“No matter how much I do, it’s never enough!” Sarah was boiling with frustration at her efforts to please her partner. She’d become more punctual finishing work, set aside time for a bike trip, and taken on more of the housework. But it didn’t seem to be enough. What’s more, Sarah was feeling overwhelmed and helpless. She felt as if she couldn’t win.
When someone has an unhealthy approval-seeking habit, it’s as if they’re playing a “Win Approval Game” to earn a “Certificate of Enoughness” from someone else so the rest of their life can begin. (To save you some time, I made one for you.)
When it doesn’t work, the instinct is to try harder to find new ways to win the approval game.
You might think you’re doing everything you can. Usually, though, we’re only choosing the options that exist within the game.
It’s like finding dozens of ways to exercise within a prison yard. You could do press ups, mountain climbers, running on the spot but they’re all within walls of the prison. The deeper shift isn’t thinking of new ways to exercise within the yard. It’s stepping outside the prison — changing the game altogether.
When you continue to play the approval game, you lose twice over. There’s the frustration of trying ever harder without reaching an emotional resolution.
There’s also a second, less obvious way. When you try to win the approval game, you’re reinforcing the idea that this is a valid game and you should be playing it. Even if someone gives you some approval, which happens occasionally, you’re still reinforcing the hidden rule that you need to do extra to be enough. You’re sending messages to yourself that
- You’re not enough already. Otherwise, why would you have to do extra?
- It’s someone else who gets to decide when you’ve done enough.
- If you tried hard enough, you could “win” at this.
Excessive efforts to make up for not feeling enough reinforce the false belief that you aren’t enough as you are. Doh!
(The same happens if you try too hard to “fix” yourself in therapy or self help. “If I read enough books and analyse my problems enough then eventually I’ll be OK.” The “fixing” implies that you are not acceptable as you are. It’s a paradox: Change starts with self acceptance.)
You can’t win the “I need to do extra to be enough” game. And working harder at it makes it worse. You escape by choosing to play a different game.
Being a creator in your life means you decide the rules you want to play by. Instead of needing to do extra to win according to other people’s rules, you make your own rules – create your own game – and try to win at that. For example “Today I want to be kind to myself and others. I want to finish writing the project plan at work to the best of my ability, get out for some exercise, and make a nice dinner.”
In a way, Sarah was right. However much she did, it would never be enough. The answer wasn’t to play that game harder. It was to choose to play a different game.
How to put this into practice
A couple of ways you can practice this in your life
- Find your signals. There’s almost certainly a feeling that comes when you’re engaging in a painful unwinnable game.
- Notice the physical sensations: Tight belly, shoulders tense, whatever. If you’re not sure, wait until next time it happens and pay attention then. Let those signals alert you when you’ve started playing an unwinnable game.
- Notice your hidden rules. Maybe it’s “If I look after everyone else, they’ll look after me” or “If I just keep quiet for another few weeks, they’ll be grateful afterwards.”Bringing the rules of the game into the cold light of day can loosen their grip. Choose a different game first. Make a practice of writing what you consider success for the day in the morning. Come back to it at lunchtime to see how you’re doing and again in the evening to see how you did. Start noticing where you get dragged off into other people’s agendas and how you come back to your own. No beating yourself up! We all get sucked into our patterns at times. Noticing and being kind to yourself is the first step to reclaiming playing by your own rules. Celebrate your wins.
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