What Happens If You Let Go of a Need for Approval?


A Perplexing Turn of Events

Some years ago I found myself in a unusual situation while coaching a leader. To seek guidance I called my mentor (whom I affectionately refer to as Master Samwise). Sam told me he thought part of the problem was with me; he felt I was too concerned with how the client perceived me. At worst, I was afraid of their disapproval, at best I was reticent to speak my truth.

I was not sure about Sam’s point of view. Yet at some point, I began to see it as he imagined it. I was indeed reluctant to bring forth some of my perspectives because of uncertainty on how they might be received. More importantly, it was clear I was unable to deliver the most important information. From the point of view of the value proposition to a client, that was a very significant problem. Worse still, it pointed to a vexing limitation in me: a need for the approval of others.

In that moment I knew there was an inner blockage that needed release. In retrospect, it was a kind of forgiveness of myself. But the path to resolution was not what I expected.

Sam asked me to visualize myself as a girl scout with a sash across my chest…a sash reserved for the collection and display of merit badges. (As an aside, it was a very amusing self-portrait.) Yet he proposed I needed to begin collecting "demerit badges," that I needed to deliberately act in ways that would allow me to experience the disapproval of others.

It seemed like an incredibly crazy idea. Regardless, Sam was certain that until I could become comfortable with my own discomfort, I would be unable to offer full value. Frankly, that idea was meaningful enough to cause me to experiment.

It was quite a learning experience, exacerbated by a few high-profile, high-risk situations that were incredibly uncomfortable for me. When you have spent so much psychic energy looking for approval, it is remarkable how a refusal to play that game with oneself generates discomfort. Of course, fate has a way of bringing forth opportunities to learn.

Slowly but surely I learned to stand in the presence of dissonance, to hold true and speak true despite discomfort. The result has been nothing short of transformative. Today, a number of years later, I have the capacity to operate in very difficult circumstances, settings that others are unwilling or unable to enter. The result is that I have the opportunity to make much more meaningful contributions with clients and students. Better still, as my comfort with my discomfort has grown, greater and greater compassion comes through in my interactions with others. It’s as if my heart has been opened as a result of engaging my own inner challenges. My clients tell me I’ve become very effective in this regard.

I need no further proof of the value of releasing my attachment to approval. Today, I lean into disapproval. It always proves to be fruitful.

Seeing True

I’ve heard it said that the real purpose for our spiritual path or developmental journey is to grow in understanding and effectiveness. That allows for greater demonstration through our lives and in the world. 

Seeing True in Action

The best developmental path in this arena begins by becoming familiar with the degree of your discomfort with how others perceive you. Do you avoid the disapproval or critique of others, or do you seek it out? Or is your comfort zone somewhere between these extremes?

Regardless, the way to increased capacity is to deliberately begin to explore the settings and situations that feel like demerits awaiting you. Then step into disapproval and criticism, not blindly, but with awareness and the desire to experience it in order to learn.

There’s a secret awaiting you. You’re going to be surprised by what you find.

Updated July, 2019