Arts & Culture

Speak Up: Asking for Forgiveness for Approval-Seeking

During Selichot services this Saturday night and at the High Holy Days in a few weeks, each of us will be seeking forgiveness for all sorts of ways that we diminish ourselves and others. As a therapist, I’ve found that … Read More

By / September 19, 2008

During Selichot services this Saturday night and at the High Holy Days in a few weeks, each of us will be seeking forgiveness for all sorts of ways that we diminish ourselves and others.

As a therapist, I’ve found that one of the most subtle and frequent ways we "miss the mark" is by approval-seeking. 

Just for a moment, ask yourself:  During the past year did I exaggerate my own merits or goodness at any moments to convince someone I was more than I am and to win their approval?  Did I hold back from speaking up for something important because I didn’t want to lose the approval of certain individuals?  Did I pretend to be fine with something that was in need of repair because I didn’t want to sound "high maintenance?"  Did I stay stuck in an unhealthy relationship, a deadening job, a gossipy group, an abusive or toxic situation, or an unresolved conflict because I was afraid to make waves and risk someone thinking badly of me?

As infants, we desperately needed the approval and nurturance of our early caregivers.  Approval-seeking is one of the most important survival skills that keep us alive and well-fed early in life.  Not only do fragile infants and young children need to win the approval of their individual caregivers, but they also need to win the approval and support of their tribe, their clan, their posse in order to survive. 

Yet at a certain age, we start to learn new ways of standing up for ourselves and speaking truth to power.  We learn how to be different from the expectations of others and to find a creative, positive way to express our unique gifts and talents.  We learn how to say "No" or "Let me have some time to think it over," rather than jumping each time someone says jump in order that they will approve of us as a "good boy" or "good girl." 

It’s not easy to learn how to speak up for yourself or to say "No" or "Let me have some time to think it over."  Some do it with angry, clumsy outbursts, whininess, or self-righteous haughtiness.  Others rarely speak up and prefer to hold their feelings locked inside until these stored-up feelings slip out in sarcasm or nasty remarks.

At Selichot and during the weeks of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we don’t just seek forgiveness for diminishing ourselves and others because of our approval-seeking and other old habits–we also seek to change in a more holy direction, to improve, to stop doing what doesn’t work and to start trying out new ways that are more healthy and have greater integrity.

In my new book FITTING IN IS OVERRATED: The Survival Guide for Anyone Who Has Ever Felt Like an Outsider, I describe several creative and effective ways to speak up for what truly matters and to do so without going to the extremes of self-righteousness or excessive niceness.  In between the two extremes of angry outbursts or smiling phoniness, there is a beautiful middle way described in many Jewish teachings.  It requires treating yourself as a holy vessel of Divine light and also treating the person you are confronting as a holy vessel of Divine light.  If you fully respect your own diverse insights and the other person’s right to hold diverse insights, something wonderful often happens.  The two of you not only can hear each other better, but your mutually compassionate relationship and your respect for your profound differences becomes a holy experience in itself.

Several years ago during the week before the High Holy Days, I arranged to have lunch with someone with whom I had been having silent disagreements even though this person and I were still trying very hard to win each other’s approval.  I was nervous about this lunch, concerned that if it went badly this person would forever judge me in a negative light.  But I knew we had to stop walking on egg shells with each other and that we needed to have a more authentic way of dealing with our differences.

We began our lunch by telling each other three things that are wonderful and decent about the other person.  Then we began to brainstorm about how to stop getting on each other’s nerves about a particular clash that had been going on for several years. 

By the end of the lunch, the theme of our relationship was no longer about winning each other’s approval or fearing each other’s disapproval.  For the first time in years, we saw each other as equally opinionated and decent human beings, both of us caring deeply about a particular controversial question and having very different ways to answer that question.  For the first time in years, our hearts were open and we were no longer so tense and guarded toward each other.

Twisting yourself into a pretzel to win someone’s approval is not good for your body or your soul.  If you notice your stomach tightening, your teeth and jaw clenched,  your adrenalin rushing, or your thoughts racing when you are face-to-face with someone whose approval seems extremely important to you, maybe it’s time to ask yourself, "What if I stop giving so much power to this person and his or her judgment of me?  What if I envision both of us as holy vessels of Divine light?  We are different vessels and we might have different purposes and different tasks in this lifetime–but neither one of us is meant to spend any more time cringing in fear or going overboard to seek the other’s approval."

The month of Elul and the High Holy Days are a terrific opportunity to ask yourself if it’s time to stop diminishing yourself by putting someone else on a pedestal.  It’s an excellent time to explore with a therapist, a coach, a rabbi, friend, or loved one how to let go of the excessive need for approval-seeking and all the ways it is costing you emotionally, physically, and spiritually.  I hope you have some success in this worthy endeavor and I wish you a good and healthy L’shanah tovah!

(For more information on how to honor your own uniqueness and to overcome the habit of excessive approval-seeking, please see

Dr. Leonard Felder spent the last week guest blogging for Jewcy.  This is his farewell post.  Want more?  Check out his book, Fitting in Is Overrated.

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