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Conquering the Need for Approval, Part One

Break Up with Your Anxious Life

I once had a neighbor (we’ll call her Jane) who was raising her girls to be nice Christian women. One day our four-year-olds were playing together and my Olivia wanted her daughter Sara’s toy. Jane said to Sara, “Don’t you want to make Olivia happy? Wouldn’t it be nice to make Olivia happy?”

So, Sara gave Olivia the toy, and Olivia was made happy for about five minutes. Sara was affirmed by her mother for being so nice. And hopefully a toxic need to people please was not born in Sara that day. Because right there she was exposed to a misunderstanding of what it means to be loving and righteous. Making people happy and being loving are not the same thing, and yet many of us were taught from a very young age that they were.

Let’s talk about this danger: If little Sara believes she is “being good” by making Liv happy, she’s being set up for a fall on a lot of levels. Four-year-olds don’t stay “happy” very long. They desire things that are bad for them, possess little logic, and yet are capable of scientific persistence to get what they want. Consequently, they make very bad masters, bosses, or little gods – and shouldn’t be given power. A mother who measures her effectiveness by her child’s happiness will lead a very anxious life, and also spoil her kid rotten; a friend who seeks only to make her fellow four-year-olds happy is going to get taken advantage of.

And we, as adults, can make other adults into our very bad masters, bosses or little gods as well, when we believe we are good and loving only when we make other people happy, when we please them.

I’m a pretty healthy human being. I’ve done a lot of work. I have a lot of self-awareness, and have learned more than a couple relational skills. I have honed my expectations of marriage through much Biblical and psychological education. But if my husband Jeff bases his value on making me happy, it’s going to be rough. Whether or not Jeff can make me happy is based on a lot of different factors on a daily basis.

My husband needs to find his value first in his status as beloved son of God, his standing as righteous through faith in Christ, and the knowledge that he has done his best to do what is moral with the help of the Holy Spirit. Also, Jeff often loves me well by not pleasing me, but by bravely providing me with honest feedback and accountability.

But how many of us become anxious trying to please our healthy spouses and feel like failures when we can’t? How many of us avoid conflict in the name of love, when we are actually just too anxious to upset our loved ones? (Hands go up slowly.) Sometimes we allow our moment-to-moment ability to please our people to determine whether we have peace or anxiety.

Now, imagine a common and more dangerous scenario, when the people we are trying to please are not healthy, haven’t done their “work,” don’t have relational skills, and have extremely unrealistic expectations. If our peace depends on someone’s approval, and it’s impossible to earn, we’re stuck in an endless, anxiety-producing loop.

This is a common trap people pleasers fall into because they were often groomed in childhood to be people pleasures by unhealthy parents or caregivers. They’ve perfected the dance of hustling for the approval of those who will never approve.

The people who are have the least healthy desires are often the ones that demand we meet them. They will be the ones to punish us most severely when we decide to stop. They are the ones most resistant to boundaries – and thereby mark themselves as those we most need to set boundaries around.

When I teach boundaries to groups of young moms, I tell them to think of the person in their life that they believe they “can’t say no to.” That’s the person who they most need to say it to in order to regain their peace. When I say this, the people pleasers in the crowd react like the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:24: “What a wretched man I am,” he writes. “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” They can’t imagine a world in which they can feel like they are still good while a toxic person in their life calls them bad.

Paul’s answer has also been mine, personally, as I overcome the habit and sin – yes sin – of pleasing people to ease my anxiety. “Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Jesus rescues us not only from sin and death, but from the long, slow torture of serving little gods. I’ll be writing much more about this in the next two weeks, but I have found in Christ not just a savior, but a friend who is the easiest person in my life to please and the one who is most worth pleasing. I am no longer a nice Christian woman but a disciple of Christ who has been set free.

*If you don’t believe in God, I don’t know how you feel good enough, and I don’t mean that as an insult or a judgement. I really mean, that it’s the only way I’ve found to feel okay. Because God says I am. All other standards feel arbitrary and scary. I have no guarantee that I’m a net positive in this world so I’m grateful for grace. I would LOVE to hear from you on this! How do you find yourself at a place of “good enough”?

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