Written by: Brent Grothe & Kay Dodge
Many of us in our search for meaning and significance in our lives, whether we realize it or not, tend to view our worthiness in terms of a math problem:
My performance + others’ opinions of me = my self-worth.
In our previous post we focused entirely on the first part of the equation, performance, which we know as Big Lie #1. Today we are addressing the next part of the equation, approval, as the second of four ways way we seek to justify ourselves and measure our worthiness. This second Big Lie can take over our lives and keep us from loving and serving others as we are called to do.
Big Lie #2: I must be approved and accepted by others in order to feel good about myself.
The second Big Lie tells us that in order to have self-worth, we must be accepted, respected, and approved of by others. Just as Big Lie #1 battles our sense of worthlessness by forcing us to perform, Big Lie #2 battles those same feelings by forcing us to look to others for justification. How we view ourselves becomes entirely based upon our perceptions of how others view us. Rejection is our biggest fear because being rejected and losing the approval of others means that we are worthless. This is why the Lie #2 is nicknamed the ‘approval trap’ - we will often do anything, become anyone, in order to get approval and avoid rejection. As one student put it, “I have always been afraid of rejection ever since I was a little kid. But I had no idea that there was a whole lie devoted to the subject.”
At the very root of Big Lie #2 is the belief that we, in our true, authentic selves, are not enough. We look at all our bad habits, our insecurities, our hateful thoughts, and believe that no one would ever truly be able to love and accept us if they saw us as who we truly are - and so we hide behind characters and personas we create for ourselves, constantly molding ourselves into who we think those around us want us to be. Forget Meryl Streep or Tom Hanks - those of us living under Big Lie #2 are the greatest actors because, even after the curtain closes or the director yells “cut!”, our acting goes on.
One of the characters we adopt when struggling under Big Lie #2 is what we will call the “Yes Man” persona. Yes Man works overtime to be and do everything that anyone asks him to do in the hopes it will win him the approval he seeks. We have no boundaries and are easily manipulated by those around us in hopes it will earn their love for us. Robert McGee claims in his book, The Search For Significance, “We try to copy the customs, dress, ideas, and behavioral patterns of a particular group, allowing the consensus of the group to determine what is correct for us.” So we end up lonely, disconnected, and ravaged by the constant pressure to conform. “Growing up I have always been scared of being rejected,” says a girl, “so I would always try to change myself to be ‘cool’...I am afraid to be myself because the world is tough and I don’t like to be judged or rejected...the fear of rejection fuels my life and what I do.” We likely aren’t so blind as to be ignorant of when people are taking advantage of us, but we continue to let ourselves be manipulated for fear that, if we don’t, we will be rejected. Our entire self-worth is built upon the acceptance of others, and the fear of losing that acceptance overpowers the pain we experience when we realize we are being used.
What’s worse, all the time we are working overtime to please everyone we ignore our own needs and instead help others with theirs. We might ignore our own negative feelings, seeing it as our responsibility to be the “fun” person that everyone loves to be around or, on the other side, only allow ourselves to feel as happy as those around us. We heap responsibility for others’ emotions upon our own shoulders, desperately hoping that in return they will grant us the approval we so desperately need. Yet all this work we put in, all this time and energy, can come crashing down around us with a single angry word, or even a glare from across the room. Such blows can cause us to lash out and hurt those we care about as our instinctive fight-or-flight brain scrambles to preserve our lie, our illusion of identity based on others.
The other character we might adopt as a way of dealing with Big Lie #2 is the “No Man”. No Man is a persona we most often retreat to after overextending ourselves for too long. Being a Yes Man for too long can cause anxiety and burnout from always working to make others happy, and such a character cannot be sustained forever. So, we take up the No Man, we protect ourselves from rejection by rejecting everyone before they have the chance to reject us. We become apathetic, angry, and resentful, directing the negative emotions we feel about ourselves and our unworthiness towards the world.
When we hide behind a character to win the acceptance of others, we are denying ourselves what we truly crave: the joy of being fully seen and fully accepted. Sure, people might claim to like, or even love us - but it’s not the real us they know. As McGee puts it, we, “hide behind a wall of words, smiles, and activities...quite lonely in the midst of all [our] so-called friends.” Big Lie #2’s nickname is the Approval Trap because the more addicted we become to the approval of others the more disconnected we become from people and from ourselves. All our relationships are superficial; every time we come close to creating a real, meaningful relationship that little voice whispers in our heads, “If they only knew who you really are, they would never love you”.
We find it excruciatingly difficult to be vulnerable and open ourselves up to others, to reveal our inner thoughts or motives, because we think that others will reject us if they know what we’re really like. And so our fear leads us into superficial relationships or isolation. “I am scared to put myself out there and be vulnerable because I don’t want people to judge me for who I really am,” writes a freshman boy. We shut others out because we think it is better than the alternative of being rejected. Author C.S. Lewis puts it perfectly in his quote about vulnerability:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
Big Lie #2 isn’t always easy to catch, particularly in leadership, when we are told that leading is primarily serving and meeting the needs of others. The lie twists our perceptions, telling us that by working hard to meet everyone’s approval, we are doing our job as leaders. But lies can only tell lies. When we let Big Lie #2 control us, when we devote our time and energy to making others like us, the only person we are truly serving is ourselves. Our true motives remain selfish as we work to feed our never-ending appetite for approval. Loving someone as a leader requires us to hold people accountable, to set boundaries and remain firm in them, and to create real, authentic loving relationships with those around us. We need to learn the difference between showing forgiveness and holding people to the best versions of themselves; we need to learn that in saying no to some things, we are saying yes to the truly important things. None of that is possible if we let Big Lie #2 control us.
The Truth: What others think and say about you is secondary to who you are and who you want to be. Love is not earned. You can be your own self. What you do for others in love changes what you believe about yourself.
We do not have to struggle to make the choice between living as a character or being rejected. The truth is, the person you really are, the real, messy, complicated human is beautiful, and worth sharing with the world. None of us can ever truly know what is going on in someone else’s head; when we base our self-worth off of others perceptions, we are basing our self-worth off of unreliable information. People will not automatically reject you if they see you for who you are - yes, there is risk, but that is part of being vulnerable. With no risk comes no reward, and the reward for letting ourselves be seen is one of the most beautiful things we have the chance to experience as humans. If we can learn to let go of our lie and start living in the truth, we will begin to experience the deep, authentic connections that our soul craves.
So what are we to do? How do we get out of this trap and make the truth our reality? Well, first of all we need to become aware that we do live by this lie. We hear again from students: “I’ve started to notice how [the fear of rejection] can affect me daily. Sometimes I won’t say certain things or wear certain outfits that I like because I don’t know if everyone else will ‘approve’ of it. This causes me to sometimes not take risks and be vulnerable with people because I’m too scared of what they will think.” Ah, but then she writes, “Now that this has been pointed out to me, I have been trying harder to not care for approval and do what I think is best for myself.” Awareness is the first step towards living in the truth. Think of how many people are living by lies and don’t even know it. The first step towards freedom is realizing you are in a cage in the first place.
Then, the real, heart-changing work begins. We need to begin seeing ourselves as being worthy of love and belonging - not because others approve of us, but simply because we are human. We must move into a mindset of unconditional acceptance, where we can say to others, “I love you and accept you no matter what you do. There is nothing you can do that can make me stop loving you.” We must stop playing the approval game, constantly looking to live up to the approval standards of others, and instead begin to live in the reality of love and acceptance. Instead of putting on a mask, we can challenge ourselves to let ourselves be seen, to love unashamedly with our whole hearts. We can begin to look for the good in others and do good for them. As we strive to live up to the standards of this perfect, humanizing, harmonizing agapé love it lessens our need for approval and wipes away our fear.
Before you say yes to something, an opportunity or adventure, ask yourself why you are saying yes. Are you saying yes because you think it will win someone’s approval? Is what you are saying yes to in line with the person and leader you want to be? In saying yes to this, what are you saying no to? Take a minute or two to think about it - or even better, journal it somewhere.
Start a journal of self-reflection to figure out the real you, who you truly are when you aren’t trying to gain anyone’s approval. It’s hard not to mold ourselves to others expectations when we don’t even know who we are! Some questions to get you started:
When and where do you feel the most in tune with yourself?
What are 10 (non-physical!) things you love about yourself?
What are your core values?
About the Author:
Kay Dodge was one of the leadership students Brent Grothe, her leadership advisor, challenged to pursue a life of humble service and has never been the same since. She is passionate about loving people, which is what she considers to be the purpose of life. One day she hopes to master her ego and love others and herself without reservation. She is beyond thankful for the opportunity to write about her passion with her former teacher and current friend.
Brent Grothe spends his days challenging high school kids to consider pursuing lives of deep meaning and purpose rather than ones of shallow happiness. He’s been presenting the suffering and joy of servant leadership for a long time and thinks he’s finally, in a real way, understanding it himself. On a never-ending quest to clearly articulate the slavery of ego versus the freedom of humility, he plans to stay in the classroom as a leadership teacher until someone decides to retire him. He’s been involved with activities and Mt. Adams High School Leadership Camp for 40+ years and he still can’t believe he actually gets to teach life for a living while at the same time being blessed with friendships with the likes of Kay Dodge.