For most of my life, I have been a people pleaser. Many times I have focused my day on winning the approval of others. I wanted to hear another person thank me for something I did or respond with praise over my effort.
This desire for people to notice me began as a teenager. Both my parents loved and accepted me, but that was not enough. Instead I sought out my friends’ approval. As a teenager, I “did church” just to be a part of a group, seeking the group’s approval and not God’s. I developed performance-for-approval habits as a teenager, and these became a way of life.
All through college and even my career in teaching, I used my performance to gain others’ admiration or affection. When I spent time with God, I shared my worldly wants and ambitions with Him, but not my emotional needs. I felt like I might exhaust God by asking Him each day to help me feel loved and worthy. So I didn’t ask.
The Cost of Seeking the Approval of Others
Unfortunately, my approval seeking began to take an emotional toll on me, particularly in my teaching career.
When I desired to move from the classroom to the role of an elementary principal, I was encouraged to take leadership classes that prepared me for the job. In my classes I was informed that I needed to dress for success. I observed the leaders who taught the class and realized that I would have to wear high heels and professional suits, plus get my nails done.
All of these requirements stretched me because I was a play-in-the-dirt kind of girl. My hands didn’t like princess nails. I placed a lot of pressure on myself not only in my job, but as a mom. I felt the success of my children was another way I could show my success as a person.
As a result of the demands I put on myself and accepted from others, insomnia began to settle into my nighttime routine. During those sleepless moments, I woke up angry and emotionally exhausted. I didn’t feel like I dressed like my superiors wanted me to, parented well enough, or met the needs of those closest to me. I stayed awake planning ways I could do better at work and at home.
Hours would tick by without a feeling of peace. I tried all the strategies I learned in church: quoting Scripture, praying, or singing my favorite worship song.
However, where was God in all of this? Far away! I didn’t allow the Holy Spirit to direct my path in relationships because I was determined to meet my needs for love and acceptance on my own: I would buy a new pair of high heel shoes, get my nails done — or bake someone their favorite treat, call them, or take them to lunch.
All these ideas for trying to please or impress others seemed harmless, but my heart was not a godly heart. I was seeking a human love that could not measure up to God’s love, and I was not demonstrating an unconditional love toward others. I was offering my performance in exchange for something in return.
How I Gave Up My Need for People’s Approval
Several years ago, when I retired from education, I began to really dig into God’s Word. I joined a young moms’ Bible study at my church. I accidentally found myself in this class because I liked the topic of the Bible study. On the first day, I realized that there were two older people in the class, and I was one of them. The moms made me feel welcome, but when I left, I was not sure I should return.
The next week I returned to the class. I chose to stay because these young moms had amazing energy, a strong desire to learn about God’s word, and a wish to connect with other moms who understood the challenges of being a mother. It was during a study called The Best Yes, by Lysa Terkeurst, that I realized I was driven by my need to live life in a stellar performance mode to win others’ approval. I was convicted by a verse included in the study that jumped out at me with these words:
Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding. (Matthew 6:1, MSG)
In our study, Terkeurst referred to author and pastor Dallas Willard, who wrote The Divine Conspiracy. He says,
When we want human approval and esteem, and do what we do for the sake of it, God courteously stands aside because, by our wish, it does not concern him… . When our aim is to impress human beings … he lets us do that… . On the other hand, if we live unto God alone, he responds to our expectations — which are of him alone.
I had one of those oh-my-gosh moments when I read that. I took a deep look into my past and discovered all these years I was living my life out-of-sync with God. What Williard says about how God “courteously stands aside” while we aim to impress was true in my life.
God was standing aside since my pride created a distance between us. After this moment in the study, however, my quiet moments with God became a time to examine my deep desire to be loved by others and why I felt I needed to work so hard to make people accept me. The solution to my problem was not to earn my family and friends’ love, but to live my life for God and trust Him to meet my need for approval.
It was a freeing moment! A weight had been lifted because I didn’t have to try to win people’s approval. I could let go of my own unrealistic expectations for myself and performance-based system of living. How freeing is that — awesomely so! God created us to worship Him and to celebrate how He created us. My moments with God now begin with praise because He so wonderfully made me the way He wanted to and not the way I think He should have made me.
Now when I wake to the old voices of fear and worry telling me that I have to perform, I pray to my Father, acknowledging how He loves me for me, and I praise Him for making me “me.” I think about 1 Thessalonians 2:4 (NLT), which says, “Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts.”
I ask God to search my heart to direct me when I am concerned about my relationships with others. When I do that, I am able to let go of my anxiety about what I have or have not done that day; I meditate on how He loves me, and when I do, all is well with my soul and sleep returns.
Prayer: Father, may we praise You for the breath that You created in us. May we know that this day, You have given to each one of us a desire to celebrate living life for You. As we live today, continue to search our hearts and draw us near so we will not leave Your presence to seek what we think we should accomplish. Help us to be mindful that our performance is to bring You great joy because You are the center of our life. We trust You to walk with us and direct our actions. May all the glory be Yours.