I gave up mirrors on Ash Wednesday.
I figured that the best way to stop figuring out how I measured up would be to stop figuring out how I measure up.
So I gave up my reflection. All of my mirrors—except for the ones in the car—are covered. I won’t look at myself again until I blow dry my hair on Easter morning.
It’s part of my journey toward loosening the grip of an idol that has had a hold on my heart. It’s the idol of approval. Truth is, I’ve sometimes cared more about what people think than what God thinks.
My mirror-free Lent has become more than an exercise in finding peace with my physical appearance. This has served as a metaphorical reminder of the myriad ways we measure our approval ratings. Authors monitor book sales and Amazon rankings. Pastors count people in pews.
We measure to see if we matter.
The craving for love isn’t, in itself, sinful. In fact, our need for love is God-created. But because of our sinful nature, present in every human since the Garden of Eden, we are tempted to feed our craving with the approval of man. It’s a form of idolatry—a “love idol,” if you will.
We want to be valued. We want to be liked. We forget that we already are.
But we don’t have to be controlled by our approval ratings. Here are ten signs you might have a need for the approval of others:
1. You have places you go to for a “fix.”
Whether it’s Facebook, your peers or your parents, the first sign of trouble is having places you habitually return to for recognition. It’s important to call out that place for what it is.
Every journey toward freedom from others’ approval starts here—in the naming. Whose approval do you seek most? Where do you look for it? To let go of something, you have to first admit you’re holding on to it. The moment you’re willing to call the problem by its actual name, you’re one step closer to canceling its power over you. This is perhaps why lives change in rooms where these words are uttered quietly into a circle of understanding faces: “Hi, my name is [insert name here]. And I am a [insert addiction here].”
2. You have a hard time going a day without visiting those places.
It’s easy to excuse those places we go to for approval as being “not that big of a deal.” So here’s a test: how long could you go without it?
After you name the place you go to for approval, fast from it. I gave up mirrors for the 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. And I haven’t starved yet. In fact, my life feels fuller—even if my hair isn’t perfect. Mirrors aren’t, in and of themselves, evil. But they can become a source of unhealthy self-judgment. Identify an area where you seek the approval of others, such as social media. Then give it up for a day a week, or even 40 days, and behold: you may discover that you’re thriving without your own mirrors.
3. You use the approval of others as motivation to work harder.
Some of us have been telling ourselves the same false narratives our whole lives. The lies make us feel pressured into working harder, faster and longer to reach some invisible standard that we think will give us the approval we need. Who are we working harder for? Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval.” Not so we can present ourselves to a spouse. Or to our coworkers. Or even to Bible study partners. But to God alone.
4. You have a hard time accepting God’s approval as being enough.
All the approval we’ve ever wanted is actually and already ours. God says we’re already beautiful (see Psalm 45:11). We’re already beloved (see 1 John 3:1). We’re already known (see Psalm 139:1). We were already loved, even when we were dead in our transgressions (see Ephesians 2:4-5).
5. You compare yourself to others.
Envy is at the root of much of our approval-seeking. We miss the beauty of our own lives if we’re holding up a mirror to someone else’s.
6. The success of others makes you feel inadequate.
We’re actually all on the same team, and it’s called the body of Christ. Author Lisa-Jo Baker says it like this: “It’s never a competition in the Kingdom. It’s always a co-op.” We would do well to start cheering one another on. In doing so, we can achieve what Timothy Keller calls “the freedom of self-forgetfulness.”
7. You don’t like doing good deeds without being seen by other people.
The motivation behind our acts of kindness can be a great barometer of just where we’re at in our own feelings of adequacy. The praise we get for doing good is like a drug. It’s a drug Jesus is asking us to go without in Matthew 6, where he says “When you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
Go ahead. Do what Jesus said. Be a charity ninja—so secretive that your left hand doesn’t have a clue what your right hand is doing. Then sit back and enjoy the freedom of your approval-free zone.
8. You don’t want to try something unless you know you’ll succeed.
Our need for approval often keeps us from taking risks that won’t necessarily result in that approval. It keeps us playing safe, doing only the things we know will work out in our favor.
Do something new that you’ve always wanted to try—running a 5K or taking a painting class, for instance—even if you believe you’ll perform with mediocrity, even if you believe you’ll fail. The moment we stop fussing over the opinions of others might be the moment when we start actually living.
9. You love others in order to get their approval.
When we’ve accepted our own approval from God, we’re more able to love others without needing anything in return. But the reverse is also true: a need for approval often results in conditional love from our own hearts.
When we are freed from unhealthy notions about love and approval, we are able to love others without expecting anything in return. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Period.
10. Your perspective is temporary.
Sometimes, a need for approval comes from something as simple as a failure to remember that what’s to come is so much better and brighter than what we currently have.
Maybe you’ve wanted a few accolades this side of heaven. That’s in our nature. Don’t forget that the divine accolade—as C. S. Lewis calls it—is coming. And that’s the accolade you were created to hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:23).
Jennifer Dukes Lee is an award-winning news journalist and author of Love Idol: Letting Go of Your Need for Approval—and Seeing Yourself Through God's Eyes. She blogs at JenniferDukesLee.com. She invites you to connect with her on Twitter @dukeslee and on Facebook.