Disapproval - or the threat of disapproval - never motivates anyone to do anything.
Yet it’s such a pervasive theme in our cultural ways of relating that when clients begin to see the disapproval flying toward, from, and around them, they are often awestruck.
“I never realized how often I use my disapproval or the threat of losing my approval to get my kids to do what I want!”
“Oh my God! At work, I am seeing how much my boss metes out approval here, withdraws approval there… It’s like this giant cattle prod electrified by judgment, and we all just let it herd us up!”
“You invited me to listen to myself more carefully when I speak to my husband… It’s embarrassing! I see how much I complain. I tell him how much I disapprove of what he did. Or I tell him how much more approval he’d get from me if he did something different. Or I ask for what I want him to do, but in a way that says I’m pissed he didn’t already do it. Yuck! I would just hate me if I were him!”
When I said, “do you hear the disapproval of yourself I hear there?” the client who'd given that last example laughed so hard she spit out the tea she was sipping. Even as we’re working on seeing and reducing the disapproval we inject into our relationships, it’s so tempting to use disapproval of ourselves to motivate us, too!
I do this. You do this. In the political environment, disapproval is rampant right now. And all it does, in any arena, is rouse defensiveness and counter-judgment.
Let me be absolutely clear: I flatly reject many of the policies of the current administration. And I will not stop fighting to hold them accountable for their falsehoods, collusion with a foreign government, and conflicts of interest. But all those are behaviors. I can point to the behaviors I want changed, their effect, and what it will provide for me and others when the behaviors change. But judging the human beings? Name-calling? Presuming intent? Construing agreement with the same policies I want changed as evidence of “stupidity” or other meaningless and/or able-ist pejoratives? Not helpful.
On the personal level, disapproval makes us feel less at-home. Less safe. Less able - to say nothing of being willing - to take risks. And all change is risk.
When we layer disapproval into a request, we reduce our listener’s ability to deliver what we desire.
And when we simply complain or express disapproval instead of making a request at all? We’re planting rat turds and expecting flowers to grow from them.
When we build our approving muscle, we unlock tremendous capacities for effecting change. No resistance needs to arise in the face of our desire or vision, because we’re not rejecting or assaulting the status quo. We’re not personalizing or judging what’s here. Approval is like warm sunlight. The possibility of the vision you’re putting forth, to yourself or to another, feels like cool water: refreshing and welcome, though it could just as well feel shocking and punitive in the icy context of disapproval.
Here’s what approval can look like:
With our lover: “MMm… I am loving your attention… I can feel you right here with me… Would you please move a little to the left?”
In response to political news: “I heard the committee voted not to investigate. Party unity helps get things done, AND I’m not going to stop asking my representatives for an investigation until we find out what happened."
With ourselves: “I can see how busy I was today, and I was such an earnest, hardworking sugarplum! Tomorrow, I’d love to do that AND create a break that will allow me to nourish my body and mind with a lunch that contains plants, too.”
Approval contains compassion. It understands.
Approval says “I know how it got to be this way.” Or “this makes sense.” It doesn’t require “this must never change” or even imply “I like this.” Approval simply refuses to resist, judge or disapprove. As a result, it’s sheer magic when we want something to be different or want someone to find the capacity to change or see our point of view.
As I began to practice approval as a foundational stance, I saw how much I feared that removing disapproval would convey - to both others and myself - acquiescence to things I didn’t desire. But when nudged further by my teachers, I entered this astonishing territory where I could work with things I absolutely hated… without disapproval. I faced things I NEEDED to see change, in myself, in others, in the world… And rather than disapproving of them, I poured my “oh, yes… Be just. like. that!” on them. “I see you. I see how you are. Yes! That’s what’s up. Absolutely.” The experience was something akin to the feeling inside my best moments with The Work of Byron Katie. She boils down the experience to the title of one of her books: “loving what is.” It’s like that: when I approve, I can love… Even get off on… what is here, even if I ever would have chosen it in a million years. Even if I’m devoted to its impeachment. I mean… er… Uh, eradication. Change. Evolution.
I know that sometimes appropriate anger arises and will be a part of our felt experience and perhaps part of our communication. But that can happen without disapproval, too. Anger is the physiological response to a limit being exceeded or a boundary being crossed: it’s self-protective and highly useful. It’s a signal to US that something is “too much” or “not right.” But acting it out - expressing it in behavior - is counterproductive because it compromises the clarity of the situation. Even talking a whole lot about the anger itself is often counterproductive, because it’s so triggering for others.
Rather than expressing disapproval or anger, most of the time, we can focus on conveying approval. When we want a change, we can add a request to that steady stream of approval.
Requests make it simple to respond and create mutual satisfaction. There’s a way to win. There’s a clear way to counter-offer. But just expressing a big intense feeling? Without the explicit request, “I just need you to hear my feelings and let me know you get it” or the listener having the skill to do that without being asked (I can count on one hand the people I know who can do this reliably, and I’m not one of them!), big intense feelings just elicit frustration and defensiveness.
Subtract: Disapproval. Shame. Name-calling. Resistance. Judgment. Free-floating negative emotion.
Add: Approval (even of things you don’t like!). In spades! Clear requests. Breath.
That's it. Niiiice.