Archive for the ‘self worth’ Tag

Addicted to Effort   1 comment

The strange path to freedom.

I have many coping mechanisms to protect me from the prickly world, a combination of defenses unique to myself.  I was a compliant child, a trait sometimes mistakenly referred to as “good” or “obedient,” so I responded to my insecurites by trying to make the grade (measured by my approval ratings).   This was my basis for self-worth: scoring a 10 on my performance.  When I was judged as inadequate, my deeply ingrained, almost instinctive reaction was to rachet up the effort.  I proved my value as a person by doing more, better, faster, by never repeating failures or mistakes, by meeting or exceeding every expectation that appeared worthy.


Perhaps the hardest coping mechanisms to overcome are those which are inescapably tied to the necessities of living.  Every addiction has its unique power of control.  Bulimics, unlike alcoholics, literally cannot live without the substance to which they are addicted, and that significantly complicates their deliverance.  In the same way, I cannot live without doing.  I cannot abandon all tasks in order to break free from my addiction to effort–I am forced to keep succeeding at a job, at finances, at relationships, and all the other tasks essential to life.  They say success breeds success, but in my case, success breeds bondage (and unfortunately so does failure). 

For me, at a subconscious level, every task accomplished inevitably feeds my sense of worth and every task unfinished feeds my shame.  I don’t knowingly tell myself, “See what I have done. I am a good person after all.”  The telltale sign of this malady may only be a sense of satisfaction, which is natural enough, but the reason for my satisfaction is largely a sense of worth based on my work. 

In short: I have an addiction to effort as a means to gain worth, I cannot live without doing, but each time I do something and feel better as a person, I subconsciously strengthen my addiction.

Let me give an example.  I have said something that has hurt my colleague Mike.  I am afraid of what he now thinks of me, especially because his evaluation of me feeds my doubts of my own worth.  Since love is the best motivation, I tell myself to reach out to him in love and concern for his well-being. These are my conscious thoughts, but underneath, my very value as a person depends on his renewed approval of me.  My fear escalates as I ask for a minute of his time.  Why fear?  Because my worth is at stake.  If he is reconciled by my apology, my fear turns to pleasure.  “See,” I tell myself, “love works!” when in fact I have just succeeded in strengthening a false basis for my worth as a person–I am worthy because of what I do, in this case reconciliation. 

The motivation for what I do is the key.  I can act out of a place of grace or a place of should and shame, though that makes it sound dichotomous when really my motives are always mixed to some degree.  If I complete a chore more out of fear than of grace, I strengthen my doubt in God’s love.  If I act more from grace, I strengthen my faith in God’s love.  But if I am pressured by ‘should,’ how can I respond out of grace?  For me at least, operating out of a sense of should is really responding from a doubt of God’s acceptance, from a sense that his love depends on my behavior, from a fear of being unworthy.  I find that if I do not first challenge the should, face it down, call out its lies of conditional love, then I feed my doubt and insecurity with each task I complete.  I feel better, but am worse for it.

Back to Mike.  If he is unwelcoming, I become defensive–I try to “explain” more clearly, I express my hurt at his response, I point out his matching faults.  Unlike my successful attempt, my failure to win him over suddenly reveals my real motivation.  It was not love, but insecurity. Insecurity will always be present, but if it predominates as my motivation, it will harm me and my relationships.  It may feel better to both of us  if it “works,” but it is a sugar high that eventually leads to diabetes.  I am most aware of my insecurities when my coping mechanism fails, when my “right” actions for self-redemption flounder. If at first I don’t go to Mike, but sit with my insecurity long enough to find saving grace, to believe my worth has no basis in what I do, then I can go to Mike in a way that leads to wholeness for us both.

In certain situations, this time of processing is effective, but often, the longer I delay acting, the more anxious I become.  I am constantly being pressured by a “should,” and this crowds out the emotional space I need to find grace.  In the past I often had to go ahead and complete the task (and so remove the pressure), and then try to deal with the shame-based motivation.   My grasp of grace was not firm enough to escape self-condemnation if I failed to act, but at least being aware of my true motivations was a fundamental step to addressing them.  

To be continued…


Posted March 26, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Redefining Normal   Leave a comment

A blog post well worth reading:

My son Cade is a survivor.

To Cade and the Eight Percent

Eleven years ago this week, Rebekah and I celebrated the birth of our first-born. Despite his Down syndrome diagnosis, we were overjoyed to welcome this new life into our family.

But not everyone welcomes children like Cade.

It’s no secret. People with Down syndrome have been targeted for extinction. In November, the New York Post heralded The End of Down Syndrome and profiled a new, safer test for pre-natal detection. Before this test was available, 92% of Down syndrome diagnoses (and many times false diagnoses) resulted in the mothers choosing to terminate their pregnancies. With these new tests, some experts foretell the end of Downs.

Why the rush to rid the world of people like Cade?

Certainly, it isn’t because his disability physically threatens anyone. Rather, Down syndrome children pose adifferent kind of threat to society—the in your face reminder that our aspirations for “perfection” may be flawed. People like Cade disrupt normal. Whether it’s his insistence that everyone he says “hello” to on the busy streets of Manhattan respond in-kind or his unfiltered ability to hug a lonely, wheelchair-bound, homeless man without hesitation: people like Cade bring new dimension to what normal ought to be.

I’ve been encouraged to see several pop-culture venues putting on display just how normal children like Cade—and the surviving 8%—really are.

I was surprised and delighted when I opened a Nordstrom catalog a few months back and saw a young boy with Downs syndrome posing as a model for children’s clothes. No mention or special attribution was made of it. But there he was, hanging with a few other boys, included as one of the gang. The way things ought to be.

Then again, last month, dozens of major news outlets picked up this story line when the same young model was included in the latest Target ad campaign. One father and advocate, Rick Smith, took the story viral when he posted 5 Things Target Said Without Saying Anything on his blog.

Only two weeks ago on the popular show Glee, a sixteen-year old girl with Down syndrome was portrayed beautifully. Her character showed life as a high school teenager, a member of the cheerleading squad dealing with the pressures of modern teen life. During the episode, you could hear her internal thoughts playing out as the writers took a bold step forward in portraying how it might feel to walk in her shoes.

But these public displays of inclusion are only part of how we counter the extinction of those with Down syndrome.

Why do the majority of expectant parents determine not to carry these pregnancies to full term?

Fear.  [for the rest of this insightful article, connect to

Posted March 15, 2012 by janathangrace in Reading

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Chased into the Harbor   2 comments


 If Kimberly’s reactions had not provoked mine, I could have avoided my negative feelings and the issues behind them, but I and my relationships would have suffered.  I needed her insecurities to push mine out of the shadows.  From a hundred examples of this, let me share in this post one of our early conflicts.

When Kimberly and I started dating, she was living in Lynchburg and I in Arlington (of cemetery fame).  Once a week I drove the 6 hour round trip to be with her.  Occasionally she would drive to Arlington.  I went to Lynchburg to spend the day with Kimberly, and I expected she would do the same when she visited me.  However, she had other friends in Arlington with whom she wanted to connect.  I was disappointed when she went off in the afternoon to visit her friend, and when she came back late for the dinner I was cooking, she could feel the cold winds blowing.  I was quiet, polite, distant.  She could have just ignored it and I would eventually have warmed up again, but instead she asked what was troubling me.  I tried to pass it off, but eventually replied.

Me, a bit resentfully: “You said you were going to be here by 4 o’clock.”

Berly, defensively: “I know, but my friend needed a listening ear.  I called you as soon as I could.”

Me, exposing the bigger issue: “When I come to Lynchburg, I spend the whole day with you.”

Berly: “You don’t have any other friends in Lynchburg to see.”

You can imagine the next two hours of conversation as I explained how reasonable my expectations were in the face of her uncaring behavior, and she explained how she could care about me without meeting my expectations.  Even though we were both defensive, we tried to hear and understand one another over the cacophony of our feelings.  We slowly came to realize that I place a high priority on time spent together, that this is my gauge of how much someone cares about me.

Now, unfortunately, I must digress to clarify how our approach differs from other approaches.  Let me first contrast it to the “apologetic fix,” the resolution of choice in my family of origin.  The conversation would have gone:

Me, a bit resentfully: “You said you were going to be here by 4 o’clock.”

Berly, apologetically: “I’m so sorry.  I should have been here on time,”  followed by an effort to be sweeter and more solicitous than usual to win back my favor.  

That would be it.  We would both feel better.  The resulting “peace” would be a sufficient reward, tricking us into thinking we had a healthy, happy relationship.  Berly would realize my expectation and shape herself to conform in the future, not out of love (since she was responding to my shaming pressure), but in an effort to keep the peace.  She’d “should” on herself to reduce her insecurity in my conditional love.  

The second, more discerning approach would simulate our actual conversation, and Kimberly would realize time spent together was my “love language,” so she should do what she could to satisfy this need of mine.  That would be the end of it.  Conflicts would arise to the extent she failed to meet my expectations, but she would keep trying to adjust, reminding herself of my need and becoming more sensitive to it.   This second approach is more healthy because it does not depend on shame as the motivator.  In fact, the motivation can be from genuine love if the one who changes can do so without much personal cost (if it does not feed her insecurities).  Notice that in both these alternate approaches the resolution is fairly simple and straightforward and depends on conformity to expectations,  my underlying insecurities (if there are any) stay hidden and unresolved.  The more the expectation is legitimized, the more the one conforming will see it as an “ought,” and such an obligatory response easily usurps a genuine love response.

Kimberly was unwilling to deny her own needs and feelings to satisfy mine.  She stood up for herself in the face of my resentment.  This only increased my insecurities about her lack of love for me (as I perceived it), and when my fears were exacerbated, I could see my issues more clearly.  I realized that my anger was not a simple reaction to the current situation, but was protecting me from experiencing  the underlying raw fear of not being truly loved, not being truly lovable.  Kimberly could easily relieve my insecurity in relationship to her by spending more time with me, but my fears would remain and continue infecting other relationships.  I would keep protecting myself from others by blaming, pressuring, loving conditionally when I felt devalued.

My true need is not for friends to choose my company more often so that I feel loved.  Trying to resolve my insecurities at this level will only block access to my deeper need, fears that I am unworthy of love.  What is the source of this insecurity, what subconscious ideas are keeping me trapped in fear, how do I bring healing to this fundamental place of need?  If I fend off my fears by enticing others to give me more quality time, I will never look for the answer to these questions.

Fortunately, Kimberly’s issues did not allow her to salve mine: if she agreed with me that she was not enough, she would be denying her own needs and feelings.  Unfortunately, given my presuppositions, I could not rationally separate loving someone from taking care of them.  The first resulted in the second, otherwise it was fake.  I did not disagree with Kimberly, I simply did not understand her.  But I kept trying until I slowly realized that her gibberish was crucial to the healing of my soul and relationships.  I was trapped in a world where others’ responses decided my worth.  What I needed was to discover unconditional acceptance, to unhitch my lovability from how others did or did not love me, and hook it to a love that is unwavering and limitless towards me no matter how “unworthy” I may be, a love that is not drawn out more by my worthiness, but that proves my worthiness by loving me despite all.

And I need that divine love shown to me, however limitedly, through the heart of another in my world… the very thing which is Kimberly’s amazing gift.  She is committed to accepting me and loving me for who I am, the good and the bad, the broken and partly mended, the prickly and tender.  She shows me God as the Gracious One that he is.  When I share my fears of being unworthy of love, not as a means to manipulate her, but simply to share vulnerably, it opens wide the flood gates of her compassion for me, and slowly I begin to see that I am lovable despite my many shortcomings, that my woundedness does not invite shame but sympathy.  This peace and joy touches the deepest reaches of my heart and begins its healing work.

Something tells me we'll find a way.

Clinging to Grace with Our Fingertips   3 comments

This is where my story gets hard and healing, frightening and amazing.  First the mess.  My needs displayed themselves in a hundred ways that were threatening to Kimberly and her needs.  For instance, I have often used anger and blame to protect myself from looming danger, but Kimberly was raised by a mother who screamed and shouted, so when I honestly expressed my feelings, her alarm tripped.

Early in our dating we sat for lunch in a restaurant booth in Arlington, Virginia where I was living.  The man in the booth behind us, apparently a construction foreman, was carrying on a loud conversation on his two-way radio.  I muttered to Kimberly how rude this was, which she feared he could overhear, and then I swiveled around and gave him a “dirty look” hoping to shame him quiet.  When I turned back around, she was visibly shaken and said she did not know whether she could stay in relationship with someone with anger issues.  So began the saga of conflicting needs in the area of self-defense, specifically anger.

The machinations of the mind are complicated, so unless this is your experience, you may not understand the root of my anger.  Anger is the result of feeling disrespected, having my boundaries crossed.  As I grew up, my sense of worth grew dependent on the value others placed on me.  If they seemed to devalue me, I was  threatened at my core.  There are many ways folks can protect themselves from this, and one of mine was anger and blame.  When the crew chief raised his voice, I felt disrespected, and in my insecurity, I reacted to protect myself against this threat.

Is This Going to Work?

From childhood, Kimberly has taken the opposite approach of protecting herself by accommodating every one so that she is liked.  When threatened, I bared my teeth and Kimberly wagged her tail.  She was quite successful in acting in such a way that no one would ever get angry with her.  Underneath was her terror of rage and denial of her own anger.   Both of us were living out of fears that we did not recognize, incompatible anxieties, each person’s defense mechanism triggering the other’s fear.  I thought I needed a mate who would be okay with my anger and Kimberly thought she needed a mate that never got angry.  This did not look like a match made in heaven!

But what we wanted was not what we needed.  Let me put it plainly–we each wanted to marry someone who would help us escape our deepest fears.  Our coping mechanisms were not “working” (protecting us from pain), so we wanted a spouse that would reinforce our defenses, not so we could face our underlying issues, but so we could avoid them successfully.  We were both blessed to have a very supportive and accepting relationship…  except when it wasn’t.  She was not trying to expose my denial (the anger that hid my fear), but in simply being herself with me, and I with her, the truth was forced to come out, and it was very painful.  After all, there were quite good reasons why we developed these protective patterns early in life.  Let me relate a very common interchange

Me: “That jerk just cut me off and then slowed down to turn into Sheetz.  That’s really considerate!”  My insecurity is shouting at me that I have been disrespected.  I don’t realize that I feel threatened and fearful because my anger jumps in so quickly to protect me and blame the other driver.  I think my aggravation is his fault.

Kimberly: “Maybe he was running low on gas and saw the gas station at the last minute.”  Kimberly feels her fear rising at my heat, and she jumps in to protect the person I am attacking.  I feel unsupported and shamed.

Me: “He could have easily slowed down and pulled in behind me.”  My coping mechanism is being threatened.  If you take away my anger, I have no protection from being devalued.  I still don’t realize that my true, underlying feeling that needs addressing is fear.

Kimberly: “Maybe he didn’t have time to think of that.”  I feel the legitimacy of her argument.  I really should not be mad.  I begin to feel shame for my temper instead of sympathy, which would give me the safety to look deeper into the roots of my fear.  I shame my anger away, closing the one door to my true heart’s need, and I no longer feel safe sharing my feelings with Kimberly.

Me: “Whatever!”  an irritated dismissal.  Kimberly senses my disapproval of her responses.  She is deeply hurt by my unspoken criticism that she is not supportive and caring, that she is not enough.  I am challenging her one shelter against shame, her remarkable ability to be supportive and empathic.  Her solution for the world’s problems is “Life is so hard, let’s all just get along.”  To feel safe, she needs me to be nice to everyone, especially her.

This dynamic played out scores of times.  We were committed to honesty in sharing our feelings and in accepting one another “as is,” and this characterized our relationship, so we grew more trusting and secure with each other.  The problems came when our needs conflicted, when supporting her meant denying my own needs. But our commitment to love and understanding in the other parts of our lives slowly began to soften these areas of conflict.  Kimberly moved from “your anger is bad” to “your anger is hard for me” to “your anger is understandable” to “I see how your anger is a vital protection.”  I moved from “you are not enough” to “I feel hurt by you” to “I see why anger is a problem for you” to “wow, you have every reason to fight anger.”  This was only possible by understanding ourselves and one another better.  We had to face into our fears and trust one another to listen, understand, and accept us.  We often failed.  It was messy.


Posted October 5, 2011 by janathangrace in Personal

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India (Part 2): Healing   2 comments

Much of my life’s darkness metastasized from this one seed thought: I felt inadequate because I accomplished so little for God and I feared  his disappointment.  If I just did a little more, I could please him at last.  And so I drove myself to extreme lengths–choosing celibacy, relocating to a city of misery, sleeping little, fasting and praying weeks at a time.  But I could never do enough to feel secure in his love, because I used my fruitfulness or effectiveness to measure his blessing and pleasure, and the results did not speak well of me.  I subconsciously assumed that God’s love for me was based on my usefulness to him.  In this way, my success was fundamental to my well-being.

I lived 40 years out of that false assumption, building up a whole network, a fully functioning system based on that foundation.  It required a long process to break free.  For the last ten years I have applied the salve of grace to my deep wound of worthlessness.  Given time, grace works effectively for me when I can identify my specific need and saturate it with mercy.    So for a decade I worked on delinking God’s love from my success, even from my behavior or choices.  I was determined to rewire my thinking, conscious and unconscious, to ground all my well-being in the unconditional love of God.  Though I did not focus on my heartbreak in India, I did focus on those underlying issues, so when it came to opening myself to that shrouded past, I found the weight had largely lifted.

It was not fully lifted because there are always new aspects of that one great confusion of grace which I need to identify and work through.  As I planned for the trip, my wife warned me against a determination for good results, but rather to do my best and leave the outcome as it came.  She knows me well, and it was good counsel.  Still I felt dragged down too much by a sense of responsibility to succeed.

I have a long way to go, but I am moving in the right direction.  I always thought I was responsible and therefore in control of my own success.  As each string tying me to that assumption snaps, I find growing relief and peace.   Results matter, matter profoundly, but I am not responsible for results, only for motives and actions.  My heart is slowly embracing the unconditional love of God… even, amazingly, when my motives and actions are faulty.  God is always packed tight with grace bursting to be free.

Posted August 28, 2011 by janathangrace in Personal

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Response part 4: It’s Just Not Fair!   2 comments

Elisabeth speaks for many of us when she worries that making room for someone’s quirks could encourage the attitude, “God made me this way so just accept it even though it is inconveniencing or hurting you.”  That is one of the guiding principles that shaped the way I related to others most of my life, and it still pulls strongly on my emotions.  This will take two posts to discuss even briefly because I want to start with my own experience and perspective and then offer the comparative view of my wife.

I grew up believing very strongly that I was responsible for others’ responses to me.  If someone felt hurt or inconvenienced by my actions, I should change my behavior.  Either I had done something wrong and should apologize and change myself to prevent this in the future, or they were mistaken and I should explain to them how they had misunderstood my intentions (or a combination of the two).  Their negative feelings indicted me, and I was responsible to relieve them and to then live in such a way that I caused them no more inconvenience or hurt.

I think this entanglement of responsibilities is common among children who respond to parental displeasure by being compliant and who determine their own lovability based on the feedback they receive for their behavior.  If my mom or dad is angry, it is my fault, and I must fix it.  I think our parents’ generation generally believed this, and those of us raised in religious homes believed this was also a true reflection of God’s attitude towards us.  One of the downsides of this perspective is that I hold others responsible for my feelings as well.  You take care of my feelings and I take care of yours.  You take care of my needs and I take care of yours.

Relational Balancing Act

It sounds very considerate, and I suppose it may be, but in my case, instead of a free and loving choice, it was grounded in fear and relational obligation.  I could not survive in forgoing my own needs for the sake of others’ needs if they did not reciprocate, so if there was no parity, I had to pressure others to meet my needs.  If I were inconveniencing or hurting someone, I was under moral obligation to change, and if I did not like what they were doing, they had to change.

Of course, the entire system broke down if others did not meet my needs. When I eat out with a friend, the payment shuffle at the end is a bit embarrassing.  Supposing my friend will reciprocate the next time, I decide to pick up the tab.  But he doesn’t return the favor.  I decide to do it again as a good example that shows him clearly how he is falling behind in the balance of hospitality.  By the third unreciprocated meal, I start feeling resentment and make mild side comments or light jokes to bring his attention to the situation.  If he simply does not work by this system of fair trade, then our relationship is in trouble.  I will feel that he is selfish and uncaring.

When I decide what to wear, what to say, where to go, how to behave, I automatically assume others’ needs are preeminent.  This does not primarily come from a place of health or freedom or generosity, but from a fear that they will justifiably think badly of me or resent me if I do not care about them.  I find it very hard to think well of myself if others think badly of me (in this case because I am being “uncaring”).  On the other hand, if others seem to ignore my needs, I feel that my needs don’t really count, I am not worthy of receiving their care.  So I am trapped in this world of reciprocation based on fear of losing my worth as a person.

My fear of others “taking advantage of me,” requiring me to do more lifting in the relationship than they do, is not simply that I will run out of energy and resources.  It is a much more basic fear—that my very worth as a person is seriously at risk.  Of course, I never think it out so clearly and objectively as this, but simply react from deep-seated emotions, often jumping right past the fear (which makes me feel vulnerable) into the reactive and manipulative anger of self-defense, “Don’t you care about me?!”

Some say that compromise is at the root of any good marriage, but what if either or both partners feel an arrangement is unfair, unbalanced.  Picture the impact on the relationship if this imbalance is not simply an inconvenience, but a threat to the spouse’s very worth as a person.  That is a picture of Kimberly and me as we stepped into a committed relationship.

Posted July 31, 2011 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Refrigerator Art   2 comments

Sara Layman’s “Alleluia” posts were part of the inspiration for my new blog.

“Alleluia Day 106: Once, for a few weeks, my eldest daughter went to sleep-away camp. When I picked her up we went to the craft cabin to pick up her artwork. She couldn’t find her work. I found what looked like her initials on the back of one plaster of paris Jesus but she said it wasn’t hers. “No, Mom! When I painted my Jesus’ eyes, the paint ran down his cheeks.” The craft counselors spoke up, “Oh no, don’t worry about that. We spent all day touching up the paintings and fixing them!” I couldn’t believe my ears. Seriously, I did not want someone else’s painted Jesus in my house (at all!) the only value that piece had was that my child worked on it, was proud of it, and wanted me to see it and have it. They removed the value (for me). My child didn’t want the edited piece either. Why is it that I want to edit my efforts to try to make them appear perfect to others? Did Jesus reject those who washed his feet with water because it wasn’t expensive perfume? Of course I’d like my work and art and efforts to be perfect but if they aren’t – after all I’m not perfect – isn’t it better to have the honest, heartfelt efforts rather than the manipulated and contrived results? Will I, in response, accept all gifts without strings or criticisms? Alleluia!”

I love this post of Sara’s, which she gave me permission to use.  How rich to think of two kinds of worth for any creation, the inherent worth and the worth derived from the heart of the creator, and the second has no real relationship to the first.  If it is a genuine expression of the individual’s heart, and I see it as such, then it cannot be poorly done, then it is more precious to me than all other creations, no matter how grand and glorious they are.  Whatever we offer to God hangs now on his refrigerator door.

Posted July 3, 2011 by janathangrace in thoughts

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