DENY OR SURRENDER?

For some reason, I end up connecting with a lot of people who struggle with self-acceptance.  As I talk with them, work with them and observe them, I am often amazed at how much an individual can not like themselves.  Their lives and conversations are filled with personal put-downs, denials of personal worth, self-harm and self-destructive behaviour.  And the deeper issue is that these are often people who have significant talents and gifts and  abilities, who can be very caring and helpful, who are well liked and respected by others.  But in their minds, they are worthless, their activities are insignificant, their talents are unimportant, and people are faking liking them.

If such a person is a part of a Christian group, particularly a conservative Christian group, they often find that their faith enables and encourages this self-hate.  After all, isn’t self-denial the proper way for Christians?  Aren’t we supposed to realize that we are worms and worthless with no abilities and incapable of making any contribution?  A commitment to God through Christ must also include a commitment to putting ourselves down, doesn’t it?

But that sort of thinking misses entirely the whole point of the Christian message.  The Good News that we have been given by God through Jesus Christ is that God loves us–not that he might love us if we weren’t so worthless; not that he could love us if we cleaned up our act a lot; not that he might hate us less is we hate ourselves more.  No, the Good News is that God loves us, as we are.  Sometimes, in an effort to help people understand this deep and essential message, I tell people something like, “If you, as you are right now, were the only person on earth, Jesus would still have gone to the cross for you–that’s how much God loves you.”

For years, I have struggled to understand the theological and psychological twisting necessary to turn God’s powerful and unconditional love into a call for emotional, physical and spiritual self-abuse.  When we begin with the fact that God loves us no matter what, how do we then see a need to destroy ourselves with self-hatred?  There is obviously a way to go from one to the other but it is a route that I simply don’t understand.

The issue of self-denial strikes me as an important one in the Scripture but I don’t think it means I have to hate myself.  God doesn’t hate me so why should I hate me?  Jesus, whom I am committed to emulating, doesn’t hate me, so how can I justify hating me?  It is clear to me that the Biblical call for self-denial isn’t a call to hate myself.

Based on what I see in the Bible, it seems to me that self-denial is more akin to surrender or sacrifice or self-giving.  I offer my whole being to God through Christ.  I offer the good and the bad; the positive and the negative, the polished and the rough–I give it all to God so that he can help me discover the fullness of what I was meant to be.  What I am surrendering is my desire to control my life.

It is clear that no matter what else I can say about myself, I don’t always make good choices.  I don’t do what I know I should as often as I should.  God, because of his infinite wisdom combined with his infinite love, knows far better than I do what is best for me and those I connect with.  If I am willing to surrender my desire to make my own choices to him, he will help me make choices that are much better for me and everyone.  God is going to love me with an infinite love whether I surrender or not but if I surrender to him, I actually become more me.

That is relatively easy to write–but the reality is that I am often very reluctant to surrender to God through Christ.  And, having done it once, there is no guarantee that I will do it again.  Learning to surrender and trust God takes a life time because we are going against our ingrained selfishness.  But the one important constant is that God loves me and has shown the extent of that love in Jesus Christ–and if God loves me that much, I don’t need to hate myself in order to have God love me.

May the peace of God be with you.

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KNOWING SELF

A long time ago, I was taking a pastoral counselling course.  The course had a stated purpose and an unstated purpose.  The stated purpose was to help us become better at counselling, something that pastors are called upon to do a lot but which we aren’t all qualified to do.  The unstated purpose was to help us discover a lot more about ourselves so that we could actually provide some honest help to people.

During one class session, one member of the class mentioned that he felt like he was a pastoral version of a politician of that time who had a reputation for being weak, wimpy and ineffective.  I looked at him in surprise and before I thought it through, told him that he wasn’t at all like that politician but was actually a perfect match for a different politician, one who had a reputation for being aggressive, brash and something of a bully.  After falling silent for a few minutes, the student abruptly got up and walked out.

The next day, he was back in class.  After apologizing for walking out, he looked at me and thanked me for my comment, telling the class that at first, it made him mad and then it opened his eyes to his real nature, which he had been trying to hide from himself but was obviously not hiding from anyone else.  Once he began to challenge his carefully constructed and basically ineffective image, he could begin to deal with who he really was and begin an honest journey to becoming who he was meant to be.

I was confused and even a bit scared by the process.  My comment hadn’t been made out of any great psychological or theological insight.  It was more of an offhand remark based on what I was seeing, meant more as a funny observation than anything.  But somehow, it penetrated his self-image and opened some important doors for him.

For me, it was a perfect example of what Paul is talking about when he says in Romans 12.3, “… rather think of yourself with sober judgment in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.”  (NIV).  Many of us are sadly lacking in this sober judgement.  A lot of us who have been part of the more conservative part of the church for a long time have been taught and learned well the lesson that we are pretty much worthless and have no redeeming value.

That particular heresy has damaged our ability to see ourselves as we really are and therefore seriously hampered our ability to grow and develop healthy relationships with ourselves, others and God.  The antidote is to allow ourselves to develop a sober estimate–which in this context, means a balanced and realistic understanding of who and what we are.

For most of us, this will require some help.  We have often lived with the distorted image and pressure to maintain the distorted image for so long that it is so much a part of our thinking that we don’t know what to begin.  Of course, we need to be careful where we look for help–there are lots of people who want us to maintain the worm theology we have been so carefully taught.

Because my life and work involve me primarily with groups of believers, I can say that I have seen such support within the church and its groups.  When believers gather together and care for each other and really pray for and with each other, the Holy Spirit has a fertile ground to work at helping people see and understand and grow.  When a group affirms some aspect of our being, we need to listen carefully.  Forget about the false modesty that requires us to attribute everything to God.  Listen to the group tell us that we sing well or understand Scripture well or are really caring or make people feel comfortable or always know just what to do or say.  Listen and ponder–use those comments as revelation from God about who we really are and what we can really do.  These shafts of light are one of God’s ways of showing us who we are.

We can also formalize the process by find a counsellor or mentor or spiritual guide, someone who is gifted by God in helping people discover themselves and therefore their path to growth and development.

The bottom line is that knowing self begins by rejecting the pressure to define ourselves as worthless and begin developing a realistic and sober self-understanding.  We are seeking to see ourselves as God sees us, which is the beginning of a sometimes scary but always exciting journey.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT YOU SEE…

There have only been a few congregations I served as pastor where I had an actual office outside of our home.  It was nice to have a place for work separate from home–it seemed to keep things a bit more organized, at least in my head.  The work things that needed to be finished or started or whatever were at the office, instead of sitting somewhere in our home.  Mind you, with the invention of laptops, that separation got harder to maintain, since the work was on the same laptop I was using to surf the net or play games.

Anyway, one office I had was particularly well designed, I thought.  It was at the corner of the building with one window facing the parking lot and another facing the way people walked to enter the building.  I had a perfect view of who was coming into the building.  Since I was the only person there except for Sundays and Bible Study night, that normally meant they were coming to see me.  As I watched people come in, it was always interesting and revealing to discover how they were feeling as they walked into the building and notice the transformation as they put on their public face when they arrived at my door.

Most of us like to think that we are pretty good at keeping our thoughts and feelings to ourselves.  And while some people are pretty good at this, most of us are nowhere as good at as we think we are–and we are not good at it for a very basic reason.  We aren’t good at hiding how we feel because in the end, we generally don’t know all that much about what we are feeling and thinking.

The real irony is that when we won’t recognize our own stuff, we are generally broadcasting to the rest of the world a very powerful message about where we are that many others can see.  And so when we stick on a public face, it is plastered over a very clear message that keeps poking out of the disguise, which is confusing and perplexing to a lot of people.

As a pastor, I often find myself in the position of seeing the discrepancy between what people are consciously projecting and what is peeking out that they don’t want seen–or don’t know they are feeling.  Sometimes, it is appropriate to ignore the discrepancy–when we are supposed to be discussing the schedule of worship services for the next year, seeing the difference between what people show and what is underneath isn’t an appropriate topic.  It might be significant and might have an effect on the ease of carrying our out stated task but it generally isn’t wise or necessary to address it then.

Other times, it is important to address it.  Since I do some counselling, there are times when it is my job and responsibility to open the issue and help people confront the difference in what they think they are feeling and what they are really feeling.  It is often a real surprise to people that they have this whole other set of feelings that that either aren’t conscious of or are sort of aware of and feel slightly guilty about.  Ultimately, until people can see and address the deeper, more truthful feelings and realities, there is not much any counselling can do to help people deal with whatever prompted the request for counselling.  I sometimes spend a lot of time helping people understand what is going on that they don’t want to acknowledge.

We human beings have an almost infinite capacity for self-deception, a capacity that creates a great deal of trouble for everyone.  And along with that ability is an almost universal inability to avoid showing other people not only what we want them to see but also what we don’t want to acknowledge or show but show nonetheless.

Rather than self-knowledge, we are often better at self-denial.  This self-denial is not some kind of virtue, however.  It is a real and serious problem because it keeps us from really experiencing life, relationships and God.  It limits our ability to grow in faith and damages our ability to form healthy relationships with others.

It is much healthier in the end to heave the self-denial thing and discover who we really are. After all, we were created in God’s image so there must be something worthwhile there.

May the peace of God be with you.

DENYING SELF

I am the pastor of small, rural congregations.  All of our buildings are old–at least 100 years and one is getting close to 200.  While all have been updated and upgraded to some extent with new-fangled things like electricity and somewhat efficient heating systems–a couple of them even have restrooms–they are still old buildings, designed and built in a era when personal comfort was something looked on with great suspicion.  People who wanted to be comfortable when worshipping God were soft and probably in serious danger of committing sin.

While I sometimes joke with people that the seats in our old buildings were designed specifically to be uncomfortable, I think that is much more a reality than a joke.  The Christian church has a long history of being at odds with comfort and ease.  I think this comes out of a desire to take seriously the words of Jesus that we find in Matthew 16.24, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (NIV)  In order to enable people to take up their cross, the church has perfected many ways of helping people deny themselves.

The seats in our older church buildings are a prime example, although seats themselves, no matter how uncomfortable, would have been seen as something of a temptation to an earlier generation of church leaders–many early buildings didn’t have seats at all.  I mean, after all, Acts 20 tells the story of a young man named Eutychus, who was sitting down during worship and managed to fall asleep.  Standing was a much better option for some church designers when it came to imposing self-denial.

Now, as pastor, I don’t normally have to sit in the pews in our church buildings, although the chair for the preacher which I get to sit in for short periods of time is not a particularly comfortable one.  But I do have some thoughts on the whole self-denial thing, whether it is forced or voluntarily chosen.  For me, we generally start the self-denial process in the wrong place, make some wrong assumptions and then, on the basis of this, end up doing some pretty pointless things.

When we begin the process with the denial stuff, I think we are bound for trouble.  As a pastor and a counsellor, I have realized over many years of ministry that self-denial needs to begin with the self–meaning that we need to have a much better understanding of who and what we are before we begin denying ourselves or others than we normally do.

Often, we are taught that we are worthless, evil and sinful from the moment we are conceived.  We are encouraged to see ourselves as beings with no redeeming features–our very best is still sinful and wrong and tainted and hopelessly evil.  And while that may be a very common and popular conservative-leaning Christian theology, it is simply wrong.

Humans are made in the image of God.  As the Psalmist tells us, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14).  We come into the world with talents and abilities and possibilities and potentials that are divinely planned.  Certainly, we and all that we are affected by sin, both ours and the rest of the world’s.  But we don’t somehow become worthless as soon as we come into being.  We become beings whose whole life and potential is affected negatively by the reality of sin–but that doesn’t mean that we lose all the good and all the potential and all that might be.  It does mean that it will be harder to be who we were meant to be; that we probably won’t reach the heights that God planned for us; that our full potential will never be realized–but it doesn’t mean that we are worthless worms.

Before we begin denying self or giving in to the institutionally encouraged denials, we would probably be a lot further ahead emotionally and spiritually if we got to know who and what we are.  We can and need to look at how we are affected by sin–but we also need to know what we are and what we can be.  We need to be able to see what God has given us; to discover the fearful and wonderful way God has knit us together.

Before we even think about denying self, we should get to know ourselves.  After all, the God who knows us better than we know ourselves loves us as we are.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE GOD FACTOR

Our personalities are the result of a combination of factors, some of which we can control and some of which we can’t control.  But our personality is also always evolving, changing a as result of these same factors.  It is probably much more accurate to talk about what we are becoming than what we are when it comes to personality.  This is an important reality that has some significant implications.

If my personality isn’t static but is always changing and evolving, that opens the possibility of managing and directing the change.  And while that sounds good, it brings up several questions:  Who is managing the change?  In what direction is the change moving?  What is the purpose of the change?

Answering these questions is important–letting the changes in our personality happen and assuming that it will produce good results isn’t a wise option.  There are lots of people around who would like to manage the changes in our personality.  There are lots of groups and organizations that want to help us become what they think we should become.  And there are lots of reasons for the changes that really don’t help anyone in the long run.

Because I am a follower of Christ, I have to look at this whole process of personality development from a Christian perspective.  And for me, that means beginning with a couple of theological realities.  First, anything I am or am becoming here is affected by human sin–both mine own and that of everyone else in the world.  Secondly, only God, the Creator, really knows what I can be and was actually meant to be.

And so for me, personality development becomes a part of spiritual growth and development.  Who I am becoming can best be determined by God, which makes my personality development a process in which I seek God’s leading and then work at submitting to God’s infinitely superior wisdom and sense of direction.

But in order to get there, I need to learn how to deal with a great many issues and problems that I don’t always want to deal with.  There are, for example, genetic issues that have an effect on who I am becoming.  I struggle with mild depression on a regular basis.  While a certain amount of that depression is the result of what is going on around me, I am pretty sure that my brain is genetically wired in such a way that makes depression the go to response in certain situations.

There are also environmental issues that affect who I am and who I am becoming.  I grew up poor and even now, I find myself reacting to certain circumstances in ways that come from this–I am uncomfortable spending money for things that break until after I have exhausted every possible way of repairing whatever it is–sometimes even spending more on the repair attempts than I would have spent on the new whatever.

So, given that my personality is being determined by so many factors that seem to be beyond my control, where does God’s knowledge and plan enter into the process?  God knows who and what I am meant to be–he is my creator and he had a plan and idea in mind for me, my life and who I can become.    And because God is a God of grace and love, he doesn’t force me to make any changes or to change in any particular direction–but God does seek to help by offering me direction and help and strength through the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life.  If I am willing to open myself to this divine intervention, I have the potential to become more and more what God wants me to become.  I won’t ever get there–there are too many factors at work making it too tempting to follow other paths to personality development that get in the way, leading me down different paths.

But in the end, a personality development process that seeks to discover and find God’s plan for who I am and am becoming seeks to me to be the only really viable process–at least I think this on good days.  Rather than let my personality develop in random, uncontrolled ways, opening myself to God’s direction provides a much better possibility for my becoming.

May the peace of God be with you.

THAT’S JUST WHO I AM

I have known some people whom I consider to be arrogant.  It isn’t a description I use often for a couple of reasons.  First, I seem to spend a lot of my time working with and relating to people who are struggling with such low self-esteem that arrogance simply isn’t going to happen, although strangely enough, many of them worry about becoming arrogant.  And secondly, I don’t use it much because when I am accused of being arrogant, it hurts and so I hesitate to describe someone with that word.

But I have known a few people whom I would consider arrogant.  Just to be safe, I looked up a definition of the word using the Oxford online dictionary.  It tells me the word is a adjective that describes someone who has or shows “an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.”  So, it seems to me, it takes two things to be arrogant:  not being as good or as important as you think and refusing to see the reality of who or what you are.

I see this in practise now and then with people who seem to go out of their way to cause hurt and pain and difficulty and justify it be saying something like, “That’s just who I am–you can like it or lump it”.  But often, who they think they are and who they really are isn’t the same thing.

The gap between their claims and their reality is obvious, at least to me and often to others but the individual just doesn’t seem to see it or acknowledge it–and maybe even doesn’t care if the gap exists.  They are who they are and that is the way it is.

Well, it is true we are who we are–but being who we are isn’t a static and unchanging reality.  Human life is a process of change that begins at conception and for believers anyway doesn’t end until we are transformed by the power of God so that we can be part of the new heaven and new earth.  Our lives are built on the reality of change–we expect it and count on it and structure life around the changes.

We don’t expect much from a new-born.  They have to be cute, healthy, and smile at their grandparents before they smile at anyone else.  A teen who is cute, healthy and smiles only at the grandparents causes serious concern–they haven’t changed as they should.  Toddlers are expected to get really upset and even have tantrums as they discover parents won’t let them play with power saws.  Twenty-somethings who have temper tantrums have some obvious and dangerous issues–they haven’t changed as they should.

Since we are always changing, we really can’t use “We are who we are” as a justification for our behaviour or whatever.  This really is the path to arrogance–assuming that we are perfect the way we are.

But here is where it gets interesting, at least to me.  The arrogant refuse to listen to themselves and those around them and that allows them to develop an irritatingly inflated view of who they are.  Those who struggle with low self-esteem listen too much to those around them and develop a more socially acceptable but equally damaging deflated view of themselves.  It appears that when it comes to being who we are, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

We can’t ignore how people see us but we can’t take it for Gospel truth–either way causes us trouble.  And then, even more confusing is the reality that we really can’t find a spot and stick with it because we are always changing–physically, as we know; emotionally, which we may or may not recognize and spiritually, which we probably recognize even less than  the emotional.  There is no steady state in life and so we really can’t use, “That’s the way I am” as a justification.

Some of the changes we are in charge of:  my weight is the result of choices that I make.  Some of the changes, we aren’t in charge of:  my age advances  no matter what I do.  And some of the changes we could control but choose not to:  my reactions to people around me sometimes need to be better but I am not always interested in making the necessary changes.

So, we are changing, whether we like it or not–but maybe we can and should be more conscious of and in control of the direction of our changes, which we will look at in the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO AM I?

            There are days when I begin to wonder if there is something wrong with me.  Of course, there are other days when I know for sure that there is something wrong with me but that is a topic for another time.  The days when I am wondering generally come when I am having significant contact with people who are struggling with their view of themselves.  This can be during a counselling session, sometimes during a teaching session or even while having coffee with someone while talking about nothing major.

The wondering comes when I realize just how many people I know who spend a lot of their time measuring themselves by the standards of other people.  Sometimes, the other people are internalized versions of people who were significant in their childhood.  Sometimes, the other people are mentors and teachers of the not so distant past.  Occasionally, the other people are a peer group.  Much of the time, the requirements that people feel are coming from all these sources get wrapped up with the individual’s view of faith and low self-esteem magically becomes a Christian virtue.

This all gets me wondering because although I do have occasional bouts of low self-esteem, it is not something I struggle with a lot.  In fact, I have been called arrogant more times than I want to count.  I have to confess being called arrogant does hurt because it isn’t part of the way I normally see myself.  But I can see why I get labelled that way.

I don’t generally need to define myself through the eyes of other people.  I don’t try to tailor my personality to measure up so I can gain approval from others.  If I think or feel something, I am likely to express it honestly, even if it isn’t acceptable to the other person.  I can and will make assessments of  situations and the people involved that aren’t always filled with warm fuzzies.  If asked my opinion, I will give it, even if I know that the person asking may not really want to hear what I have to say.

As you might guess, I haven’t always been the most popular person in the room.  Interestingly enough, though, over the years, I have had people and groups seek me out because I am who I am.  I remember one person telling me they wanted me on a certain committee because there were some difficult things coming up and I was just the person to say what needed to be said.

There is an old saying, “In the land of the blind, a one eyed man in king”–suggesting that when everyone struggles with a problem, someone who has less of the problem will rise to the top.  I once read a story dealing with that theme where the writer showed that the one-eyed man didn’t become king–the blind people in the land eventually made him blind so he could fit in.

And I am beginning to wonder if this isn’t what happens sometimes with me.  Maybe I am arrogant.  But then again maybe because I end up connecting with so many people who struggle with low self-esteem, I become a threat or danger and people what me to be more like them.  I realize that making statements like that can sound arrogant and threatening.  But it does seem to me that low self-esteem has become something of a virtue in much of the Christian faith and anyone not having a proper level of self-dislike stands out.

And one of my sons, who has spent many years immersed in Japanese culture, would probably quote a Japanese proverb to me to describe what happens when  an individual stands out from the crowd: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered”.  Maybe the problem isn’t that I am arrogant but that I stick out among people who struggle to be themselves.

I don’t want to be arrogant.  But then neither do I want to go around submerging my personality in the flood waters of expectations and demands and requirements that seem to overwhelm so many.  So in the end, I wonder.  I have a pretty good idea of my strengths and weaknesses, what I can do and what I can’t do.  When I don’t know or can’t do, I tend to be quiet and try to let others take the lead–but when I do know or can do, I don’t sit back and pretend to be what I am not.  I don’t think that is arrogance but it seems like a lot of others do.

I would like to close this post be saying, “That’s who I am and that is the way it is”–but there are some problems with that, which I will save for the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

YOUR CHOICE

As a pastor, a pastoral counsellor and a friend, I have a deep concern for people I know who struggle with low self-esteem.  Their inability to really like or love themselves is painful for me–not nearly as painful as it is to them but it is still painful for me to observe.  As I indicated in my last post, I have discovered some things that don’t really work to change the way people look at themselves.

I can’t really say that I have figured out a sure-fire way of helping people change the way they look at themselves.  I would love to be able to help them change and become the confident and comfortable people I would like them to be and which they show lots of evidence that they can be but as much as I would like that, I can’t.  But there are some things I can do that have helped some people sometimes.

One thing I discovered is that it does help some people to shift their focus.  Rather than spend their time looking at themselves, the messages from the past and their inadequacies, it helps to encourage and enable people to look at themselves theologically.  As we discover who we are in God’s eyes, we can develop a different foundation.  Now, I am aware of the danger this approach presents–there is some really bad theology of people out there, theology that encourages and reinforces low self-esteem.

But theology based on Scriptures like Psalm 139, which talks about God’s perfect knowledge of us and his eternal love for us, can help re-build a foundation of personal understanding and acceptance.  If the God of all creation loves and values us enough to send Christ for us, who are we to argue?

I have also found that honestly sharing with people what I see as their personal value and ability and importance can be a help.  I make sure what I say is true and I never push them to accept what I say–I just tell them what I see and leave it there.  I do need to be careful not to create a dependence of this sort of support but used well, it does provide some help.

Another thing I have discovered is that it helps people to understand they have the freedom an ability to either change or stay the same.  I am not going to force people to change and in the end, if they are content to go through life thinking they are less important than dirt, that is their choice.  I probably won’t ever agree with them but I will still go for coffee with them and still appreciate them.  It is interesting that the power to stay the same can become a motivating factor in changing.

I think people struggling with low self-esteem suffer because of the messages and hurts and abuses they have dealt with in their lives–and these external factors create a feeling that they have no control over their lives or thinking.  Realizing that they stay where they are because of the decisions they make here and now can sometimes open the door to making different decisions.  They are beginning to shift from reacting to external factors to an internal control of their lives.

And one of the major things that I have found important in the process of changing from low to healthy self-esteem is time.  Most people don’t flip a switch and change immediately, no matter how much I would like that to happen.  The journey from low to healthy self-esteem is generally a slow and painful process.  It can take years of incremental steps, complete with set-backs, regressions and frustration for all involved.

I like my friends even if they struggle with low self-esteem.  And while I would like them to be different, if I push too much in my concern, I have really become one of the external factors giving them the message that they aren’t good enough.  They have has enough messages like that already–that’s why they are in the place they are in.  While I can contribute to their development of healthy self-esteem in the ways I have mentioned, I also have to learn to accept them as they are.  If enough of us would learn how to do this all the time with all people, there would probably be a lot less trouble with low self-esteem.

May the peace of God be with you.

THIS DOESN’T WORK

When I first became aware of the darkness of low self-esteem and how it causes such suffering and pain for people,  I was concerned.  I wanted to help.  A big part of my being is tied in with being called and gifted by God to be a pastor, a caregiver.  It is an ingrained part of who I am–I can no more ignore that part of me than I can ignore my need to read and watch the news.

So, as a pastoral care-giver confronted by the darkness of low self-esteem and its effects on people, especially my friends, I was determined to help.  Since I am also a writer and speaker, I turned to my favourite tool–words.  All I had to do was show my friends how great they really were and everything would be fine.  I would tell them how good they were at (fill in the blank), how much I and others appreciated their ability to (fill in the blank) and how their ability to (FITB) made the world a better place.

The results were always less than I expected.  Some would basically ignore what I was saying, pretending modesty.  Others would deflect my compliments by telling me that all the glory should go to God, not them.  A few would light up just a little and say thank you–but only a little and only for a short time–I assume that their darkness easily snuffed out the compliment.  And a few, to my surprise, would actually argue with me, telling me that I really didn’t know what I was talking about.  And a very few would tell me that if I really knew what they were like, I would never want to be around them.

I learned early that trying to compliment people out of their darkness didn’t really work.  the compliment coming from outside was generally no match for the darkness coming from the inside.  The darkness of low self-esteem easily explains away anything from outside.  It isn’t prepared to hear or accept the positive and can quickly wrap tendrils of darkness around any compliment or positive statement.

I tried the approach of helping people dig into the origins of their darkness.  As we move through life, there are people and events that affect us deeply–and the younger we are, the more significant these people and events are.  When I had permission, I would (and still do) help people open up some of the rooms in their mental storage spaces and air out some of these old and painful memories.  As hard as it is, people can and do make the connection between the pain of the past and the darkness of the present.  They learn to see how their present is formed and shaped by the past; how what they do and think now grows out of what happened then.

And this is a valuable process and an important accomplishment for all of us in  all areas of life.  We are all hoarders of past events and experiences and feelings–and the deeper the pile, the more festering and rotting stuff there is to complicate our present.  Cleaning and airing the storerooms of the past is a valuable process for all, not just those struggling with the darkness of low self-esteem.

But I also discovered something interesting.  The insights into the past were always helpful and valuable–but the person would end the session or sessions with lots of insight, a deeper understanding of who they were and are and why they are who they were and are.  They could even see the strong connection between the junk from the past and the poor self-image of the present.  But they would still carry the darkness and would still feel inadequate.  They might understand why they were the way they were but that was as far as it went.  The darkness was still there and still affecting them.

So I discovered that although external compliments and looking at the past might have some effect, they often didn’t really illuminate the darkness.  I don’t think doing either is wrong but it does seem to me that is just isn’t enough–my friends struggling with the darkness of poor self-image needed something else.  I still compliment and still help people process the past–but I have been looking for the something else for a long time.  While I won’t say that I have found it, I have discovered a few things that seem to help some people some time–those we will look at in another post.

May the peace of God be with you.

MEET MY FRIEND

            I want to write about a friend of mine–although this friend isn’t a real person.  I am taking bits and pieces of several friends to create this portrait.  Some reading it might recognize some of the picture but it really isn’t you, at least not you directly.  The parts you recognize and claim as well as the parts you don’t recognize are drawn from a lot of different people.  It’s sort of like I am using a bunch of different coloured lego blocks to create my picture.

Anyway, this friend (who doesn’t really exist in reality) is a very capable person.  They are not only good at what they do but good enough at it that they don’t need to brag or try to impress people.  My friend is comfortable to be around in good times and a real help is difficult times.  I enjoy having coffee and breaks with them–and as an indication of how much I enjoy it, I am sometimes willing to break out of my comfortable introverted ruts and initiate time together.

I assume and hope that you know people like this–people who are the “salt of the earth”, “give you the shirt off their back”, “a ray of sunshine” or whatever well worn but powerfully descriptive cliché you prefer to describe them.  Coffee tastes better in their company; conversation flows smoother, jokes are funnier, tears are less threatening when we are with them.  All of us need at least one friend like this–and I have been blessed with many.

But lurking in the background of this friend is a major blob of darkness.  Most people don’t get to see it–well, in truth, most people don’t want to see it.  But because of my training, my pastoral experience and probably because of my sometimes perverse way of looking at things, I see the darkness.  Often, my friend doesn’t even see it.

But the darkness is there and once I see it, I also begin to see how its negative effects on an otherwise positive person.  The clues are sometimes subtle, sometimes glaring.  It may be my friend who is a good preacher being afraid that he/she isn’t a good enough preacher.  It may be the very caring and appropriate helper being afraid that what they are doing isn’t good enough or isn’t enough.  It may be the person who appears so confident confesses to feeling inadequate all the time.

In short, my friend lives with the darkness and heaviness of low self-esteem.  No matter what I and others may think of them, they think they are inadequate and not good enough.  No matter how much good they do and how much others appreciate them and what they do, they carry around a sense that not only is what they do not good enough but also that they themselves are not good enough.

Now, to be fair, all of us likely have days and moments when we are pretty sure that we aren’t good enough.  When I was repairing the clothes dryer went pipe the other day, I was pretty sure after the third trip to the hardware store, the second mini-tantrum and the first cut that I wasn’t really a good enough handyman for this task.  But this isn’t the kind of thing my friend is dealing with.

My friend is dealing with a deep-down, embedded personal awareness that they simply don’t measure up.  As a pastoral counsellor, I can generally understand where that feeling comes from–these deep-seated feelings of inadequacy are generally laid down early in life by events and people close to my friend.  But knowing why the darkness of lack of self-love is there really doesn’t fix the problem.  It doesn’t take away the suffering and lack of peace that my friend lives with, the terror of wondering what will happen if someone finds out what they are really like.

As I mentioned, my friend is fictional–but not all that fictional.  There is probably some of this darkness in all of us but those in whom the darkness resides permanently and deeply suffer in ways that the rest of us can’t really comprehend.  For some reason, I can often see this darkness and the suffering and struggle.

And as a result, for many years,  I have been trying to find ways to bring some light to this darkness.  In the end, I want my friends to like themselves at least as much as I like them.  It would be better if they could go beyond this, but that is a start–and so next time I post, I will look at some light for this darkness.

May the peace of God be with you.