All the World’s a Stage: Shape Shifter
When I was in elementary school, I was painfully shy. I was tall, skinny, clumsy, smart, and awkward. I didn’t like getting the answers wrong in class so I didn’t raise my hand unless I was 110% sure of the answer. I often looked at the other girls in my class and wondered how to be more confident, pretty, and popular like them. I wanted to be like them, not like nerdy, quiet me.
Then, I discovered summer theatre camp. We got the chance to step into new roles and characters different from our own, everyday-life selves. There were a lot of kids there like me- quirky, shy, lonely, or loud, silly, and unique. As we rehearsed our parts and learned our lines, tried on costumes and stepped under the bright, hot stage lights, we literally “became” our characters. I entered the world of fairy tales and had so much fun blending into the forest as a bright and happy pink flower. In a jungle, I became a strong and sure-footed elephant. In a kingdom far away, I became a beloved princess rescued by her prince charming. Over about fifteen years in theatre, I played characters that were brash, hilarious, provocative, complex, moody, sly, witty, demure, or intelligent. With each wig and set change, these characters allowed me to transform into whatever was required of my role.
In real life, I was also learning how to shape shift. I worried so much about what others thought of me, that I adjusted myself to fit into the “world” of characters in any given scene. If the environment was stressful or argumentative, I did my best to diffuse the situation with a peace-making attitude. If the room was full of outgoing and confident individuals, I played strong and confident. In academic settings, I could be the studious, try-hard perfectionist. At social gatherings, I adapted myself to be more outgoing and fun than I naturally felt. In romantic relationships, I molded myself to meet the needs, desires, and requests of a significant other, letting go of my own needs to make sure the other person stayed happy with me.
– – –
Suddenly Aware: People-Based Identity
“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” –Galatians 1:10
Six years ago, I faced a new kind of shift in my life. As I stepped through the doors of a recovery meeting to “help” another person, I became painfully aware of my own unhealthiness. Over the next few weeks of attending those recovery meetings, a desperate need for change grew inside of me. If I wanted to live a life of freedom, peace, and one that was glorifying to Christ, I knew that I needed to let go of my people pleasing. I slowly confronted the habits I’d developed over the years through a world based on people-pleasing:
- I lost my sense of personal identity. When I built my life around the presumed needs or personalities around me, it was difficult to have a firm sense of who I was on my own. When I had too much time by myself, I panicked. What did I like to do? Where did I want to eat? What brought me joy? I didn’t know how to answer these questions unless I had someone else to answer for me. It was just easier for me to always be around people, so that I didn’t have to think for myself or assert my needs or opinions.
- I used empathy as an unhealthy tool. Because I am empathetic, I often feel or can sense the emotions of those around me. As a people pleaser, I learned how to read what the other person needed, and I attempted to be whatever they needed at the time. While I can now see that empathy is a gift when handled properly, the unhealthy management of this gift caused me to take on situations or problems that were not mine to solve. It also caused me to make assumptions that were not always correct. At the very worst, my people pleasing and empathy created ulterior motivations for my service and acts of care for others (“if I do this for them, they won’t be mad anymore,” or “if I take care of this for them, they will owe me/take care of me later”). Yuck.
- I had poor to zero boundaries. I often lost my own voice or strength as I tuned into what the other person wanted from me. I lacked the assertion to stand up for myself, and stayed in unhealthy situations too long. I didn’t always know where the other person ended and I began, so I stayed in those situations to bring encouragement, to help, or to show love. The word “no” was not in my vocabulary. I often said yes out of obligation (and then later resented my yeses). I absorbed the narrative that most things were my fault or my responsibility to fix.
- I was good at wearing masks. Because I only wanted others to see the version of Heather that was easy to get along with, happy, and helpful, I denied or pushed down any emotions that I considered negative. Just like in my theatre days, I grew skilled in my ability to wear masks. But instead of physical costumes or stage make-up, these were behavior masks I wore in real life. I put on masks of happiness and laughter, even if inside I was hurting or struggling with depression. I wore masks of achievement and busyness to cover up my sense of insecurity. I chose masks of forgiveness and peace-keeping, even if I was actually hurt or angry at another person.
- I served people above God. As a people pleaser, I attempted to be all things to all people. I sometimes went against my own standards or ethics of what I knew was right because I wanted to keep in the good graces of others. Essentially, people became my god. And the thing about people is that we are all human- our needs or emotions change on a regular basis. Our desires and relationship dynamics can shift with the season. By trying to keep others happy in a moving, changing, fallen world, I was all. over. the. place. There was nothing steady or grounding about placing my focus solely on others’ happiness. My choices that made someone happy yesterday could make them mad today. I constantly stayed on the merry-go-round of building my world around the moving target of other people’s expectations.
While the world of theatre welcomes this versatility and adaptability, doing so in real life can be exhausting, inauthentic, and even dangerous.
– – –
True Transformation: God-Based Identity
Here’s what I have come to know as Truth over the past six years of work in counseling and codependent recovery:
- A God-based identity is far more grounded than the one based on people. Scripture is packed full of references to Christ as a cornerstone and God as a rock. That identity is a solid ground we can stand upon in this world. I would much rather base my identity on something firm, stable, and unchanging instead of the whizzing, whipping winds of change that come from trying to please others. When I choose to ground myself in God, the world is easier to navigate and I know who I am.
“Therefore, my beloved brethren whom I long to see, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, my beloved.” – Philippians 4:1
- An identity built on Christ is glorifying to God. His Word reminds us to put our priorities in the right order. He also tells us that when we try to please people, we cannot also be a servant of Christ (Galatians 1:10). When we build our lives around a God-given purpose and identity, we are able to serve Him with our whole hearts instead of the leftovers.
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” –Matthew 6:33
- Rooting myself in God yields security in His true, unconditional love. In God, we are loved not because of what we do, what we bring to the table, what we achieve, or who we make happy. We are loved inherently, at the core of our very being, because He made us and we are His children. God’s love for us celebrates His good work in each of us, from our unique personalities and physical attributes, to our God-given design in our skills and gifts. When we cover up or move away from our own identity to be more like those around us, we step away from all of the special and wonderful things He crafted in each of us.
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” –Psalm 139:13-14
- A God-based identity builds authentic connection. People pleasing is surprisingly very lonely for how other-focused it is! When my people pleasing was at its worst, no one knew the real me because I didn’t know the real me. As I released my people pleasing tendencies, I discovered the things that brought me joy, what made me mad (and learning to express that in healthy ways), and how to share the real parts of myself with others. As I moved away from a people-based identity and into my God-given identity, I made real connections with others by sharing my authentic self. I also learned how to serve others from a healthy place, without ulterior motives or expecting anything in return.
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” -1 Peter 4:10-11
- When we build our life on the identity God gave us, we get to celebrate our weaknesses and our need for Him. When we recognize that we can’t do it on our own, we rely on God instead of others to life us up. We allow Him to lead us in our work, relationships, love, goals, and our lives, instead of struggling through on our own false strength. A God-based identity allows us to remove all of the layers and masks to be proud of our weakness, because it brings glory to God and makes room for Him in our relationships.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. -2 Corinthians 12:9
Friend, if you struggle with wearing a mask for the fear of letting other see the real you, I am praying for you today. Christ allows us to step into freedom from the overwhelming exhaustion of our former ways of people pleasing.
It is possible to stand firm and secure. It may take some more shifting (a good kind of shifting!) to fix your focus onto a lasting and steadfast love rather than seeking the approval of man. But I can guarantee you that God provides us with a full, abundant, grounded life when we surrender to Him. I pray that over time, you can shed those layers and learn more about who God made you to be.
It means so much to me to share this story with you. I truly admire Kathy as a writer and a woman of God, I am so grateful that we got connected on our writing journeys this past year. Whether she’s sharing about gardening, waiting well in hard seasons, snowshoeing, or her family, her stories always point me to truth and hope. It is a joy and honor to have her here!
This is Kathy’s Freedom Story.
– – –
I never expected to learn so much about myself in sixth grade. It was the year a rare friend, one who made me laugh, somewhat affectionately called me “Knobbies” — she was referring to the recent developments protruding slightly from my chest. Fortunately, it wasn’t a nickname that stuck. You can be sure I found a way to camouflage them after that though.
After school (not the same day) I got on the bus, positioned myself for the hour-long bus-ride. I’d scoot my butt to the edge and wedge my knees against the back of the seat in front of me. Then, someone would slide in next to me. One day the girl sitting with me stated her observation, “You have funny thumbs.”
I looked at my thumbs. Then I looked at hers. Ashamed, I tucked them inside my hands. After her comment, I began noticing everyone else’s thumbs. I’d never realized that mine were not only stumpy, but bulbous on the end, and the nail bed was wider than it was long. From that day forward, I hid them in my fingers any time I was certain someone might see them.
A few years later, sitting in the dentist’s chair, Dr. Mielke asked me if anyone ever made fun of the space between my two front teeth. Honestly, until his question, I had been very proud of the space. After watching my dad spit tobacco through his, I’d learned that I could make a waterfall come out of my mouth when we were at the pool. I thought I was the envy of all my siblings.
My dentist’s suggestion was to use a new procedure called bonding, in which he could bond false fronts onto my teeth. He assured me he could close the gap, and since my front teeth were not large, I would not have to worry about looking like Bucky Beaver.
Within the next week, as life would have it, not one but TWO people made comments on the space between my two front teeth!
Back to the dentist I went for bonding.
Ultimately, horror of horrors for a 15-year-old, bonding didn’t bond well. After several months one popped off, and I had nightmares. Tooth dreams are a thing! Eventually, my dad conceded to my pleading for braces to permanently, and securely close the gap.
I found satisfying solutions to my “birth defects” as they became known to me by observers. But even though I flattened, hid, and filled in the gaps, there was an idea lurking within my heart always, even maybe quiet words echoed from an inner chamber, “there’s something wrong with me.” Something deeper. Something I knew I wanted to hide.
Life taught me that I was most happy when people were happy with how I benefited them.
I learned that if I lived my life to please people, I’d be content. As an introvert and a compliant child, making my parents and my teachers happy was a piece of cake. I learned to observe, listen, and “do” whatever pleased them. I didn’t recognize it during childhood or even into early adulthood, that the desire and even enjoyment of doing what others wanted came from a deep-seated fear. Fear of ridicule. Fear of rejection. Fear of failure. All my fears were rooted in the fear that I would find out my deepest fear was actually true: I’m not loveable.
I grew up in the country on a dairy farm. I was a firstborn with eleven siblings. (Read: I worked after school almost every day.) My social life was limited. I wrongly attributed my lack of friends to the dark internal defect that I detected, and often I superimposed my deficit on my appearance. I wasn’t popular because … I had zits. Or, I was fat. Or, I lacked the dynamic personality of the popular girls. I used to study them to find out how they did it, wishing I could afford fancy pants and expensive shoes.
I’ve often said I’d have been a likely candidate for anorexia if I didn’t fear the criticism of my daddy more than I wanted friends.
I’d learned the joy of being Dad’s right-hand girl. He praised my work, and I beamed. This satisfaction at home balanced out the many years I felt like a reject at school. In saying that, I would be remiss to leave my story looking like I never had friends, I did. But the overarching feeling of my growing up years in school consisted of longing for belonging and feeling like a “geek.”
I met Jesus when I was 24 and pregnant with our first baby. I kept hearing a quiet background voice say, “I need something.”
It turns out I needed Somebody.
In the early years of walking with Jesus as my Savior and Friend, I’d fallen in love with Him and His word. I loved choosing the right way and radically throwing out anything that would hinder my walk with Him.
But I continued to struggle with feelings of inferiority in the presence of other women.
Pursuing freedom, I accumulated several Christian books about having confidence in Christ. I read The Bondage Breaker by Neil Anderson. I learned more about the devil, his lies, and how to renew my mind with scripture. I gained a great measure of freedom as I walked with Jesus. When I felt rejected, He would comfort me. I would sense His love or hear a song that solidified that I meant something to Him even if I was nothing to others.
About ten years after beginning my walk with Jesus, life imposed immeasurable stressors coinciding with a strain on my most important relationships. I fell back into striving to make everyone happy. This caused me to tumble into a pit of anxiety and depression. It was a terrifying experience, and it was a long climb out.
I’d understood grace initially, but the old voice in the back of my mind still had me thinking I needed to run circles around even Jesus in order to be loveable. When I broke with no hope of fixing myself, it was His love that had to reach down and lift me up.
Through the loving weekly meeting and prayers of a mentor and the diligent study of His word, the light of His unconditional love began to wash away my unbelief in my value. In my failure, Jesus freed me from the deep sense of responsibility to be perfect that had been rooted in my heart during childhood.
Jesus told me in a dream one night that I was working really hard for something He’d already given me, “righteousness” — and I heard His whisper, “Be still and know that I am God and I love you.”
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him.
Looking back at my childhood, I discern the false conclusions I came to in my immature mind. I see the way that believing lies wreaks havoc in a heart. I am extremely grateful that the Lord gave us His word to wash us clean and set us free from leaning on our own understanding.
It is true, “secrecy is to sickness as openness is to wholeness.” Having mentors and friends in your life who will listen to your heart is essential to freedom. As they pray with you and bring God’s word, they speak life into your soul.
Because God’s word powerfully washes away lies, you can be free from striving to be loved.
What are some of the false conclusions your young mind formed around the pain in your life?
Who do you have in your life that will listen well, pray for you, and encourage you with God’s word?
Who are you serving by being a listening, praying, truth-speaking friend?
– – –Speaker and Bible study author, Kathy Schwanke has a passion for serving Christ and furthering His Kingdom. She encourages women to live lives saturated in the Spirit and the Word. She has a beautiful way of reaching a broad audience with the depth of her wisdom and heart for Jesus.Kathy and her husband Dale (35 wild, married years) are in another temporary dwelling as they search for their next home in Western Wisconsin. They love morning coffee, scenic drives, home remodeling, and bike rides in the summer. They have two married children and seven grandchildren.Read more of Kathy’s beautiful words on her website or on Instagram (Kathy is one of my favorites to follow on Instagram!).
P.S. Want to read more stories of freedom and hope? Find 20 more Freedom Stories of real women like you here.
“For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” -Galatians 1:10 (ESV)
There’s an old wooden ladder, leaned up against a tall tree. Climbing this ladder proves to be challenging– shaky, unsteady. As you look around at the other trees, you see that some others are taller, some others are wider, some have brighter fruit or bigger leaves. So you keep climbing to get as high as you can. The wind is blowing, and your ladder and the branches around you seem like they could give way at any moment. And if you’re looking around and thinking about where you are compared to everyone else, there will always be another anxious climb, even if not this tree or this ladder.
But, what if there’s another way? Instead of climbing the ladder, can you just sit under the tree? Can you rest for a little while? With the solid ground beneath you, you run your fingers over the steady roots. You lean back, cradled in the shade of the leaves and branches above you. A bird is perched on a branch above and sings you a sweet song. You are grounded. Rooted. You are sheltered.
Have ever struggled with any of these statements?
- I’m too emotional.
- I’m not outgoing enough.
- I’m too loud; my personality is too big.
- I’m not organized or productive enough for that job/company.
- I’m too quiet to make an impact.
- I’m not important enough for others to listen to.
- I’m too broken for this church.
- I’m not spiritual enough for that friend group.
- I’m too quiet, shy, boring.
- I’m not pretty enough.
- I’m too inexperienced to succeed at this dream.
But here’s the bigger question–who says so? Somewhere along the way, did you hear that some aspect of who you are doesn’t meet the standard of other people’s expectations? Did you absorb the message that you need to tone down your light or your level of excitement to make others comfortable? Sure, for one friend group or person, you may be “too much,” but for another relationship, those very same characteristics might seem like “not enough.” For one job or company, you may be “not creative enough,” but for another role, you might be “too outside of the box.” It’s funny… all of these too much/not enough statements are actually very subjective if you think about it.
If we are living our lives in fear that our personalities, skill sets, and what we have to offer won’t meet the sliding scale of comfort or expectations for the culture around us, we end up living in a way that is inauthentic to who God created us to be.
As a recovering people-pleaser, I have had to remind myself often of what God says about where I find my identity. Do I find it in the opinions of those around me? Or in HIS value in me?
“The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” – Proverbs 29:25
“Stop trusting in mere humans, who have but a breath in their nostrils. Why hold them in esteem?” – Isaiah 2:22
“For they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” -John 12:43
“Let no one deceive you with empty words…for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” -Ephesians 5:6-10
Here is what I’ve seen happen when we don’t believe that we are enough, just as we are:
- We gain false security: We become secure in things that can change at any moment. When we think we have reached the status of “secure” in the opinions of others, those views can change within moments, days, seasons. We can become puffed up with pride when we value those feelings and accolades of man higher than the view of God.
- We scramble: When we are constantly trying to get in the good graces of others, we end up doing things for the wrong motivation of trying to be SEEN as helpful, likeable, needed. Rather than stewarding the good gifts, skills, and characteristics God has given us, we scramble to try to earn the favor and praise of others.
- We strive: Similar to scrambling, striving happens when we start climbing a ladder fast and hard to meet the standards or expectations towards worldly “success.” This is what happens when we try to prove to ourselves or others that we ARE in fact enough. Can you learn to rest secure instead? Not in what you have done or haven’t yet done, but in what God has done for you. He has already rescued you, redeemed you, set you free. You do not have to live a life of striving.
- We become stunted: The too much/not enough lies can make us compare our beginnings, our skills, or our stories to those around us. And then in that comparison, we can become completely paralyzed. Our growth stops when we try to be like someone else, or when we are frozen in fear that we will never be good enough to try going after those dreams He’s placed in our hearts. Instead, we are called to walk forward in the confidence and calling that God has for us, and in who He made us to be.
- We suppress: When we fear rejection for the truest and most authentic parts of ourselves, we hold back and dim everything about us that in fact makes us unique. Because maybe, when we have let our true selves show in the past, someone verbalized our deepest fear….that who we are (our very essence) was too much/not enough for THEM. But for God? The One who made you? The one who knows the very numbers on your head? You are exactly who He made you to be, sweet friend.
“They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” -Isaiah 61:3
Notice that it says in Isaiah 61:3, that they will be called oaks of righteousness for HIS Splendor. By HIS planting.
I know that we live in a culture of upward mobility. Of making room for ourselves to make our voices heard. Or rubbing elbows to get in with the right crowd. When we are not secure in who HE has made us to be, we worry that we are not enough. We become so fixated on what we can do, and on not making the mark, that the ground beneath us becomes unsteady.
We do not have to do the work or put our own selves on display. In Him, we are oaks. Firm. Strong. Righteous. Planted- exactly as He made us, and exactly where He wants us to be.
While the opinions, values, and feelings of this world can change in an instant, and are as fickle as the “breath in our nostrils,” our God is different. Throughout Scripture there are SO many powerful images of God as a steadfast and steady force. Here are just a few that remind me of the strength we can find when we trust in God:
“And they remembered that God was their rock, and the Most High God their Redeemer,” -Psalm 78:35
“For who is God, but the Lord? And who is a rock, except our God?” -2 Samuel 22:32
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” -Romans 8:31
“Be still and know that I am God.” -Psalm 46:10
“Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.” -Psalm 95:1-5
“‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the LORD, who has compassion on you.” -Isaiah 54:10
Instead of swaying back and forth, trying to be everything to everyone, I pray that in HIM, you can stand firm. I challenge you to rest secure in the fact that the Creator of the universe also created you, with all of your quirks, character traits, passions, and your specific voice. We do not have to scramble or strive for value, because we are already seen as valuable to our rock and redeemer. If we can take our focus off of the changing tides of this world, we can keep our eyes on His steady face and do it all for His glory instead of man’s.
Lord I pray that you would remind each of us that we are not defined by what we DO, but by who you are, and who we are in you. Help us to rest secure in You, in your steadfast love and righteousness, not in our own striving or scrambling, or in the changing and unsteady things of this world. I pray that we would rest our souls before you, knowing that in you we can be called oaks of righteousness, planted and secure. Because you are more than enough for our questions of whether we are enough, Lord. We pray that today we might find our value in You, and You alone.
*This post is part of a series about IDENTITY for the month of August. If you want to read the series, here is the introduction (Who do you think you are?), followed by a post about our new-found purity in Christ, no matter how dirty we feel (I am clean, I am made new), and last week’s post about the lie that you are unworthy of love. Also, special thanks to fancycrave1 of Pixaby and Kevin Young of Unsplash for the beautiful images to accompany this post.