A Desperate Bid for Approval: Are You Really a Needy Mess?

My father hates this painting. I can see why.

No you’re not needy. It’s not about positive reinforcement.

Although it may not feel like it, work is a relationship. A strange, albeit dysfunctional one, but it is a relationship. And like any relationship in your life, there are things you need from your work mates. Things that’ll stop you from picking up a chair and clobbering everyone in sight. In the however-many years I’ve been a creative professional I’ve learned this (a little bit the hard way).

In a nutshell, you need to know that the people you work for are happy with what you do. Criticism is required, many times necessary, but without some indication that your clients approve of you, that relationship is doomed to fail.

This is not what many malign as “positive reinforcement,” or the idea that we need constant approval from our superiors to buoy our fragile self-esteem. Yes, we need boosts to our ego now and again, but the value of approval in our jobs runs deeper than that.

We understand this in our other relationships. Think about that special someone in your life. You’ll always want to know how they feel about you. There are little (or big) clues that show they’re happy. Some personal affection, actual, enjoyable time together, even the simple act of saying “I love you,” all say your significant other is digging you. How could a relationship thrive otherwise?
You’re not a needy mess for expecting it. In fact, without those little clues, the relationship’s going to crash and burn.

What if you were dating someone who showed no affection? Every time they saw you they complained about how you looked, told you to clean up your place, or hated where you took them. On top of that, they never expressed a sense of appreciation for who you are, or what you mean to them. How long will that relationship last? (Spoiler: not long).

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]All of us, on a very fundamental level, have need to know how we’re doing, regardless of our self-esteem[/pullquote]

I’m sure some of you out there have been in relationships like this. Maybe you were in them longer than you’d like to admit (no judgments, we all make mistakes). But you can see that for a relationship to have a future, you need some encouraging validation from the other party (works both ways, of course, don’t forget that).

This is really true for every relationship (parents & kids, BFF’s, master & pet), including work. When I say “work” I mean the relationship you have with your superiors. A.k.a: your boss or the person who is receiving your work (could be customers or clients if, like me, you’re a freelancer). If they don’t acknowledge your value, even in a small way, how do you know you’re doing a good job? If all you get is criticism, how long will you last in that environment?

There have been volumes written about this sort of thing, so I want to keep it simple. Pythagoras theorem states–just kidding. Let’s get personal.

A few years back I experienced this. I was working for an organization for a while, producing what I believed was my best work. But inevitably the feedback I received after every project was a long list of complaints. Now, I’ll say that most of it was valuable insight into improving my work. I’m not shrinking violet (or whatever the phrase is); I welcome anything that’ll help me. But I’m also a human being who needs to know where I stand with someone.

Never did I get any kind of meaning approval or thanks from my superiors. You may be thinking, “They must like you, since they kept sending you work and didn’t fire you.” But there is much more to a working relationship than staying alive. It’s not a zero sum game: either keep your job or get fired (and if you’re in that sort of environment, jump down to my tips right now). How could I function when I feared every assignment might be my last? That I was just one mistake away from getting the boot?

I felt this way because I never heard anything but criticism.

Some of you at this point will scream, “He’s just a needy Millennial, crying for more positive reinforcement!” To that I say, stop screaming, this is just a blog. But the reality is, this goes deeper than a selfish desire for attention. As a creative professional, I’m very confident in my skills. I’ve been doing this for over ten years and I know I can provide a client with exactly what they need (and I have a history to prove that). If I am ever feeling down, I can look back over the quality work I’ve done and feel accomplished.

There’s a difference between someone with a low sense of self-worth, and the majority of everyone else. A person who is crying out for “positive reinforcement” to make themselves feel good is lacking some basic appreciation for who they are as people. But all of us, on a very fundamental level, have need to know how we’re doing, regardless of our self-esteem.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]You need to know your boss is happy, on some level, with your work.[/pullquote]

Even the strongest, most confident among us need some form of validation, to confirm we’re on the right track. Even Jesus Christ got approval from the big man upstairs, when a voice shouted from heaven “This is my Son!” That happened twice (see here and here). So if the leader of a major world faith didn’t go very long without tangible approval, how much us lowly mortals?

Think of the worst break up you ever experienced (yes, let’s reopen that wound). Your old boo rejected you for perhaps a variety of reasons. But it wasn’t because you weren’t a valuable person. You were either not right for them, or they didn’t appreciate you for who you were. Did that mean you could never love again? Are you some kind of waif, doomed to a life of loneliness? Of course not! (unless your name is Voldemort). Your self-worth didn’t come from that person loving you, but you needed something from them, otherwise the relationship would end.

It’s the same thing in a work environment. You need to know your boss is happy, on some level, with your work. Most places this probably does happen, but what if you’re in a crappy job? What if it’s been weeks, even months, without a smile from the bossman (or woman)? There are a few things you can do:

Speak Up

You’re not alone. Talk to your higher ups about what you’re going through. Most companies have HR departments just for this sort of thing. Remember, it’s not some major problem you’re having, like sexual harassment or death threats (God forbid), just a lapse in communication. Be honest and humble about what you’re dealing with. Most people, even cold-minded professionals, will sympathize with someone just being honest. It can help the company realize an area that needs improvement. And you’ll probably be speaking for all your coworkers.

If you’re a freelancer, like moi, you have a little more freedom. For a client that is not supportive or thankful for what you do, you have either two options: cut them loose or speak up. Cutting them loose may be the easier option, but you’ll lose some valuable income. Speaking up can be harder, as you may only communicate via email or infrequently. But a simple message, asking them their overall opinion of your work, can mend the lapse in validation. If they’ve got nothing good to say, well you know what to do (break out the scissors).

What about all you business owners out there? Don’t you want to know how your customers feel about you? If you’ve been toiling for years to build a base, it’s vital to know what your regular customers like about you. You can use this intel to strengthen your service. It can be as easy as giving out questionnaire cards, with specific areas you want to know about. Bribe them to get them to fill them out (like a free coffee when you bring in a finished questionnaire). Online surveys and polls work too. Find out what they think about you. Customers tend to be quick to complain and slow to praise, so find ways to bring out the good stuff.

What if speaking up doesn’t work? There is another option, albeit a tough one:

End the Relationship

Ouch, I know it hurts. But there comes a time in all our lives when we know the end is near. Speaking up and addressing the problem gets you no where. Your boss might even become belligerent and even more unkind. When you’ve expended all your options to save the relationship, there’s really only one thing you can do.

Remember that crappy job I mentioned earlier? It all came to a head when I got an email eviscerating one of my projects. Something I spent weeks on was torn apart from head to tail. The email questioned my competence as a creator, my know-how in the subject matter, even picked apart little things to emphasis the boss’s disapproval. This after an on-going string of critical feedback, insulting forms of accountability, and no indication that they appreciated my work. I reached a point where I had to end my relationship with this organization, simply to save my sanity.

You might think I was being overly sensitive. But like I said, I’m confident in my work. I thrive on constructive criticism; it has helped me become a better creator. What I was experiencing was unprofessional, insulting to me (as an adult), and provided no means to better myself. I was simply working with what amounted to angry school teachers, who prided themselves on belittling others. No one can thrive in that environment.

This goes deeper than a childish need for positive reinforcement. As a working professional, you need to thrive in what you do. You need to grow in your abilities, moving from a novice to a pro to a master. This can only happen in work relationships that offer both criticism and validation. How else are you to know the areas your are good in, in addition to what needs improvement? If you’re not getting that from your relationship, it’s time to make a change.

And for those of you in the boss’s chair, remember this lesson. Your employees thrive on what you give them. As someone else once said “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” Real leaders support their people, with criticism and encouragement. Make a real effort, bossman.

Don’t be afraid. Speak up. You’re worth some compliments.

One Reply to “A Desperate Bid for Approval: Are You Really a Needy Mess?”

  1. Excellent honest article. Lots of wisdom and incite!!! Thanks for being so transparent!! You’re very brave!

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