Eschewing Approval and Validation

confident woman

“You are forgetting one thing,” I pause and stare directly into the eyes of the man sitting across from me, “I do not need your approval or validation.”

This sentence is a feature of many of my daydreams. I have never actually said it out loud but it is my secret fantasy (or not so secret anymore) to be able to say this phrase and mean it. In my daydream I am strong and competent, self-assured and bold. I do not worry about what people think about me. I trust myself more than those around me. I do scary things. I do not care about being liked as much as I care about being right. In my daydreams the only approval and validation I need is from me. “So….” you might ask, “why are these daydreams and not reality?”

Over the course of the last decade I have made a conscious effort to distinguish between the thoughts and behaviors I actually desire and those I have acquired via enculturation in the Mormon culture. There are silly things like discovering that I do not actually like to wear dresses and skirts even though they have made up my “nice” wardrobe for the past thirty years. Likewise, I have discovered that I do not mind disagreeing with those around me. I’m comfortable with pluralism. I have learned that we don’t all have to think alike despite thirty-plus years of Sunday School enculturation instructing me otherwise. I have also made more serious discoveries. I have learned that I have a deep rooted instinct to acquiesce to male authority figures. I think this stems from our all-male church hierarchy where men will always have more power and authority over me. I did not realize I had internalized these thoughts until I witnessed my non-Mormon colleagues talking back to an academic leader and my first thought was “You can’t do that.” Since then I have paid closer attention to how I interact with males in power. I’ve discovered that my behavior completely changes in front of church leaders. I am quiet and deferential. I hold in my thoughts and opinions. Because I have no social capital or source of collegiality without their endorsement, I am reliant on their approval and validation for my sense of worth.

I am convinced that LDS culture produces women who are constantly seeking the approval and validation of others to justify and legitimize their own thoughts, beliefs, appearance and worth. It starts in primary where questions are asked without any intention of engagement. Rather, approval is given to those who can replicate a set of “Sunday School Answers.” It continues in Achievement Days and Young Women’s when activities, motto’s and lessons are structured around the principle of making oneself prepared and worthy of others. While scouts were learning survival skills that benefit them throughout their life, I was taught about baking, childcare and make-up—skills that are inherently designed to attract and serve others. From the moment I turned 16, family, friends, and church leaders cared more about who I was dating than what I was studying, whether I was preparing for a mission and what I wanted to be when I grew up. From this early age until marriage the main message I received from my bishops was how I could best attract a husband. I was taught lesson after lesson about how modesty and chastity are directly correlated with desirability—that my obedience to the principles in the For Strength of Youth Pamphlet made me a worthy and attractive mate. While my male counterparts planned for their future careers and goals, I tried to make myself a “great catch.” I received positive validation from church leaders and dates when I followed the standard cultural script and negative consequences when I varied in any way from what was expected of me. There was a very narrow margin of what I could do and who I could be and still remain a good Mormon girl.

I think this phenomenon is perfectly illustrated in a recent prank conducted on BYU campus. A group of boys decided to go up to perfect strangers, demand their telephone numbers and video the results. Sometimes they communicated their approval by approaching the girl and saying that she is cute. Sometimes they withheld it by being rude and dismissive. In most cases the girls acquiesced and gave out their numbers. In the first group the girls were flattered into participating by being seen as desirable. In the second group the girls were shown outright hostility and commanded to give their phone numbers. I think these girls complied for two reasons 1) they wanted the approval and validation from the man who seemed to withhold these from them and 2) they have been trained from a young age to obey male authority figures. In fact, the number one answer the girls in both groups gave for giving away their phone number to a perfect stranger was, “because you asked.” What else will women give away because a man asks? Our safety? Our choices? Our autonomy? Our divine inspiration?

Sadly, I would have been one of those girls at BYU—flattered by male attention and seeking to please. Despite being academically successful I charted my ups and down in college by how many boys asked for my number not what grade I got on a paper, what grant I received or what grad school I got accepted into. Being desirable outweighed being successful. I would have rather been desirable than to go after those things that I most desired. It has been over a decade since my BYU days and I am just now uncovering these hidden, taken-for-granted assumptions that I have carried with me throughout my entire life.

We live in a culture where men’s prestige is based on economic and career success, political power and peer influence and hierarchical trajectory within the LDS church and women’s prestige is based on whom they can attract and how readily they follow directions. Women receive no positive social capital from having a career, becoming financially successful or being learned. We cannot rise in the hierarchy and our position in our religious community will always depend on male approval and validation. These messages are inculcated at a young age and, as was seen in the phone example, ourselves and our daughters will translate these behaviors into male-female relationships in all aspects of our lives. It has not been an easy task, but every day I try to to wean myself off of needing the approval and validation from the men in my life. In the hopes that someday I will be able to verbalize the mantra that repeats in my mind: I do not need your approval or validation.

Have you noticed your own need for approval and validation from the men in your life? Is it something particular to or more exaggerated in LDS women? What specific steps have you taken to eschew this need?


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17 Responses

  1. Christi says:

    This is spot on. As a teenager, I had the feeling that something wasn’t right, but could never quite put my finger on it. I remember telling friends, “Just think, if we spent all the time we waste on worrying about guys on something productive, think how much we could get done!” And yet, I could never quite break free of that constant worry that maybe I wasn’t desirable.

    Fast forward a decade, and I still struggle with it. I think the answer from me has been to slowly wean how much of my identity is tied up in Mormonism. Not so much ‘leaving’ the Mormon church, but not getting caught up in the social conventions there. That means I have far fewer friends at church, but I care less what people think. I try to focus my identity on my career, my family, and just who I am.

  2. Emily U says:

    I grew up a little fearful of all authority figures, but especially male ones. I wouldn’t have dared contradict one in my teens and early 20s. I think it’s pretty normal to have some fear of authority. But maybe the gender part of it came from my Mormonism.

    Gradually, I’ve stopped caring about approval. I still care about being civil, but I’m not afraid to disagree. I think the thing that’s freed me is realizing I have very little to lose. It’s OK with me if I don’t get any leadership callings at church. I go for me, not for them. It’s OK if people think I’m a on the fringes. But really, do I ever really know what people are thinking? No. So why try to attempt to please some imagined standard?

    At work I have to say no or give bad news to lots of male physics professors and while I don’t enjoy it, I do it calmly. The feeling of having very little to lose is important there, too. None of them have the power to fire me or evaluate me, so I’m not going to tie myself in knots when they stomp their feet and don’t like what I have to say.

    Maybe ironically, I now have a very hard time giving bad news or saying no to people with less power than me. I just feel so bad doing it. My husband thinks I’m too soft on my students and that I let the tenants who are renting a condo from us walk all over me. I disagree, though – I do have boundaries, they’re just not the same as what his boundaries would be.

    • Emily U says:

      After I re-read that, it sounds more extreme than I mean it. I do care about some people’s approval – people I love and admire. Just not so much anymore about the approval of authority figures.

  3. IDIAT says:

    “Just think, if we spent all the time we waste on worrying about guys on something productive, think how much we could get done!” You obviously have no clue how much time young men and men spend worrying about young women and women. The “prank” in the OP has already been discussed in other blog posts, and reasons why young women at BYU in particular might be more apt to give out their phone numbers. I bet if you did the same prank with girls asking for guys’ phone numbers you would get the same result.

    • Christi says:

      Um…I’m not sure how stating that if girls worried less about guys than they do, they could get more productive things done = I have no idea how much guys worry about girls. I wasn’t speaking to that at all. I also wasn’t referring to the BYU prank, I was speaking of my own personal experience and the experience of my friends.

      • IDIAZt says:

        My point is that males seek approval and validation from females. We’re very close to our mothers, most of our school teachers are female. We are in a constant state of trying to please females. The issues raised in the OP are not Mormon related nor are they unique to females. All of us seek validation and acceptance from the opposite gender. Males seek it by showing off or trying to make a lot of money, working out and so forth. We are more alike than you think, and framing things as “us” versus “them” is not helpful.

  4. X2 Dora says:

    Powerful post. I think that as I have gotten older, I have learned to care more about my own centered-ness, than what other think of me. I’m not totally immune, but I’ve learned how to differentiate between those who see me, as opposed to some image of me that they’ve constructed in their own minds. As such, I’ve been able to be more authentic, and speak the things I believe, instead of what I think others want to hear. Again, this is a work in progress, but I like to feel that I’m gaining ground.

  5. MB says:

    Have you read John Holt’s “How Children Fail”? It’s a classic discussion of how conventional elementary school education sets up all students to follow this pattern of needing validation from authority figures.

    As they move into middle school, many of them change their definition of authority figures from teachers to their powerful peers, either of the same or of the opposite sex. And when they do, that often means defying conventional authority figures in order to gain validation from their peer authority figures. Or to gain validation from their “imaginary audience”.

    Studies of homeschooled children, particularly those schooled using unschooling or eclectic methodology, have pointed out a large difference between their need for validation from authority figures (peer or adult or imagined) and the level of such need for validation or approval demonstrated by conventionally schooled students.

    So, I think you are on a good road towards becoming less dependent upon the approval or validation of authority figures, but my perception is that this is a road that needs to be traveled by just about every young man or woman in modern educational society as he or she matures. You are traveling through a Mormon version of this commonly traversed road because you are LDS and have a uniquely LDS set of authority figures in your life. But this process is definitely not unique to Mormon culture.

    Glad you’re taking the road. It’s a process that leads to a pretty effective middle age if it’s done without rancor.

  6. Amy says:

    I had to laugh at the contrast between “While scouts were learning survival skills that benefit them throughout their life, I was taught about baking, childcare and make-up—skills that are inherently designed to attract and serve others.” The scouts I knew, both as a youth and a leader, mostly played basketball. Maybe that is a survival skill for men?

    And knowing how to cook has been liberating for me both as a working mom. It’s enabled me to eat organically, locally, and healthily without breaking the bank. Sure, it serves my family. I don’t think it attracted my husband, though. I find YW activities to be more focused on skills that will benefit them throughout their lives than YM activities. Let’s stop despising traditionally female activities.

    • EmilyCC says:

      I don’t think Whoa-Man was “despising” these female activities but looking at how they can be part of a larger problem of some women in Mormon culture feeling like they have no voice because they have only been taught to be subservient to authority figures. (And, I’m a little envious of learning organic cooking in YW. How cool!)

      I found this post handy to show specific ways that Mormon women are at a disadvantage from other members of American society. To be sure, all members of society must come to terms with how they deal with authority and when it’s necessary to stand tall. But, I like how Whoa-Man frames it in this specific context.

  7. EFH says:

    I agree with MB. You find this process of needing validation from others in every culture and settings. It is inevitable. Adults, institutions, political ideologies, religion and so on and so forth try to create this need of validation in all of us.

    For me, growing up in a small communist country, I needed validation not only from family, friends and teachers but from political leaders as well. And to think of my young age – 5 to 9 years old. Everything I did or said reflected on the Party. When I joined the church, as new members of a new church we needed validation from missionaries – they pushed young girls (12 to 15) to wear dresses and especially bras (because only whores wear bras in USA). Well, you can imagine that the majority of young women left the church right there.

    You are being a little harsh on yourself. Everyone has made compromises. That is why we grow into our 30s and we start deconstructing our thinking and emotional and psychological being. I love my 30s.

    I definitely agree with you that the mormon culture does not provide a good platform for girls to thrive. But things are changing. I notice such a strong awareness among these issues even among women who don’t like feminism. I truly think that the generation of our daughters will say ‘no’ easier and more loudly to authority that they disagree with…because their mothers are living a more conscience life as women, career women, housewives, teachers, and mothers.

    I also have noticed that the older I get the less I care about other’s opinion. I do care only for the opinion of people I look up too (male and female). I personally try to identify my fears that succumb me in submitting to a circumstance or other people. I have noticed that for me, it is not as much authority as it is manipulation – limitation I place on myself due to fear, taking other’s people advice without checking facts first and such.

    Sorry for the long post. It is a great post you have written and definitely worth pursuing in more oral or written discussions.

  8. Naismith says:

    I appreciate your honesty in sharing this growth in your life.

    I am kinda stunned, though, at the notion of “prestige” and “social capital” in a church setting.

    This just does not compute for me. Admittedly I wasn’t raised in the church, so I see things a bit differently….but such concerns seem very middle-school to me, the “popular” kids.

    What does “social capital” at church allow one to do or buy? It’s not a zero-sum game where only a few can “win,” we can all reach the celestial kingdom.

    A woman’s career is part of who she is, a way that she can serve others and fulfill the measure of her creation. So I rejoiced when a counselor in RS won a fellowship, just as I would congratulate someone who had a new baby or had been elected to office.

    • TopHat says:

      For me, social capital at church means I’ll be remembered as a person to contact when there are needs- like meals to be brought, rides to be given. Mormon social capital is good for family relationships, too- it means I’ll be invited to baby blessings and baptisms instead of considered “that crazy aunt” and ignored.

      • Naismith says:

        Thanks for sharing. I had no idea that there were places where such dynamic existed.

        We are desperate for people to bring a meal, give a ride. They send around a sign-up sheet three times a year, and if you sign up you will be called.

  9. Martine says:

    This post really spoke to my experience growing up in a religion and culture where I was encouraged to obey priesthood leaders without question, and the problems this caused for me later in life. I wasn’t one of the lucky ones that had enough natural backbone, and the effects have resonated through my personal and professional interactions. Thank you for this.

  10. Anth says:

    I think you bring up a lot of good points. I feel like YW (this was in the 90s) tried to train me to be yea-big and no bigger. I felt like the lessons were trying to tamp down any ambition to be something non-traditional. As I get older I become more aware of these things I didn’t even realize I had internalized.

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