I do not think I became aware of the debilitating effects of this until I dropped my girls off as babies to either the health club or church. “Please don’t be the one who cries all the time, I want them to like you (i.e. me)!” I’m sure it started much earlier. There’s no way I would have made it through middle school unscathed by this. I must have been so immersed, there was no “outside looking in” available. Soon, however, these expectations grew to any public gathering. Best behavior was a requirement: lots of smiles or sleep, no meltdowns, separate from me well, don’t spit-up, take a bottle from others, and no blow-outs, please. . .
Enter the pre-school years and they needed to share well, be kind and clean, match their clothes, know the alphabet, their colors and numbers, and make sure they represented me, their mother, appropriately. If there was a grocery store melt-down, we were outta there before anyone saw (which, I realize is a good parenting move, but the motive was purely selfish). Seriously, I cannot even believe I am saying this, but it’s true.
Eventually, as one of them needed extra academic help, one sat the bench on the soccer field, and one got caught cheating, I was necessarily schooled in image-management. I realized that as I eased up on this whole idea that my children reflected who I was as a person, that load on my shoulders became drastically lighter. This is a continual process, however, as I am learning how to walk more freely by letting them be them; and me be me. Oh yes, and let God be God.
Eventually, I found myself on the reverse side of this mirror:
- “Drop me at the corner, please. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
- “Txt when here–Do NOT come to the door!”
- “Are you wearing that out of the house?“
- “Umm, please do not attend parent’s night this year?”
- “Can you not be home when my friend comes over? Or maybe just stay in your room?”
- “I wish you were fat, got drunk, and swore like all the other moms!”
Thankfully, the mirror I’m learning to drop goes both ways. The more I get the knack of not seeing others as a reflection of me, I also realize how not to hold the burden of being a reflection for them. So I am not really offended when I hear comments like this. That last one, however, was a doozy. Maybe she was trying to manage my image to be more like Suzie’s fun mom, so she would be seen as fun (“all” is often code for one), but she also may have been screaming at me to drop my guard because it was stifling her: STOP TRYING TO LOOK SO PERFECT SO I DON’T HAVE TO TRY SO HARD TO BE PERFECT, EITHER! Brene Brown termed her book “The Gifts of Imperfection” because our imperfections really are a present we give to someone. They are a gift for someone to be themselves.
In her book, “Free of Me”, Sharon Hodde Miller validates all of the ways we attempt to manage our image: the spouse we manipulate to reflect how we want others to see us; the car we drive; the job we seek or don’t seek; the hobby we like to boast about; the body parts we hide, and the ones we display; the kids grades, sports, and successes we talk about, and the ones we don’t; the house we live in; the clothes we wear. (To name a few.)
Wisely, Miller also gives us a way out of this prison of perfectionism and she uses Paul to show us: “He lived as a man with nothing to lose, and that’s a lightness only Jesus can give.” When we no longer have a perfect image we are striving to maintain, we no longer have one to lose, and that is freedom. Those who are learning this, know what a gift it can be.
Paul emphasized the message God has been trying to drill into His people since the beginning. I don’t use strong people! If I did, I would not get the glory. I like using Ragamuffins (as Brennan Manning likes to call us). Moses had a speech impediment, my disciples were not famous, I used a little boy with five loaves and two fish, a woman with five husbands, and Jesus came as a baby who fasted in preparation for his trials! When are you going to understand my upside-down Kingdom? I use emptiness because it gives Me room to fill them–then people see Me, not you. That’s the point!
In one of his recent podcasts, Kris Vallatton discussed the importance of vulnerability in getting over shame (when we allow our imperfections to determine our worth). He even went so far as to promote “Weakness-Finders” (which do not exist, but should), rather than “Strengths-Finders” because that is where God is inevitably going to use us. When we manage our image so others only see what we want them to, we are actually limiting God’s use of us. We are barricading ourselves.
What I thought would be enticing was actually keeping me from genuine relationships. I heard on more than one occasion that people wanted to be my friend from afar, but figured I was all set. I have since learned that the more I boast in my weaknesses (2 Cor. 12:5), the more bridges are built. As I quit the triathlon circuit, stopped the perfect-child charade and the perfect-body obsession, and started to show my inadequacies, suddenly I was given the gift of connection. The barriers created by image-management were dropping. These connections also allowed me to leave unhealthy isolating behaviors.
“Worship rescues us from every other focus in our life that whithers our souls”.Sharon Hodde Miller
Worship is what gives us the courage to reveal our frailties. It is a bridge to the God who holds us and reminds us our security lies not in ourselves but in Him. It breaks the walls on the prison of image-management, creating a bridge for others to us by re-focusing our eyes where they were meant to be. As we worship, our weaknesses are revealed, and we can embrace them because God does. We no longer are a fearful castle surrounded by a moat with no access points because worship reveals to us how big God is and how small we really are and we begin to see there is nothing necessary to protect anyway.
Unsplash photos by Alex Makarov, Tim Gout, & Sebastian Pena Lambarri