Ask a Counselor: roll away the stone of approval-seeking

by Kay Bruner on July 6, 2017

The stones that weigh us down, that keep us from mature growth.  What are they, and how can we roll them away?  So far in this series, we’ve looked at the stones of perfectionism and shame.  This month, we’re exploring approval-seeking.

As we look at approval-seeking, remember that we’ve already figured out that perfectionism and shame are counterproductive.  Also, we’ve learned that mistakes and failures are simply opportunities to turn back to the Love that never lets us go.

Carrying those insights forward, let us remember:

The things we find inside ourselves when we examine approval-seeking are not occasions for shame and self-flagellation.  

They are simply more opportunities to turn back to Love.

In that way, whatever we find inside of ourselves, no matter how negative it may seem, is a gift.

One more reason to turn back to Love.

Years ago, I read somewhere that the purpose of approval-seeking is CONTROL.

“But wait,” I thought, dismayed and alarmed.  “OTHER people might be controlling, but not me!  I’m a nice people-pleaser!  I’m just here trying to make everybody else happy and demonstrate the immensity of my servant’s heart!”

The truth is, though, if I can get someone else to approve of me, if they like me, if they admire me, I may be able to:

  • control their feelings about me, AND perhaps even
  • control their behavior toward me.

If I’m a person who desperately needs to be loved, I may find myself in a “weak people-pleaser” pattern.  If I’m a person who desperately needs to be admired, perhaps the “strong pedestal dweller” life will suit me better.

Either way, when I’m approval-seeking, I’m trying to control the response of others. 

Somebody else holds the key to my emotional, spiritual, personal well-being, and I’m going to seek their approval until they give me what I need, whether it’s love and affection or admiration and elevation.

Approval-seeking may be a skill set that served us well in the past. We may have learned to control others this way in our family of origin, as a survival skill.

In a dysfunctional family, our peace, our calm, our very physical safety might depend upon our ability to read social cues and behave in ways that will produce beneficial outcomes for us:

  • If you’ll just be funny enough, you can keep dad from drinking.
  • If you’ll just be sweet enough, you can keep mom from crying.
  • If you’ll just be competent enough, at least you’ll be necessary to others.
  • If you’ll just be incompetent enough, your parent can feel strong and in control, and never threatened by you.

While approval-seeking may have served us well in the past, there are hidden costs in the long term.

Here are some signs that approval-seeking isn’t working out the way we’d hoped:

  • We get angry that other people aren’t doing enough.
  • We’re so busy doing what everybody else wants that we don’t take responsibility for ourselves.
  • Our needs go unmet, and we hope that others will try to please us like we’re trying to please them.
  • Black hole syndrome:  no matter how much approval people give us, it’s never enough.
  • Imposter syndrome: we’re never who we appear to be.
  • Defense mechanisms are required to cope with the difference between our insides and our outsides: projection, displacement, denial, rationalization.
  • We’ve tried so hard to please others that we don’t really know what we want or need any more.
  • We’ve lost our SELVES along the way.
  • We feel empty, afraid, alone, no matter how happy we try to make others feel.
  • We may find ourselves just “done.”  At the end of our rope, at the end of our plan, at the end of ourselves.

Coming to the end of everything we know is a scary thing, but hear this good news:

“Until we are led to the limits of our current game plan, and find it to be insufficient, we will not search out or find the real source, the deep well, or the constantly flowing stream.”  Richard Rohr

The deep mind-shift here is about SUPPLY.

Our mistake is looking into the human system for supply.  When we are limited to the human system for supply, we’ll always have a scarcity.  I can’t do enough for you, and you can’t do enough for me.  We will drive each other crazy trying, and get real mad at each other in the process.

But when we lay ourselves down in the constantly flowing stream, a whole different thing begins to happen. 

We receive, we are renewed, we live and work and play in the Source. 

We don’t have to worry about who has what, because the constantly flowing stream of belovedness encompasses us all. 

No need to hoard it for ourselves or make rules that lock others out. 

There is more than enough for us all.

We are all perfectly loved, safe, and chosen.

Everyone belongs:  approval guaranteed.

Abandoning approval-seeking is one of the hardest tasks we’ll undertake as adults, I believe.  We know the truth that God is enough, and that he should be our source and supply.  But the tug of the others around us is great.  We’re talking about our family, our friends, our supporters, our colleagues.  All these relationships built on…well, let’s just say…less than the real truth about who we really are.

What will they think, say, or do when we stop trying to please them all the time?  Will we lose relationships?  Lose our job or career?

One of my favorite passages from The Chronicles of Narnia is the chapter called What Lucy Saw, in Prince Caspian.

In this particular chapter, the children are traveling through rough, unfamiliar country when Lucy sees Aslan and wants to follow him.  The problem is, nobody else sees Aslan.  And Lucy–the youngest, nicest kid in the family, the born people-pleaser—ends up following her siblings to keep them happy.

Once the decision is made, CS Lewis writes: “And Lucy came last of the party, crying bitterly.”

And it makes me wonder.

With all our approval-seeking, people-pleasing and pedestal-dwelling:

what are we missing out on when we try to drum up what we need from each other,

rather than diving into the deep well, the true Source, the ever-flowing stream?

What are we frantically following, when we could be pursuing Love?  

What bitter tears do we weep, trailing along behind people who can never give us what we truly need?

Resources

Tired of Trying to Measure Up, Jeff VanVonderen

The Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner

Boundaries, Cloud and Townsend

Breathing Underwater, Richard Rohr

photo credit

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About Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at www.kaybruner.com. She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to: www.kaybruner.com/counseling
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Control — YES. To control what people think of me mostly, because they absolutely MUST think I’m perfect, flawless, and without blemish. That’s the only way they’ll love me, right?

  • This is an important piece, Kay, and I thank you for it. It resonants with me especially for the expat Christian worker community, touching on that scary ground of the reasons behind the reasons that some seek that life. Also for me, as the adult child of alcoholic parents. Even today, in my 60’s and with a strong sense of self, I find it especially difficult to say no to my adult children. Not that they are overly demanding, but I notice that I take on guilt when I need to say “no” to things I could somehow manage, but at unreasonable cost to myself. I hadn’t thought of approval seeking as a means of control, but certain can see how I needed it to control something of my environment as I was growing up…so perhaps it is. I would certainly fall into the “strong pedestal-dweller category! Perhaps helps like this article can yet help me to grow up! Smile…. Blessings!

  • CA

    Thank you for this Kay. I always enjoy your posts. As someone who struggles with people-pleasing and perfectionism this is very helpful. I wonder though if there is a difference between people-pleasing and wanting some kind of objective standard to meet. In my old job I had a very clear job description and regular performance evaluations. If I consistently failed to meet the requirements in my job description, I knew I would lose my job. And if they consistently required more of me than what was in my contract, I had something to appeal to. This gave me a sense of security and ensured a fairly good fit between me and my employer. In this “choose your own adventure” kind of work overseas, I really struggle with the lack of clear expectations and clear feedback. The focus with my organization is always on my well-being, which I really appreciate in many ways. But I struggle with the fact that I am always the one who has to define exactly how much I can and can’t do. I realize every context is so different and different people have different energy levels/life circumstances etc but I can’t think of any other profession, including other ministries in the church, that have this kind of extreme fluidity.

  • Susan

    There is so much truth in this post that it hurts a little. I’m a partially recovered people pleaser. This post – what an eye opener!

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