As human beings, we have an innate need for approval that's deeply rooted within us. Our survival over thousands of years has hinged upon safeguarding ourselves from danger – both as individuals and as a species. Back in the early days of civilisation, when communities were small and tightly-knit, experiencing a sense of belonging was paramount. Being a valued member of a group that shared common interests meant everything, and the fear of being excluded or cast out was real. Talking about photography, those who bring experience and wisdom (like the photographers we deeply admire), those who form our immediate community (our fellow photographers or close friends), and those who hold us dear (our families) are best equipped to fulfill this need. They provide us with a sense of security, and any form of rejection or lack of approval is perceived as a direct threat to that security.

Love Grove Lane by Lorraine Neill

Imagine one of your photographic idols, a professional photographer you look up to (for example, Annie Leibovitz), reaching out to you with a letter that praises your work. The impact this could have on your perception of them, and your perception of yourself is monumental. These figures often take on a kind of heroic status in our eyes. But now, suppose you muster up the courage to write back to Annie, only to hear nothing in response. This silence might trigger feelings of neglect or being overlooked, leading you to ponder the underlying motives (why did she send that letter in the first place if she didn't want to hear from you?).

Our web of human connections seems to be dwindling. In its place, we find ourselves seeking validation in a myriad of ways, day in and day out. This arises from our basic needs not being fully met through conventional means (like in-person interaction). We resort to posting impassioned rants on social media, striving to grab attention. We snap countless selfies, meticulously filter our Instagram shots until they're flawless, all in pursuit of that one perfect image that will generate maximum engagement. Social media opens up a whole new avenue for validation-seeking – and if our photos don't receive sufficient likes or comments, we're compelled to adjust, repost, and repeat until we elicit the desired response and trigger that burst of dopamine. It's as though we're chasing validation online just to feel 'authenticated,' 'validated,' or simply 'relevant.' Sharing a snapshot of our dinner can sometimes feel more validating than having an actual conversation with a friend, and yet, this paradox is occurring amid skyrocketing levels of loneliness, depression, and anxiety.

Share the love by Markuza

It's important to recognise that social media wields a two-edged sword. While it provides networking benefits, the act of receiving likes on your photos or positive comments fuels a cycle that perpetuates your desire for more. Strangely, it's not the actual reward that perpetuates the cycle, but rather the anticipation of the reward. This phenomenon finds its roots in our brain's dopamine system, which responds strongly to cues hinting at an impending reward – a classic Pavlovian response. The very anticipation of posting a photo and receiving a like is one such cue that sets off our dopamine system. Consequently, when that notification lands, informing us that someone has appreciated our post, the addictive effect is enhanced. The cycle isn't driven solely by the reward. It's driven by the expectation of the reward.

Selfie in Queenstown by Ann Kilpatrick

The challenge lies in breaking this dopamine loop. The dopamine system in our brain gets triggered when we receive a like, and our motor movement (swiping to unlock or view a notification) becomes part of the conditioned response. It's like trying to stop a merry-go-round that's already in full swing! However, you can attempt to counteract this loop with a contrasting physical movement – a counter-movement. For instance, if you find yourself stuck in the dopamine loop, constantly checking for new likes or notifications, try pressing the home button and placing your phone face down. This can create a new conditioned response that interrupts the seeking-reward loop once it's been set in motion. A more radical approach might involve turning off your device entirely for a period. Admittedly, this is easier said than done.

When we depend on others for approval, we give our power away. The less we seek validation, the stronger we'll become and the higher we'll ascend. Let's go!

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