Cultivating a healthy sense of self is a life-long journey in a world of unknowns. From the moment we are born, we attempt to understand our surroundings by engaging with the intricacies of our senses. A framework for what life is all about and how we fit into the picture begins to develop.
The journey into self-awareness is unique for countless reasons depending on our state of health, our circumstances, and our environment—all of which play a significant role in affecting our emotional responses to our everyday existence. We only know what we know at any given moment.
For me, forming an authentic personal identity as a victim of childhood sexual abuse didn’t come easy. The experience warped my ability to understand who I was and how I fit into the greater story around me. Diminished self-worth became a feeding ground for confusion.
I’m not alone in my experience of deriving a skewed sense of self, as abuse is only one example of many scenarios that adversely affect the collective whole of our lives as broken and imperfect humans. Which is why I feel our relationships with others are vital and the foremost catalysts for giving shape and substance to the truth of who we are.
Throughout my teen and young adult years, I filled the void of unworthiness inside me with all manner of destructive behaviors: drinking, bottom shelf drugs, self-loathing, rude behavior toward others. Whatever numbed me or fed the illusion of acceptance through my antics of making myself the center of attention counteracted my inner ache. But only for a time, because the poor choices and less than moments circled back around adding insult to my emotional injuries. I was caught in a negative loop of guilt and shame.
Then a gorgeous boy with a steel-blue gaze showed up in my world and broke the cycle. One look into his eyes and I knew I would spend the rest of my life with him. Although my proclamation was dramatic to those around me, my heart thumped with certainty. Now 25 years later, the thing in my chest still beats to the same knowing cadence.
This boy, John, saw right through me—down to my core, beneath layers of falsity I never knew existed. John wasn’t even consciously aware of how his presence moved me, but I could feel the emotional penetration.
Up to the point of meeting him, I longed to be loved and to love. My poor perception of self left me feeling unworthy of either. But John re-wrote my broken script by showing me what unconditional love looked and felt like. He loved me as I was, right where I was at, flaws and all. Little by little he helped to reverse engineer the faulty framework I’d constructed through my pain and suffering. I began to see myself in a positive light, focusing on my gifts and strengths rather than my perceived shortcomings. This shift in thinking gave me the strength to face my real shortcomings and real wounds going forward.
Relationships mirror back what we can’t see in ourselves—the good and bad. My spouse taught me this first, then our three kids. Learning who I was as a part of my hubby (wife) and who I was as a part of my kids (mom) taught me that I am someone more valuable than what my experience of humanity’s unforgiving harshness told me otherwise. They mirrored for me what I couldn’t see in myself, someone who is both worthy to be loved and worthy to love. Countless friends and family members have sense affirmed my newfound sense of value.
The irony about relationships being a key to finding out who we are is that people are often the very source of our marred sense of self. Someone I trusted as a child stole my innocence. Like many of you, being brought to my knees by the cruelty of another human being caused me to construct walls of defense around my true essence without my conscious awareness. Yet, relationships are also the means for our healing and redemption. We are made for relationships; we thrive through connection and a sense of belonging.
The key is aligning ourselves with those who bring out the best in us and not the worst. Surrounding ourselves with people who emulate the very things we seek. Although, after suffering immense hurt, giving another person intimate access to the tender spaces inside can feel almost counterproductive and a recipe for more devastation.
Sometimes we just need to open ourselves to the potential of being caught off guard completely, like I was when John showed up in my life. We need to put our hope in humanity and trust that the universe wants the best for us, just as we want the best for others.
Although once I was lost, true love found me. I pray the same healing love finds you.