I like getting approval. I suspect we all do. Yet I hate wanting or needing it.
I hate all the games that go with approval:
- the withholding of it – treating it like it is a prize or a weapon.
- the distortion of information to manipulate approval
- the overvaluation of approval when we are really all in this together.
We are social creatures, so social issues are important to us. Since none of us survive alone, our social life has great weight and can cause us pain or provide us with immense joy. Often we personalize social issues and judge each other, while disregarding the toxic social climate that can create many behavioral challenges. So many issues that are labelled emotional and are assumed to be simple but are really anything but. Approval is one of them and it is one of our biggest challenges.
What Is Approval?
Approval is a kind of social stake in the ground. A position, if you will, with group force behind it. That is why we take it so seriously and should.
Approval is the manifestation of group structures, an expected allegiance. The viability of any and all social arrangements require allegiances. Approval is a way of enforcing allegiances.
So it often feels as if we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t and there is some truth to that. We cannot simply ignore the group structures that we need to negotiate. We also cannot let destructive groups totally control us either.
One way to think of approval is to consider it an initiation into human social culture. Of course, it occurs in our childhoods, and if unexamined rules our entire life. Approval is a handed down formula for how to be, how to behave and who to be courtesy of those around us especially our families.
Approval: The Spider’s Web That Claims Us
It is impossible to escape the wounds of our social structures. The best we can hope to do is do our healing work, find our integrity, our calling and make our contribution to the world.
We need to be kind to ourselves about approval because it is such an important part of our lives. Approval can be very seductive and cause us to feel safe. It is a false security but can cause us to give up opportunities to learn and grow.
One of the reasons we need to be kind to ourselves about our susceptibility to approval is that approval is an important tool for learning. When we are young we are learning and do so in a number of ways:
- trial and error as when we learn to walk
- imitating others or approval based learning.
Imitation is more than peer pressure or conformity. It is actually a way to learn skills. Neuroscientist David Eagleman, who has investigated conscious awareness, memory and unconscious mental processing, demonstrates how imitation is an important form of learning. In this article, he shows how approval was used to teach chicken sexing in Japan in the 1930’s and plane spotting in World War II in Great Britain.
It may seem like a reach, but the point is that much of our learning is absorbed through imitation, and cues from our environment from approval. We store the learning in our brains and draw on it in the future from our memories.
Therefore, it is inevitable that approval will play a role in how we learn. In fact, according to the article it can be the most effective way to learn some things. Unfortunately, we may also naturally develop the bad habit of starting to judge ourselves on the basis of the approval or disapproval that we receive.
The Application Of Approval
Approval may be used to teach us many things:
- group values to promote social cohesion
- how we are expected to demonstrate loyalty
- our “identity”
- how to be in relationship
- what are acceptable behaviors and boundaries
- what group customs are important
- how we are to contribute to group stability and often therefore what change is likely to be rejected.
Approval is the past carried forward. It is a kind of solidified social opinion.
Often when we are making decisions we take the temperature of the social circumstances around us. That is not necessarily bad, however, it means that we will be constrained by the approval of others. If we are in a supportive, benevolent and constructive environment, we can easily make decisions that support us. If our environment is not so benign, our self affirming choices will likely generate a backlash.
Group norms which are supported through approval and disapproval play a huge role in the ability of a group and its members to embrace change and personal growth. For many, abiding by group norms is fine and comfortable. What do you do, however, when those group norms are toxic and resistance to change is high? What do you do when group norms become a kind of sleepwalking so that the groups members are really not engaging with reality and potentially risking the well-being of the group?
The big problem with approval is that we and other can become ossified by sticking to what is approved and what is not. What can be a useful learning method can come to block our ability to fully engage with life and our development.
Highly Sensitive People And Approval
Highly sensitive people have trouble fooling themselves about what they are experiencing because our nervous systems are like an ever present alarm system. So if the approved method of doing things is not working or even dangerous, we will likely become aware of it. As a result, we may not be able to go along with what is approved. Our awareness carries social risks. So we always have to make a decision about our awareness: to follow it, reject it, postpone it, tell others about it. It can feel like a tremendous social burden and it is. It can also help us develop our wisdom and serve others.