Make self-awareness an ongoing mission

I had exactly 75 cents to spend a week’s allowance. I checked the pocket of my jeans again to ensure the quarters were still there.

“As much as we thirst for approval, we dread condemnation.” — Hans Selye, Canadian endocrinologist noted for his work on stress

I had exactly 75 cents to spend a week’s allowance.

I checked the pocket of my jeans again to ensure the quarters were still there.

I was 12 years old, standing outside the Corner Café — the hub of activity (if you exclude the lumberyard) in the small town where I went to school.

This was my declaration of independence.

I was striking off on my own — buying my own lunch.

I did, however, need a letter from my mother to allow me off the school grounds.

The café was family run. “Mrs. B” was the best cook in the county (or so I thought). No one made better fries with gravy — that’s what I had in mind this day.

I pushed open the door and a bell tinkled overhead. Inside, the place was packed. I noticed group of older boys — jocks from school — crammed into a booth in the far corner. I sat down on one of the chrome stools by the side counter.

Mrs. B was busy in the kitchen.

The lone waitress was running a marathon between the booths, tables and pass-off window. I didn’t mind. I had all lunch hour.

It was then I heard my name being called.

I looked around saw one of the jocks in the far booth waving at me. It was Fred.

He was cool, tough and popular — everything I wasn’t. I pointed to myself and he nodded.

I looked around then got up from my stool and walked over.

“Shove over,” ordered Fred. “Make room for our friend, Murray.”

The boys obliged and I sat down next to him.

Right about then the waitress showed up.

“What are we having?” asked Fred, putting his hand on my shoulder.

I told the waitress that I would like an order of fries with gravy and a Coke.

“Good choice,” declared Fred.

He made a circle gesture with his finger to include the group. The waitress wrote down the order then walked away.

I had never been one of the cool kids so it felt great to be sitting with Fred and the jocks. I felt cool, important — accepted.

Seeking approval is at the foundation of most of our early experiences in life.

As children, our sense of self and perceived value as a human being is derived directly from the adults in our lives — in particular, our parents. Of course, siblings, peers and teachers also play huge roles. Most of us carry this need for approval and acceptance into our adult lives where we recreate parental symbols in the form of employers, friends, neighbours, acquaintances and especially spouses. I had spent a great deal of my life in a desperate search for approval and acceptance.

Without awareness, my need robbed me of a sense of self and personal value.

When acceptance and validation become our primary motivating force, we are likely to make poor choices.

We are also more inclined to feel anger or resentment toward those parental symbols that fail to recognize or validate us.

It should be obvious (though often is not) that we are seeking what we desire in the wrong place — we are looking outside of ourselves for what can only be found within.

Each time we make our happiness and sense of self-worth dependent upon the approval or acceptance of others, we move further away from our authentic self.

How can we stop seeking approval? The answer is both simple and complex at the same time. Simple because we only need approval from one person: ourselves.

Complex because we are often our own worst critic.

The only true way to stop is through self-awareness, that is, to become consciously aware of those times we find ourselves desiring or seeking approval. Becoming self-aware is an ongoing process.

We can start by making it a priority to get to know who we are — to honestly appraise our dreams, achievements, strengths and weaknesses. To read, watch, listen, ask, examine, challenge, share — make self-awareness an ongoing mission.

I was taking a swig of my Coke when the waitress came by. The boys had left a few minutes early after gobbling down the fries with gravy and guzzling the Cokes.

She handed me a small piece of yellow paper. On it were the words “fries with gravy and Cokes 5 — $3.75.”

I felt foolish and frightened when it suddenly occurred to me that my “friends” had stuck me with the bill.

“I only have 75 cents,” I explained.

The waitress stood there for a moment then marched off. I saw her talk to Mrs. B. I wanted to leave my 75 cents on the table and bolt but I didn’t. Mrs. B came over to my table.

“Did you offer to pay for those boys?” she asked.

I couldn’t find my voice so I just shook my head from side to side.

Mrs. B pulled a booklet from her apron pocket and wrote something on a yellow piece of paper.

She placed it face down on the table then gathered up the plates and bottles. When she walked away, I turned it over. The bill read “fries with gravy and Coke 1 — 75 cents.”

“Being dependent on approval,” wrote American sociologist Martha Beck, “so dependent that we barter away all our time, energy, and personal preferences to get it, ruins lives.”

I recognize now that it was my naivety and need for approval and acceptance that placed me in the untenable situations in the café and countless others in the years that followed.

Constantly seeking approval can have far-reaching effects on our happiness and enjoyment of life.

It took me years to understand that concept and more years still to finally let my need go.

Murray Fuhrer is a local self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca