This is the second article in a new series called Lessons from the Ladder. I get the title of this series from my original article called Ten Steps Out of Relationship Hell in which I write about the red hot ladder rungs we have to climb if we want to get out of the relationship pit we’ve been stuck in for so long. The first lesson is “Advocate for Yourself.” Today, I’d like to talk about tolerating the disapproval of people.
When someone disapproves of us or something we did or said, it’s not comfortable, is it? It feels icky. We feel small, like this woman in the picture hiding in a box. To tolerate the disapproval of others doesn’t mean we don’t feel bad about it. Of course we feel bad about it. Nobody likes to be scolded, yelled at, told they are stupid or ridiculous or misinformed or ignorant. Negative feedback is always going to sting. Abusive feedback is always going to feel even worse.
The problem for some of us is that when someone disapproves of us, it not only hurts, but we feel that we need to change something about ourselves or about what we believe in order to gain their approval. Another problem is that instead of feeling a sting when someone disapproves, many of us feel an overwhelming and even debilitating sense of shame that paralyzes us in different ways.
If this is something you struggle with, I want you to read this article (and another one like it HERE), because I think there is an opportunity for you to grow in this skill of tolerating disapproval to the point where, yes – it stings, but it doesn’t stop you from being YOU and doing YOU.
My Own Story
I was always a “good girl.” I followed all the rules including rules that hadn’t even been created yet. I thought everything was either good or bad, and I was definitely on the side of GOOD. I was passionate about everything I believed, and I gave everything I did my 300%. My teachers enjoyed me, and I worked hard to get mostly A’s. But I remember one day some bullies in the lunch room told the crabby lunch lady that I said a swear word. (Need I point out that these same bullies were notorious for swearing themselves.)
Now, while I do let one rip here and there as an adult—as a child, I would rather have been thrown into a pit of snakes than spoken a swear word. Swearing was definitely very, very BAD in my book. But the bullies knew the crabby lunch lady didn’t know me very well and wouldn’t know fact from fiction. (They learned this in bully school. “How to Be a Bully 101.” It’s also taught in a more advanced Bully class entitled “How to Use Projection to Stay Undercover.“)
The crabby lunch lady looked at me with a curled lip of disgust and told me to take my lunch tray and sit on the floor facing the nearby wall. I remember going to sit down, my face hot with shame as I struggled to choke back tears of mortification. I can still see the yellow lighting of that room. I can hear the kids snickering. I can smell the soggy sausage pizza. I can see the crabby lunch lady’s face as clearly as if it just happened. I don’t remember a whole lot of details about my childhood, but I remember those fifteen minutes.
That night I drew a pretty picture and wrote “Have a great day” to the lunch lady and gave it to her the next day. She smiled at me. I don’t think I ever saw her smile before or after that moment. But I felt much better. I had won her approval back, and that was my goal. I wanted everyone to love me. Even the crabby lunch lady.
Fast forward 40 years, and the bully is my “godly” husband, and the crabby lunch lady is my “godly” church elders. Only this time, instead of 15 minutes of shame against a wall, my entire life is on the line. Why? Because if I’m right, that makes them wrong, and bullies are never wrong. Ever. EVER.
Back in third grade I knew who the bad guys were. It was very clear to me. But things got a bit fuzzy as I grew up, because when I saw sneaky bully behavior from “godly” folks and had the insane audacity to call it out, I was told, “That’s NOT sneaky bully behavior – that’s GODLY behavior. When you ASSUME that it is sneaky bad behavior, you are actually performing the REAL sneaky bad behavior.”
After half a lifetime of that kind of gaslighting, I was almost convinced I must be the lunatic. And I started to act like one sometimes. You know? Have you ever seen a movie where one of the characters knows something, but they can’t seem to convince anyone else, so they get a little wacky in their desperation to help others see the reality and gravity of the situation? THE ZOMBIES ARE COMING! FOR REALZ! Well, that’s how I felt. I know that’s how some of you feel too.
(You are not crazy, by the way. I believe you.)
An interesting phenomenon occurs when you believe that someone needs to believe you, and it’s your job to convince them. The more you work to convince them, the less they believe you. It’s kind of donkey-style behavior, but whatever. That’s the way it is.
But here’s the other thing I noticed. There were several other people I told outside of my religious circles, and they did believe me. I didn’t have to argue or write up lengthy descriptions or try to prove I wasn’t lying. These were people who had known me my whole life. They knew my character. They trusted me. Plus – BONUS: they didn’t have an invested interest in keeping me, as a woman of faith, in a chronic state of powerlessness and confusion. You know. The way the devil does.
Still. STILL. I thought I needed the permission and approval of my religious authorities before I made any decisions for my future. Religious authorities who had just met me and knew nothing more about me other than what my abusive husband told them (hello) and what they observed of me waving my hands and choking to death and basically freaking out in total fear of losing everything including my kids and my sanity. And also their approval.
Yeah, I wasn’t super good at tolerating disapproval. Eventually I had no choice. It was either buckle under their religious pressure and follow their orders or get excommunicated (more about what ultimately happened to me HERE). You know what finally convinced me that it would be an honor to be excommunicated by these men? Their behavior wasn’t like Jesus Christ. They lied. They ignored. They demeaned. They mocked. They spoke words that didn’t match their behavior. And they sided with the devil in my life. They reminded me of the Pharisees, laying heavy burdens on others (particularly women), making much of the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of love.
Clanging gongs and noise cymbals.
I asked myself, “Why, oh why do you care so much what these power-over men think of you? They are unable to trust the Holy Spirit to work in your life. They grasp to exercise power-over others, and they gnash their teeth when others slip away. This is not the spirit of Jesus. This is the spirit of anti-Jesus. Who are you loyal to, anyway?”
Did I really want these people to be my people? I decided that no, I did not.
The rest is history, and I’ve happily moved on. So that’s my story. Now let’s break this down:
What Does it Mean—to Tolerate Disapproval?
According to the EQ Edge, there are fifteen emotional intelligence skills. One of those skills is INDEPENDENCE. Here is the author’s definition of independence:
Independence is the ability to be self-directed and self-controlled in your thinking and actions and to be free of emotional dependency. Independent people are self-reliant in planning and making important decisions. They can stand on their own two feet. They may, however, seek and consider other people’s opinions before making the right decision for themselves in the end; consulting others is not necessarily a sign of dependency. Independent people are able to function autonomously—they avoid clinging to others in order to satisfy their emotional needs. The ability to be independent rests on one’s degree of self-confidence and inner strength, and the desire to meet expectations and obligations without becoming a slave to them.
It means taking charge of your own life, being your own person, and seeking your own direction. People who crave acceptance at any cost and are scared stiff of giving the slightest offense have grave difficulty exercising independence. You must be prepared to adopt a course of action, having first justified it in your own mind, then deal with the possibility that other people will disagree with you. So be it. You must also respect their need for independence, and give them the same amount of rope.
Tolerating disapproval is an adulting skill. Women of faith, in particular, struggle with this because we’ve been brainwashed to believe that good Christian women need to be nice, quiet, peace-keepers. Women need to let men make the decisions for them. Women are glorified children, able to take care of other children, make food, and clean house, but otherwise not able to handle decision making responsibilities beyond that sphere.
Women are not allowed to be independent.
Let me be clear: independence in this context is NOT doing whatever you want without regard to the people you are in community with. It isn’t walking all over others in order to do what is best for you, alone. Independence is simply having healthy boundaries. It’s understanding what is your responsibility and what is someone else’s responsibility—and it’s taking responsibility for YOU. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your gender is. If you are an adult, it’s important to develop this emotional intelligence skill as well as model it for your children and grandchildren.
There may be people in your life who don’t want you to grow up. They have an invested interest in keeping you under their control. They want to make decisions on your behalf. They want to be the moral authority in your life. They want to call the shots. They need to work on the emotional intelligence skill of INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS (characterized by the ability to both give and take). They need to work on letting go of their power and control over others and respect the boundaries and autonomy of others as separate human beings from them.
But while they are working on that (we can only hope – but that’s their business), YOU can be working on taking back control and responsibility of YOUR life. That’s YOUR business.
When you are first attempting to set healthy boundaries and take back responsibility for the life God gave to you, there will be many people who disapprove of your movement in this direction. You will either learn how to tolerate (make friends with) this uncomfortable treatment, learning how to sit with it and let it run its course, or you will buckle under their pressure and fall back under their power and control over your life.
Why Does Disapproval Feel So Painful?
I’ve been watching different shows on Netflix recently that delve into the psyche’s of the characters involved: Bate’s Motel, Maniac, and Mindhunters. One of the common threads I’ve noticed is that every dysfunctional character—and even those who are just average folks—have experienced rejection and shame during their formative years. So instead of being comfortable in their own skin, they split into two different “selfs.” One is their ideal self—a perfect, right, smart, savvy self who is accepted by others, and the other one is their “bad” self—ugly, makes mistakes, is stupid and wrong and rejected by others.
Some are so filled with shame and pain and deep rage that they kill others who threaten to expose their “bad” self. Others just fall into depression and lose all interest in living.
Because this world is desperately broken, most of us grew up in imperfect homes. Maybe we grew up always feeling like we never quite measured up, so we had to do whatever we could to win the approval and acceptance of our parents or our peers. Maybe we were shamed when we expressed a need or a hurt, so we learned that to have needs or to feel pain made us bad. This, in turn, caused us to hide our real self and put forward a pretend self that others would approve of.
Every human being is wired with a need for connection. A need to belong. If our family or religious group threatens to disconnect from us, we can feel threatened in the very core of our being. We either try to be perfect and maintain control over our environment and the people in our lives, or we just give up and float down the river, letting others control us. Or maybe we let drugs, food, alcohol, or sex control us.
Either way, we lose ourselves. And that’s not really living, right?
I remember reading a book many years ago called When People are Big and God is Small by Ed Welch. I knew I had a problem with that. Some of you might remember when my blog was called Visionary Womanhood, and I wrote a lot about Max Lucado’s Wemmicks—the little wooden folks who lived in Wemmickville beneath the loving watch of their creator, the Woodcarver.
I thought these stories helped me keep “people” and “God” in perspective, but I still didn’t fully grasp just how deep my problem was. I could intellectually see it, and I wanted to fix it. I loved Jesus. I wanted to ONLY care what He thought. But I didn’t know how to connect what I knew in my head with what I really, truly understood in my heart. Plus, I was still under the influence of teachers who told me what God wanted was what THEY SAID He wanted. (So convenient for these power-hungry folks. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just tell THEM that God was going to tell you what was best for them from now on? Yeah, I don’t think that would go over very well. But insanely enough, they cannot understand how the same treatment of you is also out of line. I don’t get it. Do you? Power-over is cray cray, people. Think Hitler and Stalin for illustrations of how power-over gets taken to its logical conclusion.)
The more shame we have deep inside—shame we have not dealt with—the more painful disapproval will be. The less we will be able to handle it. Conversely, if we have done some work in dealing with the shame from our past, we will experience disapproval as a blip on the radar screen, but not a debilitating experience that triggers a bunch of painful shame.
So disapproval feels more painful the greater our inner shame. We will get back to how to strike a blow at this root of shame in a minute.
What Happens When We are Unable to Tolerate Disapproval?
- If we cannot handle the pain when a person or a group of people disapproves of us, we will end up making decisions out of a strong desire to avoid this pain, and that’s not a healthy, responsible way to make decisions.
- We will do whatever others tell us to do. I remember jumping through every single hoop my church leaders held up for me. Why? Because I hoped for an “Atta Girl! Good job! We approve! We will support you and love you now!” Hogwash. That’s not support. That’s manipulation. Hoops are what dog trainers use, and we are not dogs.
- We disrespect ourselves. We place ourselves at the whims and opinions and fickle choices of other human beings—every one of whom has a different viewpoint and opinion of what we “ought to do” according to them. (They will TELL us it’s according to God. Because they’re convinced they are God’s probation officers.) We throw ourselves under the bus in the vain hope of meeting their current criteria for being a “godly woman.” If they move the bar, and they will, we must prepared to move accordingly to avoid future disapproval.
- We miss out on the opportunity to stretch and grow our adult muscles and our adult faith. Just like exercise keeps us in good shape and helps us stay healthy and mobile into old age, so taking personal responsibility for our own lives and decisions by walking our own faith walk with Jesus also keeps us in good mental, spiritual, and emotional shape so we can continue to grow in our faith and reliance on Jesus Christ.
- We stay stuck in unhealthy ways of relating to other people.
- We model poor boundaries for the next generation, enabling them to also continue in the same old dysfunctional cycles.
The Benefits to Tolerating the Disapproval of Others
- We gradually overcome our fear of being human and making mistakes. We accept our limitations as God’s creation and find rest and meaning in just being ourselves, without grasping for god-like perfection or power.
- We stop judging others, and we become a safe haven of love and support for people. This is what Jesus modeled for us, and it comes easier when we stop judging ourselves by the criteria others hold up to us.
- We take our eyes off of people and we refocus our attention on Jesus. People are the wild waves that go up and down in a tumultuous and chaotic storm of opinion. Jesus is our Rock. Steady and faithful and always there. Always loving. Never giving and withholding depending on our behavior or our success or our failure or our strengths or our weaknesses. Ah…sweet peace in Him.
- We get creative! We learn how to ask God for wisdom, and we try out new ideas and new ways of looking at old problems. We stop hitting our head against the same resistant wall, and we start to make actual, measurable progress.
- We lose people who aren’t good for us to begin with. This opens up space in our lives for new relationships that are healthier.
How Do We Tolerate Disapproval?
- We turn our eyes to Jesus Christ and we get our focus off the stormy waves of human opinion, including human opinion that quotes Bible verses. Remember Satan quoted God in the garden and when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness, and he continues to use the Bible to manipulate people today. Whenever someone uses Bible verses to control, shame, manipulate, and power-over others, they are blaspheming God and imitating the devil. Ignore them. They aren’t Jesus.
- Immerse yourself in the gospel of Jesus Christ. You are fully loved and accepted in Him. He is not people, and people are not Jesus.
- You can’t trust people with everything. Jesus didn’t (John 2:24).
- Certainly get the input of those who have earned your trust, but at the end of the day, you make your own decision.
- Understand that it is normal and human to make mistakes. Accept your humanness.
- Deal with the shame in your life.
The Answer to Our Shame
Many religious people use their “righteous behavior” as a cover up for their shame. You can always spot a shame-based person by how they treat others who believe differently or do things differently than they do, and religious people are notorious for having an “us vs. them” mentality. The “good people vs. the bad people.” The “obedient people vs. the disobedient people.” Of course, the rules are different depending on what denomination you’re in.
Instead of relying on the blood of Jesus Christ to cover us, we rely on our rule-keeping. And we always feel better about ourselves when we can look at others and say, “They don’t keep the rules like I do. I’m good. They aren’t as good.”
It’s trying to be like God. But that’s the original sin! Human beings are limited. To accept that is healthy. Of course we will make mistakes. Of course we will be wrong. We aren’t God. We need help. It’s okay. In fact, it not only okay, it’s GOOD that we accept our humanness and rest in the love of our Savior. Trying and trying and trying to be a good girl is NOT RESTING. And when religious people say “Oh yes – REST” while whipping you with their criticism and manipulation and control, they are not being honest with you or with themselves.
Healthy relationships require an ability to be vulnerable with another person. To accept their “whole self” and for them to accept your “whole self.” The awesome parts and the not-so-awesome parts.
You can only tolerate the disapproval of others if you know, really know, that you are 100% approved of by God – and you are fully engaged in the reality of your own humanness. When you accept this truth. When you live in this truth. When you walk in this reality.
This is the true gospel, and this is what will ultimately set you free. This is what set me free. I had rested in God’s love for me as a child, but I lost sight of His love in the forest of religiosity for many years. It took getting kicked out of that forest (thank GOD!) for me to finally rest in my weakness and His strength. In my need and His love. In my poverty and His inheritance.
I pray this for you as well.
If you need more help in tolerating the disapproval of others, consider joining Flying Free, a private support and education community that helps women of faith go from crawling to flying.