I recently went to my high school reunion. It’s amazing that after all these years I’m still interested in impressing my classmates. I had my hair colored, got a pedicure, and bought a sexy flattering dress to wear. It feels like we never get past the approval issues we feel during high school. I was not popular in high school — I wouldn’t smoke or go to the wild parties (but I wasn’t a prude, I did drink). But I think it makes it more important to go back if you weren’t one of the popular kids. I was not a cheerleader, not the prom queen, not on the honor role (except once). I was just average. So I guess I still had something to prove.
At each reunion the cliques from high school dissipate a little more and it no longer matters who was popular and who wasn’t. The jocks talk to the nerds. There is still some competition, but the measuring system has changed. Who still looks young, who has money, who is most successful, who married well? Classmates still gossip and say, “Time has not been kind to her.” “How could he let himself go like that?” “Why doesn’t she die that gray hair?” “Do you think she had a face lift?” The competition is nothing compared to what it was like in high school, however. Nobody cares like they did back then. Our teen years are our most vulnerable years – the time when we were trying to find ourselves, when we were trying to decide if we were “good enough.” And many of the messages we got from our classmates told us that we weren’t up to par. Many leave high school scarred.
Approval is so important to us when we’re teenagers – especially when we’re transferring parental approval to peer approval. But it’s not all bad. Competing for approval can be motivating. The desire to show someone can lead us to great things. When we think others think we’re “not good enough,” it can either shut us down or make us decide to prove them wrong.
It was partially my old high school insecurities that were a driving force for me to get my books published and appear on TV and radio. In high school, I typed the school newspaper (instead of writing for it) and prepared to be a secretary. One classmate at the reunion (after finding out that I had written books) reminded me clearly of who I was back then when she said, “I never remember you being that smart.”
It can be good to go back to a reunion and realize that none of it really mattered. You may even be able to work through some of those issues. At one reunion, my high school nemesis (she was prom queen and cheerleader) told me that she wished she was me, and I told her I had wanted to be her. Something felt magical when she said that and it took away years of high school insecurities. The thing to remember is that even the prom queens and jocks have insecurities too. And for many, those years were the highlight of their entire lives.
We always need a little approval in our lives. That’s why housewives and househusbands (and others who have lost their jobs) often become depressed. They’re getting no strokes from the outside world. And anyone who says they don’t care what anyone thinks is either fooling themselves (denial) or emotionally dead or numbing themselves with something.
Seeking the approval of others can be a good thing if used properly. But it can also hinder us if we stay too focused on it. Many of us naturally switch that need for approval from family and high school peers to our mate, people at work, or keeping up with the Joneses. We become more concerned about what others think than staying true to who we really are.
There is a natural process that should happen during adolescence where we begin to separate our identities from those around us. We clarify how we are different from our family and peers and become stronger in our own belief systems. Some people never complete this process. When we complete the adolescent phase of our lives (which we can do at any age), we finally grow up and are focused less on what people think and more on what truly makes us happy.
The process involves separating your identity from others and taking risks that others might not approve of. If you care too much about what your peers, coworkers, or mate think of you and it keeps you stifled so that you don’t follow your dreams, you need to break free psychologically and strengthen your own identity. Use your approval issues to motivate you, but don’t let them hold you back. (For more information on how to do this, order my book Loving Him Without Losing You.)
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