She wanted to sign up for volleyball this winter.
Then again, she didn’t.
I watched my daughter from across the kitchen table, while our waffles grew cold. The sign-up sheet and a ballpoint pen sat between us, next to the syrup bottle.
“It would be fun—sooo much fun, Mom!” Her face lit up like a flashing LED display. “And my best friends will be on the team, and they’ll help me work on my serve.” With a swoop of the arm, she knocked over the syrup bottle.
“But…” That one word. But.
Her whole face went dark, like there was some sort of internal power outage in her small self.
I set the syrup bottle back up while she continued. “But…what if I mess up? What will everyone think? And what if they laugh at my serve?”
I rolled the pen toward her, while her questions hung in the air. I didn’t say a word. She had heard me say it all, a hundred times before.
I’ve told her, “Daughter, this one question might ring in your ears all of your days on earth: ‘What will people think of me?’ The longer you let that question rule you, the truer it will become in your life.”
I know what happens with the words we tell ourselves as a kid. Unchecked, they amplify with age.
Suddenly, you’re a 21-year-old journalism student, afraid to compete for a news-writing award because you fear that the judges will disapprove of your work.
You’re 25. And when you’re applying for a promotion as a columnist in the metro newsroom, you give the editors what you think they want, rather than writing from that sweet spot that is uniquely you. You don’t get the job; it goes to the woman who was never afraid to be herself.
You’re 30 years old, and you’re afraid to stand up to the office bully, because you “don’t want to rock the boat.”
If you aren’t careful, you become both master and slave: a master at reinventing yourself in the image of your boss, and a slave chained to your own approval rating. And you can see, on the playback, the places in your own history where your need for someone’s approval held you back in your work—and in your whole life. You see how it made you miserable at times, how it kept you awake at 3 a.m. with worry.
I’ve told my daughter how junior-high scoreboards can morph into corporate tally sheets. People grow up thinking they want to be a modern-day Solomon, that wise guy with a sky-high approval rating and an abundance of accomplishments. Had he lived in 2014, Solomon could have tabulated his worth by degrees and plaques and Twitter followers. Time magazine may well have slapped his Photoshopped face on a glossy cover, dubbing him “Person of the Year.”
But in the end, what did he count it as? “Meaningless, meaningless.”
I’m in my middle years now, sitting with my daughter at the breakfast table, and I’m silently thanking the good Lord that He’s been patient. I know where my true identity lies. It’s a long story, but approval ratings no longer have the hold over me that they once did.
But I can’t make this decision for my child. I can’t be her courage. She’s got to dig deep and decide for herself if she’s going to be held back by the need for approval, of if she’s going to move past it.
My daughter and I both stare at the ballpoint pen. And I say two words:
Jennifer Dukes Lee is a community editor at The High Calling. She is author of the forthcoming book Love Idol: Letting Go of Your Need for Approval—and Seeing Yourself through God's Eyes (Tyndale Momentum 2014).