Lea Ann Paradise was in love. She was dating Bob (not his real name) a few years ago and was working overtime to make the relationship blossom. There was just one tiny problem: He didn’t love her back.
“I wanted Bob to love me,” Paradise recalls. “I wanted him to show me that he loved me, and that wasn’t happening.” She was convinced that she could be happy only if Bob would return her love. It wasn’t until long after the two went their separate ways that Paradise began to realize that her happiness depended far less on someone else’s affections than it did on her own frame of mind.
Like Paradise, many of us believe that we’ll be happy once we win the love, intimacy, and approval of those around us. So we work hard to curry favor with others; we worry about what others feel and think. In the process, we open ourselves to a lot of heartache and anxiety. We also convince ourselves that our happiness depends on others’ actions and attitudes — when in fact it depends on what we, ourselves, think and believe.
The notion that we need to win people over is ingrained in our culture. Many of us “stage-manage” what we say and how we act in front of someone important to us. We nervously watch for signs that we’re succeeding. Afterward, we mentally rewind the conversation and judge our performance.
That’s a lot of work for something we really can’t control. And quite frankly, we don’t need to bother, says Byron Katie, author of I Need Your Love — Is That True? How to Stop Seeking Love, Approval and Appreciation and Start Finding Them Instead.
Seeking love and approval from others simply doesn’t work, says Katie. “We stand in front of a person, we imagine what they want us to sound like, and we put on a facade in order to win their approval,” she explains. “And then when they say something like, ‘I approve of you,’ part of us doesn’t really believe it because we know they’re approving of a facade.”
Even if our act is successful, we still aren’t entirely happy. Why? Because the more we focus on what the other person is thinking, the less we are present for our own thoughts and feelings, and to the real relationship that exists between us. “The irony,” Katie notes, “is that the struggle to win love and approval makes it impossible to have them.”
Question Your Thoughts
At the heart of Katie’s work is the idea that when we believe our stressful thoughts, we suffer, but when we question them, we don’t. Confused thoughts, Katie says, are the cause of all stressful feelings — which, in turn, cause unkind, crazy-making behaviors that often contribute to our own unhappiness.
“The way the mind works,” says Katie, “is that it thinks, for example, ‘I’m unhappy.’ Something wonderful may be happening around us, but the mind is busy proving that thought: ‘I’m unhappy,’” she says. “The mind’s job is to look only for what will validate that belief.”
Until we are willing to challenge our thoughts, we’re stuck in a desperate cycle of seeking and not receiving. In the process, we become largely incapable of enjoying the real love and appreciation that’s coming our way.
To help people transform their false thoughts, Katie has developed a set of four questions she calls “The Work” (see “Get Real With Your Relationships,” below, and the article “Coming to Terms” for more info on The Work).
Katie’s questions first challenge the verity of the thoughts that are causing us trouble; then they invite us to look at how we act under their influence. The final question invites us to consider who we might be without our troubling notions. In most cases, we find we would be free to act and relate differently — and in a way far more likely to create satisfaction for ourselves and others.
The next step in The Work is to create a “turnaround.” This involves reversing the original idea in various ways to create new perspectives. Turnarounds tend to reveal elements of reality (and relationships) that seem obvious once we’ve lit on them. They can also reveal the extent to which we are investing our emotional energy in false notions that may themselves be making us miserable.
For Paradise, as an example, the distressing thought “I need him to love me” first got turned around to become “I don’t need him to love me.” This rang surprisingly true, she realized, because “it appears he doesn’t love me, and I’m still breathing.” After working through more turnarounds and their associated epiphanies, she tried: “I need me to love me.” That last statement seemed especially right-on to Paradise, who realized her energy was better spent being “at home with myself, instead of having my attention on him.”
What she ultimately discovered, she says, is that she was quite capable of loving herself, and that she was “whole, whether someone else loved me or not.”
Building Authentic Connections
Psychologist Diana Kirschner, PhD, author of Opening Love’s Door: The Seven Lessons (iUniverse, 2004), has found Katie’s questions so helpful that she has incorporated a variation of them into her relationship classes. “Katie’s approach helps you realize that these anxiety-provoking thoughts about whether or not another person likes you or loves you are really just projections of your own negative self-judgment,” Kirschner says.
Once you examine these thoughts, she adds, you see that they don’t serve you. “You stop enacting this behavioral pattern that’s really self-defeating, and you start enacting a behavioral pattern that is validating.”
Over time, Paradise says, Katie’s approach has helped her engage more authentically. Whether meeting someone new or talking to an old friend, she says, “I’m here now. I’m open and present. I get to experience the person in front of me instead of my story about them.”
That’s what it’s all about, says Katie: “If you approve of yourself, you can approach people totally, without seeking approval. You realize that their reaction has to do with who they believe you are, not with who you really are. So their approval is just icing on the cake, because you already have what’s most important: your own love.”