by Matt Russell
After I experienced some sobriety from my primary addiction it became clear that there were a lot of other processes that I was addicted to—ways of thinking and acting that fed my main addiction. One of those sub-addictions rans deep underneath the radar of my life. It has nothing to do with chemical dependency or substance abuse. There are no twelve-step groups to help people fight it. There are no treatment centers to help us escape it. But for a lot of us it creates relational, spiritual and social havoc in our lives.
This particular addiction is what might be called approval addiction. It involves people living in bondage to what other people think about us. When you become an addict to approval, no matter how much of this drug of choice you get, you can never have enough. You’ve got to have more and more and more fixes and, like other junkies, you can go crazy when your drug of choice is withheld.
My personal experience with approval addiction began early. When I was in elementary school I used to talk a lot (for folks that know me that will be a real shocker!). There were all these rules about being quiet and studying, and listening that I had a difficult time with. I found the little folks around me fascinating and so I would talk to them all the time. My second grade teacher was not impressed by my social skills. Over time it became obvious that she had her favorites and I wasn’t one of them. I tried to make her like me but it was useless.
One day I was particularly fascinated by the folks around me—and so she pulled me out of class and spanked me. The next day I was determined to do better. By the end of the day she asked me to come forward and she pinned a note on my shirt and told me to make sure it got to my mother. I just knew that it was going to be a glowing report of how much progress I had made in that eight-hour period. I was sure that the note was going to enumerate how in all the years of teaching she had never seen a turn around so inspirational or dramatic. That is not what happened. When I got home I stuck my chest out and told my mom that I got a note from my teacher—I was confident, I was proud, I knew I was loved.
As my mom read the note and as her continence fell, so did mine. The note said that I was a very bad boy and it went on to inventory all my 7 year old character defects. Which, from the length of time it took my mom to read the note, was pretty long.
That is the first time I remember feeling significantly criticized and it crushed me. It took the air out of my sails. This sense of shame bubbled up from the bottom and it made me feel small and insignificant. Criticism still does that to me. I think that there was a part of me that day that determined never to feel that way again—to distance myself, to people please, to manipulate and lie—but to never feel that way again. In a lot of ways the structure and life of my addiction served to numb me from the shame of letting people down. Today I can see the insanity of this logic (doing shameful things to numb my shame)—but it made all the sense in the world to me at the time.
Those of us who struggle with this often have no capacity to hear criticism. We hide from it, balk at it, internalize it, and strike back at the originators of it. When other people’s opinion of me becomes the organizing principle of my life my entire identity is on the line. What happens is that I end up giving people access to my identity that should not have that access. I become what other people think of me. Whether I am a student, a businessman, a stay at home mom, a professional, or unemployed, whether I’m a recovering addict, a Christian, a Democrat or Republican, successful —it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is how I am perceived by my world. If being busy is important, then I must be busy. If having money is a sign of real freedom, then I must claim my money. If knowing people proves my importance, I will have to work my contacts and climb the ladders. What matters is how I am perceived by my world.
I have seen a spiritual principle at work in my sobriety in relationship to this: Living in the gracious acceptance and approval of God will liberate me from the approval addiction. The converse is true too. Living as an approval addict will keep me from living in the love of God.
One of the blessings of the 5th step is the profound experience of grace that is embedded within it. When you and I learn to live honestly before each other and God, when we are able to trust each other with our secrets and shame the grace of God begins to radically liberate us. We can take the criticism of others and instead of reacting to it or allowing it to define us we can place it before God and those that know and love us and see if it “fits”. If it “fits” we can take concrete steps in love to deal with our character defects, if it does not we can set it aside. In this whole process we can stay connected to the gracious acceptance and approval of God.
May you live in the overwhelming, saturating love and acceptance of God.