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‘I so wanted to be ... popular’

A 2018 Pew survey of US teenagers found that two of the most common pressures teens report facing are to look good and to fit in socially. Today’s contributor shares how a better understanding of her relation to God replaced a yearning to be popular with a desire to express joy and kindness toward others, opening the door to meaningful and lasting friendships.

The pursuit of popularity for its own sake seems rampant in today’s society. For instance, while social media “likes” can be a way to express genuine appreciation, many people see the number they receive as a measure of their worth.

I really understand that yearning for recognition and popularity. When I was in middle school, I so wanted to be one of the popular kids. It didn’t happen, though in high school I found a niche among a group of friends I cherished. However, when I entered college, without any of my old friends, I again felt that familiar desire to be popular, or at least well-liked, above all else.

But my shyness presented quite an obstacle. Part of my shyness, I realized, was related to an overblown concern about what others thought about me. As a child, I had been taught to be very aware of what others thought without regard for what I thought or felt.

In thinking about all this, I was inspired by a sentence that spoke to the idea that it’s something less self-centered, namely our faith, that should be central in our lives. In particular, referring to what was at the heart of the faith I practiced, Christian Science, it says: “He who leaves all for Christ forsakes popularity and gains Christianity.” This is from “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science (p. 238), a book I’d been finding increasingly helpful.

I realized I needed to stop focusing on catering to the opinions and judgments of others and instead concentrate on what it means to me to be a Christian. Of course, having friends or being liked isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. But I saw that my motives had been superficial.

I began to replace the question “What do others think about me?” with “How can I treat others in a more Christly manner?” Christ Jesus showed what this Christly love looks like. He taught us to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbor as ourselves. I realized that focusing on others’ opinions about me was actually selfish. Instead, I could prioritize helping others and considering their needs.

This wasn’t an exercise in willpower, but a shift in thinking that happened naturally through my study of Christian Science, which explains that we are all made in the spiritual image of God and reflect His qualities. For instance, another name for God is Love, so as God’s children, we naturally express love. Divine Love is made practical in healing as we see others (and ourselves) the way God sees them – not as mortals with or without charisma, but as His perfect, precious, loving, and lovable spiritual offspring.

When we understand this to be true about ourselves (and others), we know that we all have God’s unwavering approval. His love and guidance are unfailingly available to each of us. This is where a true sense of belonging or happiness stems from, not the approval of others.

As I considered these ideas, I stopped being so concerned about what others thought about me. As a result, it became easier to express joy and kindness – I no longer felt the need to be guarded, because I knew that I was infinitely loved by God and that my worth wasn’t defined by others’ opinions, whether favorable or not. The freedom I found from understanding my relation to God enabled me to form deep, loving, and lasting friendships with others based on mutual respect.

If we feel our primary goal is to get love, we miss the mark. I like to think of Christianity as about learning to give love. It’s something we all can do, regardless of religious background. As we come to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, we find a deeper peace and security than a self-focused quest for popularity can ever provide.

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