Many years ago, I became aware of feeling anxious much of the time. Since this feeling had been with me as long as I could remember, it had seemed normal -- until it stopped being okay with me. It stopped being okay when I went back to school to become a psychotherapist. I realized then that, normal or not, I didn't want to continue to live my life with this anxiety.
However, I had felt this way for so long that I had no idea why I was anxious. So every time I was aware of the anxiety -- which happened most often when I was around people -- I started to notice my thoughts and actions.
The first thing I noticed was how much I was judging myself around others. I was constantly putting pressure on myself to say the right thing and do the right thing. Why? I believed that if I said and did the right things, I could have control over getting others' approval.
Aha! I soon realized that I was totally addicted to getting approval. But why? Why did I constantly seek approval? What was going on here?
As I became more and more aware of how often and how harshly I judged myself, I finally made the connection: Disapproving of myself led to needing others' approval. As long as I was treating myself so badly -- not only by judging myself, but also by giving myself up to please others and by not attending at all to my own feelings and needs -- I desperately needed others' approval to feel that I was okay.
This was a huge awareness for me. I realized that I wasn't approval-dependent because there was something flawed and defective about me, but because I was treating myself so abusively. This was something I could do something about! I finally realized that, while I could not control how others felt about me and treated me -- even if I was "perfect" -- I could control how I felt about myself and treated myself.
For a solid year, I noticed my self-judgments -- without judging myself for judging myself. I just noticed, with interest and curiosity. I also noticed how anxious it made me feel. I came to the conclusion that if I did everything "right" to impress people, maybe half the people would like me and half wouldn't. And if I did nothing to impress them and was just myself, maybe half the people would like me and half wouldn't. So why bother working so hard to gain their approval?
Each time I noticed, I would "change channels" and shift my thinking into something truer and more positive. After about a year, something very magical happened: I stopped judging myself. It was as if the part of me who was doing the judging -- my ego-wounded self -- just gave up this addiction. It was clear that it wasn't working to control how others felt about me, nor was it protecting me from painful feelings. In fact, it was causing much of my pain.
Not only did I stop judging myself, but I also stopped needing others' approval. Because I was now valuing myself instead of judging myself, the actual need for others' approval went away. In fact, I even stopped noticing whether or not others were approving of me. I stopped even thinking about it! And, of course, all the anxiety that I had carried for so long about how others felt about me melted away. What a relief.
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