It’s one thing to suspect you’ve struggled with an approval addiction for most of your life. It’s quite another to go digging in the crawlspace for proof. But that’s exactly what I did after sending my kids to school yesterday for their year-end awards assembly. Just so we’re clear, Jennifer Dukes Lee made me do it: For two months this spring, I carried Jennifer’s book, Love Idol, around with me everywhere I went. I read it slowly because I didn’t want it to end. I also didn’t want it to be true. At least not the parts about living with an approval addiction under the subclass known as perfectionism. You know, the parts I highlighted and underlined and starred because FAMILIAR.
I’ve lived almost four decades treading water between islands and tidal waves. I’ve been buoyed by praise, rescued by recognition, deflated by criticism…I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: It’s okay to receive affirmation. It’s fine to offer praise or compliments. And it’s vital to our spiritual well-being to receive the love of others. We were designed by God to love and be loved. But we have to ask ourselves, how often have we twisted love into an idol? How often do we identify our worth according to the love and approval of others? If we’re starting to drown, do we hope that someone will toss us a ring of validation to hang on to? Or do we reach out for Jesus instead?
I have memories of drowning, and I have memories of reaching out for things and people to hang onto. They’re just memories, though, and memories are often foggy and unreliable. Unless. Unless you have plastic storage containers hidden strategically out of reach. Tons and tons of storage containers filled with things that can prove if memory serves you correct, crazy, or both. I had to know if Jennifer was right about me. I had to know if I was right about me. So I took a breath, turned on my iPhone flashlight and went digging for this….
I had to move our kitchen table to make room for it all. After I took a few pictures and cleaned it up, I found more. More medals and badges stuffed in the pockets of my Letterman jacket. More magazines bearing my byline. More commendations, letters of recommendation, and newspaper clippings telling of my glory. And did I mention that all of this was accumulated circa 19-every-kid-does-NOT-get-a-participation-trophy? All of it was earned and performed for. All of it. So there it was. My entire dining room floor covered in me, and it was nauseating. Not because there weren’t amazing memories associated with every accolade (there were!); not because there weren’t irreplaceable relationships built and important life lessons learned along road to achievement (gosh, no!); not because I wish I had been someone else (no way); but because I knew that lurking in yet another set of containers were these…
Words. Thousands and thousands (and thousands) of words telling the heartbreaking truth about what was going on in me while all of that other stuff was being presented to me. Irrefutable evidence of an approval addition. Confirmation of an achievement complex. Proof of people pleasing. Documentation of depression. All of it earned and performed for. All of it. Tragic. My teenage handwriting left nothing to foggy, unreliable memories. It told the truth.
I had all the validation a girl could hold in her hands, but my fingers were shaking. I wore perfectionism like a prize even when it felt like a noose. I was on the fast-track to achieving “everything I set my mind to” when in actuality I was headed face-first into a life of missing the point. Unless. Unless grace. The storage containers labeled “grace”? Yeah, they’re the ones I really needed to find in the crawlspace. They’re the ones that tell me definitively that I am #preapproved, that I am free to live from my approval, not for it. And they’re the ones that prove you are free, too. I’ll empty them onto the floor in my next post. But first… To digging for them, Kristen