What Would Aristotle Do?

The power of reason.

Control-to-Get-Approval Anxiety

What’s really behind your demand for control

Many people suffer from anxiety due to a demand for control.  You tell yourself that you must be in control of your life circumstances (work, school, family, friends, etc.) and, as a result, experience anxiety about the ever-present possibility of losing control. 

Living in this way can destroy your happiness and those around you.  Fortunately, there are reasonable, drug-free ways to address such self-destructive anxiety, and to think, act, and feel better in the face of the uncertainty of the future. One such way is that provided by Logic-Based Therapy (LBT), a philosophically and logically oriented form of cognitive behavior therapy.  The key note of this approach is that people upset themselves by logically deducing self-defeating and destructive practical conclusions from premises containing faulty thinking errors.  LBT helps people to find such a premise in their practical reasoning; refute this premise; set up a guiding virtue or goal that offsets the faulty thinking; adopt a philosophy that conduces to the guiding virtue; and construct and implement a behavioral plan of action to aspire to the virtue.

LBT identifies certain salient faulty thinking errors that are typically behind self-defeating behavior and emotions.  It also provides behavioral and emotional reasoning templates containing such “fallacies.” These templates plot the logical relations between the given fallacies. That is, it shows how one fallacy supports and leads to the commission of further fallacies in a hierarchical series. Such series of fallacies are called fallacy syndromes.

The fallacy syndrome behind one popular form of control anxiety is aptly termed the control-to-get-approval syndrome and its template looks like this:

  • I must always have the approval of others.

  • If I must always have the approval of others then I must remain in control at all times (since otherwise I won’t be able to sustain their approval).

  • Therefore, I must remain in control at all times.

  • If I must remain in control at all times, then if I mess up then I am an unworthy person.

  • Therefore, if I mess up then I am an unworthy person.

Here, the fallacious premise that generates all the other fallacies in this anxiety-generating syndrome is the demand for approval.  From this premise, you deduce the demand for control and, further, deduce your unworthiness in the event that you mess up.

This is a lot of pressure!  Your entire (or virtually your entire) worth is thought to depend on the approval of others, which can be lost at any moment.  As long as you have this approval, you feel vindicated, but in the back of your mind is still always that perceived fatal possibility of messing up and falling from grace.

Since the entire inference chain (demand for approval à demand for control à self-damnation) is based on the demand for approval, if you can show that the demand for approval is indeed illogical, then you can show that the entire chain is groundless. This is because you are demanding control and damning yourself when you mess up because you are demanding approval in the first place.  Stop demanding approval and you can stop demanding control and damning yourself when you fail to attain that control. 

So, is this you? Do you demand control and tell yourself that if you mess up then you suck--or otherwise qualify as an unworthy camper?  Do you demand the approval of others as the reason why you do these things?  Note that your demand for approval does not need to include the approval of everyone.  It can be some special person or group of persons—your boss, coworkers, friends, significant other, etc. Does the above template fit your mindset?

Now, take a closer look at the demand for approval.  Do you really need to have the approval of others? Notice that perceived needs are unconditional demands. Thus, the law of gravity is a need, since whatever goes up must (needs to) come down. Is there a law that says that everyone (or even certain people) must (need to) approve of you? Is this law a scientific law? Is it a law of God?  Indeed, if it is written anywhere, it is written in the wind; for, like the wind, people blow in different directions, and it is simply impossible to expect that others always approve of you.  So, by seeing that the approval of others is not something you can reasonably count on, you can stop demanding that you get it; and that is when you can start making constructive changes in your life. 

As you can see, demanding approval is a form of demanding perfection.  It is a perfectionistic pipe dream: it just doesn’t exist in the real world.  So let’s get real.  Indeed, according to LBT, the guiding virtue of demanding perfection is itself the virtue of being realistic about reality. This virtue LBT calls metaphysical security—the virtue of feeling secure about reality itself.

Metaphysically secure people accept that reality is inherently flawed. Things do not always happen the way we want them to happen. There is no certainty in the order of the universe, at least not on this perishable, changeable, planet we call earth. There are endless possibilities, and some of them are wonderful; but they are all still possibilities, not certainties. The pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, proclaimed that, in this earthly world of space and time, you can’t step into the same river twice; and he was right on. Things are always subject to change. This includes the attitudes of human beings, which tend to be one of the least reliable creatures on the planet. Thus, it is more probable that your dog will greet you with a lick and a tail wag than your human associates (lover, friend, classmate, boss, etc.) will express similar adoration. Chalk it up to free will or the inherent fickleness of human nature.  Whatever hypothesis you choose, it is clear that it is unreasonable to demand the approval of your fellow human beings.  Even if you sometimes get it, you simply cannot rationally demand it.  In accepting this reality, you are on your way to becoming more metaphysically secure.

So, what philosophy of life will help you to be more metaphysically secure?  Asking this question can help you to overcome your tendency to demand approval; for in becoming more metaphysically secure, you may come to rely less on the approval of others—realizing that this is not something you can count on in this world.

The ancient Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, admonished us not to demand things that are not in our power and to stick to those things that are in our power.  The Stoics were determinists who believed that the external world was beyond our control.  In contrast, they held that, under our control, were our own attitudes, desires, emotions, beliefs, and other mental dispositions.  So, while we can’t control how others react to us, we can, indeed, control how we perceive, feel, and think about the way they react to us. In this subjective real, we can be the king, ruler of our own cognitive-emotive kingdom. We do not have to go to pieces when someone disapproves of us.  We can say, instead, “Well, that’s the way things go.  Tough luck!  I would have preferred that they approved of me; but they didn’t; so be it.”

Is such an uncertain external world that is outside our control even a bad thing?  William James, the pragmatist philosopher, admonishes us to think of what it might be like in a perfect world where everything predictably happens just the way we want it to happen.  Would you really want to live in such a world?  It would be super boring!  Eliminate the element of unpredictability, and where would the challenge be?  How exciting would it be when you already know what happens?  This would be a very safe universe, but, as St. Thomas Aquinas once said, if a captain wanted to play it safe he would keep his ship in port.  We sail out on the open waters of life because it holds new and exciting adventures.  Without the uncertainty of the universe, there would be no venturing out into the unknown, and hence no discovery. Life would be flat and dead.

So, is it really so bad that approval is not something you can count on?  Not if you see it as part of what makes the world challenging and interesting. 

To recap, the demand for approval is illogical because it is unrealistic.  Instead, you should strive to be metaphysically secure about reality, which includes accepting the fact that the world is uncertain and that you can’t expect the approval of others.  To make strides toward this virtuous end, you can adopt the philosophies of Epictetus and William James.  First, don’t burn yourself out trying to control things that are beyond your control, like the approval of others.  Instead, strive to control what really is in your control, namely the way you think, perceive, and feel regarding external events.  Following James, you can then celebrate your liberation from the demand for approval by looking upon the uncertainty of the world as an opportunity to sail the uncharted and uncertain ocean of life, full of surprises, some disappointing, still others quite gratifying and exciting. 

Now, LBT tells you to establish a concrete plan of action to implement your new philosophies.  In the present case, this means spelling out some of the things you intend to do differently in order to overcome your tendency to demand approval, and become more accepting and comfortable about the uncertainty of the real world.

Here are some things you could do.  Deliberately set things up so that someone disapproves of you.  In the literature of cognitive-behavior therapies, this is called a shame-attacking exercise.  The late, great psychologist, Albert Ellis, once suggested walking down a crowded street pulling a banana on a string.  The point here is to give yourself practice dealing cognitively and emotionally with disapproval, thus proving to yourself that you really don’t need the approval of others. 

You can also do some rational-emotive imagining.  This would involve, imagining that someone from whom you have demanded approval disapproves of you.  You can then, in your imagination, feel your emotional discomfort, and then practice your new thoughts.  “Oh well, whoever said that I had to get his approval anyway. This was never certain anyway; and now I can even see this rejection as a challenge to me to try something different—perhaps a different approach to dealing with this person, an opportunity to strengthen my resistance to the inevitability of being rejected. I can do this, because I am the master of my own mind even if I am not the master of the minds of others.”

Be creative in creating your action plan. In the end, you may gradually begin to feel and do better than you would have, were you to persist in demanding the approval of others. Your demand for control may, in turn, start to weaken along with your tendency to damn yourself in case you mess up in the process of trying to maintain that control. So, in giving up your demand for approval, you can experience less stress, and, accordingly, less anxiety about the uncertainty of not getting it.

No guarantees! This is the way of the universe. Try it out and see. It just might work for you!

 

 

Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., is President of the Institute of Critical Thinking and one of the principal founders of philosophical counseling in the United States.

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