11/11/2014 05:27 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

Are You Being 'Good' or Are You Being 'Loving'?

Ann Marie Kurtz via Getty Images

Many of us grew up in households where our profound needs for love and safety were not met. We did not feel safe and loved in the face of disapproval, criticism, rejection, abandonment, smothering, engulfment, physical abuse, sexual abuse. We did not feel safe when there was yelling, fighting, violence, substance abuse.

We had to do something to feel safe. Some of us figured out that we could have some control over our parents' or other caregivers' behavior if we were really good, if we attempted to do everything right. We figured out that if we disconnected from ourselves, from our own feelings and stayed acutely tuned into the feelings of those around us, we could have some control over getting some approval and avoiding what we feared. We learned to feel a degree of safety by being a good girl or a good boy.

The problem is that, while we may have had some success with this strategy in our childhood homes, this same strategy is now causing our problems in our relationships at work and at home. When we disconnect from our own feelings, we become invisible to ourselves. Others end up treating us the way we treat ourselves, so we become invisible to others as well. As adults, we end up bringing about the very rejection we are trying to avoid, because we are rejecting ourselves.

My client, Nancy, told me, "I'm trapped in the tyranny of having to be a good girl." Nancy is struggling with her relationship with her boss, Beth. Nancy works as a trainer and is excellent at what she does. Like so many people who learned to control others through being good, Nancy is a high achiever. She has also been very compliant with Beth, changing plans and scurrying around to fulfill Beth's demands and expectations. However, she frequently ends up feeling stepped on and used by Beth, as well as unseen and unappreciated. She has had the same problem with the men in her life, having given and given to the point of exhaustion while not receiving the love and acceptance she always hopes for.

As long as Nancy is tuned into to Beth's needs and feelings and not aware of her own, she will continue to be invisible to Beth and others. Nancy needs to learn to take all the consciousness she developed over the years regarding others' feelings and needs and apply that same consciousness to her own feelings and needs. This is a difficult challenge because she has been practicing tuning into others while ignoring herself for her whole life.

I have had this same challenge. It was such a shock to me to discover years ago that, rather than being the loving person I thought I was, I was attempting to control how others felt about me by being "good" and "nice." By putting myself aside and doing what I thought others wanted me to do, and being what I thought others wanted me to be, I was trying to control getting love and approval and avoiding disapproval. The result was that I was anxious around others who were important to me, always fearing that I would say or do something wrong and experience the rejection I so feared.

When I finally realized that being loving meant being loving to myself as well as to others, I turned my eyes inward and started to practice becoming aware of my own feelings and needs. Instead of making others responsible for defining my worth and lovability through their approval, I took on the responsibility of defining my own worth and lovability. Through practice, I developed a strong connection with my spiritual source of love and wisdom, which helped me to see the truth of who I really am. I learned to be an advocate for myself, seeing myself and speaking up for my own feelings and needs rather than making others responsible for seeing me.

I am no longer a "good girl" having to do everything right to please others and gain their approval. I am no longer "nice" as a form of manipulation. That's not to say that being loving to others is not a very high priority -- it is. But now I include myself in the equation rather than expecting others to love me enough to feel safe, adequate, worthy and lovable.

Nancy is also learning to love herself rather than control others. At one point, she wanted to leave both her job and her relationship, but she realized that she would just continue the same patterns in another job or relationship. By staying and learning to see and speak up for herself, her relationships with Beth and her boyfriend are improving.

Join Dr. Margaret Paul for her 30-Day at-home Course: "Love Yourself: An Inner Bonding Experience to Heal Anxiety, Depression, Shame, Addictions and Relationships."

Join Dr. Margaret Paul for her 30-Day at-home Relationships Course: "Loving Relationships: A 30-Day at-Home Experience with Dr. Margaret Paul - For partnered individuals & couples, & people who want to be partnered."

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