in perpetual search of parental figures
April 27, 2016 11:43 AM   Subscribe

For nearly my entire life, I have had a fierce want for somebody who I perceive to be wise, intelligent, and insightful, to give me generally unconditional approval; to give me some sort of nebulous but vital reassurance that eventually, everything will turn out okay. Why? Is this pathological?

Throughout my primary and secondary school years, and possibly even into college, I was very good at somehow eliciting this dynamic-- teachers, professors (of both genders) would notice me, sometimes designate me as special/different from other students, set me aside and give me additional readings, assignments, and take time to talk to me and help me grow as a person. I am very grateful for this.

I don't think that the desire for such a figure is too unusual, especially in a young person such as myself, although I do think that at some points, I became overly or mildly inappropriately dependent on these pseudo-parental figures. I have been taken advantage of before within these interactions, and sometimes I feel that my hunger for such a figure in my life is a bit excessive. It's not exactly indiscriminate attachment, because I am sort of picky about who I attach myself to in the sense that they do have to be able to challenge me mentally and understand aspects about where I come from. However, I know that I am constantly on the lookout for somebody older who might be willing to "adopt" me.

Now as I am completing graduate school, I am not sure where else to look for these sorts of figures, or if my dependence on these parental-ish figures is not appropriate and something I should be reflecting upon and working to change.

If it matters, my relationship with my parents is fine, and I would probably describe it as being typical of the relationship children of immigrants from poor countries have with their parents. I am the eldest child.
posted by fernweh to Human Relations (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
If you have the money, this seems like an excellent subject for counselling. Counselling would give you the type of relationship you mention above, and also provide a framework to understand why you need it and how you can become less dependent on it.

I don't think you necessarily need to completely free yourself of this type of relationship need, but you can become more conscious of what makes you seek it out.
posted by crocomancer at 12:11 PM on April 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

There's nothing wrong, per se, but I think that you are going to begin to be more and more disappointed as time goes on, and you grow older, and you find that these parental type figures are harder and harder to find, and, even once you do, the relationship when them is harder to define.

What exactly are they giving you?
Can you give those things to yourself?

I agree with crocomancer that counseling/therapy would be a good way to really explore this need and drive, and figure out ways that you can take some of that responsibility upon yourself.

No matter how you slice it, this is going to take some introspection, some honest answers, and a change of pace.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 12:14 PM on April 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

This sounds like why a lot of people believe in God.
posted by lakeroon at 12:25 PM on April 27, 2016 [13 favorites]

Also, as we get older, a balance of give and take becomes more the norm. So I would start asking yourself what can you give in return?

I have been the parental/advice person a number of times. When it works best is when the person can give to me as well. When it has been one sided, I have felt pretty used and the relationship has ended because of it.

The counselor idea mentioned above is great if you can find one that will not make you feel dependent on them, so I wold be very clear with them from the start about it.

Good luck!
posted by Vaike at 12:35 PM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

A mentor in your field might fill some of this need, and is very common. In fact I believe there ought to be a lot more of it than there is.

But it sounds like you also want a personal guide/cheerleader in addition to professional. I suggest reframing what you want to see if it can't be met by a combination of people - friends, family, partner - rather than one. And consider too, that you are now in a position to guide/teach/mentor others, which is a dynamic that has its own rewards.

Best wishes as you navigate this part of growing up.
posted by headnsouth at 12:39 PM on April 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I could have written this when I first graduated university. I have always been a teacher's favourite, always needed approval, hated being told off by authority figures, depended on getting good grades and praise for my sense of worth .. until I just, didn't. It's such a key part of being in formal education, and it's something that I did miss when I first emerged into the 'real world' but actually I seem to have adjusted. Which is to say, I don't think you necessarily need to try and 'solve' this - it's good that you're aware of it, and that you may feel your need for these figures fades.
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 1:24 PM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

unconditional approval

This is an oxymoron. There is no such thing as unconditional approval. Approving of something is conditional. It means you took the time to judge it and found it worthy of approval.

This phrase suggests to me that you grew up in a very critical family that gave you a lot of disapproval. They no doubt meant well and were trying to protect you from and prepare you for a dog eat dog world, but they left you with a bottomless craving for approval, one that will never be adequately met. No matter how much approval you get, you will still want more.

The real antidote to an excess of disapproval and criticism in your life is unconditional acceptance. It isn't someone patting you on the head and saying "You did good -- this time." It is someone saying "I care about you and it isn't important that I approve of every single thing you do. I am not going to abandon you over you doing a thing that fails to meet with my approval." Disapproval and approval both are about judging you. Accepting you is about not judging you.

I struggle with how to express this because I am someone who is pretty accepting of others and I fairly often run into people who want what you want -- unconditional approval -- and it always goes bad places. So I feel like trying to tell you this is likely to make you feel criticized and that will wind up going bad places because people seem to feel I owe them pats on the head or something and I get a lot of kicked puppy reactions from people who feel I cheated them of the pats on the head I owe them or something. But I hate to stand by and say nothing when I feel I can clearly see the problem here and I think it unlikely that anyone else will convey this perspective.

People like you often wind up hating me because they see me as the antidote to the hole in their soul -- and I kind of am, because I am pretty accepting of people -- but they want my approval, not my acceptance. They want me to tell them that every single thing they do is good and wise and wonderful and meets with my approval. And I never do that. So, they wind up hating me. Then they end up being ugly to me, which causes me to withdraw from the relationship, which makes them feel rejected and abandoned and blah blah blah and it becomes a negative spiral from which there is no escape.

I don't know where you can go to find acceptance. I don't know how you can seek that out. But I can tell you that looking for unconditional approval is a) guaranteed to fail -- no one will ever give you that and b) not the actual solution to the problem.

I guess you could try to figure out how to accept yourself. To say "Yeah, I sometimes do shitty things that even I don't really approve of. And it's okay. I am going to love myself anyway to the best of my ability." Because acceptance is the thing you really need. Approval doesn't fix a backlog of emotional disapproval. It is like drug addiction. You always need another hit. There is never enough. But acceptance can extinguish that bottomless hunger.

So, this is something that seems to be a really hard problem to solve. Most people with this craving for approval seem really hard to reach. Any attempt to tell them "Why do you care whether or not I approve?" seems to be taken as disapproval or criticism. From an emotional stuckness point of view, this seems to be a Chinese finger puzzle. The real answer is to relax. But from a logical perspective, you just can't get there from here. So you need to start looking for another path, because this is not it.
posted by Michele in California at 1:25 PM on April 27, 2016 [32 favorites]

When we practice unconditional acceptance it scares the crap out of people and that may be why they run from relationship, its such deep intimacy and connection beyond a level we are comfortable with and rare i think.The quote about what scares us is not darkness but light, comes to mind. I agree with what Michele in California is suggesting.

My suggestion is also learning to be the one you seek in others, there really is no substitute and the wisdom is there, you have to let it happen and develop trust in yourself which ends up being the connection you seek, but it is through yourself and then to the other through that, self doubt can be allowed and seen through. Maybe you are ready for that step since the question is there. I am learning to be this, it has its ups and downs but overall it feels good and very right in the spiritual sense tho can be met with resistance from outside and inside.
posted by RelaxingOne at 1:53 PM on April 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I am 44, and I have slowly begun to realize that I have this need too, and that I'm at a point in my career and social life where this is not as appropriate as it once was.

Career-wise, I'm pretty senior, and I'm at a point where I need to not seek approval in order to continue climbing the ladder I'm on. I need to be able to argue with my bosses and other senior managers. When I have recently noticed myself seeking this kind of approval it has been uncomfortable -- I don't know if it's uncomfortable for the people I'm seeking approval from, but it's definitely uncomfortable for me. It's like trying to put on a coat that no longer fits.

In my social life, I've begun to notice that approval-seeking impairs my ability to have real relationships with the people I am seeking approval from, because I wouldn't want their approval unless I thought they were better than I am or wiser or whatever. And my evaluating them in that way means that I am not seeing them for themselves. I'm seeing who I need them to be, not who they are.

Maybe the above has always been true, but I'm starting to think that my age plays a part in this -- that approval-seeking is more acceptable or tolerated from younger people (maybe even tolerated by me), but not from older people. I don't really know if that's true. It could be that I am becoming wiser in my old age.

Anyway, my point is that I think you should consider what you get out of this, and whether it is really helpful to you to continue. Consider whether it is a way for you to distance yourself from people, or to control the interactions you have. Maybe you will decide now that this is still of benefit to you and maybe you'll find that there are other times in your life when you want to reconsider this. Or maybe you will decide that you'd like to change it now.
posted by OrangeDisk at 1:54 PM on April 27, 2016 [9 favorites]

I think unconditional acceptance is good and all but it doesn't meet the need of being 'seen' which I think this craving stems from. Acceptance is not enough because it doesn't recognise the differentiation of individuals so it feels meaningless. If you have an ego and you want to be seen for the person you are as an assembled assortment of choice and action then approval is the natural barometer. It's human to want to be validated. As long as the OP can recognise and check their zealousness in seeking such it doesn't have to be a problem - and could be a great motivator - but as others mention you may find you grow out of it with time and experience.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:50 PM on April 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Yeah, I do think it has very much to do with feeling 'seen' and accepted and appreciated. I remember when I was little, I explained to my parents that while I understood that they loved me, they didn't like me, and my teachers 'liked' me. Of course, this wasn't in English, so maybe some things got lost in translation, but that was the jist of the feeling. My household environment wasn't very stable, and occasionally violent, so I would spend as much time as possible at school. My parents also aren't familiar with the educational system, so having mentors was especially helpful for me.

I am in my early twenties, so it seems like senior professors in my field are sometimes still happy to take on this role- at least, people in their 60s certainly see me as a kid. I just wonder about whether this drive is appropriate and whether I will outgrow this. I enjoy mentoring and have several mentees of my own as well.
posted by fernweh at 3:33 PM on April 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

people in their 60s certainly see me as a kid.

You're not a kid. The goal is to change/grow/mature so that your mentors no longer see you as someone with potential (a kid) but as someone to respect (a protege). This is the payoff they get for mentoring you.

Your mentors will balk if they think you're in it for your own ego rather than to absorb/build on the lessons they're imparting.
posted by headnsouth at 3:39 PM on April 27, 2016

Oh dear. The alarm that went off for me is you, as a 20 something, are looking for senior professors in your field to be that figure. I felt that way at your age too and it did not end well.

I wish I had had the advice above when I was your age . it is all great...
posted by Dressed to Kill at 3:50 PM on April 27, 2016

Response by poster: lol, academia isn't the first place I'd check out to find egoless people...
posted by fernweh at 4:10 PM on April 27, 2016

The best advice a professor of mine ever gave to his grad students was that he wasn't teaching them how to continue to be students he was teaching them how to be professors. That meant he coddled them less and less the closer they got to graduation. Basically, the further you get in academia the less unconditional approval you should get. You should get approval for good work, but anyone who offers that approval regardless of the quality of your output is likely to be someone who feeds their ego with adoration from their younger colleagues, and that's always an unhealthy dynamic.
posted by MsMolly at 4:20 PM on April 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Your professors may seem happy to take on this role, but if you are seeking "mentors" as a form of parental figure, you aren't getting professional guidance. You are getting pity and it will not do much for your career.

A lot of kind-hearted people will take pity on someone who seems endlessly needy and they will try to fill that hole in your soul because they are human and want the world to be a less shitty place than it is. But they most likely will never take you seriously and help you launch a real career so you can have real security by being respected in the world and having a decent earned income.

I am someone others view as endlessly needy -- and with good reason, because I am chronically ill and have serious financial problems -- and I have really struggled enormously to get anyone, anywhere to take me seriously and help me become actually professionally successful. So I am clear that it is extremely problematic when people try to be "nice" in that way and meet your emotional needs instead of helping you deal with the underlying problems. Helping you deal with things involves criticizing you and telling you what you are getting wrong. Emotions come from somewhere. You won't feel better about your life if your actual problems persist but everyone gives you feel good attention.

I am sorry you had such a crappy childhood. But what you are doing is not likely to go good places. And you may not realize that for a long time to come.
posted by Michele in California at 4:23 PM on April 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

A little out there but how about the DVD set Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. It is the PBS interview that JC gave shortly before his death, using mythology to explain the human journey back to ourselves. One of his famous quotes is "the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are." That guy.

With all respects to my actual grandparents (RIP), Joseph Campbell is the grandfather I wish I had - he wanted you to find your way back to your Self, using myths and your own inner world to do so. I could picture saying to him "Grandpa, I'm having this horrible problem at work..." and then he'd say "Let me tell you a story" and the story would be twisting and ephemeral and not really related to the problem you're having until weeks or months later when you realize he had given you the answer, but in the form of tools to solve the problem yourself from the inside out.

I suggest it because he has somewhat of a mentorly manner but his stuff is aimed at helping a person finding their full self. If you're looking for mentorship at all, the mentor should be trying to get you not to need them anymore. (similar to what MsMolly said.)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:39 PM on April 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

This feels familiar to me. One thing I realized after finishing my dissertation is that the feeling seemed to be part of the larger feeling of having an academic "family," which has always meant a lot to me.

Have you considered that perhaps when you are teaching, that same emotional need might be filled by having students? It kind of was, for me. What I wanted was someone to have engaged, excited, intellectual discussions with. Someone who wanted to join me in nerding out about stuff I like. That feels like approval, too. And I found it, with the students who sought me out outside of class. It was as much about passing on a shared passion and a method for understanding the world as it was for approval.

I hope you find this, too.
posted by gusandrews at 6:25 PM on April 27, 2016

(And I don't think it's surprising this need is hitting as you finish graduate school. It's an anxiety-inducing time, and maybe the first time you have to strike out on your own without that kind of guidance, mm?)
posted by gusandrews at 6:29 PM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

One other thought about this I had -- as I mentioned above, I am 44, and I'm starting to strongly experience the phenomena I've heard middle-aged women talk about, about becoming invisible. I think maybe I wouldn't be feeling this quite as strongly if I had more a sense of myself, independent from the eyes of others.
posted by OrangeDisk at 7:35 PM on April 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

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