Vulnerability seems to be a theme in my life right now. Going through Brene Brown's study on vulnerability in her book Daring Greatly has been an incredible challenge. It is bringing up old stuff that I thought was settled and resolved. Now, add to it Don's newest book, which felt like a case study on the same topic, and it was a recipe for introspection.
Don's book is subtitled "Dropping the act and finding true intimacy". It's all about the journey God had him on as he moved toward entering a healthy marriage relationship. And it was quite a journey.
I'm not on the road towards marriage. I don't even have a crush going on right now. But, his thoughts, his experiences, his walk towards living a healthy and enagaged life, made me question some things in my own life, made me wonder which places of shame I still live out of, and where my defenses are simply too high to even be seen as "available".
Don talked about a time when he went to a week of counseling at some facility called OnSite. The counselor he met with called him out right away. When Don's first response to every situation was humor, the counselor questioned him about it and Don explains:
"He pulled a napkin from the table and drew a small circle on it. Inside the circle he wrote the word self and explained everybody is born a self. He said I was born this way and so was everybody else, a completely healthy and happy little self. And then, he said, something happened in my life that changed everything. He drew a larger circle around the small circle, making something like a target. Inside the second circle he wrote the word shame. Bill said at some point I realized, whether true or not, there was something wrong with me. Either I didn’t measure up to the standards of my parents, the kids at school made fun of me, or I came to believe I was inferior. Shame, he said, caused me to hide. “And that,” he said, “is a problem. Because the more we hide, the harder it is to be known. And we have to be known to connect.” Then he drew another circle around the second one and said this outer circle was the false self we create to cover our shame. He said it was in this circle where we likely developed what we think of as our personality, or the “character” we learned to play in the theater of life. Bill said some of us learn we only matter if we are attractive or powerful or skilled in some way, but each of us likely has an ace card we believe will make us lovable. Even before Bill asked me, I blurted out the word humor. So he looked at the napkin and wrote the word humor in the outer circle. He didn’t look back up either. He just sat there with his pen hovering over a blank space in the outer ring. I said the word intelligence. And he wrote intelligence in the outer ring too. I added a few more words and then we stopped. Bill turned the napkin toward me, and as I looked at it I felt as though I were looking at myself in a mirror. I was a self, covered in shame and hiding behind an act. Certainly it’s not a black- and- white thing. I’ve no problem with a person being smart or funny, and I don’t think it’s wrong to receive validation in exchange for talent. But what Bill was getting at was deeper, a buried whisper within me that repeats a lie: I only matter if ."
I saw myself, so clearly, in those three circles. For years, I operated in a place of shame covering it up with humor, people-pleasing, works, being all things to all people...
In 2004, I was freed from my years of depression, but the years that followed, I began to do some hard work to uncover the "why"...why had I struggled so long with that depression?...why did I keep it hidden?...what places are still being kept hidden? God did an amazing healing work in that season of my life. I remember thinking at the time that it was such a dark season of my soul, because soul work is hard and healing sometimes means opening up old wounds to clean out the infection of lies that remain. It was dark, but I came out the other side so much healthier, my relationships stronger, my connection with my Abba Father in a place of such beautiful trust.
And last year, God did some work in me that released me from the constant mind-pursuit of the fairy-tale romance. I suddenly became ok with me as a single person. Though there are still moments of longing, I can say that I am learning to be satisfied in Him alone. Even in that longing, I know that it will never be satisfied by any earthly relationship, but only can be filled in relationship with Christ (and as Don also discusses, not even in full completion until we finally go home).
But Don's story of the circles brought up some old wounds and I think there is some cleaning out that needs to happen.
I have a secret to tell you.
I have never been on a date.
Well, that's not exactly true. I have been on three dates. But, here is how those went:
In high school, my best friend was this gorgeous girl that was simply amazing. She was smart, athletic, kind, musically gifted, generous, but a bit quiet and shy. I was overweight and made up for that by being all personality. I was in the choir, the drama team, speech, and pretty much anything that didn't require me to run, but allowed me to talk or sing in front of people. I was known for my enormously loud laugh. I may have had a few teachers ask me to quiet down during my lunch period because I was interrupting their classes. I may even have fallen out of my chair a few times from laughing too hard. I excelled in my classes and I am sure I annoyed a few of my classmates with my tendencies to overachieve. I was that girl.
Well, my beautiful friend was always being asked out. But, as an obedient teenage daughter, she stuck to her parents rules of "no dating before 16". But when she turned 16, one of the "coolest" guys in school asked her out. He was on the football team, attended church on Sunday's with his family, and he had fallen for my friend. Well, since this was her first first date, she was especially nervous and her parents decided that they could only date if it was in a group. The clever football guy decided he would rally up a group and asked one of his friends and me to come along. So, it was under the ruse of a double date, but the gig was up. I knew I was a means to an end. We went to the movies and out to eat. I remember laughing and having fun, but the reality was in the back of my mind all night...I was there just so the handsome football boy could have a date with my friend, the quiet beauty. It wasn't real for me. The fairy-tale had been offered to my friend, but because I didn't look the part, I was cast in the supporting role and forgotten when the next date rolled around.
My second date went something like this...
Another high school friend of mine was outgoing and funny and interesting. She wanted to start dating a guy from a rival high school and got up enough nerve to ask him out, but for some reason, parents really like me going with their daughters on first dates. Her mom asked her to find a friend to go along to "make it a group". (Note to friends...three is a crowd when it comes to "supervising first dates"). So, here I was again. Only this time, we headed for the drive-in, because that's what you do in small towns on Friday nights. Let's just say, I ended up in the front seat alone for that double feature. Awkward!
I was through with all this "go with your friends and make it a group" dating stuff, so for my junior prom, I decided to ask one of my co-workers from the little restaurant I worked at after school. We went just as friends, and we had a blast. Only issue was, one of my friends came by herself and she was this cute little package of sass and by the end of the night, my friend asked if he could take her home and I went off for a slumber party at my best friend's house instead.
After those three nightmarish experiences, I must have unknowingly decided that maybe this dating thing wasn't for me. I decided that I just needed to learn how to be satisfied in my own singleness. (Which I have figured out has less to do about being satisfied in being single but being satisfied in who I am in Christ). I think I hung some sort of invisible "unavailable" sign around my neck. It was easier to be the "too busy" girl as I began my years of teaching in an inner-city school in the Bay Area. It was easier to be the "too intense" girl, making every interaction about issues of justice or intense spiritual conversations. It was easier to be the "I'm intimidating" girl, the one who wanted to solve the world's problems and expected everyone around her to solve them too.
My heart still longed for relationship, but my invisible signs and that second circle of shame has held me captive for years.
I had years of calls logged to my mom where there were no words, just tears that spoke of the hurt in not having that special someone in my life. Years.
The signs didn't really work to cover the shame of these lies:
I'm not pretty enough.
I'm not thin enough.
In some ways, I'm just too much...
My breakthrough that has brought me to a point of understanding my place as a single person in this world came after a long conversation with some of my best friends early last year. They had been struggling with infertility and then had been on a waiting list for adoption for such a long time. I had walked the road with my friends, holding both grief and hope for their little family.
The turning point for me was when my friend said to me (in my paraphrased memory version), "Autumn, I have so many friends who are living in marriages that are hurting each other. They are unhealthy and broken people. They do have children and their children are suffering as a result of their unhealthy marriages. I have a wonderful marriage filled with love and laughter and it is healthy and full. If we never have a child, I will know that I have been incredibly blessed in this life by what God has already given me in my marriage and with my husband. If we, by God's grace, do have a child of our own, it will only add to the blessings."
Two weeks later, they got news that a little baby boy was waiting for them and they brought their baby home a few short days later.
But for me, I recognized the amazing blessings already given to me in this life that I live. I have so many children that love me well. I am known by friends who live here and around the world and they pour into my life with such amazing gifts of light and love and truth. My family is amazing and I depend on their wisdom and grace and truth and love on a daily basis. Anything extra...it will only add to an already full life of blessings.
So, I have existed from that place.
But, as I read Don's book, I also recognized the many ways that I have shut the door to even the possibility of a romantic relationship in my life...mostly out of fear.
My experiences have taught me that I'm not the leading lady...the pretty one who wins the heart of the dashing young prince. My experiences have taught me...I'm a good friend, but not a love interest. (And maybe this even leads me to question if keeping on all this weight over the years has simply been a defense mechanism to remain on the sidelines?)
So, it's easier to wear my go-to signs...my third circle labels...they aren't terribly bad things...but they don't allow room for anyone either.
They say "I am enough all by myself".
Which is just another version of the same "enough" lie, because it's not the truth either. If I didn't have the relationships that I have in my life now, I wouldn't be who I am today. I need people who love me enough to put some checks on me, to speak truth, to ask if I'm ok. I need God to fill me up, because I am nothing without Him. This lie only gives me the freedom to hide.
I'm not exactly sure how to open myself up to the possibility again. Honestly, it was incredibly hard to live in the disappointment of never being the desired one, that I'm not sure I want to take off these signs and allow my heart the possibility to believe again. I have felt so sure that this place of singleness, well, it might just be the road for me.
And maybe it is.
But, what if it's not and I am somehow missing out on those extra blessings, the richness of being able to be a witness to the life of another person, simply because I am afraid to put myself out there?
I'm not sure I know the answer to that right now or how to pull these walls down, how to heal the old wounds, how to right the lies I have lived under for so long.
Don wrote this near the end of the book:
"Children learn what’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for by the stories they watch us live."
I do know this...I want the story I'm living to be a full one. Full of adventure and love and truth and grace...I don't want to be held back because of my perceived shame, those places inside me that still hurt and make me hide. And I don't want to inadvertently spread that shame onto our kids either.
So, maybe the work begins again. That heart and soul work. That is a little dark because it is so hard, but you come out the other side filled with light and life and healthy.
Maybe it's time for my own journey towards "dropping the act and finding true intimacy".
Now I know why Don titled his book Scary Close.