve such feelings, for example by numbing, avoiding, or deflecting…even when the behaviours involved may be outright destructive in the longer term.
Even if the emotional part of the brain does not care too much for how behaviours make us feel in the long term, our higher self does! Trading in our long-term happiness (and sense of worth) for some short-term boosts provides a guarantee for unfulfillment. It’s a bit like going to the gym. If we want to see results, we have to be prepared to stay with the discomfort and the pain. If we stop every time the going gets tough — nothing will ever change.
1. Have regular self-care days (or just an evening/hour).
Taking good care of yourself is an act of self-love, and one that will make you feel treated and ‘honoured.’ By giving love and appreciation to yourself, your dependency on other people giving you their appreciation should gradually start to lessen. Even better, you might eventually be repelled by people who cannot value you properly.
Take care of yourself from the inside and out. Eat nourishing foods, drink lots of water, get your rest, watch something stimulating, have a massage, put on decent clothes even when you are not seeing anyone — do what makes you feel good about yourself and dwell in the feeling of being there for yourself! This is the ultimate self-validation.
2. Stop chasing!
Be it romantic partners, friends, jobs, or material things; the act of chasing has never helped any person feel good about themselves.
It keeps you stuck in a perpetual feeling of neediness, unworthiness, and a desperation to be ‘chosen’ and liked. In relationships of any kind, chasing ascertains a dynamic in which you are establishing yourself on a back-foot. In order to feel high value, you need to act as if you have value. Even if you don’t feel it yet, you have to think and act as if you do regardless. Eventually, the feeling will follow.
Does this mean you are no longer allowed to date, go on social media, or make bids for attention? Not at all. It simply means stopping yourself in the track when you can sense that your behaviour is driven by insecurity, neediness, or self-doubt. There is a huge difference between behaviours done without an expectation for a particular outcome — and those done with a feeling of ‘need’ luring in the background. If you tune in with yourself you will feel the difference.
3. Stop people-pleasing and ‘over-accommodating.’
Having no needs does not make you a better person! It just makes you far more likely to be taken advantage of, taken for granted, or viewed as someone who can easily be swayed, convinced, or is prepared to ‘shrink’ themselves to fit in with others.
This is not who you want to be, and you have to recognise that it is OK to be nice to people without giving up on yourself in doing so.
4. Commit to build your own worth by choosing to put the attention on you.
This requires a willingness to say NO to others and apply good boundaries by being prepared to let go of situations or relationships that no longer serve you well.
Although this might sound straightforward theoretically, this process tends to be challenging when faced with the draw of compulsive pleasing and clinging. When you change, some challenging emotions will surface, so whenever pain or anxiety arises, do know that this is not a sign that you are doing things wrong, but rather a sign that you are changing a habit!
When you pull away from the dependency on other peoples’ approval, you will notice a rise in anxiety. You might start doubting yourself and wonder if it is safer to return to the comfort zone of compliance with what others expect of you. Change requires you to take a leap of faith. You have to trust that you are worthy enough in yourself before you actually feel it. Have faith — and accept if you fall off the wagon from time to time.
5. Connect inwards and align your behaviour with your inner values.
Identifying your values can be quite a big job. If you have no clue where to start, you can begin by mapping your reactions, triggers, likes, and dislikes in day-to-day life. Take notes and look for patterns. Are there times when you feel particularly engaged? Or happy?
Likewise, there may be times when something makes you upset — ask yourself what happened and what it was about that situation that didn’t sit well with you. Our feelings can be powerful messengers of our inner values and preferences. Once you have started to build an idea of what your values and preferences are, try to make sure that you honour them by adjusting your behaviour according to what makes you feel like your authentic self.
Some of these steps might sound difficult and laborious. I would be lying if I said they didn’t require effort, but I also want to emphasise how amazing it feels when you start changing the habits that keep you stuck in unworthiness and pain. Keep a log book, and start tracking your progress. Even if you take it bit by bit, the rewards from being honest with yourself and honouring your needs will soon enough be self-reinforcing.