Breaking the chains of Insecurity
“Everyone else seems to have it together” “Why did God make me this way?”, “If people knew the real me they wouldn’t like me.” These are just a few of the things that people have expressed to me in counselling sessions. Not good enough, different, don’t fit in, not normal. Such feelings are sometimes referred to by psychologists as ‘imposter syndrome.’ Studies say that around two-thirds of people have such thoughts (I sense that it is even higher than that). This sense of not being happy with self affects people from all backgrounds, not only the unknowns but also the rich and famous.
From Zero to Hero and Back
I was born in 1947 in the north of England to a strong Christian family. From as early as I can remember, I felt ‘different.’ Taught that Christians were ‘set apart’ from the world and having bright red hair – I was different. Naturally introverted I was an easy target at school for bullying. In this environment of fear and anxiety, I focussed on surviving. Mum, who felt sorry for me, would say, “Never mind John. You’re not very bright, but you’re a good lad.” Confirmed – different and not smart. I left school seven days before my 15th birthday, now convinced I was different and dumb. I got an apprenticeship as a bricklayer and did a City and Guilds qualification. For the final year, I didn’t merely get a pass I got the higher grade of ‘merit’. I read the certificate and said, “They’ve made a mistake.”
The consequence of this core belief has had a significant impact on my life. I would avoid people because I thought I wouldn’t know what to say and I’d look stupid. I was convinced no girl would like me and would often apologise for being me.
From the outside, my life looked ‘normal.’ I went to a Bible college when I was 20 and got married at 26. Started my own building construction business and at age 39 went into full-time ministry for a fast-growing church in London. First developing a youth ministry, then an outreach program to the homeless and becoming an elder in 1995.
Personal achievement and others’ praise and approval fed my fragile self but did not silence the internal saboteur that still said load and clear, ‘There is something wrong, you are not enough, less than’ so keep hiding”.
In 2003, at the age of 55 the church I had been an elder of for eight years imploded. I not only lost my job and many friends but much of my validation and approval. Almost all my external props that I had looked to for my worth and security were taken away. From Hero to Zero! For several months I was devastated and depressed, but amazingly, when the external props were stripped away and I was left with myself, it was then I began to deal with the real issues.
Letting the inside out.
The self-help industry and some psychologists present external plans to overcome the imposter syndrome. ‘Achieve something,’ ‘Fake it to make it”. Working hard, getting recognition, achieving qualifications may be helpful, but the internal saboteur will override them all. The real answer is not external but internal.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” No one can make us feel anything unless there is something within us that accepts it. Facing our inner self takes courage, honesty, and openness. We must let the inside out. Often shame and fear keep the door to our authentic self firmly closed. Secrets keep us sick.
The breakthrough came when I did a BA in counselling. As part of the course I had to have my own counselling, I would not have done this had it not been required. This was just after the meltdown of the church I had been fully involved with for 16 years. I spoke openly for the first time and started to get in touch with myself and my feelings! I was not given advice, I was heard, accepted and a normalising took place. The lies that I was less than others, not very bright, not enough, not acceptable once exposed were overcome by reality.
Most of us have a ‘front.’ The greater the difference between what is going on inside and what we show outside, the greater the harm we do to our authentic self. This does not mean we have to be totally open with everyone, that would not be helpful or wise, but having safe people to be able to say it like it is, without fear of being judged, rejected, corrected or pitied is vital. Developing such friendships is not easy and takes courage. Not everyone that you are vulnerable with will respond in a helpful way, but it is worth the effort. If this proves difficult, getting counselling may be an option.
Compassion, not Comparison.
We learn to compare ourselves with others from a very early age. “My dad’s better than your dad” syndrome. Comparing ourselves to others is never accurate and never helpful. Someone has said, “Comparisons kill.”
The truth is everyone has strengths and weaknesses, achievements and failures, abilities, and limitations. We are all powerless in many areas and vulnerable to things outside our control. Anxiety, pain, fear, shame, discouragement, and insecurity to some degree are in the mix of everyone’s life. It is natural to want to present yourself as being ‘together,’ but no one has it all ‘together’ all the time. We have many similarities as people, but we are all individuals. We are made to complement each other rather than compare. There is room for everyone. Compassion for self and others is the key to making our brokenness more bearable. James said, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13).
Being Content with Self.
The desire and need for approval are great. A small child wants attention and approval. “Look what I can do!” As children, our self-image is mainly formed by how others treat us, but as adults, we must develop our own self. If we continue to be dependent upon approval from others, we become skilled at fishing for compliments, ‘Look at me’, ‘tell me I’m ok’ (In the Lion King Scar says, “Tell me I’m adored!!”)
Other’s approval lasts only for a moment and is never enough. Some people think I’m wonderful and say glowing things about me. Others have quite a negative view of me. They are both wrong because no other person fully knows me. Their opinion is not my reality. The journey of finding and accepting self is from self-consciousness to self-awareness (self-consciousness is thinking about what others think of you. Self-awareness is being in tune with our own thoughts and feelings).
My evaluation of self is no longer based on what others think about me, good or bad. Neither is it solely based on my thinking because that is often skewed, as my inner saboteur never fully goes away.
On top of that, we are all influenced by our environment, which is characterised by deceit and lies, from politicians to the cult of celebrity, from advertising to fake news. We need something more solid to evaluate self. We need to understand and trust how God sees us. It is this truth that can set us free (John 8:32).
Made in the Image of God
Here are a few of those truths; We are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). Even in our failure we are loved and pursued by God (Luke 15:11-25; Rom. 5:6 -8). We can trade anxiety for acceptance (Heb.5:7); We are offered strength to overcome our weakness (Isa.40:28-31).
So, if you asked me today, ‘Who do you think you are?’ I will say:
I am a unique individual, no better or worse than anyone else. I have real limitations and weaknesses. I have done and still do things that I know are wrong in a world that has gone wrong. But I am made in God’s image and He did not make a mistake. I am precious, pursued and loved by Him. I have accepted mercy and grace rather than wanting justice or revenge. I have value in who I am not just what I can do. I have meaning and a purpose. I am created for love. I am made to live in a real relationship with God and other people. I have nothing to prove and no one to impress. I am happy to be me.
Written by John Partington
John Partington lives in Surrey and serves as a Shepherd in a Church in Reading and a Christian counsellor. He is married to Rose and together they have one son and two grandchildren. John is also involved in development work in Zambia, Nepal and Jamaica.
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