“Our true selves are not perfect selves. . . . Love alone frees us to admit recurring weaknesses.”
The idea of my weaknesses being exposed, let alone actually confessing them, terrified me for many years. I had carried a seemingly immutable shame and self-rejection for almost as long as I could remember. I have very few memories of feeling comfortable in my skin, of feeling like I fit in and was accepted for who I was. Though my family loved me as best they could, and I always knew they would protect me and provide for me, mine was definitely not a personality that fit in. I was emotional and dreamy, insecure and very easily hurt. My mother was overwhelmed with three children in four years, and my father, a mechanical engineer, had no grid for a daughter who apparently couldn’t do math.
To gain acceptance meant to me that I had to be perfect. That meant I couldn’t be me, since my real self was unacceptable! I also realized that I had no alternative to being me—I couldn’t become another person. I was stuck. My only alternative was to hide my deeply flawed self and create an acceptable one for the world to see.
To a degree this worked throughout most of my childhood. I created a persona that seemed to deflect most of the rejection I perceived. I hid my actual self away and developed a rich and concealed inner life. As I grew into my teens, however, a scoliosis diagnosis confirmed in my heart what I already believed—that I was “made wrong,” that my actual self was defective. And now my body revealed the deformity I knew I had in my soul. I was certain that I was irredeemably flawed.
I was terrified that others would discover this inner deformity and reject me, so I learned how to read people and become what they wanted. Acceptance was so important to me that I would twist myself into whatever shape others valued in order to be part of a community.
For many years, I convinced myself that if I got married, I would be fine, that a husband would make me whole. That led to a number of disastrous relationships, which confirmed my belief that there was something wrong with me; it drove me further into self-hatred and shame. I tried to numb the pain through alcohol and drugs, which led to even more self-rejection since I now saw myself as too weak to make it without crutches.
By the time I became a believer at twenty-two I had made many painful and futile attempts to heal myself. As the Lord began to slowly lead me through the healing process, I found layer after layer of shame that I was sure would kill me. I was used to the pain of my self-hatred and shame, and the pain of my coping strategies—they were pains I was used to, pains I felt some amount of control over, but this new, real pain was terrifying.
It was several years before I understood that only through suffering this real pain, only through letting Jesus into those places, could there be any real healing and maturity, any hope for the emergence of the real self God had created. I was hiding behind a false self, which I protected at any cost to my real self. I had become a narcissist: not in the classic puffed up sense, but I was still looking to others to tell me who I was and trying to find my identity through the people around me.
Narcissism and relational idolatry are closely related. Both are completely focused on—obsessed with—hiding the unacceptable self and creating one that will be received by others. Most importantly, both reject the God-given, true, unique self in favor of a mask that will attract others, while at the same time keeping those others safely distanced from the true, wounded heart. And as Andrew points out, that sin of self-rejection empowers weakness to become wickedness.
In my own healing from self-hatred and self-rejection, the community of Living Waters has been invaluable. From my first experience in a pilot group in 1995, and through each group and training and conference since, I have been loved and challenged and called out. Each team I have been part of has had a different, crucial role in confirming my real identity and exposing where I have hidden behind masks.
The most recent place of healing has been around the deep shame I’ve felt over having scoliosis (as though having it was somehow my fault—the self-hatred was so deep). It has only been in the last three years that I’ve been able to really let anyone know about the incredible wound the diagnosis and subsequent surgeries left on my heart. I would talk about it, saying, “Yes, it happened. Yes, I had some operations,” but I would never reveal how humiliated and shamed it all left me. I really felt it might kill me, as though I would cease to exist, if those depths of shame were ever exposed. In worship one evening at a Living Waters training, the Lord told me, “You’ve never really let me be Lord of your shame,” and it utterly broke me.
Since then I have been learning how to let God have access to those places to impart His grace and mercy there. I never believed that Jesus liked me for who I was and enjoyed who I was. I understood He loved me, as my family loved me—because He had to. He loved me in spite of who I was, not because of it. Learning to listen to His voice of love and delight over me, in private times and in the community of Living Waters, has completely changed my life and allowed me to take down the masks and the walls and the lies, and let my real heart live in the light.