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The Need to Please

How to stop living for others' approval

"I got lucky," I heard myself say as I averted my eyes. I knew I deserved my friend's congratulations for finishing my doctorate in psychology. I'd worked hard. And luck certainly wasn't what had kept me at my computer all night writing my dissertation. But afraid my friend would think I was a show-off, I provided myriad disclaimers I didn't even believe throughout our conversation.

I'd gotten caught in the people-pleasing trap.

When we aren't honest with others about who we really are, and instead present an image of who we think we should be in order to gain their acceptance, we're people pleasing.

But we don't have to be enslaved to other people's approval. Instead, we can serve others authentically and proclaim with the apostle Paul, "We are not trying to please people but God"

(1 Thessalonians 2:4, NCV). Here's how to break free from the bondage of people pleasing.

Get to know yourself

"We give glory to God simply by being ourselves," author Brennan Manning writes. However, you can't glorify God by being yourself if you don't even know that self!

In one of my first counseling sessions with Karen, a 37-year-old self-described people pleaser, she admitted she didn't know who the real Karen was. And she certainly never gave others the opportunity to know the real her. "People think I'm the perfect wife and mother," Karen told me. Her friends commented on her always-tidy house and home-cooked meals. She served on numerous church and neighborhood committees, and said "yes" to any request.

But secretly, Karen was exhausted and bitter. Unsure what unique gifts or talents she possessed, she felt like an empty shell simply shuffling from one activity to another.

To help someone get more acquainted with herself—her likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses—I recommend writing answers to these questions.

Who are you? Describe yourself in 20 adjectives, focusing on personal qualities rather than roles. For every negative attribute, add two positives.

I, for example, am not only impatient, but also compassionate and energetic.

How would your spouse or best friend describe you? Others notice different aspects of your personality from those you see. My husband often comments on my nurturing side as he watches me with our children.

What are your hobbies and interests? Knowing what gives you energy keeps you connected to how God made you. I come most alive when I'm drinking coffee with friends, eating good food with my husband, or making scrapbooks about my kids.

What talents has God given you? Acknowledging —and using—a God-given gift is practicing good stewardship. When I eat the meringues my friend Stephanie makes, I'm thankful she's developed that gift. 

After reflecting on who you are, look for opportunities to live as your true self in relationships. Perhaps you can invite some girlfriends to meet weekly and take turns choosing a favorite activity, whether piano playing or hiking. As you share personal hobbies, you'll deepen friendships.

To build more authentic relationships, Karen learned to spend less time doing tasks for her family, and spend more quality time doing activities with her family. She played alongside her kids, asked them for help in the kitchen, and stopped worrying about getting the house dirty. She stopped volunteering for every committee, and was able to realize her longtime dream of leading a mentoring group for young moms. Having gotten to know herself better, she was now able to serve others not to gain their acceptance, but to show genuine care.

Learn to like yourself 

Even after getting to know themselves better, many women struggle to see their worthwhile qualities.

If my mother had to list her strengths, she'd probably hesitate. Yet she's funny, compassionate, and beautiful. She's a loving mother and devoted wife. And although she had no college degree, she became a successful commercial loan administrator after her four kids were in school. She's also disciplined in her spiritual life, rarely missing a morning of Bible reading.

But instead of talking about these accomplishments, my mother would give a long list of her weaknesses and limitations. She recently told me she'd never believed her true self was acceptable. So she hid it, and instead mirrored her friends' behavior. She changed her speech, manners, even her housecleaning practices to become the woman she thought was acceptable to her friends.

I, too, have struggled with liking myself. I was afraid focusing on my good qualities would make me prideful. But Christ's greatest command, to love your neighbor as yourself, assumes a love of self. Liking yourself isn't arrogant or self-centered. Rather, it's accepting the Creator's gifts and living in gratitude for them. It's valuing yourself as Christ values you.

So ask God to help you see yourself as Christ does—with grace and compassion. Write yourself a letter using Scriptures, hymns, or song lyrics to reflect God's love for you. Then post the letter on your mirror or refrigerator. When I'm struggling, I insert my name in Scriptures. Sometimes I imagine myself as the bleeding woman in Mark 5, and hear Jesus call me "daughter." My mom memorizes and recites Scriptures that remind her who she is in him.

Once you've begun to embrace your unique talents, you can serve and give to other people solely out of gratitude for all God's given you.

Rest in Christ's love

Although you may know you're God's child, you still can be tempted to look to others for your sense of worth.

A few months ago, after I'd spoken in a chapel service at the university where I teach, I repeatedly asked my husband what he'd thought of my address. Certainly, desiring my husband's good opinion is natural. But sometimes I think more about who I am in his eyes than about who I am in God's.

 When you look to others for affirmation, you ask them to reflect your feelings and thoughts back to you with perfect accuracy and insight. When my husband is unable to do so, I get frustrated. Your husband, children, and friends may love you as best they can, affirm your strengths, and help you see how God designed you. But when you ask someone to tell you who you are, you're really asking that person to be your god. And human beings are destined to disappoint you. God alone is your true "mirror." Only he can fully, perfectly know and love you (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Once you stop unrealistically expecting—or demanding—others to fill that role, you can rest in your identity in Christ. I can receive my husband's affirmation with gratitude rather than neediness. And when I feel the urge to continually ask him for feedback, I lay before God that desire to feel loved and understood. I ask him to help me desire his approval above others'.

In seeking Christ's favor, you can stop trying to prove to others you're a good wife, mother, or church member. Besides, you'll never succeed in proving your worth—you're not perfect! But you are worthy. And that worth lies not in what you do for others, but in the work Christ has already done for—and in—you. When you rest in his unfailing love, you can serve others in true freedom.

My old fears about approval resurfaced last year after a colleague congratulated me on publishing my first book. But instead of shutting down the conversation with disclaimers, I shared my genuine excitement for the book's message, and reminded myself of Scripture's admonition that we should use our gifts "to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace" (1 Peter 4:10, TNIV).

The boundary between service and people pleasing can seem fuzzy. But as we learn to know and like ourselves as Christ's loved ones, we'll begin serving simply to share God's grace.

Kim Gaines Eckert, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist and professor at Lee University in Tennessee. This article is adapted from her book, Stronger Than You Think: Becoming Whole Without Having to Be Perfect (InterVarsity).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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