When I was in my early 30’s I reunited with my parents after a long estrangement. Before I traveled down to see them, I prepared carefully. I was hoping, at long last, that they would finally see me as the adult I felt I was. By that time I’d been on my own for years and was the single parent of a 10 year old. I was sure that they would realize that I was different, that I had grown up.
I still have a picture of myself from that visit. I was all dressed up, my hair fluffy and styled, gold chains draped around my neck. I don’t remember much about the visit itself, except that I left with a vague sense of not really having accomplished what I’d set out to do.
I’m now in my mid-50’s and am planning a reunion with my father from whom, once again, I’ve been estranged for many years. This time, I tell myself, it will be different. I’m different now. Over the years, I’ve grown and developed into an interesting, mature, stable woman. This time I’ll be able to relate to him in a new way that will show him who I really am.
Suddenly I realize what all my thoughts are adding up to. This time he’ll see me as an adult.
This need to be fully seen, the need for approval, is woven throughout my life. It was painfully apparent when I was in the workforce. I regarded the scores of my performance assessments as a measure not just of how well my boss thought I was doing, but as an indication of how successful I was as a person.
It’s human nature, this need for approval. My coach, Michael, calls it the “pack mentality”*, reflecting our need to fit in with our “packs” – our families, communities, the people we work with. And, sometimes, for a while, it seems like we’re actually getting what we’re seeking. For much of my career I was considered a “strong performer”. I was respected, sought after, in some circles I was a star. I accepted all this as truth, ignoring the fact that these were simply labels other people gave me. The reality was that I was well-regarded because I was giving others what they wanted. And, like all illusions, this one eventually vanished. The individuals who thought I was great moved on, and, just like that, I was no longer a golden girl.
The bitter truth is that when we seek the approval of others we make them better than us, we grant them the right to judge us. I gave my bosses the authority to determine how valuable I was as a person. I gave my father the power of deciding whether or not I’m an adult.
Where’s the easy place in all of this? It’s in the recognition that the approval of others is a hollow and temporary prize. Its understanding that the only way to earn it is by doing what others want us to do and ignoring what’s important to us.
Even with this knowledge it’s not easy to give up on seeking the approval of my father. From what I can tell his current opinion of me is exactly the same as it was when we were last together 20 years ago (which seems to be exactly the same as it was when I was 18). My attempts at introducing him to the new me still fall flat, he’s looking for the person he wants me to be, not for who I really am. From this comes both pain and triumph. The pain is in knowing that I’ll never meet his standards for a perfect daughter, and the triumph is in knowing that I no longer need to.
*For a great description of the “pack mentality” see the comment below by Tara Mohr (sophiashouse).
Who do you look for approval from and how does it diminish you?
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