by Juanita Ryan
I remember looking in the mirror as a teenager and asking myself, Who am I? Who is that person staring back at me? At the time I didn’t realize that I had already been answering that question for many years.
As I look back now on those years it is clear to me that my answer to the question Who am I? was, I am a good person. That was who I was; I was good. I had a variety of ways of demonstrating that goodness. I worked very hard. I didn’t ask for anything. I didn’t cause anybody any trouble. I did what was expected of me. I did everything I could to take care of the needs of others.
Of course, I was not aware at the time that I was answering the question Who am I? in that way. It was not a conscious part of my life. Nor was I aware that my determination to be good was rooted in fear. I was working hard to be good, because maybe if I was good enough I would be protected from deeply buried fears that I was bad. Just as I was not aware that I was working hard to be a good person, I was also unaware that I lived with a deep fear that I was a bad person. I had no understanding of any of this. I just worked harder and harder to be good.
This deep internal conflict, of believing myself to be bad and trying instead to be good, began to surface as I grew into young adulthood. It surfaced indirectly at first. What came to my attention first was that I had difficulty believing, as a young newlywed, that my husband loved me. I could see the evidence of his love: he said he loved me, and he consistently acted like he loved me. But I could not take in his love. I could not believe it or trust it. That disturbed me. I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn’t know what it was.
I also began to realize that I was experiencing a similar problem in my relationship with God. I believed that God was loving, but I did not believe that God loved me. I was somehow the one exception. I could see how this created problems for me—how difficult it was to trust or to hope or to simply relax. My inability to believe that God loved me distressed me as deeply as my inability to believe that my husband loved me. Something was wrong. But as hard as I tried, I could not figure it out or change it.
Eventually my distress became great enough that I sought help. When I did, I slowly became aware, first of all, of my ongoing attempts to define myself as a good person. I began to see the many things I was doing to create that sense of myself. I also became aware of my deep fear that I was bad. And I began to understand how that fear about myself had its roots in the early years of my life.
As I saw these dynamics of my self-concept more clearly, I began to realize that the self that I was presenting to the world was actually a defensive structure, a wall I was hiding behind. The answer that I had given to the question Who am I? was really not an answer at all. It was an elaborate attempt to protect myself from fears that I found intolerable.
I also began to see, although with more difficulty, that my sense of myself as bad was a distortion. The belief that I was a terrible person was a conclusion I had come to as a child when I was trying to make sense out of a series of difficult circumstances. Children take responsibility for things they cannot possibly be responsible for. Sometimes children are blamed for things they are not responsible for. And sometimes children are treated in ways that leave them believing they are bad. With a great deal of struggle I came to see that my fear that I was bad was not a truth but a distortion about myself that had grown out of early wounds. Bad was not who I was after all.
As I discovered that much of the hard work to define myself as a good person was a defense, I became more confused about how to answer the question Who am I? And I became further perplexed as I discovered that my underlying fear that I was a bad person was a distortion and was not my true self either. These realizations left me profoundly disoriented. Who was I really?
What I slowly began to discover was that underneath my attempts to define myself as good and underneath my fears of being bad, there deep within was my true self. Under all the pretense and all the distorted ideas about myself was the self that God had created me to be, the self made in God’s image. There, waiting to be seen and embraced by me, was a much loved child of God.
Thomas Merton has described the process I was going through quite clearly:
We must cast off our false, exterior self like the cheap and showy garment that it is. We must find our real self. . .in its very great and very simple dignity: created to be a child of God, and capable of loving with something of God’s own sincerity.1
Out of these discoveries a simple model emerged for understanding our common struggle to discover who we are. The purpose of this article is to outline this model. It is my hope that its bare-bones simplicity will help you to see yourself more clearly.
Who We Are
What I discovered to be true about who I am was so simple that I had been stumbling over it all my life. Who I really am—my true self—is a person created in God’s image. What we know most fundamentally about God is that God is love. We come from God. God’s essence is love. Our true essence is also love. We long to love, and we long to be loved. That is who we are under all the fears and distortions about ourselves, under all our ego and pride and defenses. We are spiritual creatures created in the image of the God of love, created to love and to be loved.
I remember as a teenager, when I read the Bible for the first time from beginning to end, how amazed I was that it read like one long love letter from God. “I love you! I love you! I love you!” God says in a thousand different ways from one text to the next. Over and over God says, “I am Love. That is who I am. I am Love.”
That is who God is. And it is who we are as creatures made by God in God’s image. When people asked Jesus what was the most important thing in all of life he told them, “Love God with every fiber of your being. And love your neighbor as yourself.” These are the two great commandments, the two keys to understanding who we are. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s what our lives are about, that is what we are about, that is who we are. We are people created for love. Our sense of meaning and joy come as we express our true selves in the giving and receiving of love.
Yet this wonderful loving self God made us to be often seems beyond our reach. We find ourselves competing with each other rather than cooperating in love. We feel insecure and are forever trying to prove ourselves, instead of knowing we are loved. We work hard to appear superior to each other rather than giving ourselves in love and joy to each other. What has happened to our awareness of our true selves? How did this pearl of great price get buried in a field and become forgotten?
Fears and Distortions
What happens to our true selves, basically, is that they get lost in fear. From the beginning of life, we experience events that seem to threaten our well-being, events that are frightening to us for one reason or another.
As young children we may be left to cry too long when we are hungry. We may hear angry voices and see angry faces and feel ourselves being handled roughly. We may unsuccessfully seek eye contact with a distracted or depressed caretaker. We may feel the anxiety and tension of the adult who holds us. Alarm bells begin to sound inside. What is wrong? we wonder. What do these things mean? We are likely to assume that such events may mean that something is wrong with us—that maybe something is very wrong with us.
It is as if our adult caretakers are holding up a mirror for us all the time. We look into their faces and believe we are seeing either ourselves or the effects of our presence. If what we see in that mirror is mostly a calm, loving and nurturing picture, we will believe that we are loved and that we are known to be loving. But if we look into that mirror and see primarily anger, depression or anxiety we will believe that something is wrong with us. As children we have no way of knowing that the distress we are seeing and sensing is not a reflection of ourselves. We will see ourselves in the distressed faces of our caretakers and develop fears about ourselves—fears that we are not loved or that we are not loving.
If in addition to these distressing mirrors we experience distressing words and actions, our worst fears will be confirmed. If we are told that it is our fault that our caretaker is distressed, we will believe that that is true. If our physical or emotional needs are neglected we will believe we have little value. If an adult we are supposed to be able to trust abuses us emotionally or physically or sexually, we will believe we are at fault. If a parent dies or leaves, we will believe we were the cause.
The most fundamental fears that develop from our beliefs about ourselves are fears that we are not loving and that we are not loved. We question the core of our true selves. The fears that we are not loved and that we are not capable of loving take on specific nuances for each of us, depending on our experiences. The fears that we are not loved or that we are not capable of loving may translate into fears that we are not good enough. Or that we don’t matter. Or that we are dangerous. Or that we are insignificant. Or that we are failures.
The difficulty is that all of these fears about ourselves become beliefs. We begin to experience these fears about ourselves not as distortions but as truth. This process is further complicated by the fact that we look at life events through the grid of these distortions and fears and see events in a way that seems to confirm our negative beliefs. If I believe that I don’t matter, and someone close to me is distracted by something in his or her own life and neglects me periodically, I will experience this neglect as a confirmation of my worst fear about myself. If I believe that I am dangerous, and a person I want to be close to is anxious about being close to anyone, I will see this anxiety as evidence of what I believe to be true about myself.
A further complication of this dynamic is that for every distortion we have about ourselves there is a matching distortion about others, including God. If I fear that I am bad and that I deserve to be punished, I will see God and others as judgmental and harsh. If I believe that I don’t matter, I will see God and others as neglectful and dismissing. If I see myself as not good enough, I will see God and others as impossible to please. We believe that our worst fears about ourselves are the truth, and without realizing it we project those fears onto others, looking for evidence to support our case against ourselves and against them.
Fortunately, God calls us out of our fears and back to the truth. God reminds us, “You are loved. You are created to love.” We read in Scripture, “Be imitators of God. . . as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us” (Ephesians 5:1). We are addressed as dearly loved children. We are not bad or insignificant, but dearly loved. And we are invited to live a life of love just as Christ loved and to be imitators of God by loving like God loves. God knows who we are. God knows we are capable of loving like Jesus loved, like God loves. It is a radical truth that God calls us to. We are not what our worst fears and distortions say we are. We are dearly loved children of God. We are capable of loving as God loves.
Our fears and distortions about ourselves generate painful feelings. Feelings of shame, anxiety and despair. These feelings are too painful to tolerate on an ongoing basis. So during the same days and years that our distortions about ourselves are being born, we also develop a strategy for protecting ourselves from the pain of these distortions. We do this instinctively, with little or no awareness of what we are doing. In the same years that I was coming to believe that I was a bad person, I was developing the strategy to prove to myself and to others that I was a good person. I would protect myself from the fear of being bad by trying to be both good enough to be loved and good enough to be seen as loving.
Over time our protective strategies become more and more set in place, forming what we might call a defensive structure. This defensive structure takes on a life of its own. It becomes the way we define ourselves—the way we present ourselves to others and to ourselves. We begin to think that our defensive structure is our true self. But in reality it is a false self. It is a false self in which we invest a great deal of energy, because we believe that any hope for ever feeling any kind of worth is tied to it.
Our defensive structures consist of a variety of patterned responses and choices we make from day to day. We might try to please everybody. Or we might try to prove that we know a lot. Or we might be passive and withdrawn. We might push ourselves to constantly overachieve. Or we might not ever try to achieve much at all. We might clown and chatter about nothing. We might become addicts, or compulsive caregivers or highly religious people.
We become very attached to these ways of being in the world, even when we realize all the trouble that these defensive structures create in our lives. We are attached to them because they protect us from feeling the shame that comes out of our fears and distortions about ourselves.
We each have a unique life story. So the fears we develop about ourselves and the protective strategies we develop to quiet our fears are unique to each of us. Identifying our specific fears about ourselves and the specific defensive strategies we have developed can be valuable. And it can be helpful to see how our fears and our defenses fit together.
Part of my defensive structure was to focus on other people and to be silent about myself. Underneath that defense were the fears that I don’t matter and that I’m bad. The unconscious reasoning was, I don’t matter. I am bad. I don’t want anyone to discover this about me. So I’ll keep the focus on the other person. Doing that allowed me to hide and to not bother anyone.
Others may live with the fear I’m dangerous. They may have lived with a parent who was depressed, and they may have feared that they were the cause of their parent’s distress. Their strategy for protecting themselves against the fear of being dangerous or hurtful may be to become a person who is forever working hard to cheer others up.
Those who experienced constant criticism may believe they are stupid and incompetent. They may protect themselves by being passive and by underachieving. Others who have a similar history and fear about themselves might defend themselves in the opposite way, by overachieving.
Those who were abandoned by a parent physically or emotionally may fear that they are not wanted. They may try to defend themselves by working hard to please others while remaining emotionally distant.
It is important to acknowledge how ingenious it was of us as children to come up with ways to cope with life’s difficulties and the fears that these difficulties generated. For some of us our defensive strategies may have saved our lives as children. They may have helped us to withdraw from danger into places of safety. They may have protected us from fears that we did not have the skills or resources to manage in any other way. But the defensive structures that helped us to survive in childhood may not work well for us as adults. Our defensive strategies turn out to be costly if we come to believe that our defenses are who we are. Those who drink every evening until they pass out on the couch are coping in a way that creates huge problems—the most significant being that they are unavailable to themselves and to others. Not all protective strategies are as visible as this. But all of them have the same effect. All of them leave us unavailable to ourselves and to others. Our defenses create a fortress around our vulnerable, loving hearts, so that our true selves are walled off, locked away, lost to us and to others.
Fortunately, God never forgets who we are. God lovingly calls us back to ourselves. God calls us back to love and to vulnerability. God said to the prophet Ezekiel, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). God promises that our hearts of stone, the defensive structures we have constructed to keep ourselves from being vulnerable, will be replaced with new hearts—with tender, undefended hearts of love.
Healing Distorted Images of OurSelves
By the time we are adults, our fears and defenses are so well established that the promise that we will receive hearts of flesh to replace our hearts of stone may seem too much to hope for. How do we let go of our defensive structures and our deeply seated fears about ourselves? How can we become free to be who we really are? How can we recover our true selves?
The answer to these questions often begins with a crisis of unhappiness in our lives. Our relationships may begin to fall apart. Or we may realize that we are anxious and depressed all the time. Or we may find ourselves feeling restless and unfulfilled. Crises such as these are alarms going off, telling us that something is wrong. That is why we often say that crises are opportunities. Crises such as these are wake-up calls that invite us to turn around and find our way back home to our true selves.
As we heed these wake-up calls there are three basic tools, or processes, that will assist us on our journey back home. One of these processes is telling the truth about ourselves with compassion. A second process is grieving with comfort and support from others. And a third is seeking conscious contact with God.
Telling the Truth about Ourselves with Compassion
Jesus taught us that the truth is so powerful it can set us free. The truth can free us from our defensive structures and from our fears and distortions about ourselves. It can free us to be our true selves.
In order to heal we need to tell the truth about our defenses. About our fears. About the wounds that generated those fears. And about our deep longing to love and to be loved.
I needed to tell the truth about all those realities in my life. I needed to tell the truth that I was driven to try harder and harder to be good. I needed to tell the truth that those behaviors were strategies to prove to myself and others that I wasn’t bad. I needed to tell the truth about early events in my life that had generated these fears in me. And I needed to tell the truth that my deepest longing was to love and be loved.
Telling the truth about ourselves can be a painful process. Acknowledging that my attempts to take care of others was a defensive strategy and was often not respectful or honest led to deep grief for me. Acknowledging my fear that I was bad meant experiencing that fear directly. Acknowledging the events that had generated my fears and distortions meant revisiting those events and all the distress that was a part of them. Acknowledging my deep longing to love and be loved meant feeling those longings as a great ache in my soul.
The process of telling the truth about our lives is full of danger—danger that we will get lost in shame and despair. It is crucial, if this process is to bring true healing, that we bring as much compassion and understanding to ourselves as possible as we tell the truth about our lives. We read in Scripture that we are to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Truth must be spoken in love and compassion, so that humility and grace can replace shame and despair. With each step of telling the truth about ourselves it is important to extend to ourselves as much love as we can find in our hearts. It is also important that we draw on the love of others and the love of God. As we do this our true selves become more and more available to us, because we are opening up that part of ourselves. The more deeply we learn and practice this way of compassion toward ourselves, the more the truth will set us free. And the more we extend compassion and grace toward ourselves, the more we will be free to extend it to others. In other words, the more we will be free to be our true selves.
Grieving with Comfort and Support
As we tell the truth about our lives with compassion, we will grieve. That is, we will grieve if we have loving support. Without loving support, we won’t grieve fully or in a way that leads to healing. That is the reason many of us do not grieve early losses and traumas until adulthood; we did not have the support we needed for grieving when we were younger.
We read in Scripture that God is “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). In the same text we read that we can comfort each other with the same comfort and compassion that we receive from God. It is the embrace of love from God and from others that allows us to do the difficult work of grieving.
Jesus promised the blessing of comfort for all who grieve. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Comfort is the experience of being held in the arms of someone who loves us. It is when we are held by Love that we come to know deep down that we are loved. That is how grieving, with comfort, heals us and sets us free.
Some of the healing grief that we experience involves a process of letting go. We grieve and let go of our defensive strategies and of our fears and distortions about ourselves. Some of the grieving is a process of experiencing deep sorrow over our losses and traumas, and over the ways our fears and defenses have robbed us and others of our true selves. And finally, some of this grieving is the process of opening our hearts to our deep longings to love and to know that we are loved.
Letting go of our protective strategies is an enormous challenge because our defenses have become like good friends. Our addiction to work, our compulsion to help others, our perfectionism, our emotional numbness, our attempts to look successful in some way—these defenses are a way of life. They have come to define who we are. Letting them go will feel like a terrible loss. As we face the loss of our defenses, we will find ourselves wondering what we will do and who we will be without them.
Perhaps even more difficult than letting go of our defenses is the challenge to let go of our fears and distortions about ourselves. These fears and distortions seem like the truth about us. Letting them go can cause us to feel as if we are telling a lie or letting ourselves off the hook. But slowly we will need to see that our fears are fears, not truths. We will need to acknowledge that we drew the wrong conclusions about ourselves early on in life. We will need to become willing to let the truth that we are God’s dearly loved children begin to replace our fears that we are not loved and that we are not capable of loving.
In addition to the ongoing processes of letting go, healing grief includes experiencing deep sorrow. Perhaps the greatest sorrow I experienced was that I had been emotionally unavailable to my children. I had no idea how numb I was or how walled off I was. I wanted more than anything to be emotionally accessible to them. I tried hard to do this, but being present to another does not come from trying hard. It comes from being free of our defensive structures and our fears. It comes from being ourselves, our true selves.
Finally, a crucial part of this grief is a willingness to feel, and stay with, our longing to love and be loved. When we stay open to this deep ache in our souls, we are feeling the birth pangs of our true selves being freed. We may be tempted to run from these longings and the vulnerabilities they represent. But it can be helpful to remember that our tender longings to love and be loved are the essence of our true selves. As we make room for these deep longings, painful though they may be, we are opening our hearts to know the joy of these longings being fulfilled.
Seeking Conscious Contact with God
A third process that helps us recover our true selves is the process of seeking and knowing God. We read, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16). God, who is Love, made us for love. As we invite God, God joins the love of all heaven and earth to our true selves, to our hearts of love. In this way we live in God and God lives in us. And in this way our deepest longings to love and be loved are met.
There are many ways we might seek conscious contact with God, but I will suggest three that have been helpful to me.
One way we can seek God and know God is to invite God into our lives every day. God is always with us. And God respectfully awaits our invitation. There are many ways we can invite God into our lives. The psalmist invited God in by asking God to know him. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
This is an invitation to God to know us intimately. It is also a request of God to help us know ourselves intimately. The psalmist starts at the center; he asks God to know his heart. When we pray this with the psalmist we are asking God to know our true selves and to make our true selves known to us. We are inviting God to know us deeply.
The psalmist then talks to God about his fears. He asks God to reveal his anxious thoughts. When we pray this with the psalmist we are asking God to show us the fears and distortions that we live with so that they can be healed and we can be free to know ourselves and to be ourselves more fully.
The psalmist continues by asking God to show him if there are any offensive ways in him. When we pray this we are asking God to reveal to us the ways we are protecting and defending ourselves. Our defensive ways of living are what rob us of ourselves and hurt other people. We can ask God to continue to reveal what we are doing that is defensive, so that we can make different choices and learn to live more vulnerably.
We can invite God to know us and to help us know ourselves. Daily, in one way or another, we can invite God to live with us and we can seek God’s will—the way of love—in our lives. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth—in me—as it is in heaven.
Another way we can open our hearts to God each day is by expressing gratitude. Saying thank you to God is not something we do because it is polite or because God requires it of us. Expressing gratitude is something we do because it opens our eyes and our hearts to see and receive the good gifts that God gives us every day.
Gratitude begins when we pay attention—when we open our eyes to see all that we are being given. As we do this, we become like an artist who takes the time to focus with care on life’s details. The slice of toast and cup of tea at breakfast become what they are—a gift. The hug from a friend is seen for what it is—a gift. As we open our eyes and look again we begin to see that God, the Maker of all things, is a passionate Lover who is forever showering us with gifts, calling out, “I love you, I love you, I love you! Can you see it? Can you see it in the beauty of the clouds? Can you hear it in that music? Can you feel it in your friend’s phone call? Can you see how much I love you?”
As we move from seeing the gifts we are being given each day, to saying thank you, we open our hearts to receive from God. Expressing our gratitude is a way of saying yes to God’s good gifts and to God’s never-ending love for us. Expressing gratitude each day, throughout the day, opens our hearts to be nourished by Love.
Listening to God
A third way to know God is to listen to God. Much of my life I thought of prayer as something I was supposed to do. I was supposed to talk to God about all the people who needed help, and remind God to take care of them. Later, prayer became more of a conversation, but still a one-way conversation. I talked to God about anything and everything.
Eventually I began to understand that prayer could be a two-way conversation. I realized that I could actively listen to God. I had had a sense of God speaking to me directly from time to time throughout my life, but I hadn’t thought of a two-way conversation with God as something I could seek every day. There is nothing difficult about this. For me, it is a matter of asking God to quiet me enough so that I can listen and asking God to speak to me. And then waiting. I try to find a quiet time and place to do this each day. But I often ask God to talk to me not just in times of quiet but also in the middle of the noise of life.
It has taken me some time to trust God’s voice. But the more I listen and hear God’s voice of love and wisdom and grace, the more I trust God’s voice. Sometimes when I listen to God, I experience surprises. I want to share one of those surprises with you because of the impact it has had on my distorted image of myself.
As I was waiting quietly in prayer one day, listening to anything God might want to say to me or show me, I had an image of myself sitting at the beach as an adult. In that image I was holding myself as a child. The distressing part of the image was that the child sitting in my lap was not recognizable as human. The child was a monster child. The picture of myself as a monster child captured vividly my fears about who I was. Fortunately, in that image, Jesus was standing next to me as I held the child version of myself. Jesus looked at me with a twinkle in his eye as he reached out with one hand to touch me. I thought he was going to touch the monster child in my lap and heal her. But he did not touch the child. Instead, Jesus reached out and touched my adult eyes. He healed my eyes so that I could see myself clearly. Jesus touched my eyes so that I could see that what I thought was a monster child was not a monster at all, but a precious child, a child who was infinitely lovable and tenderly loving.
We do not see ourselves clearly. We see ourselves through the distorted lenses of fear. We see ourselves in the mirrors of our caretakers’ distressed or angry or absent faces. We see ourselves in the ways we have been mistreated, as if we had little or no value. We cannot live with the pain of these distortions about ourselves, so we make up false selves and invest our energies in these exterior selves.
God, who is Love, invites us to see and be our true selves. God reaches out to heal our vision, which is blurred by fear. God holds up the mirror of his delight in us for us to look into, to see ourselves as God sees us. God wraps us in love and tells us we are infinitely valuable. God invites us to know who we are—dearly loved children, created to live lives of love.
1. Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., 1955
Juanita Ryan is a therapist in private practice. Visit her web site at www.juanitaryan.com