Admiration feels amazing – for a while. It is never enough. It never satisfies our insatiable thirst for love. Admiration is not love.
Consider how many celebrities bask in the admiration of their fans, while secretly struggling with loneliness or depression. Consider the trend to chase after “likes” on social media – often eliciting envy in the onlookers, thrilling for a while, but inevitably leaving the recipient feeling empty and disappointed. Consider the mental health crisis in our schools and universities – including (and especially) among the “high performing” students.
I recall a conversation about university life. One institution was monitoring their students who were at the highest risk of flunking out. A consistent profile was emerging. It was not what many would think – not the party crowd who are getting distracted from their studies. No, by far the larger at-risk group was made up of students who had “performed” at a high level in high school, had presented an “ideal” college application, and were now in desperate trouble.
I was certainly one of those high-pressure students as I entered the university, though it took me another two decades or so to have my perfectionism fall apart. In part, that was because I had some genuine experiences of being loved for who I was (experiences that are increasingly scarce for young people today!). In part, it was because of my intense determination and my many talents. Whenever I seemed stuck, I fought and found ways to keep “succeeding.” I got myself back to a place of being admired by others. And it kept getting lonelier.
It was exhausting being admired, not to mention terrifying. There was no room for rest. Being admired meant that I couldn’t fail. I had to keep succeeding. It meant I couldn’t have any messy emotions or be in need. Shame was always lurking in the shadows – warning me that others would want nothing to do to me if I didn’t keep it up.
What I really needed was love – to be loved for who I really am. Being loved for who I am is so different than being appreciated for all that I do or being celebrated because of how amazing I am at this or that role.
It was incredibly hard to be loved for who I was because I had buried that identity so deeply that I didn’t even know it myself! During most of my childhood, I felt like I was under surveillance. I had to behave a certain way and be a certain way – or else. I discovered over time that I could be a “good” child by not having emotions or needs. I could even receive praise or more privileges if I was highly responsible, dependable, disciplined, and successful. I grew into that role and stayed in it for a few decades. The admiration was a drug that, like other drugs, kept me anticipating the next dopamine release – but ultimately left me feeling hollow. Others were loving me in a role, but they weren’t actually loving me – because I was keeping the real me hidden.
The last seven years have been an arduous but rewarding journey of recovering and reclaiming who I really am – who God created me to be. That journey has introduced me to unexpected companions and new friends. Even in environments with a high level of safety and care, I still find it awkward or scary when others really see me, and all I can do is receive their love – or squirm away from it. My defenses still spring up – though with slowly increasing freedom to notice what’s happening and allow the defenses to settle back down. It still feels easier to be in a “one up” or “one down” position – admired by another or admiring another; clearly “stronger” or “further along” than another or clearly in the position of an admiring (and subtly fawning) disciple.
I am convinced that the deepest wound we can experience is not being loved for who we are. Facing abuse is hard. I’ve done it with my own experiences of abuse, and I’ve very often been there with others. But in every case I have found the deeper wound and the longer road of healing to be around the ache to being loved for who we are. Once we have a chance to work through the fear or hurt or rage at being mistreated or used, we begin to access the deeper heartache of longing for love but not really receiving it. Lack of love is the deepest wound, resulting in the biggest ache.
The more I have healed, the more I see how omnipresent this wound is! Our churches hold up “good” Christian families to be – ahem – admired by the community. And their children or adult sons and daughters often struggle with feeling alone and unloved. Until their parents begin facing their own heartache and receiving what they really desire and need, they will struggle in providing it for their children. I say all this without the least bit of shaming or finger-pointing, but to tell the truth with kindness.
I believe that most of our families have transmitted heartache from generation to generation. How could we not? On a collective level, we have endured massive traumas over the last 150 years: the radical reordering of society and family life wrought by the Industrial Revolution, the struggles of immigration, two global pandemics, the Great Depression, and savage wars that have killed more people than the rest of the human centuries put together. How many of our families have actually faced that heartache and received the needed healing? Until we do, we are bound to keep transmitting the pain – leaving it to the next generation to figure out. Meanwhile, the saddest result is that most children are left entering adulthood feeling insecure and unloved.
I am aware that many readers may be feeling shame about how they have treated others. Notice that – but please don’t let it distract you from receiving what you need. We cannot give others what we have not received ourselves.
Do you tend to seek admiration rather than love? Do you truly feel loved for who you are? Are you playing a role rather than abiding securely in your authentic identity? Would you like to change that? If so, may the Holy Spirit inspire you and illumine the next step or two along the path.