It might have been a little sticker on your test, paper, or drawing. Maybe it was simply a gold star, or maybe it was a sticker that said “Good Job!” or a strawberry with the words “Berry Good!” (which, if you were lucky, was a scratch-and-sniff sticker that actually smelled like a strawberry).
A “gold star” didn’t have to be a sticker, though. Perhaps your teacher wrote “Excellent Job!” or some other compliment — or simply drew a smiley face. And as you moved on to higher grades, the smiley faces and “Berry Good” stickers were probably replaced with “100%” or “A+”.
In the broader, figurative sense, gold stars didn’t always come from teachers. They might have shown up as a parent’s approving look, a compliment from a stranger, or acceptance into your peer group. As you became an adult, a gold star might have taken the form of a boss giving you a positive year-end review or a promotion, a love-interest agreeing to go on a date with you, or someone clicking the “Like” button on your Facebook page.
All of these gold stars are wonderful! They’re all ways of people saying, “I see you. I appreciate you. You did good.” And what could be better than that? After all, we all want to be seen, known, and valued for what we do and who we are. That’s a natural, healthy, and universal desire.
But here’s my theory on gold stars…
Ideally, gold stars should render themselves unnecessary. I think that their true function is to fill you with enough self-worth and self-confidence so that you no longer require external gold stars — because you’ve heard the praise enough that you internalize it, believe it, know it. You know that you’re OK — that you’re a good, valuable, worthy person — regardless of whether or not anyone gives you a pat on the back, a promotion, or a “Berry Good” sticker.
Because no amount of external gold stars will ever be enough to fill you.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a gold star or being happy when you get one. But if gold stars are your primary motivation, you’ve given up your power. You’ve made other people’s approbation the source of your happiness (or, conversely, their disapproval the source of your pain). You’ve put them in the driver’s seat of your emotional life.
Carried to an extreme, the desire for gold stars can become a crippling addiction. It can be like a trained animal pressing a lever to get a food pellet. It can be emotionally infantilizing.
If you ever find yourself desperately seeking approval, ask yourself whose approval you’re really seeking. (By which I mean: Which parent’s approval are you really seeking?) Maybe it was a parent who withheld their approval — who was overly stingy with gold stars. Or maybe it was a parent who gave them so regularly that you came to rely on them to boost your self-esteem.
This craving for gold stars affects many people well into adulthood. In fact, I’ve seen many very successful grown men (middle aged and older) reduced to emotional 6-year-olds as they say things like, “I just want to make my father proud” (even when, in some cases, their father has long since passed on).
Some people might find this sweet, cute, or endearing, but I find it sad. And the coach, friend, or just compassionate-human part of me just wants to hug these people and tell them, “It’s OK. You’re OK. You don’t need to make your father proud, to impress him or get a gold star from him — or me or anyone else. You’re enough.”
This doesn’t mean that the desire for approval — especially from a parent — isn’t understandable and natural. Everyone wants to make their parents proud. But at some point, hopefully, that ceases to be your primary motivation. At some point, you give yourself a gold star and know that that’s enough — that YOU’RE enough.
So, that’s what I would love for you to do right now: Give yourself a gold star. Here it is. It’s yours for the taking. You don’t need anyone to give it to you — not me, not your teacher, not your parents. Give it to yourself, and keep it forever.
And then when anyone gives you another gold star in the future, you can still enjoy it, feel good, and add it to your collection. (And say thank you.) But you won’t NEED it…because you’ve already got your own.
And no one can ever take that away from you.