Emotional Levers: Approval

We all want to be liked and respected. It’s perfectly natural to want to please and impress other people. In fact, it’s a good thing. Just picture a world where no one cared about anyone else’s opinion!

Like most human traits, the yearning for approval has both a light side and a dark side. It’s important to understand the difference because the pleasure we receive from approval can be a powerful motivating force.

My sister Carol experienced this first hand. She heard about a business opportunity with a direct-sales company and visited one of their weekly meetings. The group’s leader seemed to sense a special potential in her. He liked one of Carol’s comments and repeated it to the whole group. He kept casting respectful glances in her direction and, after the meeting, he asked Carol about her background and her career goals. His thoughtful nods said that he understood and agreed with her ideas. Carol enjoyed the meeting so much that she returned a second time. Again she felt good vibes. It seemed that the leader thought she was smart and gifted. It wasn’t long before she signed on the dotted line to purchase the company’s products and resell them to her friends and family. She worked hard at her new business, eager to live up to the leader’s confidence in her. The path to success included recruiting new members into the company, so Carol invited our mother to attend a meeting and try it out. Mother’s first visit was an eye-opening experience. The leader gave Mother exactly the same treatment he had given Carol at her first meeting: the respectful glances, the public recognition of her wise comments, the thoughtful questions about her history and her goals. That’s when Carol understood that the man’s seeming recognition of her special abilities was a well-rehearsed act. Throughout Carol’s time with the company, the pattern was repeated. Visitors and new members always received extra attention and praise. It made perfect sense. The multilevel-marketing company rewarded the leader financially for signing up new members.

Was this man an evil charlatan, or a gifted motivator helping people reach their full potential? Probably a mixture of both. Few human interactions are free of self-interest, and most interactions also contain seeds of kindness. That’s why manipulation through approval is so confusing. The good and the bad are jumbled together. How can we sort it out?

In his chapter about the sin of pride, C.S. Lewis described both the good and bad sides of approval seeking:

Pleasure in being praised is not Pride. The child who is patted on the back for doing a lesson well, the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says, ‘Well done,’ are pleased and ought to be. For here the pleasure lies not in what you are but in the fact that you have pleased someone you wanted (and rightly wanted) to please. The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, ‘I have pleased him; all is well,’ to thinking, ‘What a fine person I must be to have done it.’ The more you delight in yourself and the less you delight in the praise, the worse you are becoming. When you delight wholly in yourself and do not care about the praise at all, you have reached the bottom. That is why vanity, though it is the sort of Pride which shows most on the surface, is really the least bad and most pardonable sort. The vain person wants praise, applause, admiration, too much and is always angling for it. It is a fault, but a child-like and even (in an odd way) a humble fault. It shows that you are not yet completely contented with your own admiration. You value other people enough to want them to look at you. You are, in fact, still human. The real black, diabolical Pride, comes when you look down on others so much that you do not care what they think of you. Of course, it is very right, and often our duty, not to care what people think of us, if we do so for the right reason; namely, because we care so incomparably more what God thinks.

(Mere Christianity, Chapter 8)

“… because we care so incomparably more what God thinks.” That’s the key. God’s evaluation matters most. We need to be aware of our motives and make sure we do things for the right reasons. Do I want to please someone because it makes me feel good? Is that the only reason? Am I doing what’s really best for the other person? Am I following God’s plan for my life, or am I taking a detour because I’m afraid someone will disapprove?

Earning respect from others can be a worthy goal, if they are people who hold God’s laws in high esteem. Their evaluation of our behavior can help us stay on the straight and narrow. The approval of others is an essential guide to our flawed judgement. Each of us has our blind spots. We need other people to hold us accountable.

The craving for approval is a two-edged sword. Handled wisely, it can be an aid to virtue, but when approval-seeking becomes an end in itself, it corrupts our judgement and opens the door to terrible mistakes. Being admired feels good, but feeling good should not be our main goal. Pleasing God is our highest purpose. All other pursuits should be subject to it. Even if our human companions don’t understand or approve of our doing what we know is right, we still have to do the right thing.

We need to watch ourselves, not only as possible victims of manipulation, but also as potential manipulators. We influence the people around us whether we intend to or not. A nod and a smile can speak volumes. So can averted eyes and an awkward silence. Let’s make sure that our influence is used for good.

To avoid leading others astray, as well as to protect ourselves from manipulation, we need to seek the mind of God and ask Him to train us in wisdom. We do well to search out godly people to be our friends and mentors. We do well to study the scriptures and the writings of wise authors. We do well to immerse ourselves in prayer, asking for guidance and paying attention to the answers. We do well to discipline our inner thoughts, training ourselves to value goodness. As the apostle Paul said:

Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things. (Phillipians 4:8, World English Bible)