Monday, May 17, 2010

I'm Lauren and I'm an addict...

It’s time for me to stand up and admit it: I am addicted to approval. The approval I look for doesn’t necessarily come attached with prizes, but rather a sense of being able to breathe, an air of confidence that gives me permission to trust myself, as if I am only ok if others think I'm ok. It's no different from the host of other addictions that we hear about.  You still need to make the drug deal, schmooze the dealers, fork over the payment, tie yourself off just right so that when you take that compliment hit or inject the praise, you ensure the desired high. And then there’s the increased tolerance – the need for more – always more, no matter what the subject matter or bestowal of praise, the ante is upped.

This addiction to approval drives me to bend and twist, contorting myself into the shape that fills your holes; begging to please you, to become indispensible, to be valuable in a way that guarantees you won’t leave me.  But it’s not just about plugging the fear of abandonment or being a people-pleaser.  Approval addiction is a well-oiled machine, sucking the personality and individuality right out of its host. 

We forget that you are not God and that even if you disagree, we will have the opportunity to continue to breathe should we so choose.  We forget that we are also valuable opinion-holders and that we were blessing with the gift of thinking for ourselves.  Forced to make a decision without any outside input, the paralysis sets in.  I pace and ponder.  I pretend that I'm giving advice to a friend.  I make lists of possible outcomes, graphs of expectations, charting the pros and cons until I end up at the same balanced dead end.  I forget that what you think is the right answer might not be the right answer for me.  I forget that in life, there often isn’t a right answer at all, and often both choices are threaded with pain.  I discard my own feelings, writing them off as inconsequential, and aim to make decisions based on how I can hurt my loved ones the least.  I forget to count myself in that list of loved ones. 

I forget that at the end of the day, I'm the one living out my choices, that it’s my life, and that I have that right simply because I'm alive. Instead I poll my friends, doctors, and strangers at the bus stop, painting hypothetical scenarios as I plead with them to tell me what to do.  I con myself into thinking I have lofty reasons: I'm trying not to hurt others, I don’t want to screw up, believing every choice is a life and death matter with no return flight. I compromise, allowing her approval to stand in for yours, even if it’s yours that I truly hunger for.  In the absence of the pure drug, we’ll go for the joint laced with poisons and lint, because any hit of acknowledgement is better than the silence that lives in my head.

Rock bottom is the dependence on others to make you ok.  The belief that I'm only good, smart, funny, loving, kind, worthwhile, or a valuable human being if you think so.  All of the ways I conceptualize myself, the roles I slip into costume for, the identities I don, the traits I shoulder in my backpack – these are transient. They slip out of my grasp as soon as you glance at me sideways or answer with a tinge of annoyance.  Lost in the clouds of your disagreement, I scramble after my self, desperately trying to remember why it is that I shouldn’t care, why I am allowed to have my own views, why I’ll still be able to go on if you don’t give me your validation.  Or even worse, I watch my self float away as I turn my back, no longer caring about this abandonment of self. I stand on the shorelines and insist that ‘this is the last time, I’ll start over tomorrow, I’ll do better tomorrow’.

And so it is in addiction: our truths become lies, our reality set on the fault lines of relationships, our selves shrugged off, and our brain convincing us that there’s nothing wrong, no presence of illness, no problem to fix.  Addiction: the only disease that tells us we don’t have it.

The addiction to approval is widespread.  We see it in employees basing their self-worth on their yearly reviews, and in romantic couples that change their clothes, perfumes, accents, and hobbies to be elevated in their partner’s eyes.  We see it in friends who call to enlist you after having been slighted, needing you to agree ‘absolutely, He’s a jerk. You were right to have walked away.’ We see it in little girls who keep their gaze focused on their parents, stepping forward only after the nod of agreement, giving answers based on making others’ grins grow wider.  I even see it in my puppy as we stroll through my neighborhood.  She pauses and looks back, waiting for the ‘Good girl Gracie’ to move forward, tail wagging.  And I am her enabler.  I praise her at every step, dispensing treats when I suspect she feels neglected, criticized, unappreciated.  I encourage this dependence, thinking that I'm helping her become trained, successful, and a better pet.  Perhaps with dogs, approval dependence can be overlooked. But for myself, it takes on a life of it’s own. 

My brain is powerful force, spewing forth lies disguised as commandments.  It tells me I’m ok if he likes me, if she wants to be friends.  I’ll know I'm enough if she smiles back, if they invite me in. I'm a writer if I'm published, if I can make a living on my words, if that magazine wants to run my article.  I'm a good sister if I send you notes, remind you of birthdays, sign the card from the two of us. I'm a good friend if I buy you trinkets; feed you cookies, call just to say hi.  I'm a good relative if I stay in touch, if I send new years cards, if I come to visit.  I'm a good daughter if I make you proud, if I follow your advice, if I call and if I can stand on my own too feet.  I've earned my space in this world if I contribute, if I try to improve my tiny corner, if I smile pretty while I offer up my talents, if I say please and thank-you, if I don’t bother anyone, if I make myself useful.  I'm a good soul if I'm kind and sweet, if I pray, if I believe, if I laugh at your jokes and make the right decisions. 

Mostly, this approval addiction renders me deaf to my own instincts and mute in the face of conflict.  I lose myself, and even worse, I forget I have I self to find. We’re a group of misplaced souls, utterly dependent on our neighbors, waiting for someone else to save us a seat because otherwise we’ll be relegated to wait by the door.  We are brought to our knees just like any addiction and eventually we must choose: do I want to continue doing what I’ve always done and getting what I’ve always gotten or do I want to change?

I suppose one could attend meetings and believe that the first step is admitting we have a problem, giving ourselves over to a higher power, and trying to make amends.  But it seems to me that we have already spent a lifetime giving ourselves over to higher powers.

For me, recovery from approval addiction means learning to think for myself, carving out moments where I must choose right or left, yes or no, without surveying all who walk by.  I practice checking in, trying to remember where I left my intuition and inner knowing. I ask for guidance – and although I wish you would just tell me what to do, I know that the guidance I need is the nudge to rely on myself, the refusal to react, but instead to encourage me to take a stand, even if it means I might fall.  I rehearse the scene, repeating my lines so that I don’t throw the script out the window at the first hint of anger. 

Recovery involves living in the question and feeling lost without black and white answers.  There are slips and steps backwards. I slowly mark the successes and let go of the failures. I pick myself up and try again, as I slowly get introduced to this self who has been hiding in the corner.  I learn who she is, how she thinks, what she values and believes in.  I learn that mistakes are part of living and that very few decisions are actually life and death matters.  I learn that anger won’t kill me and others’ disapproval stings but doesn’t suffocate.  I learn that I have a long way to go before my own approval matters to me more than yours, but I catch a glimpse of it on the horizon.  I learn that I am ok, I am good, and I am enough, even if you don’t think so. 

Even though I really want you to think so, for the moment, I’ll refrain from asking…

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