Do you have a photo of your spouse, significant other, or children as your phone background, eager to show them off at the first opportunity to anyone and everyone? What about your driver’s license photo? Do you delightedly show it to others? Pass it around at parties? Copy it to your online profile? Or do you cringe every time you see it, as I do? Do you pray for the day when you’ll renew your license in the hope that the photo will be at least a little better? Why is that? Is it because the Department of Motor Vehicles seems skilled at taking the worst possible photos? Okay, maybe it’s that. But it may also be that your driver’s license photo doesn’t represent what you really look like.
Each of us carries another personal identification photo, one that is far more important than any photograph in our phone, wallet, or purse. It is a mental self-portrait, our concept of who we are. Like your driver’s license photo, your inner self-portrait may or may not accurately represent the real you. Just as the quality of a photograph is diminished by lack of focus, poor lighting, or faulty camera settings, your inner self-portrait may be inaccurate due to faulty or incomplete input and distorted programming you’ve received about who you are.
Take Alex, for example. The prevailing message he heard growing up was, “Alex, you can’t do anything right.” Was it an accurate portrayal of him? No! He may have been inept in some areas, as we all are. But to say he couldn’t do anything right was a demeaning and grossly inaccurate assessment. Yet that message was imprinted on the film of Alex’s heart from childhood. Today he carries that distorted self-portrait wherever he goes — the picture of a thirty-two-year-old man who sees himself as little more than a mistake, a failure just waiting to happen. He’s embarrassed to reveal his presumed identity to others, so he is shy and anti-social.
On the other hand, consider Theresa, whose perception of herself is suitable for framing. She grew up in a home where she was cherished and nurtured by loving, Christian parents. She learned early that she was God’s unique and dearly loved creation. As a result, she entered adulthood confident of her worth to God and to others. She meets new people easily, and God has used her to bring a number of her new friends to Christ.
How do you feel about your inner self-portrait? Is it like Alex’s, a picture that embarrasses you, one you would rather keep hidden? Or is it more like Theresa’s, a representation of your true identity as a child of God? I speak to tens of thousands of adults and young people every year, and I visit with hundreds of them personally after the meetings. Sadly, few have the positive, nurturing background that Theresa enjoyed. More often, they nurture inner self-portraits that are badly out of focus — struggling in life because of their difficult home life, the culture around them, or unbiblical experiences (or some combination of the three) that have obscured their true identity.
All of the unmet longings we’ve experienced can lead to negative core beliefs about ourselves. Throughout life, especially in our early years, we look to people’s actions and words to determine our significance and value. Over time we buy into what people say or communicate to us about our worth, which can lead to a distorted view of ourselves. Maybe for you it was being bullied or rejected by others. Maybe others approved of you when you performed well but didn’t approve of you when you failed. Maybe you weren’t allowed to express your opinions, or you felt largely ignored. Any of these scenarios, intentional or not, can convey a lack of value, leading us to develop negative core beliefs about our worth and leading to shame — believing “I am bad” or “something is wrong with who I am.” As much as we may “know,” intellectually, that we are loved and valued for who we are, we struggle to “own” that reality. Even though we may receive compliments or kudos from others, these seem to roll off our backs rather than meeting our needs.
Author and researcher Brené Brown says, “Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.”1 The lie of shame can be deeply embedded within our souls, often disguising itself as humility, keeping us trapped from being who God made us to be.
I’m convinced that shame is at the core of most of our personal struggles in life, second only to (and cooperating with) the sinful nature we are born with. We react and get angry out of insecurity. We blame others or our circumstances rather than owning our mistakes. We find unhealthy ways to cope with our stress and pain because we don’t believe we can do better or be better. So many of us are fighting the wrong battles. We wage war on our unwanted behaviors, which only causes us to think about them all the more. Of course, we need to seek the help of God and others for our unwanted behaviors, and we need to have a plan and receive support as we put the plan into action. But instead of being hyper-focused on a particular behavior, we need to understand our unmet longings and negative core beliefs that contribute to those unwanted behaviors. We need to take those thoughts captive and make them obedient to the truth of Christ. We need to believe the truth of who we are and live according to our true identity. The more we do this, the more our behavior will align with the truth, unwanted behaviors will lose their appeal, and we will experience the emotional wholeness we were created for: the completeness that comes from knowing and experiencing our God-given value and identity. As our unmet longings trigger our negative core beliefs, our primary battle lies many steps before our moments of temptation. The battle begins with developing new, positive, and accurate core beliefs about self, God, and others and then trusting God to provide new experiences that help us solidify these beliefs.
A Case of Mistaken Identity
Sadly, the bright dawn of the third millennium has found so many people — Christians included — stressed out, unhappy, unfulfilled, and even despondent. Why? Because so many are unsure about their true identity. Even the church sometimes clouds the identity issue by overstressing the old sinful nature, which for believers was crucified and buried with Christ.
Our sense of identity can be negatively affected when we hear ourselves referred to as “converted sinners.” After all, we don’t call a butterfly a “converted caterpillar.” It’s a butterfly now; the old is gone, the new has come. When we trust Christ, we become new creatures. Old things pass away, and all things become new (see 2 Corinthians 5:17).
My hunch is that many fear what would happen if people stopped seeing themselves as “converted sinners” and regarded themselves as “saints” (Ephesians 5:3 ESV). Would they become prideful and arrogant? Would they disregard God’s commands because they know they’re loved and forgiven and God delights in them no matter what? Would they sin all the more because their shame would no longer inhibit them? I don’t think so. I think, instead, they’d have a more intimate personal relationship with God, make a greater impact in the world, and desire to obey God because they have experienced how much he loves them and cares for them.
Watch the video
1. Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame,” TED, March 16, 2012,YouTube video, 20:38, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v =psN1DORYYV0.
Excerpted with permission from Free to Thrive: How Your Hurt, Struggles, and Deepest Longings Can Lead to a Fulfilling Life by Josh McDowell and Ben Bennett.
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So how do you feel about your inner self-portrait? And how does a negative self-view contribute to struggles you face? What would it mean in your life if you could begin to see yourself like God sees you? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
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