We’re looking at another way we get in our own way when it comes to knowing ourselves.
If you missed the first part, you can read it here.
“The self we begin this journey of knowing with, is the self we believe our selves to be, and it’s usually the self that dies along the way” David Benner, “The Gift of Being Yourself”
When people tell me they want to know or understand themselves, to get a handle on their emotions, their thoughts, their behavior…they are usually looking for understanding to make them feel more comfortable, to ease some kind of pain or disalignment. So it stands to reason that they also only want to acknowledge things that don’t cause them discomfort to think about, rather than the experiences they’re uncomfortable even bringing to consciousness, let alone saying out loud. Sometimes they will avoid them altogether, sometimes they will talk in circles around their experiences, but stay one or two steps removed-noticing their opinions or interpretations, or their thoughts on the theoretical aspects of it. And I don’t blame them, we’ve been taught to always put our “best selves” on display.
I put “best selves” in quotes because I obviously think your best self is your whole self, but you also know what culture means by “best self”. We look at the people around us, our family, our culture, take the feedback we get, and we think “who can I be to be seen as someone who is loved and provides value”. Then, once we’ve crafted that, we hope if we work really hard on it, it will kind of, somehow, overshadow or overcome the parts we’re less willing to show.
On one extreme, we see that in the collapse of famous pastors or spiritual leaders. I’m not referring to anyone in particular and I don’t really have to because these stories are becoming a broken record at this point. Yet every time we hear “I can’t believe it, how did they let themselves get to that point. How did they not see the first signs, get help at the first step down that slippery slope?” Because they had a bright and shiny false self they had crafted, and they tried to repeatedly address their sin problem by working harder on polishing their shiny facade, rather than bringing their problems to light.
You may think those examples are extreme, but they happen enough that we have to start accepting they are not the exception in ministry and leadership, where there’s constant pressure to craft a perfect image and sweep everything else under the rug. Those of us with less overt or obvious failures and weaknesses are just as susceptible to the same trap.
A personality test called the Enneagram is having a huge resurgence in popularity. I have a love hate relationship with this test because it’s the personality test that shows you your weak tendencies or your fatal flaws. It really exposes your whole self. When I take the Meyers Briggs it’s I come away with “you’re so thoughtful and principled, and your deeper than everyone else and that’s why no one understands you, and you’re just thinking about big important stuff and most people won’t get it because they’re shallow.” I read my enneagram type and come away with: “You live your whole life in your head and feel self-pityingly misunderstood and don’t live up to your potential because you spend your whole life thinking about what might happen and don’t take risks and actually do anything.” And my “wing” type reads something like: “you’re just afraid of all the things always.” Awesome. Thanks. And it’s not that I think we need to beat up and criticize ourselves. I’m generally someone who counsels from a positive psychology framework, I love to cultivate strengths, I don’t ask people to come and sit on the couch and spend the whole time talking about what horrible thing their mother said to them when they were 4 and how they’ll never recover. But 1) if we don’t know where our fears and flaws lie, how the heck are we supposed to work on them and 2) most often the pieces of ourself that we are most scared of, or where wounds cut the deepest, are the areas we care the most about. We’re most afraid of failing in the areas we feel we are the most called to and skilled in.
And this is the irony of curating a false self. When we craft it, it’s doesn’t just hiding our sin problems and our wounds, it also hides our capacity for hope, for joy, our independence, our sensitivity, our personal power, our dreams for the future. Because those things can get trampled easily. Maybe we have experience in having those things trampled, either in big ways, or in a hundred small ways. So we hide those too
Now different families, cultures, values systems…even your gender or your birth order can determine what you decide this carefully crafted and unoffensive self should be. It may be creativity or compliance, independence or submission, intelligence and power, or loyalty, humility and hard work, fill in the blank.
As a good little conservative midwestern, Christian, female middle child, when I used to take personality tests/spiritual gifts tests, I was always labeled as the peacemaker or the helper. My spiritual gifts were mercy, service, intercession, anything that allowed me to literally fade away, to take up as little space and offend as few people as possible. Be in the background, clean up after people, do the dishes. And there is nothing wrong with being a helper, a peacemaker, with serving. But it was wrong for me, because I was doing it to protect myself. I was doing it because I was safe. Because ultimately I don’t care about dishes. I hate dishes. My husband does all the dishes in our house. I’m not saying I’m proud of that, but that’s how it is. My real spiritual gifts? Discernment, knowledge, teaching. Those are going to push more buttons. Those are going to expose me to more hurt and more failure and to more meaningful failure. I’ve probably said 12 stupid things in this post that I wouldn’t have said if I were downstairs doing the dishes, and that’s a risk. I really actually care a lot about whoever is behind the screen reading this. I really care about this topic. And you might not find it valuable. That’s a risk. I could fail at what I’m supposedly called to do. That’s a risk.
But, going back to the experiential knowing piece we talked about in the first post, I know that the peacekeeping, dish-doing self I created felt small and stifling. Also that it was incredibly one dimensional. If it’s something that we, as humans, create, it is going to be a crude one dimensional cartoon compared to our real whole living selves. David Benner describes this well:
“But the self we create is a persona—a mixture of the truth of our being and the fictions we spin as we attempt to create a self in the image of an inner fantasy. The simple truth of our being gets lost in the metanarratives we spin. We become the fictions we live. Consequently, our way of being in the world is so false and unnatural that our presence is thoroughly ambiguous. It is no wonder that we find the presence of most people so clouded as to be not worth noticing, and it is no wonder that a truly unclouded presence is so luminous and so compellingly noteworthy!”
Some of us have had the privilege of meeting those people who are fully themselves. You probably know who they are if you’ve met them, and luminous is a good word. It’s almost like they glow, like they’re more alive than your average person. And we don’t get that if we don’t bring our whole selves to the table, the hopes and dreams and wounds and failures and everything in between that makes our hearts pound a little faster when we thing of sharing. But you’ll never find your whole self by just working harder at polishing the facade.
Some concrete tips to help you move toward integrated knowing:
- Bring up the thing you least want to talk about to safe close friends or an accountability group
- Practice communicating a difficult story or a challenge or sin without it being
- after it has been solved
- after we have processed it and understand it and
- without a solution or explanation at the ready
- Notice the things you are OVERLY vulnerable about. That you throw out into the ring so you can communicate the narrative you want before anyone else can make judgments.
- Tell someone safe about your hopes, dreams and visions, even if they feel silly or impossible