I have a sign in my office that reads, “Your STORY begins at home.” I bought it several years ago. At the time it affirmed the things that were front and centre in mind: my story and my home. I had chosen to leave my job and stay home full time; this was the next chapter in my story.
I don’t spend a lot of time in my office lately. It has been taken over by children, the desk more often used for homework and crafts than for my laptop and books. But I was in there recently, rooting through some piles, looking for a misplaced bill or some such thing and that sign caught my eye.
Its meaning has changed as I enter a new chapter in my life. I’m still at home, but no longer in the throes of little kids and chaos. And my story continues, but it looks much different than it did a decade ago.
A deeply personal conversation with a friend brought that little phrase to mind again. Story. We talked about our respective histories. The circumstances throughout our lives—both the good and the bad—that have shaped the women we have become.
Circumstances that begin at home, with our parents and families and extended families, and become things that we carry into our own homes as adults; patterns that perpetuate from generation to generation.
These are the things that make up our story. We all have one. Each is unique. And one is not more or less valuable than another.
Though my friend and I had completely different childhoods and experiences, there was a shared result that I think many women can relate to: we both have come away feeling unworthy in some way. And for each of us, this translated practically into an inability to both love and be loved.
It sounds ridiculous when I re-read that. There is a voice in my head that says, “you love your children, you love your family, you love your husband.” And those statements are all true.
But I struggle to love myself, and that impacts all my relationships in some way or the other. It impacts what I bring to my relationships.
Six years into my first marriage, it was crumbling badly. We had been struggling for some time—years, if I’m being honest. Drifting apart. He was pulling away and I was panicking. He would say I was suffocating him. I would say I was insecure; I just wanted to be loved.
The picture of the ideal marriage that I had somehow formed in my mind was never our reality. When I look back, those six years had, for me, been characterized by rejection.
I lived under the burden of relentless criticism, which, over time, resulted in the belief that I simply wasn’t acceptable. There was nothing in me that was worth loving. The ultimate rejection was when he left.
That experience left me with scars. I decided I would not allow myself to be devastated like that again. But in order to do so meant not allowing anyone to get close enough to hurt me. And, as I embarked on a journey of healing during and after my divorce, I simply erected walls.
Here’s the thing about the stories that shape us: we all have walls.
The story behind each woman’s walls differs. For some it’s abuse at the hands of parents or family members. For others, it’s a childhood bully, teenage girls, disappointing relationships, or work colleagues. Maybe it’s job loss, a diagnosis, a difficult marriage or a divorce. And for some, the pain even comes at the hand of the church.
Regardless of the reasons, the end result is the same:
- With every veiled insult levelled our way, comes the belief there is truth there.
- With every failed risk, comes the belief that vulnerability isn’t worth it.
- With every broken trust, comes the belief that people aren’t trustworthy.
- With every rejection, comes the belief that we aren’t worthy to be loved.
With each incidence of pain, we put up a wall. Just one wall at a time; you hardly even notice it. It doesn’t ever seem like much. We pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and keep going.
Over time though, wall after wall after wall, we get to a place where we’ve boxed ourselves in. We’re isolated. And alone. We don’t allow anyone in. And eventually we can’t see out.
I became an expert in superficial relationships. I set ruthless boundaries as to what information I would share and with whom. I kept myself safe. But, I can tell you this: it’s exhausting trying to keep people out. A life spent vigilantly defending borders isn’t a life well lived.
So, then what?
We aren’t made to live in isolation; we were created for community. So, how do we begin to heal and build trust in relationships again?
My road to recovery was long. I’ve admitted to you that I’m stubborn and that character trait assured slow progress.
Because, quite frankly, I hate change.
But positive change, though never easy, is always worth the effort. It’s one of those hindsight things I’m so good at. (I sometimes half joke that I learn best by the brick-wall method. That is, banging my head against it repeatedly. It hurts my head, but it eventually gets the job done.)
So, here’s what I know about learning to trust again: (via the tried-and-true “Brick Wall” method)
- Start by looking up.
When walls surround you, there is only one direction that you can look and that’s up. My first step was learning to take my eyes off what was immediately in front of me—the pain, the betrayal, the rejection—and set my eyes firmly on the One who promises to never let me down.
“Be strong and courageous…for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” ~Deuteronomy 31:6 NIV
- Learn to love yourself.
I spent years being put down and belittled for who I was. And I was insecure enough—both in that relationship, but also in me—that I simply took all of it on. Instead of standing firm, I mistakenly believed that if I changed, then I would be loved.
But, of course, the further I ventured down that path the further away from myself I got, until I was thoroughly lost and depressed. And, of course, the relationship didn’t improve. The end result was that I lost everything: the marriage I had been fighting for and myself in the process.
Brene Brown—who is a social researcher and expert on shame and vulnerability—wrote this:
“Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.”
~The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are.
Not only did I believe that I was not worthy or deserving of love, by putting up walls of self protection, I had set limits on what I was willing to offer to future relationships, which was nothing.
Thankfully, I discovered that God’s love for me had no limits. His was the only relationship in my life that didn’t come with strings attached. And, slowly, He softened my heart and reminded me that there was good in me.
“Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you. I’ve called your name. You’re mine.
When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you.
When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.
When you’re between a rock and a hard place, it won’t be a dead end—Because I am God, your personal God, The Holy of Israel, your Savior.
I paid a huge price for you: all of Egypt… That’s how much you mean to me!
That’s how much I love you!
I’d sell off the whole world to get you back, trade the creation just for you.”
~Isaiah 43:1-4 (The Message)
- Tear down the walls.
With some hindsight and perspective in place, the walls actually start to look a lot like lies; ruses we tell ourselves to protect the most vulnerable places, like our hearts. But the truth is, we can never truly experience meaningful and authentic relationships unless we are willing to be vulnerable within them.
In some cases, dismantling your walls will look a lot like forgiveness. In other cases, it might be standing up to the inner critic that says you aren’t worthy. In all cases, it will require courage and deliberate action. There is no other path that will be as direct and as effective.
“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.” ~Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection.
In her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Dr. Brown writes this, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
So the choice is yours. You have a say over what your story look like from this point on.
Your story is far from over. In fact, it’s just beginning.
How will you live the next chapter?
If you’re in a place where your view of the world is obstructed by walls you’ve created to keep yourself safe, I encourage you to pursue changing the narrative. A trusted therapist, counsellor or spiritual director can help you navigate the pages of your story and set you free to write the next chapter unencumbered.
It will be long and slow work, guaranteed. But so worth it. I promise.
Brene Brown is a gifted author, whose research and writings on shame, vulnerability, courage and belonging are transformative. Seriously! If you have never read anything that she’s written, I urge you to pick up a copy of one of her books (there are many). I’ve cited The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly here, but can also recommend Rising Strong (“If we’re brave enough often enough, we WILL fall. This book is about getting back up.”) and Braving the Wilderness: the quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. Find her at brenebrown.com
If you want just a little 20-minute taste of what she’s all about, you can see her TED talks here.
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I’m doing my best at navigating the twists and turns of this life with faith, hope and humour. Putting one foot in front of the other, and—hopefully—not in my mouth. (I’m not sure you fully appreciate how difficult this is for me.)
Based on my previous track record, I don’t promise that my posts will be consistent, or inconsistent, but I’ll try for amusing. At the very least, I hope you’ll come away feeling a little better about yourself.
Thanks for visiting!