I am an approval addict in recovery.
Sometimes, the most difficult addictions to identify are the ones that do not come in the form of pills or needles.
I lived most of my Christian life as an approval addict. I didn’t realize it until it was almost too late.
As an approval addict, my whole sense of worth as a person came from my husband, my church leaders (one of whom is my dad), and a few other key people in my life. My addiction was no fault of theirs.
I spent my evenings devoted to discipleship and outreach. Any spare moment was spent trying to keep up on the house or get the laundry caught up on. I was running myself into the ground, and all for the approval of people.
As our family grew, I was becoming more and more and more tired. I was growing more and more frustrated. I was unable to keep up with the demands that I placed on myself and the demands that I felt others had placed on me.
As my demands grew, my stamina diminished. I would often let people down, and then beat myself up about it. I would forget an important meeting or fail to get the house in order.
The more I tried, the more tired I became and the more tired I became, the more I fell short. The more I fell short, the more I hated myself. The more I hated myself, the more tired I became.
This went on in an absolutely viscous cycle that left me disoriented, unsure of who I really was, and far away from the love that God intended me to experience in Him.
One fateful night, it all came to a screeching halt. My thought life had become so dark, that I was genuinely convinced that everyone would have been better off without me, even my small children. I would not have attempted to end my own life, but I remember calling out to God,
“God, why am I even still here? What good am I doing? Why can’t you just take me home to be with You? I can’t understand why I’m here. I don’t want to be here anymore.”
I meant it from the darkest depths of my soul.
It was in that moment that I realized that there was something very very wrong with. I realized I needed help. My life was not working for me anymore, and finally the fear of living the rest of my life that way became deeper than my fear of what people would think of me.
Looking back, the night that I realized I desperately needed help was the turning point. The worst night of my life turned into one of the best things that ever happened to me, because out of that darkness, I finally realized that I was not okay.
I began to see a Christian therapist. When I walked into the office for my first visit, I had no idea that those once a week visits would help me to completely turn my life around.
My therapist helped me to identify things about myself that had long been buried under the demands of others and my desperate need for their approval.
They say the biggest step toward recovery is to admit that you have a problem. That was true for me. As soon as I admitted that there was something desperately wrong with me, I took the steps necessary to get help, admit that I had an approval addiction, and start healing.
I began to truly believe in my heart that Jesus already approves of me and that nothing I do or fail to do will change His love for me. I began to enjoy life again. I felt that I had the freedom to say, “no” when people asked something of me. I felt that I had a right to enjoy the things that God placed within me for me to enjoy. I started writing again. I started running again. I started getting out into nature again. And most importantly, during all of these activities, I began to practice the presence of God. No longer did I feel like I had to meet every single need that crossed my path. No longer did I feel a sense of guilt whenever I was not helping someone, sharing the gospel, or engaged in a church event. I began to experience God in every little beautiful detail of life. I began to experience the joy of His presence in my children’s laughter, the sunrise, the smell of rain after a hot spell, the feeling you get in your lungs after a long hard run. I felt Him everywhere and in everything. I never could have regained that sense of myself and that sense of Him if I had not first admitted my approval addiction and sought recovery.
It was not as easy as I make it sound. It seems easier now that I have been practicing my new way of thinking for so long. But at first, it was an uphill battle. My brain was already trained to seek the approval of others. Getting their approval was like a drug. It felt good. I felt I needed it to survive, to feel a sense of purpose. Saying “no” or letting someone down felt bad at first. I felt like a failure. I felt like I was letting everyone in my life down. I felt ungrateful and sometimes even selfish.
But the real act of selfishness had always been my relentless pursuit of approval from people. You see, I was never really doing any of it for them. It was all for me. I wanted them to make me feel like I was worthwhile. I loved the feeling of martyrdom that I got from making a huge self sacrifice in order to serve someone else.
Saying “no” and making time for “self” was really just putting a stop to my drug of choice. I had to stop getting approval in order to really cleanse my mind of this addiction. I knew that at some point in my life, I would go back to serving and helping people as Christ called me to do. But I also knew that during this cleanse, I had to take time away. A sabbatical if you will. An extended Sabbath. I had to stop putting that drug into my system long enough to re-train my brain not to seek the approval of others but to bask in the approval of God, which was unconditional.
So I took an extended period of time in which I did not do much for anyone. I said “no” more often than I said “yes”. With the help of my therapist, I learned to recognize the warning signs of slipping into my approval addiction. When I noticed those signs, I prayed through my emotions to uncover the truth. I did this multiple times a day. At first, it was really difficult. Every part of me cried out for approval from my husband, my extended family, even my kids. It felt like death to deny myself of seeking their approval. But what resurrected out of that death was more beautiful than I ever could have imagined.
I never imagined that life could feel this good. Even in the tough times, God is there, an everlasting source of peace and the only approval I will ever need.
I have been able to move back into serving again, but it comes from a totally different motive. I noticed that other people’s ungratefulness no longer has an effect on me. When I serve now, it is because I genuinely believe that it is an act of service to God, and something that He has specifically placed on my heart to do. So I am able to do that act of service out of a genuine love for God, and it matters nothing whether anyone else notices or not.
More importantly, however, I do not feel that I need to meet every need that I am made aware of. I do not feel that I need to do everything that everyone else asks of me. My heart does not sink when I decline. Instead, it soars, knowing that I now have the power and the right to decline, and God’s love for me does not change one bit when I do so.
An excellent source for further reading on this subject is The Emotionally Healthy Woman by Geri Scazzero.