Over the past few months, I've been looking at the phenomenon of approval seeking that exists in my life and my relationships. My mother's death has brought up an intense mix of emotions and reflections. Like most people, my mom was a fundamental source of love for me, especially early in my life.
As such, from quite a young age, I learned various ways to gain her approval. Although this evolved over time, and I outgrew certain aspects of approval seeking from my mom specifically, I realize now that I was much more attached to her approval -- even as an adult -- than I thought I was.
The irony is that this had very little to do with my mother herself. While she did have strong opinions, like most of us, and she and I dealt with our fair share of conflicts and challenges in our relationship, I never questioned her love, commitment or loyalty to me. Much of the "conditionality" in our relationship (i.e. me thinking I had to be a certain way to be loved and accepted) was self-imposed. As I've looked at this more deeply in the recent months, I realize this is also true in just about all of the relationships in my life -- family, friends, clients and more.
I read a great book a number of years ago written by my friend, mentor and counselor of 17 years, Chris Andersonn, called "Will You Still Love Me if I Don't Win?" This book was written specifically for parents of young athletes, but has a much wider and broader message about both parenting and life; it's really about how much pressure most of us feel as kids (and then throughout our lives) to perform for our parents and others.
This pressure to perform and to "live up to other people's expectations" creates an enormous amount of stress in our lives. Clearly, there are healthy expectations and positive forms of accountability that benefit us (i.e. when people around us expect excellence, integrity, kindness, success and more, which can in fact influence us in a positive way). However, more often than not, we place a great deal of pressure on ourselves to act, look and "perform" in specific ways; we believe we have to in order to receive the love, acceptance and approval we want (or sometimes feel we need) from others.
Consciously or unconsciously we tend to ask ourselves questions like, "Will you still love me if ..."
--I tell you how I really feel?
--I gain weight or my physical appearance changes?
--I change jobs or careers?
--I don't succeed or produce specific results?
--I disagree with you about important/sensitive stuff?
--I don't live up to your standards/expectations?
--I want to alter or renegotiate the nature of our relationship?
These, and many other questions like them, create an intense dynamic of pressure in our lives and relationships. And in many cases, like I've recently realized with my mom, we create most of this pressure ourselves. Often the place where unconditional love is lacking most significantly is within us. We have a tendency to be quite hard on ourselves, and to have lots of conditions in place for our own approval. This demand for perfection is always a set-up for failure.
What if we let go of our conditions, and just loved and accepted ourselves and others exactly the way we and they are right now? Acceptance isn't about resignation; it's about freedom, peace and appreciation. When we practice unconditional love and acceptance, it doesn't mean that everything is "perfect," or that things can't or won't change in a positive way. However, love and acceptance are about appreciating the way things are, and trusting that we and other people are "good enough."
Seeking the approval of others is something most of us learn to do early on in life, and is actually a natural, normal and healthy aspect of our growth as human beings. However, as we evolve, seeking approval not only becomes problematic, but can be quite damaging if we don't consciously pay attention to it and ultimately alter it.
Here are three things you can do to loosen the grip of approval seeking:
Notice: Pay attention to your approval seeking tendencies. In what relationships and situations does this show up most often for you? Like most things in life, change starts with awareness, so noticing when, how and what specifically it is that you do or say (in your head or out loud) in terms of seeking approval is the first step.
Share: Talk about this with the specific people in your life it impacts the most: your significant other, your family, your friends, your co-workers, your boss, your clients and more. Because much of this stuff is self-imposed, when we start talking about it we often realize that we're putting a lot of pressure on ourselves, and in many cases, unnecessarily.
In other cases there may be some unspoken dynamics in place that can be altered by having honest and vulnerable conversations. Either way, talking about it will almost always help alter things in a positive way.
Give To Yourself: Give yourself that which you are seeking, which in most cases is love and acceptance. The source of much of our pain and suffering, as well as our joy and happiness, is us. So often we're looking for others to give to us that which we need to give to ourselves. When we love and approve of ourselves, two important things happen. First of all, we become less needy of the approval of others. Second, because we are giving it to ourselves and aren't as needy of it from others, we often get even more love and acceptance from those around us.
While this may seem simple and straightforward, it can be tricky. For many of us, our patterns of approval seeking began before we had language, and at a time in our lives that we can't even access with conscious memory. As we do this important internal work, it's essential that we're gentle, kind and compassionate with ourselves. And, when we remember that the love, acceptance and approval we're truly seeking is our own, we're reminded that the answer is right inside of us, like it almost always is.
Mike Robbins is a sought-after motivational keynote speaker, coach and the bestselling author of "Focus on the Good Stuff" (Wiley) and "Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken" (Wiley). For more info, visit the website.