How I Learned, at 29, to Finally Let Go of My Need For Approval
August 17, 2018
The Chinese have a phrase for obeying your parents: filial piety.
If you’re wondering what this looks like, you can catch the latest Hollywood film, Crazy Rich Asians. It’s a movie entirely about an Asian mother who disapproves of her son’s girlfriend.
Granted, my Chinese family isn’t as crazy (or rich), but as a daughter of two immigrant parents, I can definitely relate to the pressures that both the protagonists felt from their families in the movie.
Growing up, I was told from a very young age that my responsibilities in life are to get good grades, find a good job, get married, and have kids. And while I did get the good grades, I struggled with everything else.
I couldn’t agree with my parents on what jobs to get, who to date, or even where to live.
We bickered over my life choices constantly and while I felt I was trying my best to please them, they felt I wasn’t trying hard enough.
Slowly, the guilt and shame from not meeting my parents’ expectations started to consume me. And when I couldn’t take it any longer, I quit my job and went traveling.
Not surprisingly, my parents didn’t approve—but I decided to go anyway because I felt it was the right thing to do for myself.
In the end, this trip ended up becoming the start of a lifelong journey to learning to let go of my parent’s expectations.
I know I'm not alone in going through this experience—maybe you've yearned for approval from your parents, too, or a partner, friend, sibling, boss. It’s a human thing to want. “Most of us like to have the approval of others, especially of those whose judgment we respect,” Elliot Cohen, Ph.D., explains on Psychology Today.
But when we let our need for approval influence our worth and our life direction, it can mess with our sense of happiness and bring on “relentless anxiety,” Cohen says.
The good news: We can still yearn for approval but be OK without it. “You can still prefer to have the approval of others, and feel good when you get it. But you can also feel like a worthy person when you don’t get it,” he says.
Here’s what I learned in my journey to let go of my parent’s approval:
1. Unchain Your Mind First
Have you ever heard of the “Baby Elephant Chain” story? It’s about how when baby elephants are chained up for too long, they won’t leave as adults even when you let them go.
Human minds work the same way. Parents make decisions for their children when they’re young. But sometimes, both the child and the parent have trouble letting this power dynamic go. The parent wants to continue making decisions for the child and the child does know how to take the power back without hurting their parents. Thus, the child believes he or she has chains on.
If you feel there is someone in your life holding you back, whether it’s a spouse, a family member, or a friend, see if you've mentally created chains between you and that person. Ask yourself: how can you break those chains and what would the benefits be?
2. Reasses the Situation
Two years ago, when I told my parents I was going to move across the country, they didn’t want to let me go because they said there would be no one around to translate for them.
Growing up, my brother and I translated everything for our parents because they never found the time to learn English. I understood this as part of my responsibilities but also felt my parents could have utilized the resources around them first.
That’s when I realized I’ve been enabling my own parents. Once I moved and came back, I noticed my parent’s English improved.
Are you enabling someone in your life who might be more capable than you think? If so, you might be preventing yourself and them from growing.
3. Recognize Unkind Behaviors
Whenever I misbehaved as a child, my father would raise his voice and say hurtful things to me to try to get me to stop.
I had no idea this was a form of emotional abuse until my therapist pointed it out and it’s not healthy. It’s normal for people to yell to express their emotions but it’s not normal for them to yell in order to intimidate and control what they do.
If you share your ideas with someone whose opinion you respect a lot and all they do is dismiss, criticize, or intimidate you, that’s a sign of an unhealthy behavior.
4. Model the Behavior You Wish to See
If you want your parents to stop a certain behavior, such as yelling at you, you must stop first.
It takes a lot of self-control and practice, but whenever I catch myself getting frustrated with my parents, I try to take a few steps back and breath before I proceed. I would think about what I’m going to say and how I can say it in the most loving way. Once my parents saw this, they also let their guard down and were more willing to have discussions with me instead of screaming matches.
Practice pausing and breathing between sentences the next time you get frustrated speaking with someone. Overtime, you’ll get better at it and the other person will notice your efforts and try to match your tone.
5. Accept That Someone Might Never Approve
It used to bother me a lot that my parents didn’t understand my lifestyle or my choices, and I felt like it was my job to try to convince them.
But when someone told me, “They might never understand,” the truth hit me like a brick. They were right. My parents might never understand and if I keep waiting, my dreams might also never happen.
Self-help author, Mark Manson, once wrote, ”We don’t always control what happens to us. But we always control how we interpret what happens to us, as well as how we respond.”
If someone doesn't understand you or believe in you, it’s their choice—but if you keep waiting for their approval, it’s your choice. If there is something you truly want to go after, you have to be able to accept the fact that some people might never understand it—and that’s OK.
There are moments when I still doubt my decisions, but when I look back at everything I’ve accomplished and how much happier, loving, and kind I’ve become, I know I’m on the right path.
At age 29, I finally understand that disagreeing with your parents does not make you a bad person or a terrible daughter—it simply makes you human.