On Approval


Question: How many of us walk around carrying an imaginary burden-- the burden of other people’s approval? This burden is SOOO heavy, despite being invisible and somewhat imaginary, or at least self-created. My mind can drive me almost mad with this moment-to-moment play-by-play in which I envision and take on the thoughts and opinions that other people might be having about me as I move through life. Of course, these are stories that I’m making up, and the tone of these stories is very specific. These are not bedtime stories, not success stories. Each story, when followed to its end, has the not-so-surprise ending of, “and then I was judged to be lacking.” I used to take on a lot of these thoughts without question-- just believing them as real: “People will think X.”

The part of me that makes up these stories and believes them, apparently believes way down deep that I’m not good enough. Ouch.  And because it is so stark and painful to acknowledge this belief from myself about myself, the voice cleverly pins it on someone else: “That person over there thinks you look ridiculous and have no right to be here.” The voice even finds “proof” in the expression on the person’s face or other convincing clues.

The Judging Voice

This judging voice is scared. All that she wants is for me to be good enough and for people to like and approve of her/us. By telling me all the time when I might be stepping out of line, talking too much, going beyond what I am capable of, she thinks that this helps me to adjust my behavior in ways that will ensure approval from everyone. She’s like a sheepdog nipping at my heels, trying to direct me follow the herd to the safest pastures. She believes that by anticipating the judgments that might come from the outside, she is helping me, she is protecting me.

Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. For one thing, it isn’t helpful for me to believe these stories and live with them as “truth.” It affects my quality of life negatively, sending a ripple of worry and pressure winding through my days, when this isn’t needed or helpful. What’s more, I’m not actually protected by these stories and the behavior they encourage! If I went through my life behaving so safely, so considerately to those around me, so tied up in always being perfectly appropriate...I’m sure there would still be times when people would get annoyed at me or judge me for something that I’m not even aware of, or even just disagree with me. So the “help” and “protection” offered by this judging voice isn’t any kind of assurance that others WILL approve of me...and what’s more, it really bums me out.

Nowadays, I tend to recognize this voice a bit more readily when it chimes in. To a certain degree, I can see how these stories are not facts. They are literally tales that I am making up about all the things that could be true or not. So as I acknowledge the stories, I start to challenge them.

The Voice of Reason

This other voice that comes in to challenge sounds more like reason, a voice that is open to many possibilities and most of all, to the possibility of not knowing. As sensitive as I may be to the body language of others, I can’t really know what they’re thinking. This voice hears the conclusion of “and then I was judged to be lacking,” and rejects it. It asks: Who is doing this judging? What is the criteria? Are you really sure that this is true? Would that even matter anyway? What if their opinion is none of your business?

This questioning and challenging of the “stories” I’m telling is a big step in the process. And at the same time, it can feel like the two voices are warring. The judging voice feels primordial-- ancient and deeply-rooted. She can pop up without me even knowing it. Sometimes she sounds like me, sometimes she sounds like the honest and objective truth. The reasoning voice is newer, lighter. She’s like a young warrior with plenty of weapons at her disposal, but in need of some strength training and battle experience.

How do we train and strengthen this voice of reason? I think it has to do with addressing that kernel hidden deep within-- that belief about whether or not I’m enough. There was a quote that I read recently on the Facebook page of Project Happiness:

"When I accept myself just as I am, I am freed from the burden of needing you to accept me."

What a beautiful and true statement. This judging voice is looking high and low, seeking approval and acceptance from the people surrounding her. Why? Why does this voice look externally for acceptance rather than internally? Because she doesn’t accept herself...and also doesn’t know if she can trust her own opinion of herself.

Do I approve of myself?

When I feel myself looking outward, feeling persistent thoughts like a clouds of gnats: “Is it okay? Was I okay? What does she think? Is she mad at me?” and on and on… I catch myself there and I flip the question. Instead of continuing to imagine whether someone else approves of me, I ask, “Do I approve of myself?” Really, do I? What do I think of how I have behaved in that situation? Did I act with kindness and awareness? Did I try my best? Is there anything that needs to be remedied; are there any amends or corrections to make? And if all is well, then okay. I rest there, I sit with this. Sure enough, the buzzing thoughts may return, but with patience, I can again turn inward to find my own approval and acceptance of myself...as many times as necessary.

How does this help? Beyond helping me to figure out what I need to do, what this practice does is to reinforce within me that my opinion of myself matters. It matters whether I behave in ways that I feel show integrity and congruence with what I value. The more I strengthen this belief-- that it matters what I think about myself-- the less other people’s imagined approval will matter.

Don’t ask for permission if you don’t need it

On the same theme of self-approval, I sometimes find myself asking other people for their opinion on a decision that I want to make. I’m not talking about a situation in which I need advice-- I’m talking about a decision that probably has no correct response, and one that I can only make myself. Instead of going with my gut, I start “checking” my decision with others to see if they approve. Of course, it often happens that they don’t! Or they just don’t get the situation. Then I’m in the situation of arguing about my own dilemma that I could’ve just gone ahead with on my own.

When I see this behavior, I’m trying to head it off at the pass. I try to identify when I actually need input and opinions from others, and when I’m just wanting external approval. The times when I don’t really need to check in are when I am really just wanting the other person to say, “Yes, good job, I approve of your decision.” In these situations I tell myself, “Don’t ask for permission if you don’t need it.” Does this decision feel right to me? Am I at ease when I imagine moving forward with this? Okay, then. Again, this addresses that kernel of “I’m not enough” by training me to actually be enough in my life. I am reminded of the bureaucracy in a workplace where three signatures on a form are necessary: the employee, their boss, and their boss’s boss. My life isn’t a bureaucratic workplace! I can make an executive decision on my own stuff without requesting additional approval from outside, and the more I do this, the more comfortable it becomes.

What would happen if I walked through the world as if I were okay?

Finally, there are these times when I just feel uneasy in my own skin, in my own body. I feel a low-key and yet lingering fog of not-okay-ness surrounding me sometimes. At these times, I ask myself, “What would happen if I walked through the world as if I were okay?” What would happen if I just assumed that all will be well, unless I see any true signs that there is an issue to deal with? And that if there were any issues or problems that arose, what if I trusted that I would deal with it? I would gather up my skills and strengths and do whatever was necessary, but until then, UNTIL THEN...what if I behaved as though I was okay and everything around me was okay?

This thought can feel almost dangerous! What?! You mean let down my guard? But what is actually being guarded anyway? Again, walking around slightly anxious doesn’t actually protect me from anything. For me, the answer to this question, “What would happen if I walked through the world as if I were okay?” usually means I letting go of the tension that I’m holding throughout my body. My shoulders melt a little lower and the cords of my neck ease. That slight forward-leaning tilt to my torso relaxes back, and I take a deeper breath. My mind moves differently, too. Rather than constantly scanning forward through my day to see where worry might be needed, I realize that I can trust that I’ll work with it when I get there, and for now I can just be HERE. Here is usually pretty good.

So for me, these questions can help lead me from external to internal, bringing me to a place of more peace and self-assurance:

  • Do I approve of myself?
  • Do I really need permission?
  • What would happen if I walked through the world as if I were okay?