What holds people back the most?
What keeps them from happy? From centered? From comfortable in their own skin?
I think it’s the powerful need so many of us have for acceptance and approval – from external sources.
I started thinking about this last week when a client was telling me that he needed more feedback from his boss: was he doing OK? Was he doing it right? Was he what the boss wanted? Was he? Was he?
It really struck me that this sort of rumination is a big energy suck – energy that could be used toward creation and productivity. And contentedness. “Why not,” I offered, “just ask?”
Dull thud. Silence. More silence.
I sensed a big swallow. Then the client said, “I can’t do that. I mean, it’s my boss. I shouldn’t have to ask.”
I totally get it.
Psychologist Erich Fromm, in his classic book The Art of Loving, wrote about the different kinds of love including “mother love” and “father love”.
Mother love says to a child: “There is no misdeed, no crime which could deprive you of my love, of my wish for your life and happiness.” This is Acceptance.
Father love says to a child: “You did wrong, you cannot avoid accepting certain consequences of your wrongdoing, and most of all you must change your ways if I am to like you.” This is Approval.
So when my client was desperate for feedback from his boss, you might say he was looking for a father to love him. Even if his boss is a woman.
Whoa. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
I see countless people around the world who struggle with this. Time after time, they choose to fill their internal gaps with external glue. They make choices because they want to feel accepted (mother love) or because they need approval (father love) – and sometimes those choices have powerful consequences. Like marrying someone because everyone likes him. Or taking a job because you “should”. Or spending money you don’t have to send your child to a particular private school because everyone else does.
It’s all external external external anxious striving for an idealized state we may have had in early childhood. Then again, we might not have had it. But we still idealize it.
As humans, we feel the absence and know we need both acceptance and approval to get along in this world.
After all, who among us could live without love?
Yet, placing the power of love in the hands of others – love is something we get externally – puts us at the whim of folks who may be unable or unhealthy. Or worse.
Think difficult bosses, spouses, teachers, neighbors. You’ve had ‘em. I’ve had ‘em.
We all have.
And you can’t get something from them that they are constitutionally unable to give.
So, it seems to me that the wisest thing any of us can do is give ourselves that which we seek from others.
Fromm says, “Eventually, the mature person has come to the point where he is his own mother and his own father. He has, as it were, a motherly and fatherly conscience…The mature person has become free from the outside mother and father figures, and has build them up inside…not by incorporating mother and father, but by building a motherly conscience on his own capacity for love, and a fatherly conscience on his reason and judgment.”
There’s the idea. If you feel trapped in a cycle of seeking external validation – desiring acceptance and approval (mother love and father love) - become your own parent.
That’s not to say that you have to chuck your own parents over the side. Nor am I suggesting that by parenting yourself you are somehow making a referendum on how you were raised. Or that you’re becoming a flaming narcissist. No, that’s not it.
What it is is this: every day, treat yourself the way you would treat someone you deeply love, approve of and accept. And to get there, of course, you must act in ways that you love, approve and accept.
Act with integrity. Be kind. Watch your self-talk, as well as your talk with others. Say yes when you mean yes, and no when you mean no.
Treat yourself with care. Honor yourself. Be proud of yourself.
And, give yourself a pat on the back now and then. Because you know better than anyone how far you’ve come.