Copyright © 2016
Cover and internal design by Jolly Sage
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The oldest game that many people play in today’s world is the game of keeping people in line through disapproval. For the game to be played, there must be an intense desire in many people, those that are kept in line, for approval. It is surprising that we realize this so late in life. Approval of one other person really doesn’t amount to anything. What is odd though is that many of us go through life seeking the approval of this person or that person.
It starts out, I suspect, with seeking the approval of one’s parents, and then of one’s teachers and peers and perceived superiors at school. The odd thing though is that even if you bend over backwards to please someone and gain their approval, you’re never going to entirely get it. In fact, training this or that person that you can be controlled by being disapproved of is a terrible thing for all parties concerned. It means that each time you do something with the express intent of seeking someone else’s approval; you are not doing it with the express intent that you really enjoy what is being done. In other words, you are not doing what you would rather do, and this is a great way to feel terrible all the time.
Now, for the sake of contrasting this with what a healthy attitude to life is, look at what a little kid who wants to play with a set of Lego blocks does. The kid just wants to play with Legos because he wants to play with the Legos. The why of the activity is the activity itself. There is no playing with the Legos because daddy or mommy will praise him in the playing. There is no playing with the Legos because of any sort of financial remuneration at the end of the play.
Imagine that. This is such a stark contrast from how so many of us so-called adults do the things that we do. We don’t really do the things that we do because we enjoy doing what we do. We do it because we want the approval of a boss, of a peer group, of our family, and of course last and certainly the most, because of financial remuneration, which is the world telling us the work has some value.
Now adopt the attitude of that little kid who decides to play with Legos for the sole purpose of playing with them. The joy in the play is all that was experienced previously by the kid, and is sought again in the activity. So, imagine that you are faced with one or another choice. I must do this or that. What is it that you choose? What would you choose if your only criterion in choosing it was how much joy the experience gave you? Even if you decide on throwing at me the hackneyed excuse that there are so many things that you must do to get by and to put some food on the table and to pay the rent, let me ask you, in what you do for a living, what is it that gives you the most joy? What part of that job that you hate do you enjoy the most?
Now, back on the topic of approval seeking, it is very clear to me that it takes some significant psychological restructuring to attenuate the idea that one must impress another person, especially if this idea has been crystallized in one’s mind in early childhood. The very act of not seeking the approval of someone whose approval was hitherto sought starts to carry enormous discomfort with it. The act of simply being without the desire for the approval of that person may sometimes appear like defiance or rudeness, but that is a mental reaction at best. Stepping outside your approval seeking self can feel groundless, and without anchor. Since many of us have conditioned ourselves to derive a feeling of self worth through how others perceive us, having the clarity of vision to see the natural internal mechanism that generates self worth will be very difficult in the beginning. The discomfort experienced herein, though, is the very medicine we seek. It is in being alert and present with this discomfort that we begin to embrace a much larger way of looking at ourselves and at the world around us.
When working with yourself, in learning to drop approval seeking, you will encounter a challenge that is a part of any change. Remember Newton’s third law – every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I suspect this is as true for lifeless bodies as it is for thoughts and emotions. If we accept for a moment that this is indeed the case, then it follows that when you begin to become aware of your approval seeking self, and instead of using it as a lens to view the world, view it itself, you will begin, as a natural reaction, to stop acting on its say so. This is natural and healthy. As you do this, however, those that you interact with will, in fact, have their own reactions to it. Make no mistake, if you’ve been approval seeking for a while, you will have acclimated those around you to your manner of thinking and living, and it is unlikely that most people you interact with are highly conscious and mindful beings. Mindful living is increasing the world over, but it is still, sadly, in the minority. It is far more likely that the people who observe your weaning away from seeking their approval will react with some measure of discomfort, maybe even hostility.
Nothing endures but change, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus declared. We are all okay when the changes conform to what we think should be happening. When they don’t and when the changes are out of our comfort zone, we are not okay. We don’t like it. This is precisely the reaction you should expect from those from whom you were approval seeking, but have decided not to engage at that level. They probably will not like it. That is their own mental reaction playing out, and it is something to watch without reacting to yourself. It is all too easy at this stage to want their approval again, because it is a conditioned habit, and habits, as we all know, are incredibly hardy lifeforms.
I remember dropping approval seeking in a very rapid manner myself, and it led to some very interesting reactions. In one instance, I remember one elderly relative who wanted me to do something with fireworks during some cultural gathering. I just didn’t want to do it because I didn’t enjoy it and I thought it was morally wrong for many reasons (most animals hate fireworks, and I hear their wails every year when they happen; also the enormous pollution that fireworks result in). I simply said something like, “maybe later”, and went back to what I was doing, which was standing around doing nothing. He insisted, I shook my head, and disengaged. I remember the vibe between us. It was bared fangs, and hostility and a sense of having been wronged. I also remember leaving his home, and realizing how frosty our goodbyes were, simply for dropping approval seeking and not doing what I thought shouldn’t be done. That frost stayed for a good while, and I never realized back then that I should have expected it.
When you get someone used to being sought for approval, and their integrity in terms of how they value themselves is not complete, they latch on to this approval seeking as one more means to derive a sense of self worth. This is all too common to see when we have people who are in positions of authority, who lose these positions. The sense of not being respected, and not being socially powerful is all too sudden, and their reactions are very similar to what will happen when you stop seeking their approval. They don’t like it, so they have to deal with the discomfort of dealing with their own self image when you don’t engage them with drama.
In this light, Shakespeare had the right idea when he spoke of the whole world being a stage. Imagine that until a certain point in a play you were acting in, the director asked you to play approval seeker. Imagine then that from the second act of the play you were asked to become a confident person who didn’t seek anyone’s approval, and whose self worth was independent of the good opinions of others. Can you conjure up, in your mind’s eye, a vision of how the characters around you would react to your change in character?
If you are not entirely sold on dropping approval seeking, let me mention something that should get your attention. When you do something for the approval of another, it keeps them within their comfort zone, as far as you are concerned. You are not seen as a threat, but you are not seen as someone worthy of respect either. You are seen, if even at the subtlest psychological level, as an inferior. Every action you do to seek approval only consolidates this position.
Moreover, someone whose approval you seek, and who clearly does not seek your approval, is free to act without tailoring your opinions on his or her actions. There is far more freedom in those actions, relating to you, than there is in your actions relating to that person. In other words, that person doesn’t give a rat’s ass about whether you like what they do, often even when you are one of those that would be affected by that action, while you alter your priorities to care greatly about whether that person likes what you do. This sort of imbalance breeds a whole host of other relational pathologies, including passive aggression, needless emotional mood swings at not having dealt with the core issue in the first place, and many others.
In the interests of long term mental sanity, you must make approval seeking a thing of the past. It is true, however, that it may not be acceptable or even wise to drop it in one fell swoop. Most of our relationships, including those where we seek approval, have very complex causes and effects, and it is not easy to predict how our immediate actions will affect the longer arc of these cause-effect phenomena. For example, if you seek the approval of your boss at work, in some measure (and I suspect most of us will plead guilty of this), it may be in the interests of your immediate job security to not drop approval seeking all at once. There must be a method of engaging, along a gentle slope, where you either find some other place to work, and you make sure you won’t miss your boss’s recommendation letter, so that you can drop approval seeking when that happens, or where you gently drop approval seeking over a longer period of time, while you become indispensable to your work team, so that your boss would be fired for firing you, or that he or she sees that the team simply cannot function without you.
In the long haul, however, a person who respects himself or herself, is shown that same respect by the world. How you treat yourself is precisely how the world is going to treat you. This is old wisdom, but it continues to be wisdom.
This brings to mind a teaching of Chogyam Trungpa, the Buddhist teacher and the principal guru of Pema Chodron. “Meet your edge and soften it.” Let me discuss what this means, and why this is applicable in the context of giving up the idea of approval seeking. First of all, every idea that is outside of one’s comfort zone has edges or boundaries drawn around it. So, if there are experiences that are outside of your comfort zone, you will find that when you reach these boundaries, due to the energy of long-standing habits, it is very difficult to move past these boundaries. The amount of discomfort experienced in scaling these boundaries in proportion to the strength of one’s habit in staying within those boundaries. This is plain common sense that shows up in everyday activities.
For example, if you’ve never drank coffee in your life, and you drink a cup one day, the chances are that you will not find it very difficult to refrain from drinking coffee the next day (except under exceptional circumstances, where your brain is built like that of a coffee addict and there are all sorts of previous karmic seeds which result in being born in a family with a genetic predisposition to easy coffee addiction). On the other hand, as a coffee teetotaler, if you drink coffee every day for one whole week, it will be much more difficult than in the first case. This is because the specific action of drinking coffee and its effects have been repeated enough to form a slight habit. Still, the withdrawal symptoms for the person who drinks for a week will be tiny compared to someone who has been a coffee drinker all her adult life.
In short, intensity of practice, and frequency of practice, and duration of practice, all play a part in how strong a habit becomes. This is common knowledge. However, we never pause to think that many of the ways in which we relate to others, or to life in general, is also a mental habit. It is much easier to see mental habits in the case of the consumption of addictive substances. It is less easy to see that this is precisely what makes approval seeking very easy. Most of us are raised to seek approval. Our training while growing up is that we receive approval when we behave according the norms of our mentors, and disapproval when we ‘cross the line’. So, this habit of approval seeking is not only an old one, it is also one that was sown when our brains were developing. This creates an illusion of the habit being reality, because our brain, through long and intimate association, has grown its structures around this approval seeking paradigm.
While this is really sad, this is all too common, and it also shows us why this happens all the time. It also shows us why the edges of this habit seem so sharp and high and difficult to scale. It is simply a mixture of time, ignorance and complex biochemistry. So now, once we know that it is something that must be done, how can we soften our edge in this respect? The most important idea to think about here is that making big changes is unlikely to be the best strategy generally speaking. It is better to think in terms of progress instead of in terms of abruptly changing tracks in life. So long as our measure of success is having done better on the specific challenge than the earlier time we faced this challenge, we can work with softening the edge, one small bit at a time. This sort of slow, deliberate, soothing practice of softening your edge and allowing yourself permission to face your discomfort at a comfortable pace can be a blessing.
Challenging someone’s authority when you’re acclimated to yielding to it can be a scary prospect. So, it can be done in stages, where as you work with your own self reliance, and as you begin to give yourself approval on the inside, you also learn to stand up in confrontations and state your case, without too many histrionics. Please understand that for someone who has lost their power in the face of a specific challenge, anger can be a blessing, but this does not mean that anger is a great energy to harbor in one’s body and mind. It is something that if unchecked will hurt the person who bears it. To quote the Buddha, “you will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.” Noting this, showing one’s indignation in the face of unfair disapproval is a start when it comes to taking one’s power back, and it is a necessary rung in the ladder to psychological health.
Now, as you begin to work with withdrawing your need for the approval of others, it is imperative to teach yourself to approve of yourself in those specific circumstances where you’re being disapproved of. It takes some doing. As your ability to confront disapproval grows, you must also ensure that you learn to approve of yourself on the inside. This means learning to simply love yourself as you are, with all of your flaws and with all of your issues and complex problems and emotions.
Helpful quotes on Approval-Seeking
“Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.”
“Are you an aberration to your species?’ she cried. ‘Cats don’t look for approval!”
“Most people think everybody feels about them much more violently than they actually do; they think other people’s opinions of them swing through great arcs of approval or disapproval.”
“More people would be depressed, if parents tried to please their children as frequently and as badly as children try to please their parents.”
“Never let others upset or belittle you without your approval. It is crucial to be self-conscious at all times because with so much going on, you cannot afford to have others in charge of your own life.”