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Nov 2, 2020

In today’s podcast, we will work on another common Self-Defeating Belief, the Approval Addiction. Here are two definitions:

  • My worthwhileness as human being depends on getting approval.
  • I need approval to feel happy and fulfilled.

I thought of calling this podcast “Curing a Case of Siliconitis” because here in Silicon Valley, there is a pronounced tendency for people to measure their self-esteem based on their accomplishments, so today’s program also has some overlap with the Achievement Addiction we featured recently.

Of course, you don’t have to live in Silicon Valley to struggle with the Approval and Achievement Addictions. These problems are almost universal throughout the United States as well as the entire world. In fact, for today’s special guest, Sunny Choi, the problem originated in Hong Kong when he was growing up.

And although your life may be very different from Sunny’s, you may discover that you, too, sometimes struggle with the need for approval, and the tendency to base your self-esteem on your achievements. So I’m hoping that the healing Sunny experienced might be contagious and end up helping you!

I want to thank Sunny for allowing his personal work to be broadcast, raw and unedited, on the podcast. Personal work is absolutely essential to becoming a world-class therapist, because you can’t really heal others until you’ve healed yourself. But sharing your inner struggles, your tears, and your shame, can be extremely frightening, making you totally vulnerable, so Sunny has given all of us an incredible gift!

I also want to thank my amazing co-therapist, Dr. Jill Levitt, who helps lead the Tuesday group. She is also the Director of Training at the Feeling Good Institute in Mt. View, California. I love teaching and doing co-therapy with Jill. TEAM therapy does NOT require two therapist, but I love to work with a co-therapist whenever I do live therapy in a teaching situation, as it often makes for a richer and more dynamic session.

The session will be broken into two consecutive segments. Today, you will hear the T = Testing and E = Empathy parts at the start of the session. Next week, you will hear the A = Assessment of Resistance and M = Methods parts. At the end of next week’s podcast, Sunny will join us for a follow-up so we can see how he’s been doing since the end of this session.

At the beginning of the session, we reviewed Sunny’s scores on the Brief Mood Survey, which indicated minimal feelings of depression, mild anxiety, and just a touch of anger. However, his happiness score was only 22 out of 40, indicating significant unhappiness, and his Relationship Satisfaction score, thinking of his mother, was only 16 out of 30, which is also not very good. However, he said that this score is higher than it’s been, indicating longstanding dissatisfaction with his relationship with his mother.

Sunny explained that he’s been seeking and getting approval since he was a small boy. He was the “good golden boy” who always wanted what his mother wanted, and he always got rewarded. In addition, since he was a boy, he always got the best food, and his sister always got the less desirable dinner. In addition, she was a rebel, and often punished and beaten by their mom, which made Sunny feel guilty. At the same time, he was good at getting approval from just about everybody, so lots of people like him.

His first frightening step toward independence was coming out as a gay man in his 20s. This was an intensely anxious time in his life.

After his family migrated to California, he pursued a career in high tech, which was what his mother wanted, and he was very successful and earned a high salary. But he was unhappy, because it wasn’t what he really wanted to do with his life. He wanted to help people, but because of a lisp in his speech, his mother urged him to pursue engineering, which, of course, he did, and he also graduate from Stanford University, which gave him even more approval and “success.”

His second frightening step toward independence was six years ago when he decided to leave high tech to pursue a master’s degree in clinical social work. This was a bit anxiety provoking because he did his master’s work at a program that was adequate, but not at all prestigious.

That was about the time he joined my weekly training group at Stanford. Sunny took the TEAM model very seriously, and mastered it, developing superb therapy skills. Following his licensure, he took a job at a local mental health clinic and worked with many immigrants struggling with depression, anxiety, and somatic complaints, and experienced tremendous success, since most of us patients recovered in just a handful of sessions.

However, he was anxious and ashamed of his success, since TEAM is so radically different from the more conventional forms of therapy his colleagues at the clinic were using. He feared their disapproval, and always tried to hide or downplay his success.

Recently, Sunny took a third frightening step toward independence. He decided to quit his full-time job, and take a half time job with an online startup, so he could have half of his time to do what he wanted, instead of trying to please or impress others. And although this is working out well, and he’s been feeling pretty good, and making progress, at times he gets anxious, and feels like he’s swimming in the ocean without his flotation device to keep him safe. And although he knows rationally that he can swim really well on his own now, at times he descends into spells of anxiety and self-doubt. He even yelled at himself out loud for being “stupid.”

He explains:

What helped was when I called my Mom and said, “I feel useless if I’m not working full-time,” and started crying.

She is now 80, and was accepting, and that helped quite a bit, but in the past I’ve always been surrounded by people who approve of me because of my success. Now I feel lost and lonely, and I’m dealing with anxiety again.

Sunny also said he felt frustrated because, once again, he sought and got his mother’s approval. He explained:

I feel bad. I’m concerned that I will never get better. I feel sad that I’m stopping myself. My approval is my flotation device. I’m scared and lonely at times. I’m used to someone saying, “You’re doing the right thing.” I feel like I’m not good enough. Right now I want the approval of the Tuesday group, but that will just prolong my addiction.

You can see Sunny’s Daily Mood Log here. Next week, Jill and I will work with Sunny on A = Assessment of Resistance and M = Methods!

Sunny can be reached at:
Sunny Choi, LCSW
Better Mood Therapy

David and Rhonda