For just a couple of minutes, I was on stage. It was a small audience, but I was in tune with them and I was tailoring my lines to what they responded to.
They laughed. They smiled. They seemed genuinely appreciative. I felt warm and satisfied — as though I was being fed something incredibly nourishing — because they seemed to like me. I felt happy.
And then I walked off that stage. I left that checkout counter where two employees had been my audience. I walked out of the grocery store where I had given my impromptu performance. And as I walked alone to my car in the cool October night air, I felt really good.
I reflected again on my need to be fed by other human beings — and my need for their approval, love and understanding — and how I can be briefly satisfied even by such brief and insubstantial interaction when what I truly need isn’t available.
It’s a terrible thing to need other people’s approval.
There’s a lot of psychology behind that need. Many things seem to go into creating such a craving. I’ve spent the last 10 years thinking a lot about where that emotional hunger in me came from and how to deal with it in emotionally healthy ways. I’m not ready to talk publicly about that personal psychology, so that’s not what this is about. This is about the ways in which my personal needs — some of them healthy and some of them unhealthy — intersect with so much in modern media.
Even though I struggle with feelings of creative inadequacy, I’ve accepted internally that I’m an artist. For the last year or so, though, I’ve been struggling to accept my need to be a performer — and I trace the unhealthy branch of that struggle back to my need for approval.
Perceptive women in my life have noticed this and we’ve talked about.
My ex-wife had an amazing insight for me years ago. When we talked about what I should do with my future, she once said that whatever I did, it had to be something with an “applause factor.” She pointed out that I was driven by the applause I get — metaphorically speaking — from my work. Her insight was that I was not going to be happy unless I could do something that would be on public display — and that people could give me approval for.
That was a new concept for me at the time. I had never consciously been aware of this. But as soon as she said it, I knew she was absolutely right. I needed applause just as much as I needed air, water or food.
About eight years ago, a girlfriend noticed behavior similar to what I described in my story about the grocery store. She pointed out that I seemed to have a need to become a charming performer — even a comedian at times — in order to get the approval of random strangers who we interacted with in public.
I had never really thought about it until she pointed it out. That has simply always been part of my life. It’s as natural as breathing. It hadn’t really occurred to me that most other people didn’t become performers in such situations. It was one of the things that made me start thinking about how my normal public behavior was related to my childhood “programming.”
For the last year or so, I’ve been wanting some form of public performance. A year ago, I planned to do a podcast called the Alien Observer. (This was an early mockup of the artwork for it.) It was going to be a 13-part series of observations about the absurdities of human life — placed into the words of a fictional character who had been sent to this planet to observe its inhabitants. I mostly feel like an alien among humans, so it seemed like a perfect way to express how I feel in the format of audio fiction.
That never happened because I started feeling sick and tired all the time — and that culminated on Easter when I was diagnosed with the pulmonary emboli which explained why I’d felt lousy for months.
As I’ve started recovering from that medical problem, the need to perform has resurfaced. This time, I’ve been exploring the possibility of doing an online video channel of some kind. I’m terrified of doing anything at which I’m not perfect from the start — which is a horrible sign of perfectionism — so I’ve been forcing myself to record and publicly post videos as practice. The ones I’ve posted aren’t very good yet, but they’re a start on figuring out what sort of video I might want to do. (Here’s a sample from about a week ago.)
As I’ve been researching online video — primarily in the form of popular YouTube channels — I’ve noticed something about the world’s shift from dealing in words and ideas to dealing in performers and personalities.
When you live in the world of writing, the meaning of your words is (almost) everything. Different writers’ styles differ, of course, but when you read their work, you’re almost always evaluating the words and their meaning, not the writers’ personalities. I’ve discovered that’s far less true for video or audio.
I’ve realized that the personality of the person presenting the material matters even more than the overt meaning or the stated ideas. For instance, there are podcasts or YouTube channels that have really good information — things that I honestly want to get — but I find myself turning away because I don’t like the personalities of the presenters. (The co-host of this podcast keeps irritating me enough to stop the episodes and delete them, even though I like the primary host and I find much of the material useful.) On the other hand, I’ve discovered people who I want to watch or listen to just because I like their apparent personalities — even if the material they’re presenting is worthless to me. (This German woman’s YouTube channel about language is an example.)
In a book he wrote long before he started Fox News, Roger Ailes told about what he used to do when he had a job that involved evaluating television talent early in his career. He would go to the city where the person was on the air and turn on the show — but he would turn the sound all the way off. If something about the personality of the person made him feel a compulsion to know what was being said — without him having any idea what the words were — he knew he was looking at someone with talent. But if nothing about the person’s personality reached through the screen to make him want to know what he was saying, he knew the person probably didn’t have what it took.
I’ve been reminded of that lately. Doing video and audio — as the performer — is about making people like you, not so much about the specific words and ideas.
As someone contemplating doing something like this, that scares me, because I’m not fond of being judged and I (honestly) don’t perceive myself as having the sort of talent that would make someone want to hear what I’m saying.
I’ve always seen myself as a writer. I’ve always been accustomed to hiding behind a page or a website and letting my words speak for me. The idea of having to sell myself as a performer is scary. The idea of needing to make people like me in the formal, intentional sense is even scarier.
At the same time, this need to perform and win public approval taps into this thing I’ve been doing all of my life — public performance in everyday life which is designed to say (sometimes subtly and sometimes not), “Will you please like me?”
I don’t know whether I’m any closer to settling on something to make the subject of a possible video channel, but I’m coming to accept the fact that if I want to do this, I am the message.
In a very real way, I am the product, not my ideas. If I’m to do anything like this, I have to get over that fear.
Actor and comedian Ray Romano has spent many years performing on stage and in front of a camera. He’s best known for the 10 years he spent as the star of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” He was self-aware enough to know the truth about himself and he was honest enough to share it.
“I have the show because I’m insecure,” Romano said. “It’s my insecurity that makes me want to be a comic, that makes me need the audience.”
Am I insecure?
I struggle claiming that label, because parts of me are extremely confident — yet other parts of me are still a child longing for the teacher to put a gold star next to my name.
I need your understanding. I need your love. I need to believe you like me. And if I can’t get those things, I’ll at least work for your applause — and that’s why I crave the approval that comes with success.
Will you like me? Will you approve of me? Will you love me? Will you finally understand me?
Those are the questions the child in me asks. They’re the questions the adult in me still needs answered. And so I seek the approval and good feelings from anywhere I can find them, whether that’s in line at the grocery store or from posting video on a YouTube channel.
While I’ve been struggling to write this, I came across something I typed last January. I don’t remember writing it, but it’s very true. It said, “Training a child to seek approval from other people keeps the child feeling scared, misunderstood, dependent and alienated for life.”
Through some combination of nature and nurture, I’ve been left with a burning need for applause. The modern media landscape is a perfect place for those who need approval, but it’s also a feeding ground for malignant narcissism. Can I get my need for approval met in a way that allows me to be fed emotionally? Or will feeding that beast turn me into the narcissist I fear the most?
That will probably depend on what I’m able to find to build my internal self in ever-more-healthy ways. If I can find the love and understanding I need — to allow my child self to feel secure at the core — I can find emotionally healthy ways to pursue whatever public success I want.
If I don’t find what I need, I fear what I would become if a “false self” at the core were to make me an “approval junkie” who gets quick hits of “faux love” from people who don’t even know me.
It’s a stark fork in the road — and the path I take all depends on finding genuine, emotionally healthy love and understanding. But that should be easy, right?