In the parlance of psychology, a person needs two things in order to be emotionally healthy; a sense of being and a sense of well-being. The first seems obvious at first. We look at ourselves and say, “Well, of course, here I am”. But if it were so simple, we would not suffer the crisis of identity, both personally and in the church that we currently endure. A struggle with one’s identity is a battle for a sense of being, and it is reductive to claim an easy or guaranteed path to success in this endeavor.
This search for who one is and what one stands for begins in infancy with object affection constancy. When baby cries and mother always comes, then a sense of being is gradually instilled in baby. At birth, a baby does not easily separate his individual self from that of his mother. How could he? He lived inside her for nine months. But the concept here is that as mother leaves and comes back according to the baby’s need, he establishes the understanding of me and not me. When mommy is attentive, then he begins to develop a sense of well-being as well as the knowledge that he exists apart from her.
As any woman with children knows, it’s all downhill from there as childhood and adolescence are the gradual training and weaning a person into adulthood. I always say that being a mother is learning to be fired a thousand times.
But pitfalls litter our lives, and early on we begin to develop false selves in order to protect or hide our true selves.
The fastest route to developing a false self is the rejection of our true self.
When I speak of the true self, I refer to the stripped down, original person with faults and gifts. To speak of who one truly is refers to the person whose thoughts and emotions are not extruded through the grinder of the false selves, those holographic images projected to reflect others’ approval. Neglect, even minor, and abuse, even minor, can result in a conviction of unworthiness. If the people in our lives deem our true selves unworthy, the natural tendency is to create another better, more pleasing self.
Sometimes it happens that parents and children are simply poorly matched emotionally or intellectually. Any lack of a sense of belonging can create a rejection of one’s true self. The manufacturing of false selves is not merely the province of narcissists.
As we encounter pain and loss throughout our lives, our true selves become too painful to inhabit.
Addiction, I think, is one type of rejection of the true self, a running away from the horror of how we really feel or the deeds we can’t believe we did.
For me, severe emotional abuse separated me from myself. To survive in an abusive marriage, one learns to lie to the world, to present a false image of well-being to the world. To survive in an abusive marriage, I turned away from myself as one might avert one’s eyes from watching a beating. I stepped away from myself in order to protect myself from what was happening to me. Convoluted reasoning? You have to develop a comfort with cognitive dissonance to stay in an abusive relationship.
So how to strip away those masks?
When I recognized that each mask represented a form of idolatry, repentance became a way of life.
I mean repentance in the sense of changing one’s mind, not the mistaken rigmarole that involves self-punishment, guilt, and mortification of the flesh. I confronted each of the false selves for what they were; worship of approval. The first idol to go was the idol of self-reliance. To be a single mother of four is to sacrifice any worship of independence. God provided me with wonderful friends, and without them, my children would have gone hungry some nights.
Teaching children to accept themselves is of course, tricky. Mine must overcome utter rejection from their father, a true blight on self-acceptance. I did adopt a no-punishment policy in return for honesty during the teen years, which I think helped. Some might find this controversial, but I believed that if my teenagers cast off the false selves that teens are so expert in manufacturing, and confessed a transgression, then I needed to reward the honesty more than I needed to punish the error.
But in the end, the best way to teach your children authenticity is authenticity. To live transparently causes those around me discomfort occasionally.
Like Frodo after the ring is destroyed, I don’t know how to pretend I haven’t been to Mount Doom.
I believe I make some of my family members uncomfortable, but I don’t know how to go back to the easy masks without harming myself.
One of the most meaningful prayers in the Bible to me is the prayer that Jesus prays over his disciples. He says in John 17:11, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.” We are all familiar with the verse about how a house divided cannot stand. A person so divided cannot stand, either. False selves lead to perfunctory lives in which roles are rigidly followed, and the true self is cast off for the sake of the group. We must be one in our own self before we can unite with another.
And here is the most basic truth under all of the other truths.
We cannot submit ourselves to God if we do not own ourselves first.
We complain about hypocrites in the church without recognizing the false selves for what they are; armor in place to protect a hurting, rejected, or convicted true self cowering somewhere in the depths of the spirit. I want to say to all the true selves buried under years of pain, “Come out! The kingdom is here! You are invited to the wedding feast!”
The transformation of the self into the identity of a son or daughter of God begins only with the acceptance of the invitation. To be accepted in the Beloved is to allow the true self to be loved, wanted, rejoiced over with singing.
It is your true self, with its warts and injuries, gifts and revelations, that God sings over, loving as only He can.