Looking For Approval

By Chris Chittenden

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main... "

Those words were written by the 17th Century English poet, John Donne. Donne was speaking to the web of human connectedness that binds us all, for each one of us lives in relationship with others. As social beings, we not only find support, love, care with others, we also create our sense of who we are from our relationships. This sense of self is critical as it forms the basis for how we live life.

One of the key skills for a Coach is the interpretation of human behaviour and being. As human beings live in relationship with others, we are constantly subjected to others' views of the world, including their views of us. Hence an understanding of how people behave within their relationships is vital if the Coach is to help people develop greater mastery in living. This also applies to people who lead and manage others.

As children, most people look to their primary care givers, usually their parents, to help them make sense of the world around them. This is a critical part of human development, as human beings come into the world without any understanding of the society into which we are born. We gain a sense of what to do and what not to do from our parent's approval and initially see our own personal value in this approval. As we go through life, our sense of our own value continues to derive in part from the approval of other people, however there is a shift towards valuing our own assessments of ourselves. This happens to varying degrees. Some people move to almost completely ignore others opinions and create a "take me or leave me" identity, others continue to value the approval of others far more than they value their own opinion of themselves, and some manage to find a balance that allows them to be able to stand for what they believe in whilst taking into account other people's opinions.

The "take me or leave me" type of person tends to live in a black and white world of relationships. This is in contrast to a world that most people see as shades of grey and ignoring the opinions of others, most often leads to conflict and broken relationships. By not taking other people's opinions into account, we create our self as an island.

Conversely, when we live at the other end of the scale and constantly look for the approval of others, we run the risk of abdicating our right to design who we want to be. We may not stand for what we believe in and can tend to be pushed and pulled by others' view of how the world should be. As a result, people who live largely in the opinions of others have a tendency for low self-esteem. This can manifest itself in many ways - they might feel insecure about their ability and, as a result, often live in anxiety; they tend to follow others rather than lead; they can create an identity as someone who does not know their own mind and often appear indecisive as they try to please those around them. All in all, they might establish an identity that does not serve them well in life and more often than not leads to significant suffering.

We regularly coach people who, to varying degrees, live for the approval of others and want this to change. We have found an effective way for them to move towards placing a higher value on their own opinion lies initially in an awareness of their way of being that seeks out the approval of others and then an acceptance of themselves as being legitimate as a human being. From that basis, they are able to establish a balance between their own values and goals and those of others who are important to them.

So as we come to the end of this year, we invite you to reflect on how much credence you give to your own opinions and to those of others. If there is an imbalance, consider the impacts and what it would be like if that imbalance did not exist. It might just lead you to a freer and less stressful life.

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© 2003 Chris Chittenden