Is a need for validation affecting you?

By Roberto Giannicola, ACC

July 2004, San Francisco.  It’s lunch time. I’m ready to deliver my first workshop. In the audience, there are roughly fifteen friends and acquaintances here to support me.

After twenty minutes, that support turned into pity. Almost everyone was painfully grimacing as they witnessed my shirt turning darker, drenched in sweat. Forty-five minutes later, as I thanked everyone for participating, I could hear them sigh with relief, grateful it was finally over. “The presentation was great,” they said, “but watching you being so nervous was excruciating.”

For the next two years, I took classes and spoke at every possible venue. Soon, I felt that I was on top of my game. But no matter how often I presented, I still felt a level of anxiety; and that wasn’t only when I was speaking to a group of people.

Finally, I realized what triggered it. My desire to be liked and accepted caused me to be highly critical of my own performance; which in turn, had a direct effect on my ability to present comfortably and successfully.

No one wants to look like a fool, especially in front of a large audience. I get that. However, I realized that my self-worth had become tied to the outcome of my presentations, shifting me away from the goal of ensuring that my audience received value.

Impact on your leadership

I got certified as Leadership Circle Profile practitioner, and in their book, Mastering Leadership, the authors write about this dilemma in the context of leadership effectiveness:

“The more we are defined by other people’s approval, the more likely we will fear rejection and be risk-averse, indecisive, cowardly, and compliant. The more we define ourselves by our results, the more likely we fear failure and fail to delegate, collaborate, build teamwork, and allow others to engage meaningfully and creatively. We will tend to relate to others in autocratic and controlling ways. If we define ourselves on our intellectual capacity, we will fear vulnerability, fail to connect with others, acknowledge their brilliance, and relate to others in self-protecting, arrogant, analytically critical, and condescending ways.”

Public speaking was a very strong trigger for my “being perfect and liked” trap. But how many times do we fall into similar circumstances that are harder to discern and yet cause the same reactions?

Here are a few examples and how they can affect you, particularly in positions requiring leadership:

  • We provide help but feel anger or disappointment when not appreciated or recognized
  • We give because we want to be accepted
  • We comply because we want to fit in
  • We push for perfection because perfect results represent us
  • We control a process because we want to prove our worth
  • We are leading a team concerned about pleasing, rather than following a vision

All these have short term gratifications but come with many long-term liabilities. When we identify with our performance, if we are criticized or questioned, we feel that our core is being attacked. I believed that my performance was a representation of me as a person. So, when I feared my presentation was called into question, I concluded that it was me who was called into question. That created anxiety even before I had uttered a single word.

Regardless of what triggers us, here are a few ways to change: 

Be here to serve: Last week, I was coaching a group on presentation skills and reiterated my story. I explained that while it’s important to learn techniques, it’s even more important to shift our attitude from being concerned about ourselves to instead focus on how our message will serve others. Don’t worry about being liked or accepted. Do it because you love it and you are passionate about it. The rest will follow.

Listen to your calling:What are you here to do? What fills you with joy and enthusiasm? We often believe that following our own journey might disappoint others.  We tend to fear failure and follow the norm because that makes us feel validated. Unfortunately, if we let external recognition dictate our choices, we all lose.

Keep an awareness logRecognize and take note of the ways in which you define yourself and the consequences it carries. Review how you engage people. Keep track of the feedback others give you and what you are learning about yourself. Then, see how you can alter your behavior and attitude from self-concern to altruism. When you notice, in real time, how your beliefs are inhibiting you, you’ll become free to make other choices.

Be courageous in the transition:In Mastering Leadership, the authors note: “This transition is arduous because, to make this journey, we must let go of how we have come to define ourselves. We let go of the deeply held beliefs that our worth and value are tied up with how we are seen by others, by what we do, how smart we are, or how acceptable we are.”

Selflessness requires that we look at the darker parts of ourselves, our shadows, and bring them to the surface. After many years of trying to be perfect, pleasing others or trying to control my world, it was hard to let go of what defined me. However, the exhaustion (and perspiration) I experienced from maintaining that world wasn’t sustainable. I found that in comparison, the work required to transition to this new outlook was far less cumbersome.

As you liberate yourself from the need for approval, you’ll be able to lead in far more rewarding ways.

Here are a few questions for you to ponder:

  • When was the last time you risked it all to become way more than you are now?
  • How do you get in your own way?
  • Are you waiting for others’ approval to be impactful?
  • What would you do if you could, and knew you would not fail or be rejected?



For more on shifting your own self-image and de-coupling it from old, invaluable definitions of self, contact Roberto for a consult.