As I alluded to in Part One and Two, relationships are crucial to our life paths. And to have great circles of relationships, I had to start at the core – the innermost circle of the Holy Trinity and me.
Simultaneously with getting to know God, I have had to get to know myself. You would think this would be easy and obvious. But it’s really not. Just admitting that I had no idea who I am took a tremendous effort. I had spent so many years listening to society tell me that self-help is silly and for weaklings. Thank you Saturday Night Live for the gift of Stuart Smalley!
There were two things I did know about myself.
- I wanted to change my life.
- I am stubborn to change until I know why it needs to happen.
Wanting to change was enough to make me ask why I needed to change. The answer was that my life was not in line with what God wanted for me. So what does God want for me? I think He wants me to enjoy a life of love through following His commandments.
Easier said than done. The Bible is full of laws and commandments. So where do I start? Funny I should ask, because this answer is right there in the Bible!
One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” ~Matthew 22:35-40
Now, I think it’s important to note that loving yourself is clearly not first in the list here. Yet, I don’t think I can successfully follow this command without knowing and loving myself. How can I love God with all my heart, my soul, and my mind unless I fully know my heart, my soul, and my mind and how to use them? How can I love others as I love myself if I don’t know and love myself?
Aha. Now I know why I need to join the ranks of self-help junkies. Not just for myself, although that’s a good bonus. But for God. Now it feels like a worthy cause. But HOW?
Although I had been dabbling in self-help for a while (thank you O Magazine and Real Simple), my first real wake-up call was going through a training course by Franklin Covey called The 5 Choices at work (discussed in more detail in Confessions of a Chronic Multitasker).
“I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.” ~Stephen Covey
This was when I first realized that my life was not my own because I wasn’t spending time on any of the things that were important to me. I needed to put my chameleon away and get real. My life belonged to society, and that realization scared me.
When I’m scared, my crutch is to learn everything I can, mostly by reading. I started with Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck. I can’t even adequately put into words how important this book is for me. Martha describes the inner conflict that causes most of us so much confusion and stress and ultimately, I think, the driver of “the mid-life crisis”. It’s the conflict between the social self and the essential self.
The social self is the “reasonable” side of our personality, the part that developed in response to pressures from the people around you. The one who does what you deem to be socially acceptable because it earns approval. And this can be good to an extent because it typically likes to follow laws, makes sure we have retirement accounts, and keeps us from punching the super annoying people in our lives!
The essential self is the “essence of your personality”, the core of your beliefs, desires, emotions, and your true identity. It formed before you were born and isn’t affected by the world around you. It is unique and therefore harder for those around you to identify with, resulting in less social approval.
What is ideal is a balanced mix of the two. But what usually happens is the social self overpowers the essential self, and we become robots of society. At some point in our lives, the essential self starts fighting back, sometimes with a vengeance for being ignored for so long. It fights with warning signals like stress, anxiety, exhaustion, and even sickness. Looking back now, I suspect this is what happened to me which caused me to start searching for what was off in my life. My essential self desperately wanted me to get on my true path. My social self didn’t think that was safe or smart.
Martha Beck taught me awareness of this conflict and provided great tools for following my essential self to my true path. But to truly overpower my social self, I needed to redefine what I perceived to be socially acceptable. This meant taking a hard look at the people around me who were creating social acceptance for me, whether they were trying to or not. This meant I may need to disappoint these people or let some of them go completely. This meant facing and really understanding shame and vulnerability.
Enter Brené Brown and The Gifts of Imperfection. Her research on shame was critical for helping me cut through the outer layers I had built around myself. She taught me that getting comfortable with vulnerability, and not being afraid of what everyone else thinks, is key to letting my essential self really live. Being kind to the fearful person hiding under the layers is necessary to this process.
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness.”
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.” ~Brené Brown
Reading is great, but change requires action. For me that means physically doing something to make it real. So I also gave myself permission to go away for a long weekend to Campowerment. Physically making the effort to face this stuff by escaping for a few days created the real space for breakthrough. This is where I learned about all the things that I had been letting block me. The excuses I had been living out. And this is where I decided to stop living those excuses.
Remember that old saying “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”? That is so true. The more I listened to my essential self and let her start making some choices, the more I experienced real joy. And people are like mirrors to each other. If I’m joyful, the other people around me have a chance at feeling joyful too.
But right here is where I had to do a gut-check, because I started to notice that too much “self-help” can get dangerous. It is a balancing act of accepting that I am important without leaving God behind. I have to make Christianity a central part of my self-discovery to keep my ego from getting out of control. Keeping a focus on God’s role in who I am is critical in not letting self-discovery become a power trip. “Who am I?” also leads to questions like, “Why am I here?” and “What is my purpose?” Those questions answered without God can quickly lead to narcissism. Answered with God, the answer to all 3 questions is love.
Anything we decide to do out of love for God, ourselves, and others will be amazing.
But how do I decide what to do? I am a Christian, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sibling, a friend, an employee, a leader. And that’s just the beginning. How do I be all of these people, and do a good job at it? Where do I focus? How do I stop letting society decide what is most important? That is where I am forever grateful to Lysa TerKeurst for her book, The Best Yes. She taught me to protect this self I had just discovered through my decisions on how I will spend my time. She helped me learn what I should be saying yes to (through God) and that it is often okay to say no.
“The decisions you make determine the schedule you keep. The schedule you keep determines the life you live. And how you live your life determines how you spend your soul.” ~Lysa TerKeurst
Once I better understood who I was and how to make God-based decisions, I credit Lara Casey for teaching me how to Make It Happen. Courage. Trusting God. Taking risks based on faith. To do these things I had to stop chasing perfect and start chasing Jesus. Lara’s steps (evaluate your life, clear the clutter, set purposeful goals, and take action) seem easy and predictable at first, but chasing Jesus while doing them made all the difference in the world. My essential self was crying tears of joy and relief at finally being heard!
“I will hold myself to a standard of grace, not perfection.” ~Lara Casey
Self-discovery is most definitely not silly as I had once thought. And deciding to do it didn’t make me a weakling as I had feared. It made me accept that we are all already weaklings, and everyone is looking for a way to overcome weakness, and Jesus is the way to do it. Discovering who I am and actually loving and respecting myself is so critical to keeping my innermost circle with God functioning correctly. Now that I know who I am, sharing with Him in relationship, I can do it fully.
This can’t be figured out in one already-too-long blog post. But you have to start somewhere. Know yourself, love yourself, so that you can fully love God and those around you. We are only on this journey for a very short time. Don’t waste another second. Start living out God’s truth for you through the most important relationship of your life. The innermost circle – the relationship between you and God.