What’s a chronic people pleaser to do? Here are six ways I’m still learning to fight the idol of approval.
1. You can’t know what others think, but you can know what Jesus thinks.
The cruelty of approval is that you can’t ever really know what others think of you. One look at the cross, though, and you can be sure what Jesus thinks of you. He literally loves you to death.
When talking about approval, my dad likes to say, “What you think of me is none of my business.” But making what Jesus thinks of you “your business” is key.
2. The pursuit of coolness and the practice of kindness are mutually exclusive.Being a people pleaser means that even when I’m doing something nice for you, it’s really about me. Which is shorthand for saying, “I want you to like me and think I'm cool.”
The way out of this trap is dying to what you think of me so I can begin to be kind to you in the ways Jesus has been kind to me. Because Christians have died with Christ to being cool, we’re free in him to begin being kind. The pursuit of coolnees feeds our approval idol, but the practice of kindness starves it.
3. Being yourself is better than being a cover band of someone else.A few years ago I braved a dive bar to see a Led Zeppelin cover band called Zoso. They were amazing and the next best thing to Led Zeppelin. But they also made me sad since they’d adopted the persona of someone else, down to the long curly hair and tight leather pants (which should be illegal unless you’ve been on the cover of Rolling Stone). The world has missed out on the unique music only they could have made, even if it wasn’t appreciated beyond their cat lady aunts and favorite high school teachers.
No one wants you to be a cover band of someone else. They want you to be yourself, in all of your shame and glory.
4. Before you can ever be yourself, you have to actually like yourself.Sadly most of us could agree with Dave Matthews (right now people with Jeeps are nodding extra hard): “I wish I had been anyone other than me.” A guy in my high school actually chose that for his senior quote because he hated himself so much.
The way out of hating yourself isn’t being someone else. It’s beginning to be who God made (and redeemed) you to be. It’s like that scene in Silence of the Lambs when Hannibal Lector escapes from prison by cutting off the guard’s face and wearing it on top of his own. As gross as it is, it’s exactly what we do when we try to be somebody else.
The only way out of the prison of people pleasing is to take off the skin of others and get comfortable in your own. Of course this doesn’t mean getting comfortable in our sin. God is at work to renew us into the likeness of Jesus. But do you realize that God made, chose, redeemed, adopted, called, and sent you?
5. Live from your identity, not for it.Maybe it’s better to make the distinction between identity and image. Identity is something given, fundamental to the way you see yourself. Image, on the other hand, is something you create, fundamentally about the way you want others to see you. The sin of our age is to live for our image instead of from our identity. Which is why Vaughan Roberts wisely warns us that “wholehearted commitment to Christ will not be good for our image.”
But we have something better than an image. We have an identity in Christ that nothing and no one can touch. It includes words like “son,” “daughter,” “servant,” and “heir.” In the words of Aslan:
6. Resign yourself to the awkwardness of life.This is my new favorite line (mainly because my spiritual gift is making things awkward). It’s from the Before movie trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight). From beginning to end, life is awkward. Life isn’t as it should be, and neither are we. Let’s not pretend life isn’t hard, or that any of us has it all together. Let’s admit to ourselves (and one another) that we’re broken and can’t fix ourselves. Resigning yourself to the awkwardness of life means being vulnerable about all your weakness and weirdness. Awkwardness is an invitation to vulnerability. And vulnerability is where friendship is born. It’s also where God becomes big. And not until he becomes big will people become just the right size: big enough to matter, small enough to not be enslaved to what they think.
Unfortunately, our struggle with approval won’t just go away. The fight for the gospel of grace to reign in our hearts and minds is a daily one. The fear of winning (or losing) the approval we crave is something to be repented of daily, too. That’s why I’m strongly considering getting Jesus’s words in Luke 6:26 tattooed on my forearm: “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you.” Then again, having a forearm tattoo might be its own approval struggle.
The rest we need from our constant striving to be liked will never be found in ourselves, in the clichés of “trying harder” or “doing better,” or in the shame of “just stop being this way already.” Instead it’s found at the right hand of God, where we already have all of the approval we could ever need. As someone once said, God doesn’t just love us. He likes us. He really likes us.