Oughts. Ouch! Now I am revealing a message that often plays like a loop in the back of my mind. “What do I perceive people are expecting of me?” And it is a message that is not just a whisper. It can shout like a warning. Warning me that if I do not meet their expectations, they will see the real me. An unacceptable me. And my shame tells me that in my unacceptableness they will want nothing to do with me. They will abandon me. That is incredibly risky. The fear of being abandoned may be the most painful and powerful emotion we can have. That is why performing for others approval has such a captive hold on us. If I don’t work hard enough and perform to their expectations, I feel their emotional if not their physical distance. Abandoned.
So what do I do with the perceived or even actual oughts? There are two shame driven roads I can go down. Both are unhealthy. First I can give in to the oughts and expectations. I will work and work and try harder every day to meet the expectations. In the process I learn that my acceptance and inclusion is dependent upon me. It is so normal that I am desensitized to the pain of it. The wrong of it. And this faulty narrative of how life is to be lived is transferred to my relationship with God. My acceptability to Him is dependent on me. This is a heavy and ultimately unbearable burden. Joy in my life disappears with every trying harder – there is no joy in having to earn acceptance and love. Guess I will look elsewhere.
Another unhealthy path – one that I seldom go down, is to validate and affirm what I perceive you already think of me…not good enough. I live out my unworthiness. I become the victim of my own shame. And because shame is so emotionally painful, there is no joy here either.
Is there an alternative? Can I ever overflow with joy? YES! God tells us that one of the fruits of His working in us is joy; “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…” This tells me there is a place I can avoid the pain of abandonment and shame. By faith in Christ, I know my identity is not in the acceptability of my performance, but in being a child of God. But it is more than just being a child of God…it is being the unconditionally loved child of God. There is my new life story. That is the message I need to keep hearing. I need to hear it everyday from God and from a community of friends who treat me with the unconditional love of God.
Does this new place create instant freedom from the fear and stress of oughts and expectations.? In reality yes, but in our minds no. Author Curt Thompson in describing one of his counseling patients writes this, “… he found himself quite unable to simply disbelieve the lie he had practiced believing for so long.” My mind is inundated with memories of when trying harder was the only thing that brought acceptance at least for a time, or of incidents that affirmed I was no good. So what do I do?
I need to come into the presence of God everyday and give myself permission to receive His unconditional love and to find joy there. To often I have been taught to come to God to find out what to do to be a good person. To be acceptable. To be loved. To not be emotionally abandoned by Him. To often I come to God with fear and leave with apprehension.
I also need to have a community of friends who remind me of the good news of the gospel, not just with their words but with their actions…and with their emotional responses to me. Don’t have a community? Then find one person. The first person I found was an author and I read him over and over and over. I needed the truth he was telling me. Then as I shared with others what I was learning, I began to discover others whose hearts resonated with the same experiences and truths and slowly a community began to grow.
May the reality that is already ours in Christ become our experience.