Window | Mary Licanin Photography

Have I been approved?

Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner. — Lao Tzu

Window | Mary Licanin Photography

What I think this means is not so much the general “what people think”, but rather seeking the approval of others.

I was always a good girl — welllll okay, for the most part I was good. Well okay, as an adult…. Well, okay the timeline on this is debatable. In any case, whether it was during my 0 – 10 years old ‘good’ years, my teenage ‘troubled years’ or my adult ‘eh, take your pick’ years, I was often reminded that there was an imminent threat (perceived or real is open for debate) that the neighbors might think poorly of me.

Mary! What will the neighbors think?!?!

I always worried about that to a degree (though maybe not always enough to stop me from doing stuff that gave them something to think of me). I think almost everyone probably has thought this, or at least heard it from a parent. Why neighbors are so important, such a measure of our correctness, I don’t know really. They’re just people. People with their own struggles, imperfections, growing pains, mistakes – living in a glass house next to mine. The worst thing I could do is to become a subject of their gossip.

I guess it’s in our nature (or nurture?) to look for the approval and acceptance of our peers. I did that, too (that is to say, I looked for it).

I’d go so far as to say that a lot of my rocky years, self-loathing and therapy expenses revolved around this search for acceptance by others.

I guess there are others like me out there…

You’re a little (or a lot) not of average weight, or your hair is always a bit imperfect or your clothes are not stylish or trendy. Maybe your humor is dark and weird and your interests are nerdy. You feel love harder than most people you know. You feel sorrow even harder. You recognize you’re imperfect, and that’s okay, because you’re working on it. When you do something, you don’t half-ass it, you go full in, and make a damned fool of yourself doing it if that’s what you do, but dammit you do it. You avoid people, and feel lonely. You surround yourself with people, and feel lonely. You never quite fit in. Anywhere. Ever. That really, really bothers you sometimes. Well, not too much, you think to yourself, but kinda. It kinda only hurts when you breathe.

Know what happens next?

You get hit by a freight train in the shape of a birthday cake with 40 candles on it. Well okay just 1 for each decade, because your loved ones didn’t want to burn the house down. At warp speed you have all kinds of AHA! moments and get all kinds of random psychoses wisdom because life has kicked your ass so hard and mopped the floor with you so many times you can’t help but to start seeing things more clearly than you ever have. At least now you can justify always having messy hair. So what then? You start a blog because, well, who really wants to listen to your mid-life ramblings, but you should write them down just in case. You hope someone, somewhere reads it and through your writing they find some small piece of themselves YOU finally found.

I digress (but thanks for finding me).

I try not to look back and think “If only I had…” because really, what’s the point of that? I wasted so much time on regret. It just paralyzes you, makes you feel depressed, makes you feel like you screwed up (again?! gah.)  Whatever you did or didn’t do/say/feel/think/etc – no matter big or small – is water under the bridge. You can only change what you do/say/feel/think/etc. starting with right this moment.

Instead of ‘If only I..’, I try turning it around and start my thoughts with ‘What if now I …’.

It initially feels kind of fluffy, and sure, it takes some practice and getting used to this different way of thinking. There are days my “evil M” just pesters the hell out of me until I can’t ignore her anymore and I stumble and fall off the path. I sit there a minute, cry, let myself wander into the rabbit hole of depression knowing it’s a temporary visit, and then pick myself back up as soon as I can, and start again.

I don’t ignore mistakes I’ve made, but I don’t dwell on them. Instead I focus on what it has taught me about myself with regard to the way I want to carry myself differently starting from this moment forward.

There’s always something you can do right now to become the person you want to be.

I really believe that, no matter how big or small. Well, within reason. I will probably never be an astronaut. Then again, I have been known to shift careers a time or two, and I never say never anymore (another lesson learned).

What I find more valuable now (in my “black and blue wisdom”) is figuring out how to behave in a way that *I* will think well of me. I am the neighbor. I am the deity. I am the parent. I am the child. I am the spouse.  If I can look honestly at myself, and respect and love who I am, then I’m moving closer to being someone I approve of. As a happy added benefit, those that are important to me will likely also respect and love who I am as I grow into a better person.

My revision on Lao tzu’s  philosophy is something like, “Caring about people’s approval makes you your own prisoner.”

By choosing to put others’ approval of us ahead of our own, we imprison ourselves by denying ourselves the ability to become a better version of ourselves, because we’re basing ourselves on a picture we’re painting based off what we think others want to see in us. Phew. Tiresome…and pointless.

When we try to be someone our neighbors can be proud of, can envy, can look up to, then we’re kind of faking it to a degree, or at the very least feeding our ego like a zoo animal on display. Stuck in a loop of trying and retrying to be someone that someone else will approve of, we never quite get that approval void filled. Ultimately, the approval has to come from within.

When we come home, into ourselves, and close the door, draw the curtains and turn on the light to look around, we are there alone and everything about us is stripped bare. Just us. Just our thoughts, and our own actions. It is us we see (or see past) when we look in the mirror. It is us we lay down with at night. Do we love who we are? If our neighbor approves of us, will we love ourselves more? No, not truly.

I believe this is a foundational step, and one we can all take, to begin to reach some form of enlightenment. Imagine for a minute if the whole world was full of people who loved and approved of themselves? I don’t mean conceited, self-centered, egotistical love. I mean true and honest love. In loving myself, I am able to love all of the whole I am part of. I think that what I perceive as  *I* the individual doesn’t really exist. We are borg. Just kidding. Well, sort of, I guess.

Seeking acceptance vs. seeking guidance

A hard lesson I had to unlearn was one I taught myself early on, and that was not to trust myself or my own judgement. I looked outside of myself for signs that I was getting it right. I looked outside myself for approval. The trouble with that was, my sources were not always good, and didn’t always have my best interest in mind. As a result I not only made some bad choices, but I ended up spending  a lot of my life feeling generally misunderstood, feeling remorse and blaming myself for all of it, rooting myself further in the lesson of not trusting myself. There were times I was so very lost, that having some more influential guidance from the right people might have influenced my life choices in positive ways.

My point is, there is a difference between seeking approval and seeking guidance, and my point is not to suggest we don’t need outside guidance. On the contrary, I think without guidance we are lost, and without it we fail to grow. It can be hard to recognize where we’re coming from – are we looking for approval, or guidance? This can be especially difficult when we’re buried under a lot of baggage.

Now I look for guidance from people I trust, people who’s heart I know to be similar to mine, and people who I think really ‘get it’, some who ‘get it’ a lot better than I do. I think we reach a limit of growth if we don’t look outside ourselves to others to be our teachers. We just have to remember the difference between seeking guidance and seeking acceptance. Are we feeding our quest to grow or are we feeding our ego by reaching out for advice? Only we can answer that for ourselves.

What if I’m misguided now? There’s always that chance, but I have a lot of bruises that remind me of the difference. Hopefully.

It’s a sticky trap and, I think, somewhat easy to get stuck in before we realize what we’re doing. It’s okay. Mindfully aware that’s what we’ve done, we acknowledge it, and then decide how we can draw from that experience to improve ourselves. And the cycle continues.