Why are Americans so hungry for the approval of others?
The adjusted American lacks self-approval; that is to say, he has not developed a self-image that he can believe is both accurate and acceptable. To do so he would require successful techniques for creating an adequate and acceptable self-image through honest introspection, candid association, and meaningful activity.
The patterns to which he has adjusted do not include such techniques. Instead, the culture abounds with misdirections, which the adjusted American acquires. There are the patterns of alienation and projection discussed above, through which he seeks to deny unpalatable aspects of himself. But perhaps above all he learns to seek self-acceptance indirectly, by seeking to substitute the good opinion of others for self-approval. It is thus that he becomes “other-directed.”
Half certain of his own inadequacy, he attempts to present himself to others in an appealing way. When (or if) he has won their approval he hopes that they will be able to convince him that he is a better man than he thinks he is.
But this quest for indirect self-acceptance is fundamentally misdirected…. The opinion of others can contribute to self-acceptance only when the individual believes that others see him as he really is. Otherwise he cannot give credence to the image he sees reflected in their eyes.
But the person who is caught up in the quest for indirect self-acceptance is more concerned with making a favorable impression on others than with seeing an honest reflection of himself. He attempts to manipulate the way he appears to others. Consequently he cannot credit any favorable image they may reflect….
By the time a youth has been transformed into an adult his thirst for approval seems insatiable. But to borrow a phrase from Hoffer, he can never have enough of that which he really does not need. He needs self-acceptance, and however much of his talent, energy, and possession are committed to the struggle to win approval from others, self-acceptance cannot be achieved thereby. There is a fundamental defect in the method.
“I am,” he says. “I woke up early and couldn’t go back.”
“Something bothering you?”
He nods. “My son.”
“How is he?
“Still in the hospital, but getting out tomorrow.”
“You’re worried about him?”
“No,” he says. “I’m angry at him.”
”He’s in pain, and a shitty mood – which is understandable – and he takes it out on me.”
“And it hurts your feelings.”
“But he’s sick, so you hold back, and then you wake up thinking about it.”
”Right,” he says glumly. “And I know what you think.”
“What do I think?”
“I’m being a big baby.”
“Actually that’s what you think,” I say. “I’m thinking this must be hard for you.”
“Why? He’s the one in the hospital bed.”
“And you’re the one getting triggered.”
“Triggered,” he repeats.
“Sure. Isn’t this how you felt as a kid? When your parents hurt your feelings and you couldn’t say anything?”
He exhales. “Yes.”
“You’re forgetting something I know you know,” I say. “Something we’ve talked about. That there’s no really such thing as a…”
“…grown-up human being,” he finishes.
“Right. It’s the Kid inside you that’s getting triggered. The one who came out of childhood convinced that your parents’ unhappiness and anger meant there was something wrong with him.”
“Huh,” he says. “So I’m confusing my son with my parents?”
“Your Kid is, yes.”
“That’s fucked up.”
“Yes and no,” I say. “Sure, it feels upside down. But it’s not uncommon. Parents with unfinished business with their parents often transfer that stuff to their kids. If you were scared of your parents’ anger you’ll feel scared when your kids get mad at you. If you felt unloved by your parents you’ll worry that your kids will stop loving you.”
“But I know my son loves me,” he frowns.
“Sure, your Adult self knows that,” I say. “Your Kid still worries that he’s defective and unloveable.”
“Yeah,” he sighs.
He looks relieved.
“Does this shit ever entirely go away?” he asks.
“Not entirely,” I say. “We carry a Kid inside until we die. But we can learn how to listen and understand and take better care of him. And when we do that he doesn’t get triggered nearly as often. And eventually he settles down and lives in a quieter place.”
Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence. ~ Erich Fromm
After a year of dating they’re still not on the same page.
Shelly wants a commitment. Stan’s circling the field.
Both have histories. Shelly was married to a narcissist who abused her and their kids and who has fought paying child support even since the divorce. Stan was engaged for six years to a woman who bossed and belittled and ultimately cheated on him.
Both had emotionally unavailable parents.
Both find it hard to trust anyone.
“Jesus,” I say. “How the hell have you stayed together this long?”
“Together?” Shelly says. “I’m not sure we are.” She looks at Stan. “Are we?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “We hang out. We have sex. We play with the kids. We have fun. Sometimes I think we love each other. But there’s this feeling hanging over us, this…”
“Tension?” I say.
“Yes. This tension that never goes away.”
Shelly nods agreement.
“Any idea what it’s about?”
Stan shrugs. “It’s how I always feel in relationships.”
“I know where my tension comes from,” Shelly says. “Feeling alone. Like Stan’s not all there.”
“How so?” I ask.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in a lake, and he’s standing on the dock watching, trying to decide whether to jump in and save me.” She looks at Stan. “It’s like he’s…doing the math.”
“I do my best,” he says. “I care about Shelly. I want to be there for her. But her life is so complicated. She’s got this sociopathic ex, and these two kids who I love but who can be demanding, and this difficult mother, and this annoying sister, and all the time she worries about money…”
“And you’re scared that if you jump into all that you’ll drown too.”
He nods sadly.
“You’d take the risk if you loved me,” Shelly says angrily.
Stan opens his mouth.
“Wait,” I interrupt. “You could both use some help with empathy. Shelly, be fair. It’s really not his lake.”
She sighs and nods.
“And Stan, ever felt like you were drowning? Remember how scary that was?”
“Okay,” I say. “Beyond that, here’s what I think:
“I think you guys are missing something important.
“It’s something I suspect neither of you has ever experienced before with anyone.
“You may never have even seen it in action.
“It’s a kind of special sauce for relationships, and it makes everything easier.
“I call it mutuality.
“Mutuality is the feeling that what’s good for you is good for me, and vice versa.
“More than a feeling, actually. A kind of deep belief, a faith. Something you just know.
“It’s what allows partners to move beyond their personal feelings and points of view and make room for each other in their lives.
“Without it you’re each stuck in your limited perspective, and the relationship feels tight and constricting. It doesn’t feel like a partnership or a collaboration, but like a competition — like only one of you can get your way. And like you have to play defense, analyze, calculate, do the math, or you risk losing something or getting taken advantage of.”
“That’s just how it feels,” Stan says.
“Mutuality changes all that. It’s a kind of emotional lubricant that removes the tension, reduces conflict and lets you feel safe. You can relax and feel like you’re in this together.
“I want to feel that way,” Stan says. He turns to Shelly. “I would love to feel that way.”
She reaches for his hand.
“Can we learn it?” Shelly asks me.
“You can,” I say. “The easiest way is to see it in action. But even if your parents didn’t model it and you never experienced it in prior relationships you can still work at creating it yourself.”
“There are three steps.
“Step One is deciding if you want it. I mean really want it, enough to suffer some discomfort — risk new behaviors, for example.”
“Step Two is committing to each other to make it a priority.”
“And Step Three is practice.”
“What kind of practice?” asks Shelly.
“You act as if. You start behaving if you already believe that what’s good for your partner will be good for you. You stop defending your own preferences and extend yourself for each other. And you see how that feels.
“Isn’t that codependency?” Shelly asks.
“No,” I say. “Codependency comes from fear. Codependents compulsively please or appease others because they’re scared of what will happen if they don’t — they won’t be loved, they’ll be rejected, whatever. But acting as if is neither compulsive or manipulative; it’s conscious and it’s choiceful. A kind of gift. And it comes from love, not anxiety.
“Not just love for your partner, either. You do this for yourself — because you want to learn a new way of being with someone else. Because you want to grow in your ability to give, to love, and to trust.”
“Trust is hard for both of us,” Stan says, and Shelly nods.
“I know,” I say. “But do you know where the phrase act as if comes from?”
“Me either,” I say. “But I like to think it comes from the saying, Act as if you have faith, and faith will be given to you.”
Whether we are hooked on food, alcohol, drugs, sex, money, work, or fame, the impulse to lose ourselves in these things can be seen as a spiritual impulse.
By spiritual impulse I mean a desire to experience a lightness of being, and transcendence that does not take us away from our everyday experience but exists within it.
For surely, what we long for is not a world beyond this one (which for most of us would mean death), but to find some happiness within the perplexing conundrum of our everyday lives. We have only to read the works of people recovering from addictions to see that behind the trappings of disease lies a mystical yearning that is as authentic and urgent as that of any pilgrim.
Somewhere underneath bingeing, starving, exercising, drinking, hallucinating, climaxing, and purchasing, we are desperately seeking a way home to our self. The longer we have been in exile from this true self, the more desperate the yearning and, often, the more desperate the means of attaining pleasure.
For many the motivation to begin, sustain, or deepen a spiritual practice comes in the mindset of grappling with an inner ordering process. As we sift through our life experience we may notice that we consistently allow the urgent to override the important. We may realize that we have a deeply ingrained habit of giving the most time, energy, and commitment to things that ultimately are not very important and that leave us at the end of the day with little enduring satisfaction. We may feel as if we are working for a demanding unknown boss and that we have yet to receive a real paycheck….
When we realize that the entity that we call our “self” is the clearinghouse for everything that will happen to us, we may wake up to the realization that attending to the inner hygiene of this self is the most important thing we could possibly do in this lifetime.
Now we are ready to settle in for the long haul.
We’ve decided we are ready to grow up, and we have reached the sobering realization that it is our life and that there is only one person who can do the work.
“So the relationship’s been going really really well,” she tells me. “He’s attentive and sweet, and we like the same food and music, and he accepts my feelings and even tries to share his own.”
“Okay,” I say.
“And then he had to go out of town on business for a week, and even that feels pretty okay at first. He stays in touch — texts me, sends me pictures of where he is and what he’s doing, tells me he misses me, that sort of thing. Like I said, sweet.”
“Okay,” I say again. Waiting for the other shoe.
“Then two nights ago he goes to a party with his coworkers and meets the daughter of a state senator. And he sends me a picture someone took of them laughing together, and she’s blonde and beautiful, and then he texts me about how interesting and funny she is, and I freak.”
“You know how. All my insecurities rise up and strangle me. I start thinking things like I can’t compete with that and Why would he bother with me if he can hang out with a state senator’s daughter and look at that hair.That kind of crap.”
“And you’ve been doing this to yourself since then.”
“Yes,”she says bleakly. “Make it stop.”
“Well, I can’t make it stop, but maybe you can.”
I think for a minute.
“Ever go on a road trip?” I ask. “A long one?”
“Good. Imagine you’re on a 100-mile road trip, heading north in winter. And along the way there are patches of ice, so every few miles the car skids sideways and you get nervous. You’re able to drive through each skid and get back on dry pavement, but it keeps happening.”
“So what you have to decide is if the trip is worth the skids. Whether you want to get where you’re headed enough to tolerate some skidding — some losses of control — and whether you can do it without panicking or blaming yourself or worrying that there’s something wrong with the car. There’s nothing wrong. There’s just ice on the road.”
“The road is the relationship,” she says.
“And I have to accept not feeling in total control of it.”
“And not turn into a big baby each time the car skids.”
“Yes. And that includes not blaming or insulting yourself. You’re not a baby. It’s okay to feel unsure. But you get through it by remembering that all roads get icy, all drivers skid, and no road trip goes as planned.”
She sighs. “And that all that is okay.”
“It’s the cost of ever going anywhere in the first place.”
She’s a teacher who gets up at four each morning for the two-hour commute to the school where she’s been a Special Ed teacher at for thirteen years. She is good at what she does, and basks in the appreciation she receives from parents and coworkers.
I’ve also never seen her not looking tired.
She is chronically sleep-deprived and battles an endless series of colds, infections, backaches and muscle strains, panic attacks and depressions.
“I hate how I feel, believe me,” she says. “But I’m ten years from retirement.”
“If you live that long.”
She nods grimly. “I know. But I see no way out of it. It’s my one shot at financial security.”
“Uh huh,” I say. “Thought experiment. You’ve just won the lottery. You have all the money you’ll ever need. What do you do now?”
“What do I do?” she repeats.
“Yes. Quit your job?”
“Uh, no. I’d probably stay on for, oh, another year.”
She looks at me. “I don’t know.”
“So it’s not about financial security, because I just solved that problem for you.”
“I guess not.”
“Okay. Another question. Has it ever occurred to you that created this imbalance in your life on purpose? That you’ve chosen this way of living for some unconscious reason?”
She looks confused. “No.”
I know Millie’s history. I know her mom is an anxious divorcee who pushed Millie to enter teaching so she wouldn’t have to depend on a man. I know her mom’s mom was an Irish immigrant who raised four kids alone and insisted her daughter enter teaching for the very same reason.
So I tell her the roasting pan story.
A family gathers for Thanksgiving and everybody’s there, all the generations. And Daughter’s in the kitchen helping Mom prepare the turkey. And she notices that mom hacks off the front end the turkey with a carving knife. “Mom, you’ve always done that to our turkey. Why?” “I don’t really know,” Mom replies. “It’s how my mom always did it.” “Let’s ask her,” says Daughter. So they go to Grandma. “Grandma, why did you always cut off the front end of a turkey?” “I don’t know,” says Grandma, “but it’s how my mother always did it.” So they go to Great Grandma. “Nana,” shouts Daughter, “why did you always cut the front end off the turkey?” “Because,” Nana shouts back, “my roasting pan was too damned small.”
Millie laughs. Then stops and looks startled.
“I think that’s why you live as you do. I think your current life reflects lessons you inherited from your mom and your grandma and internalized without realizing it. The world’s dangerous. Never depend on a man. Seek financial security above all. Work till you drop. Ignore feelings and other messages from your body. I think those were probably appropriate lessons for grandma to learn. I’m less sure about Mom. I suspect she absorbed them unconsciously and then passed them down to you.
“But I do know you’re not Grandma, and you’re not your mother.
“And I know the right life for each of us grows out of our lessons, our experiences and feelings. Nobody else’s.
“And I think the main reason you’re here with me now is because you’ve been trying to live a life that was cooked up in somebody else’s kitchen.”
I ask Rachel how she made out with her new nurse practitioner.
“I fired her,” she grunts.
“She was a Plan A person.”
We’ve developed a verbal shorthand over the years, so I know what she means.
“You could tell?” I ask.
She sighs. “From the moment we met. She kept me waiting twenty-five minutes, and when I finally got in I was frustrated. She saw it and her back went up. That was strike one.”
“Then I asked if she’d gotten the note you faxed over about my diagnosis and treatment. ‘Yes, I think I saw something like that,’ she said, ‘but I tossed it.’ “
“Yeah. Strike two. Then about thirty minutes into the meeting I was asking why she was recommending one med over another, and she was evasive — you know, handling me like a patient. So I questioned her harder. Guess what she said?”
“She said, ‘Are you getting short with me, Rachel?'”
“What did you say?”
“I stood up and said, ‘I’m sorry, but you won’t do,’ and I left.”
I laugh. “Rachel, I think I love you.”
Bernie Siegel writes,
The thing you see in survivors is that they express feelings. I won’t say some of the things they tell their doctors, when doctors tell them they’re going to die in six months. Boy, do they let the doctor know how they feel about that statement.
Siegel is a surgeon who noticed a correlation between cancer and codependency — burying feelings, people-pleasing, avoiding conflict, deferring to authority. He also noticed that the patients most likely to survive cancer were those who learned to replace their codependent coping with honesty, assertiveness and authentic expression. He created support groups designed to teach them these life-saving skills, and called the people who attended them “exceptional patients.”
I call them Plan B people.
Plan B people are those who outgrow the Plan A we all learn as children. Plan A is control addiction, a fear of rejection that leads t0 self-doubt, emotional constipation, image management, and compulsive attempts to get other people to react to us in the way we want.
It’s Plan A that lies behind our tendency to take others’ feelings personally, wall off instead of opening up, and defend instead of communicating — the things Rachel noticed in the nurse practitioner.
She spotted it because she’d done it herself for years.
And she fired the nurse because she’d learned, through her own struggles with anxiety and depression, that Plan A is bad news.
That addiction to control can’t coexist with emotional or physical health.
That it’s not just ineffective, it makes you sick.
And that it’s the opposite of loving and taking care of yourself.
Or as Bernie Siegel puts it,
One’s attitude towards oneself is the single most important factor in healing and staying well.
I came to know that blocks are the price of avoiding surrender, and that surrender is not defeat but rather the key to opening out into a world of delight and nonstop creation.
One of the great traps at times of blockage is that we may accuse ourselves of a deficit of concentration and focus, a deficit of discipline. We then take a paternal or militaristic attitude toward ourselves. We will force ourselves to work, we will go on a schedule, we will take vows. The most dangerous trap is to get into a contest of strength between “will power” and “won’t power.” Discipline is crucial, but we do not attain it by stiffening up. We attain it by sitting still and penetrating the emptiness within, making of that emptiness a friend rather than an adversary or bogeyman.
When you are stuck, meditate, free associate, do automatic writing, talk to yourself and answer yourself. Play with the blocks. Stay in the temenos of the workplace. Relax, surrender to the bafflement; don’t leave the temenos, and the solution will come. Persevere gently….
Like the rules of the universe, the whole matter of personal creativity is baffling and paradoxical. To try to control yourself, to try to create, to try to break free of the knots you yourself have tied is to set yourself up at a distance from that which you already are. It is like looking around this way and that for your own head.