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.
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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.
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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.
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A suddenly free day created an expanse of time for thought around this word.
To lay beneath a tree and look through the clearings, between the branches, to take in the expanse of pure blue sky.
Space for Sabbath rest, a run by the river, cooking the stew that reminds me of my best friend.
To hold hands open, gentle, soft for whatever is placed in them.
To remove clutter, extra, the unhealthy and the unneeded. To make space for the healthy and good.
To hear other people’s stories without judgment.
To create room for those who are different than me to feel heard and loved.
Allowing my own feelings to rise up without self-criticism. Letting go, as with a breath, those that are not healthy or helpful. Holding on to what is true and will create growth.
To let love in again after deep pain and sorrow.
Noticing the September around me.
What does the word OPEN mean to you today?
A few months ago during a sermon, one of our pastors shared the following quote that really resonated with me:
“The young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” -Bruce Marshall, The World, The Flesh, and Father Smith
Tim shared this quote to support the idea that our deepest longings point us towards God, even though on this earth we oftentimes seek to fulfill those longings in foolish, temporary, unfulfilling ways.
That Sunday morning, it was almost as though something clicked into place for me that I’ve been coming to realize for a long time. Throughout most of my life, I have built my identity around other people–what they thought of me, trying to meet their expectations (whether stated or assumed), keeping the peace, helping others with their problems, etc. I also have used accomplishments and success, my ability to mother/friend/write/perform well, and my good works to give me a sense of worthiness or to attempt to fill holes in my heart. But the truth is, (and what Tim shared reminded me of this)—God is the only One who can fill those places. Everything else that I try to pack into those holes will come up short of His goodness.
After hearing that sermon, when I found myself running to anything in this world out of a place of desperate need (ie: calling a friend when I wanted to process something; using food, drink, Netflix, spending money on coffee or new stuff to lift my mood or numb feelings of sadness; keeping myself far too busy to slow down and take space for stillness), I stopped. I tried to peel back that layer of the onion and look a little further by asking myself, “What is the deeper thing I’m longing for right now?” And often times the answer pointed back to a desire for a sense of worth, a place of belonging, something to make me feel less sad/tired/alone, a feeling of being loved. And while sometimes the things of this world hint at being able to fill those desires and needs, I am now trying to run first to God.
Last night, I shared a spoken word piece at a Storytellers event at my church. This piece, entitled “Progression of a Heart,” has been rumbling around in my heart for the past few months and it felt really freeing and beautiful to share it yesterday with a group of supportive and encouraging people.
I want to share it here to encourage you– this “chapter” is where I currently am in my posture towards the Lord, but there were 4 prior chapters that I summarized in my journey. And as a good friend shared with me last night after my piece, I can’t wait to see how God unfolds chapters 6, 7, 8, 9… there is surely more work to be done as I journey on, but for now, here’s my heart.
Chapter 5- Fill Up My Empty
Hello, my Father. My best friend. My shelter. My anchor when my soul is untethered. My comfort when I ache. My husband in this single mother season. My source of Truth when lies start to creep in.
You. It’s always been You. You are the only one that can heal a heart that was once more holes than it was holy, or place a heart of flesh where there was stone. I no longer need to numb. Or hide. Or jam those puzzle pieces into place.
Lord, continue to fill up my empty.
When I want someone to tell me that I am worthy, You tell me that You fearfully and wonderfully created me in YOUR image.
When I am weak and vulnerable, You tell me that Your grace is sufficient for me…Your power is made perfect in my weakness.
When I desire intimacy, You remind me that You formed my inmost being and before a word is on my tongue, You know it completely Lord. There is no greater intimacy than to be known at that depth.
When I am weary, You take my yoke upon You and replace it with a lightness that I can shoulder for that moment.
When I am lost, You show me that You are the way. You help me put one foot in front of the other as I wait for You to show me the next right thing.
And when I want a love story and to have my heart fought for, Oh Lord, you remind me that You love me with the fiercest, greatest love. You’ve already fought for my heart, and you PURSUE me passionately.
I am in awe that the Creator of this universe is wrapped up in my universe and delights with me and grieves with me and shows me who I am.
I will go wherever You want me to go and be whoever You are making me to be. I am free. I am wide open. My heart is all Yours.
“Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” -John 4:13-14
Friend…if you find yourself running to things of this world, don’t be discouraged. I am praying that you would start to run to the source of Living Water that can heal wounds and fill up your empty, too.