by Mike Hernacki

I’ve been on a journey of self-discovery nearly all of my 64 years. This journey has been most intense for the past 15 years, during which I’ve learned many valuable life lessons, including the difference between acceptance and approval.

I have a niece whose father died when she was a toddler. I’ve always felt fatherly toward her and stepped in when I felt she needed paternal advice or protection.

There was always one problem, though. When I saw her doing something I felt was unwise or destructive, I would let her know. Trouble was that even though my intention was to help, she didn’t want my judgments.  She is very sensitive to criticism, so when I let her know I disapproved of something she was doing, this would cause a fight and a rift between us.

One evening I was telling the men in my support group about this. My friend John said, “You’re looking for your niece to behave in ways you approve of. But that’s not what she needs. All she needs is for you to love her and accept her for who she is. She doesn’t need your approval of everything she does. There’s a difference between acceptance and approval.”

Suddenly, a light went on above my head. I realized that when I truly love someone, I love who they are, and what they do is secondary. If my niece works too hard or spends too much money, I don’t have to approve of that. But I can still love her and accept her for the beautiful, warm, caring person she is. And I can keep my opinions about her behavior to myself.

Since then I’ve stopped expressing my judgments, but I’ve continued to tell her that I love her and support her. Our relationship has blossomed beautifully and she is warmer and more open to me than ever.

Acceptance is not approval. I can keep my opinions about what’s healthy behavior and still love and accept the person behaving in ways I disapprove.

Now, why did it take me more than a half a century to learn that?

mikehernackiMike Hernacki recently retired after a long career in several fields: teaching, law, writing and business coaching. His self-help books have been published in eight languages worldwide. Mike and his wife Wanda, a retired police detective, live in San Diego.