Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The insidious effects of approval seeking

I was listening to a podcast on the Art of Manliness in which Brett McKay interviewed another favourite of mine, Jordan Harbinger of the Art of Charm.  The whole podcast is worth a listen but I was particularly struck with an issue that came up starting around 45:44.

The discussion is going to go to a really interesting observation about setting boundaries but it begins with giving generously. Jordan* has been pushing the notion of always be giving generously". What he means by that is that when you're networking you should simply give without establishing a covert contract whereby you expect a return for what you give. I'm pretty sure he gets this from Robert Glover's No More Mr. Nice Guy although he has done some development. Bret agrees with this but wonders about setting boundaries. He raises the issue of what he calls give-a-mouse-a-cookie syndrome.
"If you give a mouse a cookie, he's going to ask for glass of milk. If you give him a glass a milk, he's going to ask for a napkin."
Jordan takes that and uses it to zero in on something really important: the challenge of saying "no". He says it's about setting boundaries and not about saying no. We feel guilty about setting a boundary because we worry that other people are going to have a temper tantrum when they don't get what they want. Again, we're back to a principle originally set by Robert Glover: don't seek approval.

Think of what Jordan has said here. I've set a boundary. Is it a fair boundary? The honest answer to that is, "I think so but I also know I've set boundaries before that I realized were unworkable or unfair but seemed fair to me at the time." Certainty, in this context, is an emotion and not an epistemological statement. I need to be open to other people's arguments that my boundaries are unjust. What I don't need to be open to is other people's feelings about my boundaries.

This is even more complicated because we typically don't lay out our boundaries to people at the start of a relationship. Some people do but it ain't good reckoning. For example, a woman I knew in university used to break the flow of conversation with men as soon as it started to get flirtatious to run down a list of what she wouldn't do sexually. The effect of this was that normal men, the ones who would have treated her in the respectful way she thought, would quietly back away and the type of creeps she was hoping to avoid were the only ones who stuck around. Normal, healthy people rely on existing social conventions to get us by. At the same time, we should have boundaries that we don't normally tell others about but should spell out to ourselves. So what happens when it's time to enforce one of these boundaries and someone responds by having a temper tantrum?

If I am all about getting approval from others what is going to happen is that I'm going to cave completely. And I won't cave because they have advanced a convincing argument that my boundary is unwarranted but because I need their approval.

This is also important when people seek apologies or when you seek forgiveness. If I think that the measure of whether I've responded adequately is the other person's emotional state I'm not seeking to apologize and make redress so much as I am seeking their approval. And that (another insight of Robert Glover's) that is to give away my power. What I should be doing is deciding what is right and doing it. What I am actually doing is giving another person the power to decide what is enough.

* I listen to these guys so often I feel like I'm on a first-name basis even though I don't know them.


  1. I'm not sure that, when it comes to a simple apology, it's necessary to worry that responding to a person's emotional state is tantamount to slavishly seeking approval. When I see that I have upset someone, saying "sorry" is a sincere expression of regret that is experienced instantaneously, and not "cripes, I've really put my foot in it".

    (That's excluding the nervous tic ersatz apologies I issue when I catch someone's gaze in the street or have to engage in any negotiation of personal space.)

    Just yesterday I was in a situation where a person deliberately threw away a precious memento, and I managed to choke through the lump in my throat that I was deeply disappointed. They did not apologise, and it struck me as quite unusual. This is not because it's unusual not to want my approval (she's my mother in law, what does she want with my approval?), but because it's unusual not to feel a sharp pang of sympathy and regret when you realise your actions have brought about distress or deep disappointment.

    1. I'm going on very little evidence here and I'm not a therapist. That said, my first thought is that you describe your mother in law doing something abusive (deliberately throwing away a precious memento) and then showing no concern for your feelings.

      What if I flip the question around? Are you seeking someone's approval here? If people throw away my precious mementos I break off relations with them. Don't tell me the answer but why didn't you give your mother in law a severe dressing down telling her that you expected full redress for her cruel actions and that she had damn well better not pull any crap like that again or you'd break off relations? Because that is the way we'd respond to anyone who wasn't a mother in law.

      I suspect the problem here is that your not certain your spouse would be on board with that. Your mother in law acted in an abusive manner. When you called her on it, she only confirmed that she only confirmed that she has no respect for you by not apologizing.

      I disagree with your claim that "it's unusual not to feel a sharp pang of sympathy and regret when you realise your actions have brought about distress or deep disappointment." In my experience, people do that all the time. When I get angry at someone I damn well want to see them distressed. I wasn't there but, from your description anyway, I'm reading an account of a woman who holds you in contempt throwing her weight around and planning to keep doing so because you're just a worm in her eyes.

  2. Perhaps that should be "inadvertent actions". Yes, when we rage at someone (not something I'm in the habit of doing), we probably intend to seriously ruffle feathers.

    If we recognise that we have inadvertently caused suffering, then it is possible to offer a sincere and unreserved apology without engaging in approval-seeking.

    I'm not going to psychoanalyse the perpetrator in my example- I mentioned it because it served to provide evidence for the general rule by exemplifying the exception. As far as I'm aware, I'm not regarded as a worm - I'm just the victim of a compulsion to tidy up.

    1. Interesting. Thank you for your further thoughts.

      First of all, I should say that your further specification of your mother in laws actions as compulsive tidying up puts a different complexion on the interaction you described. Her judgment of you is obviously not nearly so harsh as I had imagined it to be. That said, her lack of remorse suggests to me that she believes that your concern for this memento is misplaced.

      What you have said here is very interesting and has inspired a much longer answer from me that I cannot publish here because it exceeds the character limit for comments. I'll put it in a new post above.