An Extreme Fear of Disapproval

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We often have an extreme “fear of disapproval” from others, especially those of us who have social anxiety or social phobia.

This can often be driven by our evolutionary history (our ancestors depended on social approval from members of their tribe to cooperate and survive), as well as social conditioning at a young age (such as from bad experiences during childhood, like being bullied at school or rejected by a close friend).

In Abraham Maslow’s popular theory on our hierarchy of needs, he defines “love and belonging” as one of the essential needs of any healthy and happy human being.

We don’t just have physical needs (like food, water, and shelter), but also social needs like healthy and trusting relationships, acceptance from our peers, and a feeling that we belong to a group that cares about us.

According to Maslow, if we don’t meet these “social needs” – and if we don’t develop fulfilling relationships in our lives – many people become susceptible to loneliness, social anxiety, and even clinical depression.

The worst part is: Many people never find fulfilling relationships in their lives precisely due to this extreme “fear of disapproval.”

They are too afraid to approach new people, spark conversations, or go out to social gatherings because they are afraid that other people will judge them negatively and ultimately reject them. But in the end, this attitude and these beliefs often become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Social anxiety is often based on the assumption that you are in some way weak, inferior, inadequate or lesser than others. This is combined with the fear that people will notice this perceived defect and disapprove of you.

Due to this deep fear of disapproval, people with social anxiety react to situations where they think they will experience disapproval or rejection in the same way that most people would react to real danger, like being attacked by a bear or some vicious predator. It’s a very real experience of fear and being threatened.

As a result, to avoid this disapproval, people who have social anxiety will usually hide themselves by being extremely quiet, reserved, or distancing themselves from the people they meet on a daily basis. They donʼt want any attention going their way because attention from others means potential disapproval.

This is a very difficult situation for people with social anxiety. By adopting this attitude and this set of beliefs and behaviors, they only cut themselves off from developing real and genuine relationships with others.

At best, you successfully hide from others and no one even notices you. At worst, your withdrawn attitude comes off as unfriendly and rude, and makes people all the more likely to disapprove of you and reject you (see: people think I hate them).

Either way, this attitude and this fear of rejection only stops you from building healthy connections with others. And that can really hurt and really suck.

Fears of disapproval can make people act in ways that actually make them more likely to be rejected or disapproved of. This is why the “fear of disapproval” is often a self-fulfilling cycle.

We sometimes act in these irrational ways due to an evolutionary instinct developed millions of years ago. Back when we were hunters and gatherers, it was crucially important that we had strong social ties to our tribe. If we weren’t accepted by our tribe, that often meant death. Relationships and cooperation were vital in order to find food, security, warmth, and reproduction.

Today, in our modern technologically-driven civilization, it is a lot easier to survive independently, without a strong social network. However, our drive to belong (and not be rejected) is still alive and well. That that is why it is still so important to have positive and meaningful relationships that provide our lives with a deeper sense of fulfillment and belonging – the exact kind Maslow described in his “hierarchy of needs.”

Although we don’t necessarily need tight-knit tribes to survive in our world anymore, many of us still crave a loyal group that provides us with a healthy sense of belonging.

So it’s natural to have a fear of disapproval every now and again, and clearly relationships still play a huge role in our society and well-being.

However, when this fear of disapproval goes to an extreme – and it makes it more difficult to function in your everyday life or unable to achieve your goals – then it may be time to find ways of alleviating your social anxiety and building a richer social life.

A lot of people’s extreme fear of disapproval is influenced by social learning and conditioning. From an early age you may have had negative experiences of rejection, and therefore you learned that acting in a shy or reserved way was the best way to not get rejected from the people around you.

Due to these past experiences, you were conditioned to fear showing who you are and revealing your true personality, because that could mean more judgment and rejection.

But completely avoiding social interaction (and sitting at home replaying bad events in your head) only reinforces your social anxiety and your fear of disapproval.

The best way to overcome social anxiety is to get the right type of social exposure and thereby give your brain new experiences to learn from. Through practice, you can get your brain to rewire itself to be more open around people and less fearful of judgment and rejection.

Of course this doesn’t mean you have jump right into public speeches or performing on a stage, but taking small and active steps to get yourself back in the social world can do you a lot of good in the long-run.

The key is to start small. For example, you can start by just reconnecting with old friends or family. Then work your way from more comfortable environments to less comfortable environments (making friends with a coworker vs. making friends with a stranger at a bar, or making friends with someone at your book club vs. approaching a pretty girl you see on the streets).

Psychologists often call this “gradual exposure,” and it’s one of the most effective ways to overcome any kind of anxiety, fear, or phobia. The basic principle is to start socializing in ways that only make you mildly uncomfortable, and then work your way up to more uncomfortable situations.

By gradually exposing yourself to these uncomfortable situations, you become more familiar with them and they don’t seem as frightening anymore. Your social anxiety and fear of disapproval will often get weaker and weaker over time.

Only by facing this “fear of disapproval” straight on can we begin to find our place in this world and discover a group that we truly feel we belong in.

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