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Approval Addiction: The Dangers of People Pleasing

Alright, I want to discuss something that hit me really, really hard as I was first getting into business, and really at the beginning of my adult life. I've been thinking a lot about mental toughness lately, and if mental toughness is on one end of the spectrum of success, then people pleasing is on the opposite end of that spectrum.

People pleasing is an affliction that affects a lot of people. I don't think anyone is immune from the desire to people please in some way, shape, or form. It’s a very sneaky affliction, because it seems like people pleasers are generous, they are wonderful, they are selfless. But in reality, people pleasing is typically the act of a lazy mind or a selfish mind.

And you might think, selfish? Really? Because you think of people who get so much pleasure from making others happy as selfless. But here’s the problem: it’s that exact gratification of someone being pleased with you that becomes the priority over sticking up for something you believe in.

And why is people pleasing lazy? Because it takes no muscle to flow with the current, but it takes a lot of work to swim upstream or to go against the grain. It takes mental toughness to know what you believe and stand for it, but it takes no work at all to let other people do your thinking for you.

This isn’t to say that you should reject any opportunities to make the people around you happy. It’s not to say you should contradict everyone else’s opinion for the sake of contradiction. It’s a good thing to want to bless others. But the problem becomes when you discard your own beliefs for the sake of being accepted by those around you.

And if that wasn’t enough, here’s another problem with being addicted to people pleasing: you’ll never come up with anything original. There’s something called the diffusion of innovation, and it describes a curve: at the beginning, you’ve got the innovators (2.5%) and the early adopters (13.5%). Then you’ve got the early majority, the late majority, and at the end you’ve got the laggards. The first 16% of the population will catch onto the idea of something quickly, but after that 16%, there is a chasm before the majority. This applies to product innovation and technological growth, but it also applies to cultural shifts - it applies to everything. The point is, you will never be understood or celebrated by the majority of people when you are either an early adopter or an innovator - and that’s exactly where you want to be if you’re going to make real changes and impact and influence the world. At first, you have to be willing to stand alone and not worry about what other people think of you.

On a personal level, I had literally pleased people my entire life. I got good grades, even though I procrastinated everything, because I was too approval addicted not to. I went to a really good college, but a huge part of the reason I did that was because it made my parents super happy. In theater, I was addicted to the applause. And then you could not have a more people pleasing job than being a massage therapist - especially when you’re in massage school and you need demo bodies. I couldn’t pick an outfit without it getting approved by a group of friends, I couldn’t pick a guy to date without verifying my choice with people. I was so mentally weak.

When I first went into business for myself, that was the first thing that challenged me when it came to my approval addiction. My parents didn’t like it, my best friend who I had grown up with, who also happened to be my roommate, didn’t like it. Even the guy I was dating at the time didn’t like that I was in business. I remember at one point, I was sitting with that roommate and the guy I was dating at the time, and they were just hammering me about this business. We had another roommate that I knew from college who heard the whole thing, and eventually she called me aside. And here’s what she said to me: How can you sit there and let them steal your dream like that?

I was like, wow, she’s so right. How weak am I? I needed someone else to point that out to me. That’s exactly what I was allowing them to do, and I wasn’t fighting back. I wasn’t standing up for myself. I don't mean to say that we need to get aggressive with people when they don’t understand what we’re doing, but we need to learn to have some dignity. We need to learn how to prioritize what we believe.

So I did. I learned how to fight back, not in an aggressive way, but just being informed and caring about my own opinions more than the opinions of others. My mind got stronger about intelligently choosing what I believed, but the feelings of approval addiction didn’t go away overnight. I just knew I needed to be bigger than my feelings, and I worked on progressing to get myself out of it. Here’s was my progression:

Step 1: I cared what everyone thought of me. Everyone. That’s where I started.

Step 2: I cared what specific people thought of me. I started chasing the opinions of my mentors, people who had fruit on the tree in the arena I wanted to see results in. Now please understand - that is still a form of approval addiction. But it was a better version than step one.

Step 3: I stopped caring what anybody thought about me, because I started caring the most about what God thought about me.

As I started growing spiritually, and I started to understand where my life’s purpose came from, my emotional stability grew exponentially. Because there were even times in business where I had to let go of what someone else thought of me. I had to stop chasing recognition for every little accomplishment, because everyone will have to grind before they get celebrated in anything. I had to live my days doing the best I could, hoping that in doing so that I’d pleased my creator. When I lived my life through that filter, I never struggled with mental toughness ever again.

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