The difference between approval and love

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Sep 08, 2017

"Other people's opinions of me are none of my business."

Popular saying

We were talking at work recently about child-rearing, and I was reminded of my own childhood, when, although I was loved by both my parents, I was extremely shy and eager to please the authority figures in my life. Indeed, I was in awe of authority figures; I also felt far more comfortable with adults than my peers. The adults in my life were much more predictable. I understood the rules of engagement, if you will, for dealing with adults: You had to do what they said, but they were supposed to be fair, and to make allowances for the fact that you were just a kid. With peers, as far as I could tell, there were no rules at all. Scary.

And I was rewarded for being an inhibited, self-effacing pleaser. Teachers liked little girls who were quiet and attentive and tried hard to do as they were asked. I almost never made waves or caused trouble of any kind. So much so, that I had an "accident" in my underwear in third grade because I was too embarrassed to ask to go to the bathroom in front of my classmates. Eventually, one of them smelled me and told the teacher. That wasn't embarrassing.

As both the oldest child and the only girl in my family, I got a a lot of encouragement for my approval-seeking. I subordinated who I was to the expectations of the adults around me at home, in school, and at Sunday School. However, I didn't stop being who I really was: It just came out in indirect ways. In the imaginative games where I was a pirate or one of Robin Hood's merry men, in manipulative or passive-aggressive behavior, in the feeling of being misunderstood by my mother that I nurtured inside.

I also was over-dependent on authority — my parents — and was slow to develop confidence in myself, my judgment and ability to cope with whatever might come up. I was afraid to try things that I might not be good at right away, because I couldn't stand the prospect of failure. For me, the thought "What if I can't do it?" was on a par with "What if I die?"

I often wished as a child that my mom would try to see things from my point of view — would ask what I felt and why and listen to me without judgment. That was the loneliest part of growing up for me: not having an adult who would listen and accept me as I was.

I learned to garner approval by doing well in school and at my piano lessons, but I always felt that success was a double-edged sword: It brought approval, but it also brought the expectation that I continue to perform to a high standard. I could never risk failure, because my self-worth depended on approval.

I started to get away from my dependence on approval a little bit in college, when I dropped a course at mid-year because I wasn't doing well and didn't enjoy the course. I ended up having to take a summer school class to make up the credit, and my parents weren't best-pleased by my decision, but it was a small move in the direction of independence.

My coming out, which also happened in college, was a much bigger move in that direction. I discovered, after some struggle, that I could be a lot more of who I really was and not lose my parents' affection.

Over time, I have come to trust myself more and rely on others' approval less, but the desire for approval is still something I wrestle with. It is the work of a lifetime to get free of my early conditioning, to remember the difference between approval and real love. One of the things that has helped a lot with this is my involvement in the Episcopal Church and developing a more mature spirituality.

A few years ago I read a book by Rachel Naomi Remen called, "Kitchen Table Wisdom." It includes the following, which means a lot to me, "All love is unconditional; anything else is just approval."

Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Sep 09, 2017 16:29

Deep thoughts from childhood Sarah.   My childhood was filled with baseball, swimming, biking and Church on Sunday, when singing and praying took over.

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