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Letting go of your need for approvalâ?"and seeing yourself through God's eyes
By JENNIFER DUKES LEE
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Dukes Lee
All rights reserved.
Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.
The story of this approval-craving people pleaser begins in the front row of a sixth-grade classroom.
I'm the scrawny girl holding her breath, overinflated with air and anxiety. I clench a No. 2 pencil in my sweaty little fist, as if I might muster up superhuman strength to squeeze the lead straight out of it. The language arts teacher click-clacks her high heels on the linoleum floor, delivering graded papers to a room full of children who—with the exception of me—slump with carefree ease at their desks. I wonder if they have been lulled into some kind of post-lunch trance, induced by the cafeteria's chipped beef and potatoes. Do they not realize that Mrs. Huseman is distributing grades for the biggest project of our entire lives ... or at least of the sixth grade?
With glacial speed, the teacher slides graded papers facedown onto the wood-veneer tops of our desks. Vaughan's paper airplane zooms past Shane's head, bounces off the chalkboard, and then crash-lands on the teacher's desk. The boys snicker, Mrs. Huseman scolds, and I retreat into a private tsunami of worry. Who has time for child's play at a moment like this? My arms stiffen with fear, paralyzed by the overachiever's coup de grâce: the prospect of getting a B on my project.
At last, the teacher pauses beside me. She presses my grade onto the desk and pats my back, an attempt to offer reassurance for an overwrought child who does not want to disappoint her teacher or her parents. I flip the paper over and hold my breath until my darting eyes find what I crave.
And I do. I find an A+ inked in a corner. Only then do I exhale, in one long, warm stream of air. The thin, red lines of a single vowel coax my fears into remission. This fulfills my daily requirement of approval, and now I can breathe. At least until tomorrow.
I don't know what I would have done if I had gotten a B. I was never brave enough to try such a daring thing as that.
* * *
My whole life, I have lived this way, in a breathless scamper for significance and the approval that comes with it. I have performed, climbed, raced, jockeyed, and postured for it. I've feared rejection. I've wanted to be a lot of things: prettier, skinnier, smarter, better. In all the striving, the graffiti of human praise defaced real love.
I have wanted the A—not just on my sixth-grade paper but in life.
You can call it perfectionism if you want. But that's just a symptom of the bigger problem. I've wanted to be approved. I've wanted to be loved.
I've forgotten that I already am.
The Love Idol has enslaved me, chaining me to my approval rating. I have been addicted to being liked.
And the world is a buffet, dishing out heaping portions of flimsy praise: crowns for the homecoming queens, trophies for the first-place finishers, glossy covers for the world's most beautiful. We fill our plates, feeding on lies about love. We nibble crumbs of approval and always leave the table hungry for more. We measure love and respect by numbers: Facebook friends, checkbook balances, monthly sales quotas, and dress sizes.
It never fills.
We start young, looking for love somewhere outside Eden before we're even able to tie our shoes or count to ten. We enter the world wrinkled and flailing as if we already fear abandonment. Someone cuts the cord and puts a striped beanie on us, as we cry out to be held. And so begins a lifelong quest for love.
The world's oldest liar gets us to forget that we were God's idea in the first place. We don't always remember that there is a very real God on a very real throne who calls us His beloved. The slithering enemy convinces us that our Maker's love is never enough, never was. And Satan continually asks us to consider what others are thinking of us. He tries to make us forget about God. Martin Luther calls it sin: "The sin underneath all our sins is to trust the lie of the serpent that we cannot trust the love and grace of Christ and must take matters into our own hands."
With our distrusting eyes off our Maker, we really do take matters into our own hands, like modern-day Eves grabbing for the polished fruit of cultural standards and expectations.
We cannot rationally explain the enormity of God's love or why Christ would die for us "while we were still sinners" (Romans 5:8). So we live like we don't believe it at all.
I have lived like I don't believe it at all.
I've doubted His love. I've distrusted His covenant.
It's April 2, 1972—the day after April Fools' Day—and the Rev. Vickery holds me in the crook of his arm. He sprinkles water on my forehead at the front of the United Methodist Church, then hoists my curled body higher, an infant queen, shrieking. The congregants in the creaky wooden pews applaud.
At age three, I toddle toward the altar in patent leather shoes, standing on that same square foot of red carpet where I was baptized. And now, I've come to sing "Jesus Loves Me" with the cherub choir.
Years later, I kneel there to receive my first Communion. At age thirteen, I wear a white robe and confirm my baptismal vows. And then, one Christmas Eve, I sit in a folding chair on that very spot, playing the part of Mary, mother of God, cradling her Fisher-Price Savior.
But I remain the April fool, believing lies about what love really means. I confess now that I have not fully believed the promise of my baptism. If I'm gut-level honest, I've lived like an agnostic. Me, a woman girded by Christ's teachings from age three. Me, a woman who serves Communion, volunteers at vacation Bible school, selects worship music for her congregation. In the sanctuary, I sing of His great love with tears rolling down my cheeks. Yet in my everyday life, I have at times treated those songs like mouthed abstractions. Although it has not been intentional, the old nature rises up against my new self. It pains me to write these words, but it's true: At times, my divided heart has looked for significance everywhere else but the altar. The world is a cacophony of distraction and man-made applause, drowning out the sound of Christ calling.
I cannot pinpoint a trigger in my personal history to explain why I have sought human approval like I have over these years. Yes, my parents valued and rewarded hard work. They expected me to give my best effort in school. But I never felt that I had to earn their love and approval. I knew I was loved because I was theirs. Period.
It is, perhaps, the way I am wired, no different from being born with hazel eyes. And it is, in a sense, the way we're all wired. God created within us this need to love and to be loved, a beautiful inner longing that is designed to drive us toward Him. But our old nature can twist our hunger for love, so we begin to crave the approval of people over the approval of God.
God's Word suggests that this is part of the human condition. Scripture addresses it repeatedly, warning us against the temptation to choose the temporal. In fact, the warning became a theme for Paul throughout his letters. He wrote, "Our purpose is to please God, not people" (1 Thessalonians 2:4).
But the truth is, we don't always want to please God. We actually like pleasing people, because it feels good. The sound of applause reminds us not only that we're doing a good job but, equally important, that we're not messing up in front of a live audience. Since we can't hear God's "attagirl" in our human ears, the crowd's applause lets us know that we matter in the world.
Soon, even the applause isn't enough. We secretly hope the audience will give us a standing ovation, so we keep singing and dancing. We live for the perpetual encore.
What an exhausting life.
* * *
My friend Shari knows how exhausting that life can be. She says her need for approval has caused her to question her worth in almost every area of life: as a wife, a mom, a friend, an employee, a Christian. But the question she has struggled with the longest is this: Am I a good daughter?
"I love my parents deeply. I have had a good relationship with them most of my life," Shari says. "Yet there was one thing that I really wanted to hear from them, one thing that I sought hard after for many, many years. I wanted to hear them say, 'I am so proud of you.'"
For years, Shari heard her parents boast about the accomplishments of one of her siblings. "Each time I did something, I waited for the approval that I hoped would come ... it never did. And I was left disappointed and sad," she recalls.
Shari says her need for approval became an addiction, like she was a drug addict craving another hit. When she couldn't get it from her parents, she looked for it in other relationships. "Eventually that next 'hit' can't come soon enough, and it isn't enough. You need more and more to satisfy," she says.
Like Shari, I grew to desire "the next hit." As a child, I loved compliments because they let me know I mattered. Criticism could downright deflate my whole spirit.
Early in life, my two older sisters and younger brother dubbed me the Golden Child. The name was, perhaps, a well-meaning joke for the straight-A sister with the smoothed-down bangs and color-coordinated closet. I wore the nickname like a badge. It felt like real praise.
And just behind the praise, I could hear the mocking, high-pitched giggles of my neuroses. These were the voices in my head, and they looked like two snobbish Valley Girls, making themselves at home in my teenage brain. Golden Child? Like, whatever! That's what they would say, with an eye roll. In my mind, those two girls wore stirrup pants and neon hair scrunchies. They sashayed around the middle of my cerebrum like they owned the place.
My parents went out of their way to make sure that I knew I would still be loved, even if I failed miserably. One morning comes back now with startling clarity: the morning of a junior high track meet in 1985. I told Dad I was weary of the embarrassment of last-place finishes. I wanted to quit. I folded my arms on the kitchen table and dropped my head down, sobbing. Dad put a hand on my shoulder and urged me to simply try my hardest, focusing on something he called my "personal best." That rainy afternoon, I ran twice around an asphalt oval in northwest Iowa. I came across the finish line dead last in the 800-meter race. I didn't know it yet, but I had improved my personal best by several seconds. Lungs burning and chest heaving, I put my hands on my hips and looked up into the bleachers. Through the drizzle, I saw Mom and Dad, both of them on their feet, with their hands high in the air, applauding.
They loved and approved of me, in spite of my lackluster finish.
Yet I much preferred bringing home As on my projects and high ratings from musical contests. Sure, my parents cheered when I lost, but somewhere on the inside of me, I would rather have had them be proud of a winner, not a last-place finisher.
Even if my parents didn't criticize me, those snobbish Valley Girls did. They were belligerent opportunists, reminding me where I failed. That's the job of inner critics: to stick a foot in the door of your brain and remind you what a loser you are, never mind what your God says about you.
In my teenage journal—a spiral-bound Mead notebook—I often wrote about the pain those two inner critics inflicted on my tender soul. Last year, I found that yellow notebook hidden underneath the mattress of my childhood bed. I remember experiencing a sinking sense of disappointment when, as an adult, I flipped through pages to find that not a whole lot had changed since childhood. I could practically hear the Valley Girls—now grown-up women wearing Prada—snickering while I reread old words:
"Why do I feel this way?" I wrote at age sixteen. "If there were 100 people I knew and 99 of them liked me, I'd very likely concentrate on the one that disliked me because I want everyone to like me." Even then, my downcast soul tried to remind myself of the truth. I wrote at the bottom of the page these words: "God is love! I am loved."
True enough, I had written it on college-ruled paper, that I was loved by a Savior. Yet I lived another way, and it would be years before I would recognize this as a spiritual problem that needed fixing.
Approval intoxicated me. By the time I was a teenager, I was learning how to fill my addiction: with bylines. I was only sixteen years old when I felt the thrill of seeing my name in print. I had begun writing stories for our local weekly paper as part of our school's career-exploration program. They were small stories about Easter egg hunts and town baseball matchups. But I was writing. Publicly. For a real-life audience. People would tell me they liked the way I could tell a story.
As a senior in high school, I made a campus visit to Iowa State University. A journalism-school recruiter gave me a tour of the college's newspaper office. I noticed right away the glass office in the corner and made a vow to myself that I would run that place someday.
Three years later, at age twenty-one, the Iowa State Daily's masthead listed my name as editor. I loved chasing the story, experiencing the thrill of front-page bylines. It made me feel powerful, approved, and respected. Every summer, instead of going home to relax for a couple of months, I worked at newspapers. In the summer of 1994, I drove my Geo Storm halfway across the country after landing a highly regarded internship at the Sacramento Bee.
I think it's important for you to know that I value hard work and excellence, the kind that will have a college student aiming high in his or her career. Eagerness and ambition, rightly channeled in our workplaces and homes, make the world a better place for all of us. My trouble, of course, came because I worshiped what my work could give me, instead of what God already had waiting for me.
But my accomplishments never once satisfied me long-term, no matter how many "attagirls" I got.
I suppose a part of me knew that the answer rested in Jesus. I would pay Him an occasional visit by darkening the doorway of a church now and then. But mostly I saw God as a disinterested third party—or worse, the fairy-tale hero of nicely packaged Sunday school stories. "God's love" was an assurance that I left in my yellow notebook, a holy promise that I slipped in a box under the bed of my childhood home. It was a promise that I had forgotten. I was becoming fluent, not in God's love but in status and achievement.
The world is full of rankings and résumé lines that make you forget about God, report cards that let you know whether you made the grade in this great big world.
Any of us can look back on our childhood lives and remember the lists that shaped us: honor rolls published in the local paper, school-play casting calls, homecoming courts, birthday party invitations, and more. When we grow up, the lists grow up with us: the Fortune 500, the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World, the Top 100 Bloggers, the richest, the sexiest, the most relevant. Even Christian leaders have come up with online lists to tell us which authors are the most influential.
In a world of list makers, how can we begin to live only for the Maker's list? In a world that says, "Climb higher to be noticed," how can we bow lower?
One of my dearest friends, Trish—a self-described approval addict—knows about the lists, the ones that let you know you're valued. She likes how it feels to be picked.
Trish says her approval addiction can manifest itself in the ugliest ways right in our own church. She likes knowing that people can count on her—to sing a solo, sew Christmas-pageant costumes, decorate the altar, and lead a mission project.
"I can channel my inner Sally Fields at church," she says. "You know, 'They like me; they really like me!'"
At times, she says, her need for an "attagirl" from the pews can morph into an ugly monster called pride.
"There are no acronyms like AA to help us," she says. "There are no well-known support groups, no twelve-step programs for our problem. Most people wouldn't classify it as a problem, let alone an addiction. I mean, everyone likes to be appreciated. If only that were the extent of it."
Trish and I half-joke that we ought to start up a flagship AAA—Approval Addicts Anonymous.
Excerpted from LOVE IDOL by JENNIFER DUKES LEE. Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Dukes Lee. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
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