It’s an often heard lament, especially from children. But the sentiment usually doesn’t fade with age. Instead it becomes more specific. Why didn’t I get the promotion? Why won’t he call me?
Our desire for approval (and fear of disapproval) is really a desire for social status.
True harm is failing to respond ethically
Epictetus was born a slave who learned at a young age that social status wasn’t up to him – and maybe not all it’s cracked up to be. Though freed later he didn’t try to climb the social ladder.
In his handbook (24.1), Epictetus points out that we “cannot be in a bad state as a result of someone else’s actions.” Other people may cause us pain, but that’s their shame. Only a poor response on our part brings us shame.
Besides, we don’t control whether someone likes us, praises us, agrees to a date, or makes a job offer. We do have some influence, but the final outcome isn’t up to us.
Self-worth can’t be given or taken away
If our self-worth is based on external validation and can be destroyed by other people’s disapproval then it’s actually we who are the destroyer. We’re destroying our power over something that’s under our control – which self-worth based on the kind of person we choose to be.
Is it better to be an honest and nurturing person who is despised by others, or to be a destructive person who nonetheless is admired by many? The dynamics of political power and wealth create dilemmas like this.
Epictetus warns against blaming others or blaming circumstances – or even blaming ourselves. Shit happens. Shit happens to us. But we don’t control other people or external circumstances. We can’t change the past. The only thing we can do is choose how we think about the situation, and what we choose to do about it. And it’s here that we can act ethically or egotistically.
Peace of mind
And that’s Epictetus’s formula for peace of mind. Let go of external circumstances that are beyond our control, and ask ourselves – before we act – what’s the right thing to do knowing that ultimately I must live with myself?
Doing the right thing has made some people into outcasts. For others acting ethically has led to a loss of reputation, or a loss of material goods that others wanted and pretended to admire us to obtain. But what does it say about us if we desire the approval of people like that?
The bigger picture
This doesn’t mean we should despise others or point a finger at them. After all, disapproval from others most often takes the form of moralistic finger pointing, so we’d be acting no differently from them.
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius emphasizes our shared humanity. Other people wrong us because of their errors of judgment or ignorance, but most things are minor in the grand scheme of things. Only we can harm ourselves by responding in kind. The best way to overcome the disapproval of others is not retaliation, but setting a better example.