Have you ever thought about all the rules we try to follow in order to fit in and be acceptable in society? Overcoming stress starts with mindfully living out our values, not the ones forced on us.
Naturally we need to conform to some level of decent behavior in order to have law and order. For a society to survive people have to attempt to live in some semblance of harmony.
But the amount of unwritten and often conflicting expectations we try to meet in order to feel accepted is, I believe, a major source of much of the anxiety and depression we see around us today.
Remember that bit about doing things simply to earn acceptance, it’s going to be important in a minute…
I started making a list of all the expectations we live under and in just a matter of minutes came up with 20 rules that stress us out:
- Serve others but also be yourself and find your unique path
- Wear the right clothing, hairstyle, make up, and accessories AND keep up with the changes
- Be outgoing, upbeat, kind and friendly at all times
- It’s okay to be opinionated and shut down those who don’t agree with you so long as your opinions are currently popular. Otherwise you must be quiet
- Read all the bad news obsessively so you will be up to date on all the latest horrors and hype
- Put other people’s needs above you own while simultaneously honoring your own self care
- Show you are a caring person by doing whatever others think you should do
- Maintain and decorate your living space to Pinterest Perfection while also somehow expressing your individuality
- Prove your worth by doing something socially acceptable with your life (and you don’t get to define acceptable!)
- Find a passion and purpose that leads you to achieve greatness
- Buy the newest electronics or risk being left behind
- Embrace and celebrate every lifestyle choice, know ahead of time what all those lifestyles are and also know which ones are out of favor and should be condemned.
- Jump on the bandwagon of every outrage and offense, and be sure to declare your alignment with those socially acceptable offenses on social media.
- Be nice and validate everyone else’s feelings, but hide your own if they aren’t acceptable because you will be criticized for them
- Care what others think of you
- If you aren’t an influencer, you aren’t important so strive for popularity above all else
- Get a university degree, a “good” job, car, marriage, home and have 2.3 children
- Be in the know about the latest TV shows and movies
- Trust the experts “accurate information” about the things they tell you that you should care about.
- Last but not least, if you’re a man – treat women with utmost respect and deference, but not too much deference or you will be accused of sexism.
Look at how many of those are contradictory. No wonder we are stressed out. Not all of those expectations are bad, clearly. But what if we are twisting ourselves into a pretzel, scrambling to figure out how to live in a way that is socially acceptable simply for the sake of earning some form of approval?
Remember, I told you we’d get back to that?
Trying to earn approval is where the stress and loss of freedom happens.
It’s like trying to herd cats. The minute you catch up to one, the others twist and change, darting out of reach.
It leaves us on continually shifting ground, unstable and off balance. Can you feel it?
There is a certain amount of power in being the one who makes those rules. Rule makers control others when they withhold approval until someone lives up to their rules. It creates an undercurrent of fear and fear is a powerful motivator. Withholding approval and instilling the fear of rejection can get you to behave in the ways the rule maker wants you to.
Sadly, an awful lot of churches function this way. Expecting you to follow certain rules in order to be acceptable is man’s standard by the way, not God’s. Don’t get them mixed up.
When we live in fear of being rejected, we can be coerced into living up to those rules in order to avoid the rejection. It’s a form of bondage.
This is important! – I am NOT advocating for anarchy. There are absolutely rules in society we must follow. Not only legal rules, but rules of civility and decency. I’m talking about rules people put on us in order to make us acceptable to them.
But don’t we need approval and acceptance? Yes, we do. We are hardwired to crave belonging, love, and community with people who value us.
Sometimes though we aren’t very discriminating about who we seek that approval from.
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Rules Steal Our Freedom
Think about the unspoken rules you are trying to live under. Write them down and ask yourself some questions:
“Am I following those rules because it’s something I value, or because someone else wants me to do it?”
“What do I value?”
“How do I want to live my life?”
“Who can I look to for unconditional acceptance and love, who will support me in my life choices?”
“Who is putting expectations on me that are their rules, not mine? Do they truly care about me, value me for who I am and love me whether I keep these rules or not?”
“Is their acceptance of me conditional on meeting their expectations?”
Be careful on this one. It’s tempting to make assumptions about people based on things they may have done in the past to hurt us.
I’m going to suggest you think about reducing contact with people who seek to control you by imposing expectations and rules on you while withholding love, approval or acceptance. However, before you do that:
Ideally, have a conversation with them. Point out where you feel pressured to live up to an expectation in order to earn their favor in some way. Ask if your perception in valid. It may be your love language is different from theirs and you aren’t “hearing” the love because of the way they speak it.
We don’t want to live in the echo chamber where we refuse to associate with people who don’t think and live exactly like we do. It will not help us grow and learn to live in harmony with others if we cast out anyone who makes us uncomfortable.
Being different does not equal being wrong. However, if someone is manipulative and does not genuinely like or love us for who we are, it may be time for some distance.
Free and Authentic Living
I’m going through this same process myself right now. Trying to meet expectations for the sake of earning approval is living in fear, not in freedom. I want to live in freedom, authentically, with integrity to my values, regardless of what others think.
For example, I don’t particularly value knowing the latest news about some scandal in government. Therefore I am intentionally avoiding social media and the news for the sake of my sanity.
Yet people around me do seem to find value in knowing (and obsessing over) bad news. They criticize anyone who doesn’t share their concern as being uninformed and not caring enough. Even when those are things that A – we have zero control over and B – has no bearing whatsoever on our life.
So I stay off social media and avoid the news. That does mean some people are critical of me and take offense because I don’t think the same way they do. It means they don’t approve of me or particularly like me. It’s risky.
You Are Loved
I have the same need for the approval and love that gives us self-worth. How do I get that if I offend those around me?
My self-worth, (and yours !) comes from the faith that God loves and accepts me regardless of my opinions.
God loves you even if your opinions don’t line up with His.
God has rules and expectations, we call them the 10 Commandments, but God doesn’t expect you to live up to them in order to earn His love. He loves you unconditionally before you do anything good enough to somehow earn that love.
The exact opposite of what most people do to us!
God knows full well you can’t be perfect enough to keep all of His commandments and earn His favor. Jesus is the only one who is perfect enough to completely live up to God’s expectations. Belief in Him and His sacrifice on the cross makes you acceptable before God, not your behaviors or opinions.
All God asks of us is faith – faith to believe He loves us without condition or expectation. In that love we find the self-worth we need. With God’s approval we don’t need approval from people. We can live as our authentic self, living out our values, instead of wasting our life scrambling to meet the expectations of other people.
The Courage and Humility to Be Free
So much of our stress is directly related to the need to meet the expectations of the world and of the people around us. It’s an ever-changing target and it feels like our very self-worth is on the line.
We end up living a life that is not in alignment with our authentic self, our values and our beliefs. It feels unsettling. We end up with a vague sense that we are living the wrong life. We feel trapped.
Trust that feeling! You may well be trapped in a life of unending effort to earn an illusory form of approval that is taken back the minute you fail to meet expectations.
There is freedom to be your real self when you know for sure you are loved and valuable. Experiencing that love requires something that you may find even more challenging than meeting the expectations of other people:
Living in the true love of God calls us to humble ourselves before Him and call Him Lord.
Freedom, peace, release from stress, authentic living… it’s all available. Do you have the courage and humility it takes to walk a different path? Hope for life is only found in God’s love.