How many people do you know that are really comfortable in their own skin? Can you risk the vulnerability of letting the world, or even yourself, really see you and not just the protected public self we allow to be seen? What do we fear most – rejection by others or even self-rejection? We spend quite a bit of our time creating that acceptable outer self to avoid what we fear most - that we may not be worthy of being loved and accepted for who we are at our authentic core. So why is that the case for so many of us?
It has been said that it is not the things that happen to us in life that present our biggest problem, but the avoidance of dealing with them. We may have experienced traumas or abuse as a child. We may have been hurt or rejected at some point, impacting our ability to be vulnerable and trust others completely. We may have just never been able to embrace our own self-worth as a unique and extraordinary human being – a person with the right to live life each day to the fullest and be worthy of deep, meaningful and loving relationships. We often avoid dealing with those feelings by filling the void with busyness, entertainment, alcohol and drugs, superficial relationships, sex, work, accomplishment, status, and material possessions. As children, we often make adaptations (e.g. withdrawing or acting out) needed to survive and cope with some of these situations (e.g. loss, abuse, abandonment). Many times those adaptations will continue into our adult years and become mal-adaptations (our suit of armor) that keep us from growing, moving on, or having fully trusting and meaningful relationships. We have avoided dealing with those issues as an adult by continuing to use our now unhealthy coping mechanisms to mask the fear.
Many factors can contribute to the endless cycle of avoiding of actually dealing with our fears, anxieties, and depression. But the only way to grow and change requires affect tolerance, or the ability to tolerate some level of discomfort with ourselves, to look honestly at our beliefs, our “truths,” that are driving our often intense feelings about sensitive issues. Even if we get to the point where we can recognize what we need to do or change, there is, more often than not, a natural tendency to resist that change or resist giving it a sincere try. The fear grows larger than the reality of the situation and keeps us from moving forward and growing.
One type of resistance is called process resistance (e.g. it is not worth the work and uncomfortable process of stopping a smoking habit even though I know I would be better off). Another form of resistance is called outcome resistance (e.g. I am not sure that I actually want to get rid of my anxiety because I believe it might actually be protecting me in some way.) Some people who have developed a distorted sense of themselves may resist changing that distorted sense of self because it has, at least, provided them with a mechanism or framework to process the overwhelming world coming at them each day. Take for example a woman grows up with an abusive father and has developed a harmful and distorted belief that she deserves that abuse. She will often seek out an abusive boyfriend or husband that validates that belief. The idea of challenging or giving up the distorted belief about herself may be scarier than living with the abusive situation precisely because she feels that she would lose her sense of self to process her environment through. That may be an extreme case, but that process of seeking feedback that validates vs challenges our distorted sense of self may not be all that uncommon for many of us.
Anyone who suffers from a low sense of self-worth, daily anxiety or even depression, needs a safe environment to look at those thoughts and beliefs that reside behind all the feelings they are having. It is important to recognize that all feelings we have come from our thoughts, and all of our thoughts are generally grounded in the beliefs and “truths” we have developed. Despite the subconscious resistance to do so, we need to be able to identify those thoughts that drive the unhealthy feelings we experience, then challenge and change them. We need to develop some level of affect tolerance, tolerating the discomfort of being displeasing to one self, to create enough space to effectively deal with issues or to challenge our distorted beliefs. Instead of believing that we are defective human beings, we begin to see ourselves as human beings with defects that can be dealt with. The latter view gives us hope that we can actually do something about our fears and move forward.
For myself, the only possible source of recognizing our self-worth and purpose in life comes from our creator. Knowing that he lovingly created each one of us for a purpose, for relationship with him and with others, can keep us from continuing to look for that self-worth in all the wrong places that never satisfy. Knowing that his love for us is unconditional, recklessly passionate, and undying helps to create a foundation to deal with our wounds and distorted beliefs with a purpose and a goal. I hope that anyone dealing with feelings that are keeping them from living life to the fullest and having meaningful relationships with God, themselves and with others, will come to a place where they recognize the true source of their self-worth and have the ability and tools to finally push through the walls for fear, and finally take off that heavy suit of armor.