booNote: This is the first of a two part series.
A child is happily absorbed in the playground. All of sudden, she surprises herself by perfectly executing a back flip. Kids around her, whom she’d hardly noticed, are gathering around her, clapping. She repeats the flip to see if they’ll clap again. The girl isn’t sure what she’s discovered, but it feels exciting. She thinks perhaps she’s found the key to being accepted. She goes to work on a new flip with a motive she did not have before. She is no longer fooling around to amuse herself. Her focus has shifted to the response she wants from the others.
“By the time we leave childhood, a lot of us are still doing flips of one kind or another, seeking approval from almost everyone we know. Our partners and children, our parents, our colleagues at work, even the stranger in the elevator. Seeking approval becomes so much a part of our lives that it’s automatic. We hardly know we’re doing it,” says Byron Katie in the book I Need Your Love—Is That True? (Three Rivers Press). If you watch your thoughts carefully, you’re likely to be thinking such things as: “Does he like me? Will he invite me out again? Will he reject me when he discovers I’m not into sports at all? Does she love me? Accept me? Want me? If I take her to a fancy restaurant, will I impress her?”
Katie offers an exercise on approval seeking. Deliberately listen to your own thoughts when you talk with others. Notice when you try to seek approval—or avoid people’s disapproval—with explanation, qualification or justification, or when you tell anecdotes in the hope people will think about you in a certain way. Notice how you try to manipulate with your face, voice, eyes, your body language, your laugh.
Then go to a place in your life—it can even be today—where you were seeking love and approval from someone. Now answer the following questions (in helps to do this in writing):
- What did you want from that person?
- How did you attempt to manipulate the way that person saw you?
- How did you want that person to see you specifically?
- Did you lie or exaggerate? What did you say? Be specific.
- Were you really listening to that person, or were you more interested having him or her see how interesting, attractive or bright you are?
- What didn’t you like about seeking love and approval?
- What did you like when you resisted seeking love and approval?
Katie suggests that in the excitement of new friendships or love affairs, you may find yourself bending your likes and dislikes to win the approval of that other person. Do you find yourself say yes when you mean no? “Oh, yes, no problem, I’ll sit in the back seat with your three wet golden retrievers.” When you start noticing it, you will find that polite behavior is full of approval seeking—disguised as consideration.
Notice how often your politeness and/or tactfulness are really about trying to control the impression you make. Katie gives an example: “Suppose you are playing your violin for your boyfriend and he’s pretending to like it to please you. As you watch him, he breaks character for a moment and his smile looks pained—that’s his tactless lapse into honesty. Your expression changes as you notice his lapse, and that’s your tactless lapse—letting him know that you noticed. But you both behave as if nothing happened. You struggle through to the end of your performance, you’ve been having difficulty with the high notes, allowing your boyfriend to finish his performance of enjoying it.” You gave yourself the job of pretending because neither of you has questioned the belief that your relationship couldn’t stand up to honesty.