An angel
Photo: Mark Hooper
Are you the kind of person who thinks she's being good (self-sacrificing! angelic!) by cooing over things you hate and sucking up to strangers for tiny morsels of approval? Martha Beck has been there and back—and encourages you to hang up your wings.
I always wait until the house is empty before I practice the piano. I love playing, but I don't do it well, and I'm embarrassed to bother others with my discordant fumbling. One day not long ago, I sent my children off to school and began plunking away in happy solitude—until I decided to play a certain Bach cantata. This piece seems to be a favorite of my beagle's, Cookie. Whenever I play it, he hurries into the room and lies down under the piano, ears perked. Sure enough, after a few bars I heard paw steps in the hallway. Cookie appeared, plopped down near the pedals, and half closed his eyes, listening. I couldn't have been more flattered by a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall.

Then, disaster. I missed a note. For a moment I thought I could recover, but the error had a domino effect, and I started messing up all over the place. My fingers began to shake. I stopped breathing and started sweating, horrified that I was ruining Cookie's listening pleasure. In case you're not already marveling at the depth of my mental illness, let me reprise that for you: I was reduced to a nervous wreck because I couldn't play the piano correctly for my dog.

It was one of those moments when the cheesecloth of denial rips right through and you're left staring at the ugly truth. That day I finally admitted what I had become: I was not just a nice lady. Not just a people pleaser. I was an approval whore.

Causes and Consequences of Approval Prostitution
We approval whores are people who will do anything to get affirmation and acceptance from others. We're similar to crack whores, only more dysfunctional. At least drug-addicted prostitutes know they're not being virtuous when they sell themselves to get high. Approval whores like me, on the other hand, tend to think that we're being good (saintly! angelic!) when we let others have their way with us in exchange for a hit of praise. The people in our lives are likely to reinforce our sickness, because we'll do pretty much anything to please them, and what's not to love about that?

Here's what: Being dependent on approval—so dependent that we barter away all our time, energy, and personal preferences to get it—ruins lives. It divorces us from our true selves, precludes real intimacy, and turns us into seething cesspools of suppressed rage (of course, I mean that in a nice way).

This is a good time of year to see what I'm talking about, because during the holidays even the most upstanding citizens are pressured to act a little slutty, approval-wise. You know the story: You coo in false delight while gnawing Aunt Wanda's petrified fruitcake or simulate ecstasy over a hand-knitted sweater that makes you look like an Amish land whale. Don't be ashamed; a little social prostitution during the holidays is virtually universal. However, if you are an approval whore year-round, this season may deepen your dysfunction to the point where your efforts to please become truly exhausting and other people's appreciation is less and less rewarding. If you feel drained or angry as the season progresses, it's time to get off the street. Learn to respect yourself. Give yourself the gift of the real you, clean and sober.

Pleasing others is like sex: When we do it because we really want to, it's a wonderfully life-affirming way to strengthen a relationship, but when it's motivated by obligation, powerlessness, or calculated advantage, it's the very definition of degrading. The key to an authentic emotional life, like the key to an authentic sex life, is to follow your real desires.

Suppose that every morning of this holiday season, you asked yourself what you really, truly wanted to do that day, and then did just that. Would you spend time you don't have buying things you can't afford for people you don't like? I didn't think so. Would you bake goodies, decorate, light the menorah or the Kwanzaa candles? Maybe. Would you engage in activities you love, in the places you love, with the people you love? Oh, yeah. That would be terrific!

So do it.

If this suggestion shocks you, if you're thinking, Oh, I couldn't possibly, I regret to say you're on the trampy side. You've been selling out your passions to fit someone else's model of celebration. You probably think this is virtuous. I beg to differ. Acts of love done in the absence of love are obscene. This holiday eliminate them from your life. Learn to tolerate the anxiety of allowing people to disapprove of you.

Even I, one of the most hardened approval whores on earth, can do this. For example, when I lived in Southeast Asia, I was told that modest women always keep their heads down and their eyes on the ground. Here's what I saw during my first weeks in the exotic Far East: dirt, dirt, dirt, a snail(!), and dirt. I began to feel strangely shrunken, somehow less than a person who could look at the sky.

Next: 3 strategies to curb your approval addiction


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