There is a real desire in every human being to be approved. Everyone wants to believe they matter. And even though we say we don’t care what people think, we constantly give them the authority to validate who we are. As a result, we orchestrate our lives to please others—our boss, our spouse, our kids, our parents, our friends, even the guy we bump into at the coffee shop.
The problem is, we lose sight of who we really are because we live the life that people expect us to live instead of the one we truly desire. I know because I’m a recovering approval addict. I’m the guy who had to finally admit that his entire life was built around what everyone else thought. I’m still recovering, but I’m doing much better. I finally realized that way of life was not only grossly narcissistic, it was exhausting.
One of the deadliest fears we face is the fear of the opinions of others. And it’s so sneaky that we don’t even think of it as a legitimate fear. We mask the fear within the nobility of not wanting to let people down. We even pat ourselves on the back for being a people pleaser, but deep down we’re terrified that they might change their mind.
With the help of a recurrent dream, an incredible mentor named Kevin, and some clarity from God, I’m finally begging to break free. And you can too. You’re not supposed to live in fear, shackled by what everyone thinks—even that ugly voice within your own head. So if you struggle with this or if you find yourself constantly longing for approval, I hope you find encouragement here.
My Recurrent Dream
For more than ten years, I had a recurrent dream that lingered like an unwelcome guest in my subconscious. For the longest time, I was unsure of what it meant, but I finally had an epiphany.
In the dream, I was on a college baseball team. But there was an incredible amount of anxiety because it had been years since I’d stepped on a field. Then, there was that moment just before I was up to bat or standing on the pitcher’s mound—all eyes were on me and the pressure was building. And in every dream during that very moment, I had this perspective of being able to see my own name, “HAM”, written across the back of the jersey. Then, just before the pitch, I would wake up.
A few weeks ago, I had the dream again. But this time, something different happened. When I woke up, I felt like I heard a voice say, “Your name on the back of the jersey doesn’t validate who you are.”
It all made perfect sense.
Wrestling with Approval
As a kid, I dreamed of playing baseball in college. But the summer after my senior year of high school, against popular opinion, I skipped the opening game of the state championship to go on a mission trip to the Bahamas. For ten days, I shed my identity as a baseball player, threw caution to the Bimini breeze, and taught Bahamian children about God.
That trip changed everything.
When I returned, I called the baseball office at NC State and declined their invitation to walk on. Instead, I chose ministry with Young Life and Campus Crusade for Christ. For years, I thought that was me discovering my true identity, but now I realize that it was just the first step.
Once baseball was gone, my heart began searching for things to replace it—something to fill the void. Throughout college, it was playing the guitar for Young Life and Campus Crusade. In my early professional career, it was making money. In my marriage, it was providing for my wife. Through the frustrations of financial distress, it was surviving. After writing my book, it was how many copies we’d sold and getting a publishing contract.
The entire time, I was still the little kid who wanted to see his name in lights—who wanted to look at the back of his jersey with pride, knowing that he’d made it. Realizing that truth exposed me for everything that I was. I was guy who found his identity and validation in the approval of others. Until I was willing to accept that truth, I would never be free.
More Than a Name
Words of affirmation are my love language. I even read the first few paragraphs of this article to my wife to see what she thought. But I’m learning that there’s a fine line between being loved and letting that love define you. For years, I allowed myself to attach my own self-worth to the praise I received. Life became an emotional roller coaster and I was hell-bent on success and productivity to keep my buzz.
But I believe that God gave me those words after my dream—they were the final straw that broke my pride. The name on the back of the jersey doesn’t validate me. My past decisions don’t validate me. My job doesn’t validate me. Your thoughts and opinions of me don’t validate me. I am not those things.
Sometimes dreams change and that’s ok. Sometimes we make bad decisions, and that’s alright. You and I aren’t defined by the regrets of our past, the opinions of our present, or the worries of our future. We are defined by the One who created us. God says that you were created in His image—fearfully and wonderfully made. He says that He knew you before you were formed and that the hairs of your head are numbered.
Do you believe that? Like for real?
I knew that in my head, but it took a long time for me to really process that truth through my heart.
You and I were made with great care and purpose. You—with all of your idiosyncrasies, imperfections, and quirks—matter to God. And if God, the Creator of all things, loves you enough to embrace the tedious task of numbering the hairs on your head, why would you give an ounce of energy away to the opinions of others?
I ducked out of the office early today because my heart was hungry for God’s Word. I holed up in the corner of the coffee shop and sipped my dark roast while I read from the book of Mark. In a flash of Holy-Spirited brilliance, the words jumped off of the page:
“Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” —Mark 8:33
When we live underneath the fear of the opinions of others, we’re living underneath the shackles of the enemy—an enemy that wants to stand in our way and keep us from realizing our fullest potential. But God did not give us a spirit of fear and He doesn’t operate in that fear. If we’re afraid of what others’ might think, we can be certain that is not from God.
When we shift our earthly, others-validated mindset to a kingdom, God-validated one, the chains are loosened. Until then, it’s slavery.
As I look back on my decision to hang up my baseball jersey, I see it as a turning point for finding my true self. It’s funny, sometimes God pries our fingers lose from the things we cling to instead of Him because He knows that those things can’t possibly define us. And in doing so, He reminds us of who we really are.
Today, my prayer for you is that you will boldly and courageously embrace the God-shaped identity within. You are a beautiful child of God. Set your mind on things above and watch the worries and circumstances of life become a footstool to the power of God.