In the religious stream in which I grew up, finding your self was synonymous with narcissism. Whenever so and so mentioned that their friend or relative was embarking on a quest to find themselves, the adults would snicker. Then they would throw out the Bible verse that says, he who would find himself must first lose himself. That is not quite the way the original reads. I grew up thinking that having a self must be a bad thing indeed. Jesus would not approve.
Now my theology has changed rather drastically. That I even have a self is a miracle. In fact, I am pretty sure that it is the greatest thing God ever gave to me. All other gifts hinge on this one, even Jesus. After twenty-five years of teaching and fifteen of ministry, I now believe that one cannot give up something one does not first possess. Namely, one’s own self.
I have observed a lack of a sense of being in quite a few people over the years. Townsend and Cloud, the Boundaries authors say the emotionally healthy possess a sense of being and a sense of well-being. Without a sense of being, how can one navigate a proper boundary after all? Boundaries are predicated on the idea that this is me and that is you. And if we are made in God’s image, then God’s very first words about Himself are I am that I am. Clearly a well-defined sense of being.
I remember reading a book, Hurt, that put forth the idea that adolescents these days become hooked to social media because their sense of self is lacking. They only feel that they exist when in constant contact with others via social media. So what does it mean to lack a sense of self? Many people who lack a defined sense of being are utterly unaware of this. The emptiness that they feel is often attributed to external conditions rather than internal ones, which is, of course, merely a projection.
Symptoms of an undeveloped sense of self include:
- Their personality changes depending on who they are with.
This isn’t about blending in. If you are adjusting how you act according to who you’re with, always gauging who you think they want you to be, that can spell trouble. A settled self or sense of being is the same person, no matter who they are with. Their personality is the same. They may not have exactly the same reaction to situations every time, but their personality traits are consistent over their lifetimes.
- They are always bored and restless.
A person with a settled sense of identity has inner reserves. Their inner lives are active and interesting. A lack of a healthy sense of self leaves a person empty and so they look for things to fill the void.
- They are self-destructive and take dangerous risks.
A lack of a sense of identity leaves a person without a sense of value. If your life seems worthless, then what does it matter what you do with it? A deep disconnection from one’s self can make behaviors that legitimately frighten others seem exciting. From drugs to dangerous sexual behaviors or even thrill-seeking, those disconnected to themselves tend to see death as inevitable. Maybe even welcome. Their lives do not matter to them and so they do not comprehend that their lives might matter deeply to others. They don’t fear death because they don’t value life.
- They don’t trust themselves.
How can you trust someone you don’t know?
- They tend to be shallow.
Relationships don’t run deep if you don’t have a center. Intimacy is impossible with someone who doesn’t know who they are. Beliefs vary depending on who they are with and often swing from extreme to extreme. A person without a sense of identity will often rely on labels to define who they are. Whether it is a relational role such as wife or mother, or a political party, their perception is that who they are depends on the labels they adopt.
The truth about identity is that it arises from who we are on the inside. Instead of a role or a label that we wear like a banner across our chest, who we are comes from the deep places within. Who we are as people derives in part from our history. We are each a unique collection of experiences. Our family plays a significant part in teaching us who we are in relation to our past. Family legacy is crucial as are deep relationships with our parents. Lacking parents who are capable of an intimate relationship can derail a sense of self from an early age.
A sense of self is supposed to form more concretely during adolescence. Individuation helps us complete the healthy division from our parents. We question beliefs and then adopt as our own the ones that resonate with us. A developed sense of self has complete ownership of one’s own set of core values. If we do not adopt our own belief system apart from those who have influenced us, then our belief system will collapse easily under the pressures of a very loud world. Those who do not understand what they believe and why they believe it are then cast adrift in a world full of voices shouting conflicting opinions.
Only with a deeply understood and valued sense of self can we make any headway with the verse For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it found in Matthew 10:25. A strong identity is needed for someone who is willing to give his life the sake of Jesus. To follow Him requires us to withstand the talking heads, the persecutors, and often, the pleasures of this world.
In fact, one of our deepest callings within the church is to engage in meaningful relationships, to spend our lives in loving the unlovable. Only a profound sense of who you are as a person and who you are in Christ can empower you to love your enemy, or even just your grumpy neighbor. If you are strong enough to withstand the disapproval of others, then you have the power to change the world. Jesus’ sense of self withstood the violent rejection of the whole world. He held on to His vast love for humanity in the face of the worst opposition we could throw at Him.
Who you are is infinitely precious. Get to know this self with which you have been blessed. Take personality tests to figure out some of your core traits. Explore your gifts. Instead of asking what should you believe, ask yourself what you actually believe. Forgive yourself, accept yourself, and begin to deal with the pain that undermines your courage to be who God made you to be. A lot of help exists out there, but in the end, only you are responsible for you.
Some reading suggestions…
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