Self-Image and Environment

I read something on Facebook this morning that provoked the following reflection.

As far back as I can remember, I believed that if I'd had a sister, she probably wouldn't like me. And then later in life, I remember hoping my unborn child would be a son because I was pretty sure that if I had a daughter, she wouldn't like me either.

In light of that belief, it seems a bit ironic to me, today, that I have a daughter-in-law who does not seem to have a hard time loving/liking/getting along with me. I have nieces I am very close to who don't seem to have a hard time loving/liking/getting along with me. I have a wonderful relationship with my mother-in-law who doesn't seem to have a hard time loving/liking/getting along with me. And I have great relationships with all but one of my sisters-in-law. (Unresolved past conflict plays a huge role in the one that I can't honestly describe as "great.")

I've shared numerous times that I never felt like I was a particularly lovable person until John came into my life. I viewed my personality as difficult to love and myself as someone who had to constantly work at earning value in other people's lives. I also believed that if I was too much trouble or had too many expectations, I would be avoided and/or discarded. So I tried not to be needy, but inside I remember feeling desperate for approval, validation, love, and acceptance. I just wanted to feel like I (and my feelings) mattered. Instead, I felt dismissed by way of my outward personality traits. "Oh, that's just Shari. She's emotional."

I was and am an emotional person by nature. The only difference between the past and present me is that I don't view that as a defect anymore. It has an upside and a downside, as every personality trait in each of us does. I realize that imperfect is not the equivalent of bad.

I have always been outgoing, outspoken, passionate, and expressive. Because of my extroverted traits, so many people (who knew me as a young person) have told me they always saw me as extremely self-confident. But extroverts can be quite insecure. (Extroverts by definition are rejuvenated and reenergized externally.) I was pushed to excel and achieve and perform. The driving force behind all of that was my dad. It was his demand for straight A's and regular piano practicing (and performing) that propelled me into whatever I achieved as a young person. Much later in life, at the age of 40, I went to college and graduated magna cum laude from Lipsbomb University. But I accomplished that from a drive I discovered within myself later in life. I did not have that drive when I was young. Decisions were made for me. And I really had no self-confidence to speak of until I went to college in my forties. At that point, I began to develop a degree of self-assurance.

I remember being surprised that people liked me and gravitated toward me. Really surprised. I remember discovering that I could do things that I had always believed I couldn't do. Not until my early forties did I begin to feel a level of confidence, accomplishment and capability within myself. I think that is why school was so threatening to my then-husband. Although he was initially so supportive, after the first semester he began to complain and pressure me to quit. I think there was a gleam in my eye that had never been there and the gleam was "I can do this. I can do it well. And the accomplishment is purely mine." Whether conscious or unconscious, I am convinced that belief in myself as competent and capable was the last thing he wanted for me. It made me stronger. He wanted (consciously or unconsciously) to be in control of whatever acknowledgment, praise or validation I received. That way, he could also be in control of withholding it. I'm not saying that to be unkind. He had a lot of issues before he ever met me; issues I didn't comprehend prior to marriage. I am not bitter and I always felt compassion for him. That was partly why I avoided writing about marital abuse in my book, Breaking the Chains. (The other reason was that it would be a whole book of its own if I did write about it.) But I recognize, in hindsight, just how effectively I was held down and held back.

Marrying anyone at the age of 16 was a pivotol event in my young life. The fact that I married someone who began abusing me one week into the marriage was even more pivotol. I am not sure what formed my self-image more; my childhood, my first marriage or the combination of both. Since I was only 16 when I married, I was technically still IN my childhood (as much as I would have been opposed to anyone saying that at the time). I think it's a chicken or the egg dilemma. I believe I was more susceptible to marrying the kind of man I married because of my upbringing. I definitely was conditioned to stay in the abuse by my upbringing. And my self-image contributed to my staying in it willingly for so long. But the constant reinforcement I was subjected to (from my first husband) that I wasn't loved or good enough (within my family) was like water poured on my seeds of insecurity. If my life had been given a different kind of "water" earlier in life, who knows, I might have outgrown a lot of my immature self-image. Instead, it took on new life and new proportions, and only began to change when I began to step outside the box I lived in for most of my life; including making new friends with no connection to my past.

Considering all the relational issues and challenges I've struggled with prior to the last eight or nine years, I have (to my surprise) a complete lack of conflict, turmoil or misunderstanding in my life presently. The only existing relational issues today linger from or are connected to my past and the environment I spent the majority of my life in. And my self-image today is much different from what it was even ten years ago.

It's not that I don't still see my flaws. They are many. I make a conscious effort to grow as a person and learn from past mistakes. I examine my heart and motives frequently. I try to look at myself as honestly as I can and not be in denial of my shortcomings. I regularly acknowledge being wrong. I intentionally work on areas where I clearly SEE the need for change. But my core personality and temperament are the same as they have always been. What's radically different is my environment.

It is as if the garden I have been transplanted into has richer soil, superior water, Miraclegrow fertilizer, and just the right amount of sunshine and shade. I'm the same DNA, but a different -- healthy and vibrant -- flower. I'm finally blooming the way God always intended me to bloom.

Surviving is good. But thriving is better.

I wasn't sure why I was even writing all of this until this moment, and now I feel like I know. If you - a reader - are newly out of any kind of abuse (whether verbal, mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual), I want to encourage you to cultivate different soil and growing conditions for your life. Abuse makes the victim feel responsible for their circumstances, for the actions of others, even for the repercussions of the abuse. This makes you feel crazy. It creates continual self-doubt. It generates false guilt. It paralyzes you. And I think that's why it's so easy to enable rather than confront it.

Dare to uproot yourself from diseased soil. That may be something different in your life than it was in mine. But don't stay where you cannot grow. There is better soil waiting for you just like there was better soil waiting for me.