Do you ever feel like you’re too focused on getting others to like you? How much of what you do centers on gaining others’ approval?
These questions are often hard to answer. As social creatures, we all naturally want to connect with our social environment. Even “outcasts” seek out other outcasts. And in trying to build lasting bonds, we might feel the pressure to do things simply to gain the approval of people in our lives.
Sometimes we carry certain privileges that make it easier for us to get this approval: the right skin color, the right gender, an influential family, or fitting into the standards of conventional attractiveness. Whether we are “privileged” or not, we can get caught up in gaining the acceptance of others and this can be deeply unhealthy.
The Baha’i writings say that focusing on gaining approval from other people gets in the way of receiving what really matters: divine acceptance.
. . . at all times seeking the approval of men is many times the cause of imperiling the approval of God. –Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West
To be approved of God alone should be one’s aim. –Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West
Why should we seek approval from God? And how does seeking each other’s approval distract from receiving approval from a higher power?
Maybe this is because, unlike God’s standards for human beings, our social standards for one another can be corrupted. The human race has historically become attached to tribes, financial and material comfort, and animalistic pleasures — and these pursuits often cause more harm than good. But God’s standards — like preferring others’ wellbeing to our own, choosing love over hatred, and remaining humble — exist to help us develop the qualities we need so that we can have a beneficial impact on the world around us.
At the same time, breaking from society’s standards of what “should” be can bring on painful judgement from others. So, as we break from concentrating on earning each other’s approval, an easy first step could be to become less judgmental towards others.
Therefore, no one should glorify himself over another; no one should manifest pride or superiority toward another; no one should look upon another with scorn and contempt; and no one should deprive or oppress a fellow creature. –Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace
As we move away from judging others, we might find it easier to replace the often unhealthy standards we place on ourselves with higher aims. We might improve our ability to seek God’s approval rather than that of the people in our society. It takes effort to push back against the superficial standards we press on one another.
Who are we that we should judge? How shall we know who, in the sight of God, is the most upright man? God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts! How many men who have seemed saint-like to their friends have fallen into the greatest humiliation. –Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks
This can be deeply freeing. When we aren’t worried about meeting others’ expectations for money, status, and comfort, we can liberate our latent spiritual strengths. The question then becomes: Which standards have we simply inherited in our desire to gain the approval of others, and which align with divine standards?
If we remain trapped into chasing others’ acceptance, we will probably find ourselves sitting in hypothetical bandwagons that don’t even suit our true beliefs. We will continually try to guess what others expect of us, instead of making independent decisions. The varied and widespread values people hold make it impossible to please everyone.
With God’s standards in mind, rather than society’s, we can reject the social standards that don’t uplift us, and set higher standards for our souls.