the dangers of disapproval

Here are some examples of the kind of disapproval I'm talking about today:

I am so disappointed in you.

You could have done better than that.

I expected more from you.

You should know better.

You didn't even try.

What's the matter with you?

How could you?

This might sound radical, but I propose that disapproval does much more harm to the one who issues it than the target.

Why? If we look underneath the urge to express disapproval, we find the intention to shame, harm, or control the target in some way, in the hope that we ourselves will feel better.

At first blush, we may deny this. We may say we are acting out of concern for the well being of the other person. But if we sit with it a while, and really look inside, we may find less altruistic motives underneath this. What have we truly accomplished by "contributing to the well being of others"? We feel worthy, valuable, and helpful. It's all about us. We want to feel like good people. No crime there.

But shaming or manipulating others into doing what makes us feel good is a short term solution at best. Our contentment is doomed to unravel as soon as the other person's autonomy wakes up again.

Using disapproval to control someone else's behavior hurts us. Before we can judge another, those standards and expectations must pass through our own systems, and they leave behind residual standards that we ourselves cannot meet all the time. When we measure ourselves with the same yardstick that we use to measure others, we will inevitably come up short at some point. We are only human, after all. We have bad days and bad moods; our thinking gets muddled up sometimes.

Disapproval also disempowers us by perpetuating the illusion that we can't feel better until something or someone 'out there' changes. It hands control of our inner experience to another, and says "You are responsible for my feelings. I can't feel better until you change." That's a lie. There are lots of ways to feel better that have nothing to do with anyone else.

Plus, disapproval sets up a dynamic of separation from each other. It's fundamentally disconnecting. We must distance someone in order to judge them ... must believe that they are different from us. That kind of separation hurts, every time. Understanding heals. Compassion connects.

Disapproval also steps on our buzz. Can't feel disapproval and joy at the same time. They are on different channels. Personally, I prefer to stay tuned to the fun stuff.

Oh, and did I mention that disapproval doesn't even work? Research has shown that the most effective way to support change is to express understanding of the inner conflict underlying the choice of behavior: You really planned on skipping dessert tonight, but when they brought out that birthday cake, you thought it would be rude to refuse a piece. Or You didn't want to hit your baby brother, but you felt so frustrated that he wasn't listening to your words that you couldn't think of any other way to tell him to back off.

When people feel that their conflicting good intentions are acknowledged in this way, a safe space opens up for them to examine other options. They may ask themselves What can I do differently if that happens again? They may even ask for your help or input. I'll write more about this in another post.

So what's an alternative to expressing disapproval? Accept people as they are, accept circumstances and events as they happen, and then make a choice about how you will relate to them. You may choose to walk away. You may express empathy for their conflicting good intentions. You may communicate your opinion or preference. You may simply love yourself and say nothing.

And realize that unless you can do those things with an open heart, while feeling love and acceptance of both yourself and the other person, it's the equivalent of drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

What if you happen to be the target of someone's disapproval? No big deal. Treat it as information to investigate internally. Am I drinking too much? Was I listening? Am I in someone else's business? Did I eat more than I was hungry for? Do I have trouble saying no?

There are no right or wrong answers. The point is just to use their input to increase your self-awareness. Having done so, you can then interact with the disapproval from a different place -- not defensively, not with a counter attack in which you point out the other person's failings -- but with gratitude. Thanks for sharing your opinion with me! I'll check that out and see what resonates with me. I'm grateful to know more about what is important to you.

Then let it go. No need to let someone else's control issues clutter up your day!