Don’t we all love a good complement? I know I do. Who doesn’t deep down enjoy seeing themselves in a shiny positive mirror? Sometimes, when I receive approval, it feels like I just shot up on a drug. Yeah! Then I run the compliment over in my head. Over and over, in fact. Somehow, in giving the other person the power over my sense of worth, for the moment I feel good about myself through this validation. Like I just ate a yummy dessert.

And for me, quite frankly, it’s a slippery slope. Because what happens when I don’t get this approval? What happens when I sense that people don’t appreciate me? Do I go into withdrawal? Kind of. Do I then seek their approval? Do I begin to crash and doubt myself?

In one of my favorite books, Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen M.D., she says:

“The life in us is diminished by judgment far more frequently than by disease. Our own self-judgment or the judgment of other people can stifle our life force, its spontaneity and natural expression. Unfortunately, judgment is commonplace. It is as rare to find someone who loves us as we are as it is to find someone who loves themselves whole.

Judgment does not only take the form of criticism.  Approval is also a form of judgment. When we approve of people, we sit in judgment of them as surely as when we criticize them. Positive judgment hurts less acutely than criticism, but it’s judgment all the same and we are harmed in far more subtle ways. To seek approval is to have no resting place, no sanctuary.”

I met this passage over twenty years ago and it reminded me of something my great mentor, Dr. Robert Breen, taught me at Northwestern. I was 18, and walked into his class on the first day, and he immediately said to us, “In this class and in all my classes, we will never use evaluative criticism. We will never say ‘this is good or this bad, great or awful.’ Who cares about those kinds of words? What does it matter that you have decided to approve or disapprove of something? What can the person receiving your assessment possibly learn from your rating of them? And what can you possibly learn about yourself and how you formulated your judgment?” And he was unrelenting in holding us to this rule.

Now, descriptive criticism was another story. We could give feedback as if we were a camera noticing something, as neutrally and objectively as possible. We could also acknowledge our subjectivity by focusing on our own emotional experience, declaring how we felt, what came up for us personally, without giving a thumbs up or thumbs down. It was amazing how much more we learned with this way of communicating. AND… it was amazing how hard it was to stick to his directive.

By removing evaluative criticism, we all developed a more articulate voice and clearer discernment. As a recipient of this kind of feedback we felt safer and more able to find our own ways toward improving our work. This changed my life and I have incorporated it into all my facilitations. It is still difficult to adhere to this principle after all these years. It requires effort, care and mindfulness. And for me, it’s worth it.

Recently, I heard don Miguel Ruiz, Jr., author, speak at a shamanic gathering. He talked about how we domesticate our children, training them through approval and disapproval, to become who we want them to become. Don’t we all want to become more than a domesticated pet of our parents and society? And yet, on some level, unfortunately, we need to be. This is yet another example of how opposites in life exist simultaneously. We may want our children to be free to be their authentic selves and we may also want them to succeed in a world of aspirations and conditioning.

I sent my son to a Montessori school because they didn’t give grades. Their philosophy was to encourage the students to assess their own learning, to get in touch with what the kids felt about their own work. Dr. Breen was still whispering in my ears as I chose the kind of education for my son. I knew he was right. How I perceive myself and my own work, how I stretch myself and affirm myself, is what is most important.

Hey, I love to give a genuine compliment, just as another part of me loves to receive one. It makes me feel good in the moment, both ways. I have not fully broken my habit as The Encourager even after all these years of being aware of its fallout. I do realize that in giving my approval I unconsciously set myself just slightly above the person I am complimenting. I must remind myself of this many times.

Why am I offering this kind of feedback at this moment? For the other person – or really for me? If I can own that it is primarily for me, that’s what truly matters. If I am mindful enough to say to the person, “This is my experience of what you have offered, this is how I felt, (in as descriptive a way as possible,) and I extend my appreciation of that to them, for me, then I’m clear. Yes, for me! In a sense, in this moment, I am actually drawing the focus to myself and away from them. And that is perfectly ok, and definitely human. It’s just that I would like to be aware of that. I can give myself this joyous moment, (why not?) and let it be all about me and my subjective experience, while not fooling myself that it is for them.

And there is yet another piece I continue to work on; if approval comes my way, can I be gracious yet conscious that what the other person is saying to me is more about them than about me? They are revealing themselves to me, (how lovely indeed) in both the ways we resonate with each other and the ways we don’t. Can I be curious about this as I receive their opinion humbly into my heart while not allowing my own sense of worth to depend upon it? Apparently, I will be working on this for my lifetime, because I have just spent 1079 words writing about it.