Using brain imaging, researchers have discovered that pleasure is activated in the brain when people get positive feedback concerning their reputation or character. These researchers do not appear to understand that such pleasure is not necessarily genuine or healthy. A psychological defense, for instance, feels good when it successfully covers up something important that an individual does not want to see about himself.
Few people, experts included, know or address the hidden reasons why we generate such pleasure in receiving praise and validation. Typical is this superficial explanation:
These results [from the research cited above] may explain why Facebook is so popular. It likely isn’t Facebook itself . . . it is all of the self-promoting features that it offers: posting what you are thinking, posting pictures of yourself, giving your opinion on what others post via “likes” . . . throw in a little intermittent reinforcement (e.g., not knowing when the next time someone will “like” or comment on your post) . . . and Facebook has a winning formula . . . Or at least one that gets us hooked.
Yes, but why do we get hooked? Why in heaven’s name do so many of us feel the need to go through the day constantly assessing ourselves and looking for validation. This emotional neediness often shows up as inner dialogue in which we’re trying to establish our importance either to ourselves or to others. Mark Twain noted this peculiarity of human nature more than 100 years ago when he famously said, “. . . the Sole Impulse which dictates and compels a man’s every act” is “the imperious necessity of securing his own approval, in every emergency and at all costs.”
We feel pleasure in producing self-approval for two main reasons. (Warning, you’re about to descend into your psyche’s murky waters. Put on your breathing gear and thinking cap.) First, in compulsively seeking self-approval we’re trying to counteract the self-doubt that pervades, in various degrees, the inner life of most people. Even those of us who appear supremely confident can have residues of self-doubt in our psyche. When we go hunting for approval, it means we’re living more at the surface of ourselves, dependent on our ego and personality to prop us up and provide a sense of substance.
At a deep level, most people, extroverts and strong personalities included, are not connecting strongly enough with their value, goodness, and inner authority. In a way that can be mostly unconscious, they tend to identify with themselves, at least in part, through feelings of unworthiness, weakness, and insignificance. Unconsciously and in varying degrees, we’re all emotionally attached to this identification that lingers from childhood experiences. Our mental and emotional “software” is coded with powerful memories and experiences of refusal, helplessness, rejection, and criticism.
To cover up or deny (or defend against) our attachment to (or identification with) these negative associations, we’re eager to produce a defense that proclaims how thrilled or happy we are to cast ourselves in the best possible light or to imagine that others see us in this rosy glow.
As it happens, such approval is a defense against recognition of our unconscious willingness to absorb inner criticism. This criticism emanates from our inner critic in the form of negative self-judgments. When the defense of self-approval is effective, it produces “pleasure vibes” that brain scans can detect.
The pleasure says, in effect: “Hey, I’m not looking to be criticized. See how much pleasure I feel when being validated and praised.” The pleasure, however, is quite temporary, and it’s only a measure of the effectiveness, at any given moment, of our defense, our reward for covering up inner truth. The pleasure pales in comparison to the rich enjoyment of being creative, generous, brave, free of negativity, or committed to a noble cause.
The pleasure of self-approval helps us to avoid seeing how willing we are to go on “knowing ourself” through old painful memories of helplessness, humiliation and defeat. As our mocking, sarcastic inner critic piles on with accusations of our alleged defectiveness and unworthiness, we don’t want to see how passive we are to that cruel, primitive agency of our psyche. Meanwhile, no amount of approval or positive attention feels like enough when our inner critic is breathing down our neck.
Self-approval applies coats of whitewash to our idealized self-image. The whitewash produces a feeling of relief, or excitement in our brain, that we’re getting away with covering up certain unpleasant inner truths. However, this cover-up and denial tend to produce injurious symptoms, among them failures of emotional and behavioral self-regulation.
Our psyche is a battlefield between the forces of aggression (emanating from our inner critic or superego) and the defensive guerilla tactics of our inner passivity (located in our subordinate ego). The inner critic attacks and inner passivity defends. But our inner passivity’s tactics are weak. It employs passive-aggressive behaviors, half-hearted negotiations, desperate compromises such as guilt, and unstable defenses. Often this passivity is expressed in the plaintive inner voice of self-validation and self-approval.
We can resolve this conflict through our deepening awareness of it. If we don’t resolve it, we find ourselves trapped inside the conflict, identifying with either the passivity or the aggression, often alternating back and forth in our identification. As we acquire more awareness of the conflict, our growing intelligence is able to resolve it. Our authentic self emerges from the fray as the conflict is being resolved.
The second reason we produce pleasure through self-approval is related to the first reason. While our inner critic lords it over us, it also mocks us for our passivity. Accordingly, it finds fault not only with our inability to deflect its aggression but also with our passive willingness to absorb that aggression to the point of feeling shame and humiliation. This is the same dynamic whereby a bully is at his cruelest when mocking and ridiculing the submissive aspects or passive tendencies of his victims. Now one’s compulsive striving for self-approval can feel like a life-saving necessity, the psychological equivalent of gasping for air.
In summing up, our inner critic uses any pretext, even just alleged transgressions that happen only in our imagination, for its campaign of disapproval. Hence, when in our mind we can create storylines or narratives that cast us in a good light, we’re eager to do so, and we feel an accompanying pleasure that’s usually short-lived. Meanwhile, we’re pretty clueless about these inner dynamics. Through compulsive self-approval, we struggle for some relief from the distress, anxiety, depression, and general unhappiness that our inner conflict produces. Because we don’t see the dynamics of the conflict clearly enough, our intelligence doesn’t have the knowledge it needs to liberate us from this suffering.
Self-understanding is the necessary ingredient in any recipe for happy brain waves. Right now people hate to look so deeply into themselves because doing so shatters our self-image, as it also exposes our ego (and the self-centeredness that accompanies it) as a flawed or inadequate operating system for the modern world.