Somewhere around age 13 I solidified a growing belief that a happy life could not be achieved without the approval of everyone around me. I began to live out of an unspoken mantra: Never give people a reason not to like you. Don’t mess up. Don’t make mistakes in relationships. Be perfect and people will like you, and if people like you, life is going to be ok.
As a result of this deeply rooted belief, I poured my energy into being a good friend. Whenever I failed, whenever I wasn’t perfect, whenever I was caught in my own self-absorption or lack of compassion, I fell into paralyzing self-deprecation. How could I let this happen? I’d replay the scenario over and over again in my mind, thinking about how if only I’d made a better decision, I’d have removed the chance for someone to reject me.
To say I was insecure is an understatement. But “insecure” is just a euphemism for "self-absorbed.” I thought the word was more spiritual and made it seem like I was healthily addressing my issues, when in reality, I was completely preoccupied with myself—my flaws and failures and missed opportunities for perfection.
It was devastating to learn that part of my thinking was right—people did reject me when I made mistakes. My failures and shortcomings did create chasms in relationships. When I wasn’t perfect, there were times people stopped liking me or took back their approval.
But part of my mantra is deeply wrong—having the approval of others doesn’t lead to a happy life. Or, better said, I don’t need people to like me in order to be fully alive.
Shame taught me to fear rejection or the negative reactions of other people. I’d avoid creating conflict at any cost to myself, my integrity or my values. I would lie, manipulate and put myself in dangerous situations just to please others.
But one day I endured a particularly awful friendship breakup, in which a benign mistake on my part created such deep misunderstanding that my friend refused to reconcile. And after a night of snotty, panicked crying, I woke up and realized to my shock that I was still alive. I was still breathing. I had survived rejection. Somehow, even with my biggest fear realized, I was still moving and loving and living.
The awful feeling of shame can come with rejection, and it begs me to focus on my failure and the approval I seek but didn’t achieve. But the truth is, as long as we’re breathing, we’re going to let people down. No matter how much I try, I am going to make mistakes. I can’t cover all my bases. I’m a flawed person and eventually, each person in my life has found out.
And while people did turn from me, hurt me and shame me, there were still people in the world who loved me. There were still people in the world who didn’t see me through the lens of my failures. People still relied on me or appreciated me or saw me and refused to walk away.
It sounds simple and obvious to say that I can live without the approval of others, but there are moments and days where I still fight to stay in this reality. The past drive to perfectionism calls to me and offers comfort and familiarity and an irrational sense of control.
People will reject me. No matter how much I don’t want them to, no matter how much I try to avoid it, no matter how much effort I invest in relationship after relationship after relationship.
And there is freedom in this continual experience. I don’t have to feed a bear that wants to eat me. I don’t have to try to placate a monster who chases me with the agenda of destruction. I don't have to waste my effort running after something impossible and unattainable.
The question is not will you let people down—the question is how will you respond when you inevitably do. It’s not about having tough skin or toes that aren’t easily stepped on. It’s about the spiritual discipline of moving from self-centeredness to a deeper reality—that my worth has nothing to do with what others think. That somehow who I am can’t be dictated by a world as broken and flawed as I am. It’s a spiritual discipline to raise my head above the shame and say yes to the continued opportunities to love. And this includes love toward myself.
Be kind to yourself. Be patient with your flaws. Be willing to forgive yourself as you forgive others. And keep breathing and living and loving even in the face of inevitable rejection.