No one needs to approve except for you.
I was wiser at 14 than I was at 24. As a teenager, I wrote myself a mantra: “What I am is good enough. What I am becoming is better.” In the year or so after I wrote that short snippet, I forgot the first half of that mantra and began focusing like a laser beam in the second. It was no way to build a life.
The foster dog we are caring for right now looks to us with pleading eyes that seem to say “Likemelikemelikeme! Am I doing it right? Is this okay?” Much like our sweet foster dog, I used to spend too much time and energy seeking the approval of others. I wanted to be likable and well-read, smart and attractive, funny and outgoing (but not too outgoing!). I wanted to press myself into the personality equivalent of a Play-doh fun factory and emerge on the other side an extruded star.
Even if I could have reformed my personality and innate strengths in such a way, it would have been a complete failure. There is not one standard of beauty, success, manners, acceptable behavior, or likability that would please everyone. Like so much else in this world, these kinds of personal preferences are not black and white. In fact, we can all name examples of how they vary greatly from person to person. An action or outfit that could gain acceptance, approval, or admiration in one setting could easily lead to being ostracized in another.
Chasing after acceptance from others, requires constant adaptation. Growing up, it is not uncommon to believe that it only takes the right clothes or hairstyle to fit in. We have all witnessed people reinventing themselves as they change relationships. When try to please others or win acceptance, we repeatedly sink our time and money into a constantly shifting target instead of enriching our lives and the lives of others.
In my younger years, I judged the people who reinvented themselves when they entered a new relationship. Maybe I felt safe doing that because I felt that I wasn't bending as far as them in my quest for the approval of others. In reality, I was doing a very similar thing. Maybe I was even stepping more carefully because I was conscientious of the fact that I didn't want to appear to conform too much.
This is the sad truth: When we manipulate our true selves to please others, we cannot be deeply known and loved for who we actually are. Even if we are successful at earning love and admiration from the people around us this way, it does not change the deep feelings of insecurity, isolation, and loneliness that caused us to people-please in the first place.
When our relationships aren't built on a genuine version of ourselves, it is easy to fear that our closest friends or romantic partners would walk away if they knew us deep-down true. Relationships that lack authenticity and moments of true vulnerability have shallow roots. This makes them less likely to withstand any challenge, including the shock of finding out that one partner has mostly been hiding themselves behind a need for approval. These kinds of relationship failures might reinforce the idea that one is not likable or worthy, when in fact the true crime is trying to please others instead of just letting ourselves be seen.
In those years when I was trying the hardest to be something "better" or different than what I was, I was ignoring myself. Instead of investing in what truly mattered to me, my dreams, drives, strengths, interests, and personal style all had to pass the test of what was acceptable. Over time, I built a huge portions of my life on other people’s expectations. But other people's expectations are not a strong foundation for anything. External validation is nothing to build a life on.
Most all of us feel pressured at some time to check off the achievements that society seems to expect from all of us: parenthood, home ownership, college, career, new car, matching living room furniture, etc. But not all of us want or need all these things. Depending on who we surround ourselves with, outside pressure and expectations can be intense. I've heard the parent of a groom hint forcefully about grandbabies during a wedding reception toast, and many of us have had a friend weigh in with a judgmental, "uhm, no" in response to a choice we've made that felt vital to who we are.
When it comes to the basic checklist items (parenthood, home ownership, college, career), I have completed most all of them. Some of them, I truly enjoyed (including parenting, thank goodness!), but in other areas I was deeply unsatisfied. ...No, this dissatisfaction was not caused by the fact that I'd failed to buy matching living room furniture. I was miserable because I had put many of my true dreams, drives, and interests away in a box while trying to meet expectations set by others. My life felt more like an obligation than a labor of love. (This is not to say that I think all obligation is bad, I just agree with Mark Manson that we should choose to suffer for deeply meaningful things we truly love.)
Making major life decisions requires huge investments of time and money. Undoing them after we find we've turned down a wrong path can cost us even more.
When I realized I wasn't where I needed to be, I had to disassemble a lot of the life I'd made before I could move forward. Seeking acceptance and avoiding conflict had become habits, and breaking those habits was difficult. Rebuilding a life based on what was meaningful to me took a long time. Believing again in those words I'd penned at age 14 -- "What I am is good enough" -- that took even longer.
Building a meaningful life, much like setting big financial goals, requires a deeply moving "Why?", a sense of purpose that rings true to the most essential parts of ourselves. It would be great if we could copy and paste the formula that the people around us used to achieve fulfillment, but it's not that simple. As we move through life, it's important to question what motivates us as we make each decision, to know what's deeply important to us, and to choose accordingly.
Each of us comes packaged with highly variable values and priorities. Just like there is no single standard of beauty, there are a multitude of ways to define what it means to live a good life. Two people living the exact same way are likely to experience wildly different levels of fulfillment. It's why we all want different things in romantic partners, household budgets, and political candidates. When it comes to your own life choices -- how you invest your time, money, or your vote -- no one needs to approve except for you.
- The Desire Map: A Guide to Setting Goals with Soul (Danielle LaPorte)
- Man's Search for Meaning (Viktor E. Frankl)
- Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (Cheryl Strayed)
- Your Money or Your Life (Vicki Robin)