At the risk of sounding like a juvenile narcissistic monster, I think it’s pretty difficult to specifically not seek approval in certain situations. When around someone you consider challenging or in some way meaningfully superior (or even someone you simply like), you do sometimes want to ask “Do you like me? You’re on my side, right?” But it would be completely obtuse to ever ask that outright; for all intents and purposes, you’d probably be considered a psychopath if you were to go around directly asking every acquaintance you admire if they like you.
So naturally people use certain conversational tactics to merely imply the question and fish for validating sentiments that will answer the question affirmatively. One of these is humblebragging — delivering hidden claims on status by presenting them as innocuous or humble personal anecdotes. One of my favorite novelty Twitter accounts, @humblebrag, exists solely to document this behavior as it manifests on Twitter. See:
It’s obvious that humblebragging isn’t really a conscious effort. As evidenced above it’s driven by what is basically an out-of-control need to maintain a superior identity, which itself is a crutch for one’s ego. Others’ tacit or verbal approval of the identity is the validation that helps perpetuate the tendency to humblebrag.
The tweets that @humblebrag retweets are some of the more extreme examples of humblebragging. But IRL, humblebragging can be much more nuanced and difficult to discern. The need to feel on the same team as your peers runs deep — I guess it’s probably a primal/ tribal instinct. It definitely increases your chance of survival to have the approval of the Alpha. And when put in these kinds of terms, it seems difficult to imagine eliminating from your personality humblebragging and other rhetorical behaviors intended to elicit approval. From a personal standpoint it can get pretty troubling:
Am I telling this story to relate to my friend, or am I telling it for the sole purpose of making her know I achieved a status benchmark? I earnestly feel like I want to relate and laugh about this story with my friend, but I also just happen to come out as the humble, quiet, intelligent victor in this little anecdote. I feel ashamed that this portrait is pretty much identical to the self I’d ideally have others perceive.
Or, I just noticed that I’ve been waiting for an opening in the conversation so I can tell the story about when I had a similar experience. Am I even listening to what anyone else is saying? I feel like I’m just waiting my turn. I detect a very strong desire to have the people in this conversation know that I had a similar experience. I can feel that it will make me feel better about myself. What is the nature of this conversation? Am I bad?
Or, I’m presenting information that I know most people don’t know — that I know other people will think I’m smart and interesting for knowing — in a deliberately humble way. I can feel that I am doing that. Am I delivering it this way because I know my humble vocal meter and facial expressions will have an endearing/ irresistible effect on this person in front of me in which he assumes I’m humble and intelligent (exactly what I’d ideally like him to think about me)? Should I stop talking, now? Even if he does find it interesting? Doesn’t my knowledge of all this cheapen the interaction? Strip it of its authenticity? What am I doing?
Or even, Writing an article detailing what are pretty much obvious insights (are they obvious? Are you qualifying it as such to look more intelligent?) into the completely everyday human behavior that is humblebragging sort of puts you in a position in which you’re smarter than humblebraggers. This feels disingenuous. Your tone is also somehow gratuitous and masturbatory. It’s possibly falsely modest. The fact that you’re qualifying this insecurity with this very paragraph further lends itself to the impression you’d ideally like others to have about you, and the fact that this sentence exists as a qualification for the previous sentence…
The point is that gratuitous fishing for validation is tough to avoid if you’re a social creature who wants to relate with other people and who wants other people to like you. A second, painful point is that spending X amount of energy discreetly seeking approval is for the most part a societal taboo that people feel ashamed about doing. Humblebragging and validation-seeking is, culturally, not good. Wrote David Foster Wallace:
‘This thing I feel, I can’t name it straight out but it seems important, do you feel it too?’ — this sort of direct question is not for the squeamish. For one thing, it’s perilously close to ‘Do you like me? Please like me,’ which you know quite well that 99% of all the interhuman manipulation and bullsh-t gamesmanship that goes on goes on precisely because the idea of saying this sort of thing straight out is regarded as somehow obscene. In fact one of the last few interpersonal taboos we have is this kind of obscenely naked direct interrogation of somebody else. It looks pathetic and desperate.
I find it troubling that society says it isn’t okay to seek approval. This unspoken rule brings to mind abstract standards of sophistication and elitism, which I am uncomfortable with. Paradoxically, I’m also, very (maybe ‘innately’) concerned with a) upholding said unspoken rule by being/ appearing humble, b) other people’s approval, and c) having a good time. This further begs the speculation that acting humble is basically the opposite of being authentically humble. Is humility as a governor less valuable than humility as an instinct? The whole mess is just frustrating and impossible to figure out. And I don’t think I’m the only one experiencing the problem.
And it’s compounded by the fact that the existence of the problem itself is problematic. The underlying sense of meaninglessness that’s essentially the backbone of all this self-doubt and over-qualification is a problem. The extreme sense of cynicism contained within this self-absorbed issue is also a problem. And maybe the existence of the issue means that things are really sad, now, in the West — that we’ve driven ourselves headfirst into extreme levels of self-awareness where Identity and Role have become noticeably detached from our true selves — a concept I’m unsure of but am tentatively using here — leaving basically nothing that can’t be thought of as prepackaged or cliche with which to align, hold onto, or find place.
Are you a humblebragger? Maybe the question is elitist. Do you seek validation from other human beings? Yes. I’m sure this isn’t wrong. I feel two opposing things: knee-jerk dislike for the worst of humblebragging and a sense of disdain for people who hate on others for seeking validation. Are you a humblebragger? Probably. The definition is pretty broad, and we’ll first need to have a conclusive discussion on the value of humility as a governor versus humility as an innate personality trait to make any significant progress. What’s humility, anyways? I’m confused. Maybe the most relevant way to put it: Who knows?