You may recognize Faith Salie’s face from her stints on CBS News Sunday Morning, or her voice from her gig as a panelist on NPR’s Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! But reading her memoir Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much will give you great insight into who she is as a person. Salie is a self-proclaimed “approval junkie,” who sought validation from everyone she met: her parents, teachers, casting directors, and her ex—her “wasband,” if you will. Through short vignettes about her life, she reveals why seeking approval is so important: it’s not just people-pleasing; it’s a drive to succeed, to achieve and to survive that powers her—and lots of other women—through even the most challenging of scenarios. Equal parts funny and touching, the stories in Approval Junkie are simultaneously foreign and recognizable.
Read it Forward’s editor Abbe Wright sat down with Salie to talk about approval seeking, grief, motherhood, and yes, sitting on Oprah’s couch.
Read it Forward: What role did losing your mom play in your approval seeking? Your mom was always the arbiter of the stamp of approval. Did it shift everything for you or give you the freedom to not have that?
Faith Salie: Not freedom, definitely. Until the experience that I basically call “the exorcism” in the book, her death was my identity. I knew I was grieving her actively, and I knew I was angry at anybody who had a mother. I knew it was irrational and I was mad at God. I didn’t even want to have a relationship with God. I had been raised in a religious household and I knew all of that, but I didn’t get how profoundly I was absorbing my grief about her into my character—into the story of my life. It was not liberating in any way because I never sought my mother’s approval—I always had it. I started to seek approval from other places and other people because I had been raised on such a steady diet of it. I wanted to keep gobbling up the approval. In my young life, I was fairly successful at it, right?
RIF: Yes, you graduated Magna cum laude!
FS: I mean, if you study hard and you’re a good kid at school and you behave well, it’s pretty straightforward. You reach adulthood and you start realizing life doesn’t always give you an A+ even if you work really hard. So, no it was not liberating. In fact, it was like I was almost redoubling my efforts to seek approval. So, of course, I had decided that my career track would be, I would dare say, one of the very hardest places to seek approval. I’ve never been a high fashion model, obviously, and maybe that’s harsher but…
RIF: At least models don’t have to talk.
FS: That’s true. That kind of decides itself. You’re either gorgeous and tall and skinny or you’re not. Clearly, I sought approval from my ex-husband, I sought approval from every casting director who’d have me in the room. I was seeking something everywhere I went. I had never considered going to a psychic, but after my mom died, I would go to anyone who would give me some form of communication with her or some hope for my future, or some sign that she had not gone away. I was so rudderless and anchorless that I hadn’t yet learned to give myself approval.
Her death came at a point in my life when it was a perfect storm of needing approval and being at a loss for it. If I had decided I wanted to be a doctor and was in medical school, I could have studied really hard and known that I was on track to be a doctor, right? But after having this amazing scholarship that I was so lucky to receive, life just unfolded beautifully in front of me. But I was choosing to pursue acting, to go to a place that for most people is 99% rejection all the time. It’s superficial rejection too; it was just awful for me.
RIF: Wow, well, we dove in pretty deep here right off the bat…
FS: I love it; that was a wonderful question. And you know, I will add to that: the love my husband has for me, he doesn’t love me like my mom does. My mom was hungry for every detail of my life and just thought I was endlessly fascinating. Her love was so unconditional. Believe me, my husband and I have our tense moments, but I keep being amazed that his love is also unconditional. He has the same quality of love for me.
RIF: That comes out in your husband’s nickname for you—Baby.
FS: Yeah. It’s not in a diminishing way, but more of an “I will take care of you” way.
RIF: Right, I have signed on to love you, I got you. I loved that connection between what your significant other calls you or what they don’t call you.
FS: Isn’t it amazing when you start to think about it? It’s very telling to go through your most meaningful relationships and think about what I was called by each man.
RIF: One of the things I love in the beginning of the book is that you lay out what an approval junkie is. It’s not a people pleaser, it’s not a perfectionist. How did you delineate the definition in your mind?
FS: As soon as I came up with the idea of the book, I needed a theme to run through it. I had long known I was an approval junkie but I also felt like it was more… Approval is a complicated subject. We seem to live in this time where the zeitgeist is all about bragging that you don’t give a shit, who cares what people think, IDGAF. I find the people who say it the loudest usually care a lot. Like Kanye West, right? I thought that my relationship with approval, while complicated, has been largely positive. Even the negative stuff has taught me so much. So, when I would mention that this was the title of my book, it was very interesting to see people’s reactions. A few people just got it, like, “Oh that’s great!” or “I am too!” or “Yeah, you are.” Something with a smile, but not a pitiful smile. A knowing smile, like they were not surprised. But then a lot of people were like, “Ohh, that doesn’t sound good,” or “God, I’m glad I’m not one of those,” or, “You? Really? You’re so bold! You deliver opinions in the public all the time! That seems fearless.”
It’s more complicated than that, so the best way to define it was to say what it’s not. Of course, it could mean different things to different people. But for me, in my life and my relationship with approval, here are the things that it has not been. It was in defense of seeking approval that I set out to dispel some myths about what an approval junkie might be.
I think as an approval junkie you have to be more than a people pleaser. You can’t do anything outrageous or unique or too bold if you’re trying to please people. People have broad tastes and you have to be pandering to lots of them. As I say in the book, it’s not being an attention whore. It’s more discriminating than that. It’s also not about being a perfectionist. My experience in seeking approval is not about getting everything perfect. I think there’s a measure of fear to being a perfectionist because you don’t ever want to take a risk where you might fall short. I think an approval junkie, at least in my definition of it, is willing to take risks over and over because the chance that you might hear applause just is so enticing.
RIF: Right. Even if you fall. Someone is going to think “That’s funny, man.”
FS: Right. If you’re going to fall, fall big.
RIF: Exactly. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said this affects women more than men. It’s inherent in our genetic makeup or what we’ve been told that women are supposed to be. Women are constantly seeking the approval of others from all of these constructs that have been built. It’s totally unfair.
FS: And we do it to ourselves.
RIF: And we do it to ourselves! I mean, is it the magazines that have perpetuated this? Our own brains? A combination of the two, or our mothers or our grandmothers?
FS: I don’t know. It is there; like you said I don’t know if it’s cultural or has to do with our XX chromosomes. But I think, stereotypes aside, there are so many more ways for women to seek approval than men. In our culture, there are so many different ways to be a mother. There are so many more things we can do with our hair. I mean, we have the option of getting eyelash extensions. How are you going to deal with your body hair? How are you going to have your children? They’ve done studies and I don’t know all the science behind it but I think women smile more than men. Why do we do that? Why do we get so much out of being likeable? By the way, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I am absolutely a feminist, but I don’t mind strategically seeking approval. Especially if you learn that the best person’s approval to seek is your own.
My experience in writing this book was a lesson in remembering to be self-deprecating. That’s not hard for me. I think lots of people feel comfortable being self-deprecating. Early in the writing process, I read an essay by Katie Roiphe addressing the slew of memoirs that were coming out at the time. She suggested very strongly to remember to be self-deprecating. I think that is a lesson that women absorb more than men.
RIF: It makes it more readable. No one wants to read about, “I’m great, you’re lame, follow my lead.”
FS: That would be Donald Trump’s memoir, The Art of the Deal.
RIF: Exactly. But right off the bat, you’re like, “This isn’t self-help. These are my stories, take what you can, leave the rest.” Also, you’re hilariously funny.
FS: Oh, well thank you. That’s the thing I had to trust. In writing, I think every editor would tell you this and I think every writer hopes this: the more specific you are, the better chance you have to resonate and to be universal. I don’t know how it works, there’s some magic emotional algorithm there. I guess it’s endearing… that sounds so self-congratulatory. I don’t think I’m brave for writing or I’m fearless or daring, but I am willing to be honest and forthcoming about my own story. I guess that’s the part people relate to. They don’t have to relate to the details.
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RIF: You’re an interviewer, but you’ve also been interviewed by so many cool people—Oprah, Bill O’Reilly, Anderson Cooper…At the end of any of those interviews, did you do what people have so often done to you, which is to ask, ‘How did I do?’
FS: I wouldn’t have said that to any of them, but I’ve thought it immediately. I really prefer at this stage in my life to be the interviewer because it’s so fulfilling. It is such a gift for someone to give you permission to ask them anything basically because you really care. Oh my God, it was like the whole world changed when I learned that was a way I could make a living.
FS: I find that I am so much more at peace with the world when I walk away from a conversation having done more of the questioning and listening than the talking. I always walk away from talking more than listening feeling like I have a hangover. Like the morning after you wake up and you drank too much and you’re like, what the f*ck did I say? That’s how I feel. Whereas I feel very calm and self-possessed if I’m the one asking questions. I don’t mean that as a control thing; I just enjoy it more.
I think people are infinitely more interesting than I am. But to answer your question, those experiences were so brief and they were so compact. I put so much pressure on myself as one does when you have a huge audience and platform and you want to be all these things at once. I want it to be meaningful and substantive and funny and of course, you hope you look great. But the part about wondering how did I do? Absolutely. How can you not?
FS: You know what is so horrible about the world we live in today? It used to be that you could be interviewed and if it kind of sucked, it went away. But now everything lives forever.
RIF: Do you think choosing a career as an actress exacerbated this approval seeking?
FS: Yes. It gave birth to it. It exacerbated it. It irritated it. It metastasized it. It did everything. Yes. But it also makes sense. Not to sound self-aggrandizing but okay, I used to think “What are some hard things to do?” Let’s make all A’s in school. Did that, then what? Let’s go to Harvard. What else can I do? I really want to win a Rhodes Scholarship. Then I did. I was lucky along the way. There are people who are much smarter than I am who could achieve those things, but then I was like, okay, what else is hard? Oh, I want to win an Oscar. To be a movie star, the odds are against you in so many ways. I felt like that would be literally a very big stage on which to seek approval. It was like an addiction trying to seek approval. To be successful in my definition of successful. I mean, I had a fine career, but it was nothing like what I wanted it to be.
The other thing that being an actor does, and what was so painful about it, was that it completely outsources your approval. It’s very hard to find approval as an actor if you’re not cast. It’s so out of your hands. That was such a challenge about it.
RIF: What about after you became a mother? How did that shift your seeking approval?
FS: I really didn’t know if I could approve of myself as a mother or not. It was a new way of missing my mother because I knew if my mother were around, she would have said: “You’re doing a wonderful job.” But I had no role model of how to be a mother the way I was being a mother. As a much older mother, my mom didn’t work. Plus, I was living in New York City and being a parent in New York City is a unique experience in and of itself.
RIF: Totally. Like struggling to get the stroller down the subway stairs.
FS: Right! Oh, good God, right. I was not surrounded by family to pitch in or be supportive or show me what to do. I found myself hoping that my nanny (who had her first child at 14) would tell me I was a good mother. Usually, it doesn’t occur to nannies to tell you you’re a good mother. You hired them and they probably want you to say they’re a good nanny. But how would I know? I didn’t learn for years that my nanny wasn’t a good nanny. Someone had to tell me.
Plus, my son was very, very sick for a lot of the first year of his life. Before he was a year old, I was trying to get pregnant again because I had what I felt was a limited window of time. It was a very difficult time. It was also wonderful in so many ways, but it hasn’t been long since I was a first-time mother of a newborn. I look back and wish I could tell myself “You are doing a great job.” The ways in which you can be a great mother or parent are vast and also unique to your child. I was doing the best I could. Now I’m not saying I’m the world’s best mother, but I am certain that no one knows or loves my children as much as I do. I believe they chose me and I am the best mother I can be to them.
RIF: I love that. How has writing this book been therapeutic for you and what do you hope readers take away from it?
FS: As I was writing, I found a little bit of healthy grief over mourning who I was when I was younger and in my hardest decades, my 20s and 30s. I can’t do time travel to go back to that girl and hug her and say it’s going to be more than okay, oh my gosh, it’s going to be better than you ever dreamed. This book felt healing to me to acknowledge that I was in an emotionally abusive situation with my ex-husband. What I went through was incredibly hard, and when I say that, I’m so self-conscious. Because one of the things that was a challenge in writing this book was wondering, is my story important enough to tell? Is it big enough to tell? You’re so used to getting essays or books of essays or memoirs from people who are incredibly famous or have something terrible happen to them. You know this is not wild—my story doesn’t involve drugs or rape or war.
But I had to trust that these are my stories and these are my experiences and thankfully lots of us don’t have massive horrible stories but we all share heartbreaks. People die, we lose babies, we have relationships that fail, we doubt ourselves, we lose jobs, we don’t know where home is… Everyone has that.
RIF: And that perhaps is way more relatable than the catastrophic. This is a human experience and a human story.
FS: That’s part of making sure that I was self-deprecating. It was very important to me to keep weaving in the gratitude I feel and the luck I feel. And I think I could only write this book after having gotten to a place where I could have a perspective on how lucky I have been.