I have a theory- there are a lot of people out there who, like me, spend way too much of their mental energy trying to earn the good things in life. Love, friendships, affection, praise, respect, social status. There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of these things. The problem is when they become the motive behind our hard work and kindness. The problem is when we buy a financially struggling friend’s meal, not to help them out, but to win their love. I am, unfortunately, guilty of this.
Recently(and if I’m honest, to my dismay), God has pointed out to me the underlying motives that have frequently laced many of my actions. In my life, this practice had gone to an extreme. I didn’t just do nice things to earn affection. I changed things about myself. Usually small, insignificant things. Pretending to like a movie. Pretending to be interested in a topic. Pretending to agree with another person’s opinion. Pretending someone’s careless actions hadn’t left me crying all night. Pretending I wanted to spend time with them. It had been a lifelong practice of mine, this destructive pretending. I have a vivid memory from my childhood where I am sitting on the couch next to my Dad and pretending to love NASCAR races. Of course I don’t MIND them. But the idea that I wouldn’t rather be doing 100 other things, is very incorrect. I know what you are thinking- there is nothing wrong with a little girl pretending to like NASCAR. And you are probably right. What isn’t okay is the reason I was pretending. I was trying to “help” my Dad love me. (As if he needed help.)
And so has been this lifelong nasty habit of mine. People pleasing and calling it love. Everything I did stunk of a desperate need for approval. I never stood up for myself. I constantly caved. Instead of meeting people in the middle, I met them all the way on their side. I had no idea how to be brave, how to use my voice. I could not imagine telling people anything I thought they didn’t want to hear. All I knew how to do was morph into the person I thought everyone wanted me to be. It seems pathetic and sad, but it’s really a strange form of manipulation. By letting others control me, I subconsciously thought I could control their feelings about me. I could earn anyone’s love.
Unfortunately, this habit didn’t only manifest itself in my human relationships. It poured into my relationship with Jesus. When I did wrong by him (which is way too often), it took days, sometimes weeks, to come to him for amends. Of course, I knew he would forgive me the moment I asked. The problem was, I couldn’t convince myself that He still wanted to talk to me. I didn’t even remotely deserve His love. I would avoid Him. Hide from Him. The moment I would think of Him, I had to force the thought out of my mind. In my early high school years, it took spells of depression to finally reach out to God when I was going through a period of avoiding him. Now, luckily, it only takes a stressful day. (And the avoidance tendencies are at an all time low!!!)
This is most definitely no way to live. It’s results have been anxiety, guilt, and a whole lot of empty longing. Lucky for me, Jesus is pretty opposed to people pleasing. Through a series of many many unfortunate events (YES, this is a children’s novel reference), He made it clear to me that He was asking me to find my voice. To be brave. Not so I could gain control over my own life, but to take the control out of other people’s hands and put it back into His. As I started to take the control, I became full of fear and doubt. Thoughts like “What if God forces me into a career I don’t want?”, “What if He forces me into relationships I don’t want?”, “What if I have to live in America forever (Europe calls me like you wouldn’t believe)?”, and the worst- “What if I end up unhappy?”. It feels safe when I am controlling people’s perception of me. It feels safe when I am people pleasing. You know what doesn’t feel safe? Giving my life to a GOOD and merciful God, who loves me beyond belief, and trusting that he knows what my heart needs. Trusting that he has my good in mind. Trusting that even when I am not attempting to earn love, it will find me.
You cannot imagine how scary this has been. How much bravery this has required. Luckily, I’m not doing this alone. Jesus has given me a number of resources. A few amazingly brave friends. A whole lot of brave historical figures that I am possibly too obsessed with (I love you Hamilton). A whole lot of Scripture. The verse that has hit me especially hard is one of the most well known verses among Christians. Psalm 23:1. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” I have often overlooked this intro sentence of Psalm 23, but right now it is the most important. When I am letting the Lord guide me and lead me, when I am taking control out of other human’s hands and putting it into His, I shall not want. He isn’t giving me the leftovers in life. He isn’t withholding the good things from me. He isn’t forcing me into a life of longing. He’s SO much better than that. In fact, the only way to have a life that isn’t riddled with longing, is to stop trying to earn love. To let it sit with me even when I do not deserve it. To be who I am, not who someone wants me to be.
If you are in this boat with me, then I’m asking you to be brave. Find boundaries and do not be afraid to enforce them. Think twice before you pretend to like that person’s favorite movie. Use the voice that you have buried under everyone else’s. When the truth feels unwanted and uncomfortable, speak it. Do not morph into the person you think someone else wants. Love that has to be earned is not love. And most importantly, rely on the strength of an ever present God that loves the person you really are. Trust that He is backing you up. Trust that your authentic voice is important. One day, when the people pleasing tendencies are gone and bravery pulses through your veins, that voice will be used for wonderful, world-changing things.