Recently I was asked to speak to a group of teens. Not just any teens, but teens who are living their childhood through the foster care system or protective custody. The room was full of eyes who have seen and bodies who have been exposed to abuse, neglect and abandonment. You could feel the brokenness. It was tangible.
The topic? Body positivity and health. I was given an hour and twenty minutes to speak about the biggest struggle of my life. Seriously, the teen years were the angst of my existence. I only started to wrap my head around self-love and self-care in my thirties and am continuing to navigate it's many layers in my 40’s. As a matter of fact, most of the women I coach struggle with their self-worth, body image and not treating themselves as a priority. What in the world was I going to say to these young faces who were quickly losing hope in people, themselves and the world around them? My heart was heavy. My thoughts were few.
I don’t know about you, but no one ever sat me down and told me how to love myself. No one told me it was okay to struggle. Not one woman in my life (my mom included), ever had a candid talk with me about the burden and beauty of being a woman. No one told me I would feel the pressure to create a “put together” version of myself through my weight, hair, make-up, clothes, grades, accomplishments, popularity, athleticism, etc. to show the world I was okay. No told me that on the inside I would feel completely inadequate and like everyone was doing life better than me. No one told me the temptation that was coming to find love and acceptance by placing my body and worth in another human being’s hands. No one told me how badly it would hurt when the inevitable disappointment and rejection would come and how it would obliterate the inner essence of who I thought myself to be. No one told me to protect pieces of myself because once they were given away, shame would take their place. No one told me that perfection was impossible and striving for it would only lead to exhaustion and discontent and rob me of my peace.
No one told me (or you) because 99% of women keep silent in this universal struggle. So that was the first thing that came to me to share with these sweet faces and precious hearts. Although each of them feel isolated and alone in their struggle, their struggle is part of the journey of being a woman. We are all traveling the path to finding our worthiness and loving our imperfect selves. When they look at another girl or woman who appears to have it all together, she doesn’t. She has simply gotten better using the props of life as a shield to cover-up the reality of her inner struggle. The struggle is real, but they are not the only one.
So how do we navigate the struggle, that will most likely be a lifetime journey? Because let’s be honest, even when we get it together and find ourselves in a season of stability and security in who we are - life often throws a bomb that obliterates our reality and forces us to re-evaluate everything we thought we knew to be true. This is where I shared the power of their story.
I am an optimist. I always have been, even when things have gotten really really hard in my life. I have always been able to see at least a ray of sunshine in the storms of life. But even as an optimist, I have come to realize that life is full of hard stuff. REALLY hard stuff. It is very easy yet dangerous to equate our identity, value and self-worth to what has happened to us. We are not a product of what has happened to us. We are a product of what we BELIEVE despite of what has happened to us or the mistakes we have made in our past. This is where power and hope can enter into every one’s story.
I asked the girls to think about how they tell their story. What do they say about what has happened to them or what is happening right now? What do they say about their future? The story we tell reflects our beliefs. Our beliefs shape our words, our words influence our actions, our actions become habits and our habits create our reality. It’s the law of congruency. Our life will be congruent with what we believe.
Early in my life, I created a lot of defeating stories about the events of my life. I created a narrative that said,
- ...something must be wrong with me in order for someone to do that to me.
- ...no one will ever want to me after this.
- ...I am broken.
- ...something is wrong with me.
- ...I’m never going to be…
- ...I can never let anyone see the real me.
- ...if I can just act perfect and be perfect then no one will leave me.
- ...I need to be someone else because I’m not good enough.
- ...don’t get close to people because it hurts too much when they leave you.
- ...God doesn’t care about me or He wouldn’t have let this happen.
From this narrative, I went into a season of pursuing validation of my worthiness in every external way possible. I also did everything possible to keep the real me in hiding because I believed that Amber was unloveable. So I dyed my hair, I worked out really hard, I controlled my weight by any means necessary, I became a party girl, I drank, I gave my physical body away, I over-achieved, I embraced perfection in everything I did, I flirted, I surrounded myself with lots of people, things and superficial conversations to feel significant. I spent my days upholding a version of myself who I believed the world would like better than who I really was and I stuffed the bruised, broken and neglected me way down inside. But pain has to be managed. So every day, when the day was over and the mask came off, I had to find ways to manage and numb the pain of not being me that inevitably bubbled up. There is nothing more painful than not being yourself. Behind closed doors, there was little I wouldn’t do to escape the pain and the presence of the real me.
The benefit of walking around in a created version of ourselves is that when rejection comes, it hurts, but there is a buffer of protection because it isn’t rejecting who we really are. But the downside is our fake selves can never give or receive genuine love which is what every human being craves because it is what we were created for. God is love. We were created in His image. We are created to love and be loved. But without connecting with and being who we really are, we settle for imitations of love that never quenches the thirst in our souls. We live a life that appears full on the outside, but we feel empty on the inside. We have connection in our relationships, but we never experience intimacy. We are surrounded by many blessings, but something is always missing.
Often the initial story we make up after something happens to us is based on emotions. Often these emotions are intense and animalistic. We feel hurt, defeated, isolated, lonely, angry, sad, disappointed, etc. and we start telling the story through these emotions. But if we stay present to the processing, eventually these emotions begin to lose their power and the opportunity presents itself to gain a fresh perspective (and a new story) that is removed from these initial, intense emotions. Sometimes this happens within hours or a week and sometimes it can take months or years. It wasn’t until years after my mom died that I changed the narrative around her death and redefined what that event meant about God and my life. While the old narrative fueled my rebellion and a lot of poor decisions and pain, the new narrative (about the SAME event) was the catalyst for physical, emotional and spiritual healing and the inspiration for creating The Healthy Edge to empower other women.
What about rewriting rejection? Rejection is a common theme in many women’s lives. The rejections that have been woven throughout my life beginning as a young child and most recently the betrayal of my husband had to be rewritten in a way that allowed me to love myself and others without fear which would drive me to want to put on a mask and “act” for acceptance and love.
My old story about rejection was that it was evidence that I was not enough, that I was unlovable and I couldn’t be the real me. My new story is that rejection is the evidence that my self-worth and value can never be placed in the hands of someone or something else, aside from God. Hurt people, hurt people. It is only out of brokenness and pain that another human being hurts someone else. From this narrative, I can have compassion instead of blame. I can have understanding instead of taking it as a personal attack.
This new version of my rejection story was the gateway to meeting God for the first time through a personal, redemptive relationship. When I let go of seeking outside sources to fix or cover-up my broken places, God met me with the truth of what love really is, the truth of my identity and the truth of my purpose despite and in light of my past. Rejection is not a place of mourning or loss for me anymore. It is the gateway to my walk with God, the catalyst for my personal growth and the foundation of where I have found my true identity and healing. I can love deeper and more fully when I am okay whether or not someone does or doesn’t reciprocate it back. I can let go of the expectation that someone else is responsible for making me feel a certain way. I know that people who don’t love themselves, can’t love me. And because I know God’s love through Jesus Christ, I know that love is sacrificial, action based and full of mercy and grace. Jesus did the ultimate act of love for those who loved and hated Him. He didn’t hold back His act of love because people would reject Him and neither will I.
What do you need to rewrite in your life so you can let go of the past, allow the real you to come forward and walk boldly into the life God wants you to claim?
As you go through this process, let me leave you with two pieces of advice.
- When you rewrite your story, never ask “why”. This is the most futile question you can ever ask, because most of the time we never get the answer to that question. If you put a contingency on moving forward and reconciling your past to knowing why something happened, you will set yourself up to be stuck. We may never know why. But, what I have found is if we can let go of the why and move forward anyway, after some time has passed, we will be able to look back and from a new perspective, we will see at least a shred of beauty and purpose in the things that made absolutely no sense at the time.
- Never compare. Comparison is the worst enemy to our freedom, our purpose and our peace. This generation is unlike any before them. When I was young, I just had to deal with comparing myself to other girls in my class or on the volleyball court. But now with smartphones and social media, this generation can compare themselves to millions of people who are simply doing what we are all doing - creating the version of themselves that they would like to be (if all of the messy human stuff wasn’t present). Seriously, no one is posting their real life. They are posting fleeting moments that are often surrounded by vast confusion, despair, disappointment and not feeling like they are enough. The desire is for validation in likes and comments that feel good for a moment and when the moment passes, another post is required. It never ends and it isn’t really you.
So, get off your phone and live your real life. Focus more on what you can do for other people than what you can do to receive artificial validation from the world. Pouring into others will fill you up. It is why you were created. Love people, flaws and all. Be real and authentic so people around you feel safe to be who they really are. Rewrite the hard stuff of life in a way that builds strength, character, hope and faith for your future. Allow God to show you who you really are so you don’t have to spend your life chasing after things and people for unsustainable validation. Every day you are going to wake up to yourself, so take care of the temple you have been given. Be your own best friend.