By Meg Hartley
I recently read about an athlete who made it all the way to the Olympics despite loathing their chosen sport. They committed their entire life to seeking one tiny, yet colossal, sentence—I’m proud of you. At some point, we all have someone we want to please, whose approval means the world to us.
I have an incredibly clear memory of the person I wanted approval from telling me I was intelligent, the kind of memory that stays crystal clear because you’ve recalled it so many times. I had parroted someone’s opinion about buying a Canadian soda. “We should really support our own economy,” ten-year-old me said. I had no idea what that meant, but I was looked at with approval, and my heart glowed. It felt so darn good.
I loved that feeling. The approval of my hero. It was nothing like the Olympic athlete, but I made some very big decisions based what might make them proud. I was hugely affected by wanting their approval.
Four months ago this person removed me from their life. It hurt. A lot.
However, in life there is rarely hurt without growth. I recently reflected on myself and my behavior since then and noticed something—I feel free.
After a period of denial and upset, I accepted that this is just how it is. I cannot have their approval. They don’t “get” me. They never have, and they probably never will. It’s not my fault, and it’s not their fault either—it simply is what it is.
This realization made me see how often I was modifying myself according to the thought, “what would they think?” It was shockingly frequent. This person had become an archetype for all kinds of people, and I’d been censoring myself constantly to avoid judgement. I suddenly felt like I’d been a half-assed version of myself my whole life!
I’d been using the desire for approval as an unconscious excuse for hiding. My excuse was gone as soon as I realized it existed (as often happens with our shadow aspects). I had no one to point at for holding me back from being truly wholehearted.
It was time to authentically step into myself and stop hiding who I am from others. Even if that person seems likely to be met with judgement. Even if what I really want to do with my life is incredibly intimidating and involves being extremely vulnerable.
Sometimes I miss the ol’ days when I had surrounded myself with judgement-protecting walls. When I could think to myself, “you can’t judge me, psssch, you don’t even know me.” It was safe there with no one seeing “the real me”—safe, and maddeningly, suffocatingly constricting.
Are you hiding? I hid in approval-seeking. Do you hide behind a veil of aloofness? A carefully crafted image? Perhaps well-timed jokes keep people from seeing you? Maybe you hide behind judgment. We all have our ways, and it can be really scary to let them go.
The thing is though, as long as we prevent ourselves from being truly seen, we will never be truly understood. Connection with others won’t be wholly authentic, and we will edit ourselves because we fear potential thoughts in other people’s heads. It’s really pretty silly.
It’s okay to not be accepted. In fact, you will never be accepted. If you finally gain the approval that was so dearly wanted, it will be lost from someone else. (Yourself, likely.) You will also miss out on connecting with people who really do see you, and who think you kick ass.
A messy falling out isn’t necessary to be freed from wanting someone’s approval. You don’t even have to tell them that you no longer care what they think of you. Just go ahead and do what makes you happy, be unapologetically yourself, and go for the things you really want in life. Do your thing, and let them do theirs.