Thursday, March 23

Recovering from my addiction to approval

Hi, my name is Tom Campbell, and I am a people pleaser.

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At the moment, I am reluctant to even write this post because I fear it won't be pleasing to some people. That is the primary, if latent, emotion that drives addictive pleasing behavior - fear. Fear of not being accepted, of not being loved, of not being good enough. It is an internalized pressure to meet the expectations of other people, internalized from the original external pressure. The pressure is subtle, and it is not necessarily even intended. My mom has commented, and I know, that when children are born, they don't come with instruction manuals. And any instructions received from this culture are bound to be faulty and maladaptive. So I don't blame my parents. Within their particular stories and context, this was the only way they were able to raise me. I have always said that I thought my parents did a very good job of raising me. And that is part of the problem. 1) I feel the need to reassure them, surely in an attempt to make them even prouder of the product of their raising, and 2) I am mirroring their behavior, making a value judgement on their parenting skills when they should speak for themselves without any judgements being necessary. What I am referring to is the phrase "good job." I just used it myself, in reference to my parents, and they used it all the time with me and any small accomplishment I made. This evaluative phrase has the unintended consequence of turning whatever activity I am engaged in as only a means to an end- seeking the approval and praise from my parents and any other authority figure in my life. I became dependent upon this praise and learned to seek only that. This pressure shaped me into a very "good kid" from outward appearances. I was a straight A student and was very religious, and I was especially willing to be helpful and always in service to others- always with the hidden motive of getting my approval fix, like the junkie I was. Now, this was not done consciously. It was not contrived behavior. It grew into a habit slowly and unknowingly, from my earliest formative years, whenever I first did something that could possibly be regarded as praiseworthy- perhaps opening my eyes for the first time, or smiling, or, I don't know, maybe even pooping (depending on how weird of a mood my parents were in at the time, of course). Like I said, I do not blame my parents for turning me into an approval hungry monster. I am a little angry that I have lived my life thus far in this way and now have to struggle to unlearn this addiction, but placing blame does not help the situation.

I learned to first seek praise from my parents, but the lesson was hammered home in grade school. I know that by third grade, I was thoroughly a teacher's pet. It may have started before that, but I got really good at it by third grade. I would try my hardest to exceed so far in school that the teachers just had to love me. And they did. They loved me because I was intelligent. They loved me because I was cooperative. They loved me because I was helpful. Because I was eager. Because I was responsible. Because I was trustworthy. These are all good character traits by themselves, but I did not develop them for their own sake but rather only to receive the praise that results from having these traits. It became almost a kind of game for me. By highschool, I was conscious of the necessity to make a good impression on the teacher from the start in order to get the teacher to like me, and then do well in the class as a result, gaining both the approval of that teacher and fueling the everpresent praise of my family. This addiction is what drove me to get straight A's (and to view the act of getting them as "fun"...sounds like a junkie's high to me...), it's what drove me to be very religious, going to extremes in only listening to christian rock and signing at least five different chastity cards over the years and, eventually, feeling the duty to consider the priesthood, seeking the approval of the priests at my school and church, and perhaps my dad (?), and certainly God. Actually, part of my disillusionment with God might have been realizing in a very demoralizing way that as much as I might try, I'm not going to receive praise from God in the same way (or perhaps in infinitely more ways?) as I did from all the other authority figures in my life. Everything that made up who I was was superficial. It was all simply the most effective means to accessing my drug of choice.

So I'm trying to recover, right? I slowly deconstructed all the labels I had built around myself in order to attract praise, and I stumblingly found myself some new labels to assume. Vegetarian, anarchist, anti-civ... It is certainly a step in the right direction, as it was a very tough thing to open myself up to so much disapproval from all of the authority figures I looked up to throughout my childhood. Any relationships that remain through that are real. And that is a really cool thing. But in taking on new labels, I'm finding that I am still just as addicted to approval. I'm just seeking different sources for that approval. I very much yearn to simply be accepted by the people at food not bombs, but in seeking that acceptance, I am again having to construct labels around myself. And each time someone links or returns a link to my blog, I am filled with elation. It very much resembles a high, and it's because I'm receiving another hit of approval. And, of course, I still very much would like all of the old sources to come around and start praising me again for the direction in which I am taking my life. But, honestly, that would be my downfall. Hearing their disapproval for the first time is a very shocking experience, but it is also very healthy for me, I feel. I do not know how to unlearn this behavior or how to get out from under this addiction, but I want to. It absolutely essential to the unschooling process.

Before, I was the perfect citizen, for the reason that I strived to be perfect. Perfect for other people. That perfectionism and the desire to please would have led me to do anything required of me in order to satisfy the demands of other people, and achieve their approval as reward. This is exactly the kind of behavior desired in soldiers and the corresponding soldier citizens in the economy- mindless drones willing to bend over backwards to please their boss(es). I am, of course, painting a much bleaker picture than anyone would be willing to accept as their reality, but it essentially comes down to that in the end, whether we're fully conscious of it or not.

So I desire to excise myself from this current environment where I am still being trained to look for little red marks on my paper to see if I did a good job or not.

There is a Chinese proverb I saw recently that helps to describe my feelings about college - "Unless we change direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed." I need to change my direction, or I will head directly into the wage slavery I so much dread and despise. I don't know the specifics yet of what that direction will look like, but I am lucky enough to have a family that will support me in the short term, allowing me the time to solidify my vision and gain some autonomy in my life.

I have recently become very interested in the matters of parenting and general child-raising practices. This recognition of addiction became clearer to myself by reading an article by Alfie Kohn, called Five reasons to stop saying "Good job!" (it's one of the spotlight articles- no direct link available). I would like to read his book, Unconditional Parenting.

Beyond that, I am also exploring the world of unassisted childbirth and elimination communication and the continuum concept- mostly because I am reading the blogs of very interesting parents, like Mother Anarchy and Village Blog. It makes me excited about the prospect of raising a child someday. For now, though, I need to focus on unlearning the maladaptive lessons of my childhood. That's enough to fill up anyone's plate.


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  3. Wow, how totally inappropriate these comments are. Tom, if I were you I'd either disable anonymous comments or delete them. I mean really, how hard is it to leave a name? As far as I'm concerned, only cowards post anonymously!

  4. I agree, Cym. I don't like anonymous commenters at all. If you can't even put an initial behind your words, why should anyone care to listen to them?

    And then there's the danger of being confused for another anonymous commenter (as I seriously doubt that the above anonymous commenter is the same as the very religious commenter on the "book report" post. I don't know. maybe I'm wrong. AND THAT'S WHY PEOPLE SHOULD LEAVE NAMES!

    I'm going to delete the inappropriate comments as I judge them. and if the respective commenters don't like it, it's fine by me if they stop commenting. i would hate to start moderating comments, but if i get more like this, i think i'll start. Cym, is there a way to prevent people from posting anonymously? how would that work?

  5. Tom: Go to "settings" and then "comments." Change the value in the "Who Can Comment" field to "Only Registered Users." This way, only people with Blogger profiles can post comments. This wouldn't necessarily stop anonymous comments, but would make it more inconvenient.

    You may also want to consider moderating comments, at least for a while. You can enable that feature on the "settings:comments" page as well.

  6. Thanks, Bone. I think I'll do the former. I'm still going to hold out on the latter, only because I find it annoying when other bloggers do it for their sites.

  7. HI Tom,

    I too am addicted to approval.
    I too had parents who said good job no matter what I did- even writing on the walls (heaven forbid they squash my creativity)...
    I too am a A and A+ student who is rather weary these days.

    I have a long way to go but I find my hope is in my awareness that as hard as I try to change myself (willpower and all that) its impossible, only God can change me from the inside out.

    There is a random book called Thorns in the Heart by Steven Stiles that has helped me understand where to begin to "change directions..."