Written by J.M. Bergman
Have you ever told someone you were OK when you were actually falling apart inside? I have. Perhaps, like me, you struggle with thoughts like, I’m not good enough. I’m not lovable.
Andrew Lang, author of Unmasking the Inner Critic, writes, “Somewhere in our lives we were told something or were treated a certain way that led to the formation of these negative inner narratives.”
He lists the most common ones, including: I’m not important; I’m alone; I’m worthless; I’m not free (to make my own choices); I am my trauma; I don’t know who I am.
Lang refers to these negative thoughts as constrictions. Like trees that constrict themselves during winter by slowing down their metabolism and energy consumption in order to survive, negative thought constrictions push us into self-protective mode and hinder our true voices.
Let’s say your coworkers don’t invite you to hang out after work; a constriction could form to tell you this means, “I’m not good enough.” This thought—this lie—was created to make sense of a social scenario in a particular season of life. It does not define you.
But according to Lang, if you focus on them often enough, your mind then accepts thoughts like this as truths about your identity. And constrictions often stay with us even after the “winter” is gone. Now the lens through which we view and interact with every area of life becomes distorted and defensive.
We adopt these constrictions because they help us lower our expectations in order not to get hurt again. Lang says they primarily stem from a fear of failure.
For me, this fear began in my early twenties as a desire to survive emotionally after leaving a toxic relationship. I felt I wouldn’t be accepted by anyone unless I changed who I was. So I created a mask of charisma and confidence that my broken spirit could hide behind.
I became friends with people who were drawn to this masked version of myself, but I then had to maintain this fake personality while dealing with the regular struggles of life. I hadn’t considered how this masked version of myself would handle stress, so instead of dealing with stress, I stuffed it deep into the recesses of my soul within the true version of me.
The longer we approach the world from a closed-off posture of self-protection, the farther from our true selves we will become.
So where do our true voices come from? We are created to be a natural outpouring of God’s character in the same way freshwater flows from glaciers and ice caps. But when we allow temporary and unclean water sources like human approval to define us, then our voices become polluted too.
And when we begin to believe our worth has dwindled, then constrictions—false voices—develop. Matt Menzel, pastor of Westside Church Vancouver, says in an episode of the church’s podcast that we cannot despise ourselves without calling God a liar.
Our true voices are woven into the framework of our identities—believing that because God loves us, we are worthy of loving ourselves. We are important; we are worth dying for. We are not our trauma, and we will never be alone. We are the image-bearers of Christ.
So how can we reclaim our true voices?
I believe this gentle work begins with examining our constrictions and letting them go. This type of emotional work will take time and a wise perspective. Consider reaching out to a mental health professional for guidance.
In Freedom to Be Our True Self, James Finley suggests that we “empty ourselves of the contents of awareness and become empty, broken vessels. We must each become a void that lies open before God and finds itself filled with God’s own life.”
This reminds me of the parable Jesus told in Matthew’s Gospel about the wise man who built his house on a rock. The only way we can count on a strong, lasting foundation for our mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health is to allow God to build it.
Otherwise our inner voices are built on thin lies and, due to fear of making mistakes, anxiety and stress will emanate from within us.
Only those who are brave enough to admit we’ve failed at surviving by our own means will be able to peel away these false layers and begin to find freedom. Why? Because hiding in Jesus is where we learn to love our true selves.
Menzel states that “self love without the love of God is idolatry, but self love because of the love of God is worship.”
You truly are fearfully and wonderfully made by the God of the cosmos. Are you ready to begin this inner work so the world can hear your true voice? I dare you to consider it.
J.M. Bergman is an author and poet living in Morden, Man. Read more from the “Body and soul” column.