Monday, December 30, 2013

Self-Image and Relationships

What does hatred of myself have anything to do with anyone else?  Experience has taught me this: it has everything to do with everyone else.  If you hate yourself, you will never expect anyone else to love you.  You won't accept it.  You won't believe it.  And you'll offend them without meaning to, and you could lose those who love you most.  Why?  Because hating yourself damages your ability to accept love.  You will distort it.  You will curse it.  You will bashfully tiptoe backwards, with rosy cheeks of embarrassment.  Those who love you will feel like they've lost the fight to love you, and they may even perhaps feel that you don't want their love and affection.  And so you're continuously cycling back to the very thing you don't want to be: alone.

Eating disorders aren't all about food; in fact, they're more about guilt, shame, and the constant pressure to remain in control.  Imagine a person who feels guilty for eating (a needed, natural function!) in a friendship, in a family, or in a romantic relationship.  I mean, WOW!  Can you even function that way?  A boyfriend wants to take the woman he adores out to dinner, and she declines, with some false excuse...what is he to think?  "She's not into me."  But this woman feels she can't tell him the truth: "If I eat that food, I will spend the rest of the evening clothed in garments of shame. I will hate myself.  And if I go, with the intentions of pretending to eat, you might notice and think that I'm weird, and I will lose you because of the guilt I hold against myself."  

How about friends?  Friends often love celebrating togetherness by going out for lattes or dinner, having a beer or cocktail, relaxing with popcorn and a movie, baking Christmas cookies.....!  I cannot even possibly tell you how many times I declined invitations to do things because my friends mentioned food as part of the plan.  At the time, I thought something was wrong with people!  "Why can't we ever hang out without putting calories in our bodies?!?!"  I settled for loneliness instead of sharing in the lives of my friends because it would interfere with my workout, it would make me feel anxious, it wouldn't be conducive to my self-destructive lifestyle.  I couldn't be a friend because my eating disorder made my life revolve around me -- the "me" that eating disorders created.  Though I don't live with regrets, I often look back at the life-breathing doves God gave me for friends - peacemakers and fun-lovers and soul-seekers - and I feel a sadness for not knowing them better. 

You see, if I didn't love and accept myself, my relationships became tainted.  Wanting to hide a part of myself made me want to hide the WHOLE self!  "No one should see this." 

I asked readers to write messages to me about how their personal self-image affects their relationships.  All respondents were women, and there was this common theme in ALL responses.  The theme can be paraphrased like this: If I feel lovely, if I feel beautiful, then I am equipped to be with others, to serve those around me, and to have lasting and meaningful relationships.  

If you haven't read the book Captivating by Stasi Eldredge, DO!  I read it in my early twenties and it changed my perspective on who I am because of how God made me.  I want to quote her a few times here (all quotes are from the book Captivating), and then explain further how the messages I received relate to these quotes.  It's astounding to put all of this together.  Really, really.

“We desire to possess a beauty that is worth pursuing, worth fighting for, a beauty that is core to who we truly are. We want beauty that can be seen; beauty that can be felt; beauty that affects others; a beauty all our own to unveil.” 

“A woman is a warrior too. But she is meant to be a warrior in a uniquely feminine way. Sometime before the sorrows of life did their best to kill it in us, most young women wanted to be a part of something grand, something important.” 

“That longing in the heart of a woman to share life together as a great adventure-that comes straight from the heart of God, who also longs for this. He does not want to be an option in our lives. He does not want to be an appendage, a tagalong. Neither does any woman. God is essential. He wants us to need him-desperately. Eve is essential. She has an irreplaceable role to play. And so you'll see that women are endowed with fierce devotion, an ability to suffer great hardships, a vision to make the world a better place.” 

“Beauty is transcendent. It is our most immediate experience of the eternal. Think of what it's like to behold a gorgeous sunset or the ocean at dawn. Remember the ending of a great story. We yearn to linger, to experience it all our days. Sometimes the beauty is so deep it pierces us with longing. For what? For life as it was meant to be. Beauty reminds us of an Eden we have never known, but somehow our hearts were created for.” 

“What if you have a genuine and captivating beauty that is marred only by your striving?”

Girls, did you ever twirl in a dress when you were little, letting the skirt circle out around you, all fluff and lace?  I remember doing this anytime my parents made me dress up for special occasions.  I would be vastly disappointed if I had to wear a dress that didn't twirl satisfactorily.  I had my favorite red dress, fringed with white eyelet details upon each layer.  It bounced when I walked and twirled magnificently when I happened to dizzy myself silly just to see it take air around my body.  I felt like maybe I was clinging to the edge of beauty when I was adorned with a dress and "pretties" in my iron-curled hair.  I imagined people saying, "Cherie, you look so pretty in that dress!" or perhaps silently smiling in awe.  It wasn't that I was a conceited kid at all... I just wanted to be lovely.

Stasi Eldredge so eloquently pointed out that we desire beauty that can be seen and felt and that affects others.  We do.

One young woman wrote to me that she is starting a new relationship, and struggles with low self-esteem.  She finds herself re-applying her make-up, redoing her hair, and also texting him before a date to let him know she doesn't look her best.  Though he has told her he treasures her for her kindness, genuineness, and humor...AND he reassures her of her beauty...she still wants to feel worthy of him.  Without bias, I can tell you that this young woman is one of the most physically gorgeous people I've ever known, and her spirit shines even brighter than her outward beauty!  However, she doesn't always see what those around her see.  She is still trying to answer the question, "Am I lovely?  Am I beautiful?"  Entering this new relationship has left her heart wanting to make sure she can possess a beauty worth fighting for.  Sweet woman, the moment you were born, you possessed all of that and more!  

How many women can relate to this young woman?  According to my other responses, many!  One woman wrote this.  And others agreed with her. :

 "I think every woman needs to feel good about herself if she is going to be effective in serving others. I know if I get up and someone shows up at my door before my makeup is on........I am not going to answer the door before at least putting eye liner on! People seem to respond to people who are clean, well groomed, and well dressed differently than they respond to a person who has holes in their clothes, unshaven, hair not groomed, etc. It seems to be human nature. I also think it is human nature for healthy people to want to look their best for themselves and others."

Someone else responded with this:

"Feeling good about yourself is key in most every aspect of a person's life....whether its dealing with others or simply making decisions in your own life."

And the theme continued.  We women not only need to believe we look beautiful, but we need to feel worthwhile.  We want to be a part of something grand, but we won't attempt it unless we feel good about ourselves!  How can this be attained in a society that is constantly telling us that we need to buy the next new product to be appealing?  How do we believe that we are women with purpose that FAR surpasses our outward image?  And how can we function in relationships if our feelings about ourselves are so...fragile?

I think it only makes sense to turn to the Author of creation to ask the question of our worth and our beauty.  He is the One who invented beauty; He is the One who spoke it all into Being!  Why in all of God's-created-universe would we look to any other definer than God?  But I know it's difficult...the images, the words spoken by others, the thoughts-against-self are all so distracting!

I'm more sensitive than most people I know.  One experience can be etched in my memory like it's a real-again, living moment.  I remember being made fun of in third grade for my "little, weird ears" and my "big lips."  In fifth grade, someone made fun of the shoes I was wearing during kickball.  One boy called me "short" all the time.  I no longer dwell on these things, and I KNOW it was just kids being kids, but those comments and observations by others didn't just brush off my shoulder like they do for so many other people.  I filed those things away as true, and they took away from God's answer to the question, Am I lovely?  My sensitivity may have blemished my childhood, to be honest, because I took every word to heart.   Maybe I was seeking extra hard for acceptance because I was born with immeasurable self-doubt.  Whatever the case, I am so glad that I've found not only Scripture to tell me who I am in God's eyes, but I have personally experienced God's undying affection for me.  I pray that each of you would experience this in a very real way; you will never be the same.

I want to address Stasi's quote that says, "What if you have a genuine and captivating beauty that is marred only by your striving?"

Many of the women who wrote to me expressed a striving -- a need to earn beauty, instead of it being inherent.  It's usually SUPER TRUE that the world judges by outward appearances.  But thankfully, we know that the Lord judges by the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).  He sees our inherent beauty, the beauty He painted in our DNA, the loveliness that courses through our veins; all if it every bit as powerful as the wonders of nature.  He gave us graciousness and love as gentle as the first quiet snowfall.  He gave us the wisdom of the ages so that we could mother our precious children.  He gave us the fierce devotion of a warrior; the knowledge of the scholars to construct awe-inspiring words that make people feel our love; the hearts of rivers, steady and true and strong; the swift feet of a seasoned hunter, that we may do many things at once; and a many-colored soul that can touch and reach the spirits of others, each in a unique and deep way.  This captivating beauty is already yours ... God gave it to you when you were being formed in your mother's womb.  He wrote it before you were born, and no matter how you try to un-say it, it doesn't change the truth.  You are God's creation, and therefore, you are beautiful and lovely and worthwhile and enchanting - before the mascara, before the clothes, before the "perfect body," before a man tells you so, and even before you believe it for yourself.  All the trying in the world can't make it more true...but is it possible the striving could make it less true?  Perhaps by striving for beauty, we aren't giving God and others our most treasured beauty.

Please note that I am not saying we can't put on our make-up, dress nicely, do our hair, or other things.  I like doing these things as much as the next girl!  However, I am saying that these are NOT the things on which we should base our beauty.  

1 Peter 3:3-4 says, "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes.  Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight."

When I don't see that God already made me beautiful, and I set my eyes on outward appearances to attain beauty, I am less confident in how I relate to others.  It doesn't matter if I'm at the grocery store, or having lunch with my husband; if I doubt my worth or loveliness, my countenance is different, and I sacrifice a positive interaction.  When I used to feel the relentless "need" to be skinny, I couldn't form healthy relationships.  My constant hiding in shame was my priority, and all relationships were clouded by my unhealthy image of myself.

The true issues of this are so much wider and deeper than I could ever explain in paragraphs or pages.  I know the hell some of you are experiencing when you try with all your might to believe some of the things I've just said.  I know full well the attacks of heart, mind, and spirit that just seem to never go away.  I know how your eyes flood with tears at the smallest things, the littlest attack on self.  I also know that you realize the effect this has on your relationships with people.  Sometimes it might seem impossible to ever feel "normal."

I pray that each of you would remember the grand dream you wanted to be a part of, the vision that God put on your heart.  I pray that you wouldn't give up or believe that you aren't capable of being a warrior.  Be a warrior in your relationships; fight off any temptation to believe you aren't good enough, aren't worthy enough, aren't lovely enough to be treasured by all the people in your life.  Believe that you are here with a divine purpose, that God made you beautiful already, and that He has a plan to use that beauty to make the world better.  

Hang out with your friends, and believe the good things they say about you.  Talk to your family, and accept their love.  Be held by your beloved, and don't worry that you have some imperfection he might notice.  You have nothing to worry about because you are part of God's grand plan for the universe.  Are you lovely?  Yes.  Are you worthwhile?  Yes.  Are you dazzling?  Yes!  Yes to everything wonderful about you, sweet woman.  You have captivated the Lord already -- He looks at you and says, She is beauty, as I made her.  I love her and will never stop loving her.