Acceptance vs approval

These two things are not the same. They are very different. But we get them mixed up all the time, and that’s problematic.

Mixing up acceptance and approval creates all sorts of confusion, and misunderstandings, and cycles of abuse.

Acceptance is what we need and want from each other, but all too often we go around asking for approval instead. 

And we go around giving out approval (or disapproval) instead of offering acceptance. 

Acceptance is not the same as approval and approval is not the same as acceptance.

Acceptance is something any one person can give to any other person. You don’t need any training or qualifications to accept somebody.

Acceptance means, “I receive you as you are.”

Acceptances comes from having respect for someone else. Respect is a prerequisite, actually, so I guess I was wrong about there being no qualifications. There is one.

You can’t accept what you don’t respect.

Without respect, acceptance does not exist. The very nature of acceptance is to welcome and embrace someone as they exist now, and to do so without any demands upon them to change or meet some standard which you set for them. In order to accept someone, you have to acknowledge that they have the right to exist as they wish to exist, not as you wish they would exist.

Acceptance says, “You exist for yourself, not for me.”

Acceptance says, “I do not have to understand you in order to value you.”

Acceptance is impossible without respect.

Respect needs to come first. And respect is always possible.
I can always acknowledge the existence and presence of another human.
I can always acknowledge their inherent value as a human.
I can always acknowledge their autonomy and right to their own opinions, expressions, and choices.

If you have respect for others, acceptance is easy. Natural. If you respect someone, you don’t have to try to accept them. You just do.

Now let’s talk about approval.

Approval is something that a person in a certain position can give to another person. I know that’s vague. Hang with me.

Approval means, “I condone or sanction or endorse you or this thing you are doing.”

Approval has an official ring to it. We use it in legal language and corporate language.

“The bill was approved by Congress.”
“The merger was approved by all parties.”

To approve or to sanction is to authorize.

Approval can only come from someone who is in a position of authority over someone else.

Sometimes this is okay.

For example, if I apprentice myself to a master craftsman — say, a chef — I do so with the understanding and acknowledgement that this chef is superior to me in their knowledge and skill in cuisine. I choose to place myself under the authority of this chef. In return, I learn; I benefit from their superior knowledge and skill. If I make a soup and the chef does not approve it, I don’t get offended and say, “You can’t reject my soup!”

Instead, I try to learn what I did wrong with the soup. I seek knowledge. I work on my skills. I try again. I make better soup.

In this situation, approval is the appropriate thing to pursue (for me) and the appropriate thing for the chef to give (or not).

Approval is the appropriate thing to give and receive when two people have agreed upon an authoritative relationship for a mutually beneficial purpose.

There are lots of relationships like this in life.

  • Child and parent
  • Worker and boss
  • Apprentice and master
  • Student and teacher

In all of these relationships, one person holds the authority based on their advanced knowledge, skills, abilities, and/or understanding. It wouldn’t be safe for the two-year-old to be calling the shots in a family relationship. And it wouldn’t make sense for the apprentice to tell the master what to do.

But authoritative relationships are always limited in at least one of two key ways:

  • A valid authoritative relationship is limited in duration, or
  • A valid authoritative relationship is limited in scope.

For example, a child-parent relationship is limited in duration. Sure, yes, the parent will always be the parent. But their authority ends at some point, in a healthy child-parent relationship. The parental authority is no longer valid when the child is no longer a child.

A worker-boss relationship might be theoretically unlimited in duration. (I mean, at some point, somebody dies. Or everybody dies. Or the economy collapses. Or the aliens come. You know. Stuff like that.) But a worker-boss relationship is limited in scope. This is why the HR department exists. If your boss starts telling you what to do outside the scope of the job, No. The boss’s authority is no longer valid outside the boundaries of the job.

The problem is obvious, right?

People in authority often fail to acknowledge and honor the limits of their position.

And people under authority often don’t know the limits exist, or exactly what the limits are, or what to do if the limits are crossed.

So authority, in many cases, becomes unlimited. That’s always bad.

When authority is unlimited, there is no longer a voluntary relationship for a mutually beneficial purpose. There is a coercive, unbalanced relationship. There are many vague, undefined purposes. There is all sorts of opportunity for abuse.

Remember that you don’t need approval from anyone unless that someone is in authority over you.

And if that someone is in authority over you, take a quick step back and define the limits of that authority: duration? Scope? Both? You only need their approval within the limits of their authority.

Approval is a very different thing than acceptance.

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