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The Emotionally Healthy Woman
By Peter Scazzero, Geri Scazzero
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2010 Peter Scazzero and Geri Scazzero
All rights reserved.
Quit Being Afraid of What Others Think
"I quit!" I told my husband. "I'm leaving our church. This church no longer brings me life. It brings me death. I am going to another church."
I had been imagining this very moment for months. Since my husband was the senior pastor of our church, this was no small decision. For years, I made feeble attempts to get him to pay attention, to see my tiredness and frustrations. Finally, I was finished.
"You can't do that!" Pete replied, visibly upset. "That's ridiculous."
I remained silent, determined not to cave in to his anger.
"What about the kids? Where are they going to go? It's impractical! Listen, just one more year and things will smooth out."
I could see his anxiety rising as he came up with more and more reasons why my quitting was a bad idea.
"What about God? Didn't he call both of us to this? Look at all the good things he is doing. People's lives are being changed!"
Who could argue with that? Pete had been pulling out the God card since the beginning of our marriage.
For years, I'd felt brushed off and ignored by Pete, and I didn't care anymore. I had finally hit bottom. With Pete pouring so much of his life into the church, I felt like a single parent raising our four young girls alone.
Only a few months earlier, I had told Pete, "You know, if we separated, my life would be easier because then you would at least have to take the kids on the weekends and I would get a break." I meant it, but it was still only a fantasy, an empty threat. My need to be what other people wanted and expected me to be was far too great to actually allow me to stand up for myself.
While I had been a committed Christian for many years, my primary identity was defined not by God's love for me but by what others thought of me. This negatively impacted every area of my life—marriage, parenting, friendships, leadership, even my hopes and dreams.
But now I had lost the fear of what others might think or say. There was no longer anything else left to lose. I had given so much of myself away that I no longer recognized myself. Gone was the creative, outgoing, fun, assertive Geri. Now I was sullen, depressed, tired, and angry.
Our church was growing and exciting things were happening in people's lives, but it came at a too-high cost—a cost I no longer wanted to pay. There was something desperately wrong with winning the whole world for Christ at the cost of losing my own soul.
I complained to Pete about my unhappiness and blamed him for my misery. To make matters worse, I felt ashamed and guilty about it all. After all, weren't good pastors' wives supposed to be cooperative and content? Still, I got to the point where I was so miserable that I didn't care what anybody thought of me. I no longer cared if people saw me as a "bad pastor's wife" or a "bad Christian."
I wanted out.
It has been said that a person who has nothing left to lose becomes the most powerful person on earth. I was now that person.
I started attending another church the next week.
As I look back, I am deeply sad and embarrassed it took me so long to finally take action. The fear of what others might think paralyzed me for years.
Quitting the church was only the first small step toward true freedom in Christ.
The problem, I would learn, was not ultimately the church, Pete, the congestion of New York City, or our four young children. The hard truth was that the primary problem was me. Monumental things inside of me needed to change.
Looking to Others to Tell Me "I'm Okay"
Unwittingly, Pete and I had become like emotional Siamese twins. We were joined at the hip in an unhealthy way. I wanted Pete to think and feel as I did; Pete wanted me to think and feel as he did. He thought I should feel the anguish and passion he did for planting a church in New York City. I thought he should feel my distress at the difficulties in our lives—long hours, little money, no breaks, difficult people.
We were also joined at the hip in feeling responsible for each other's sadness, anger, and anxiety. As a result, we lived in reaction to one another—minimizing, blaming, denying, and defending ourselves against each other's emotions. Radical surgery was required to separate our emotional worlds. We weren't separate enough as individuals to enjoy genuine connection and togetherness. I feared the negative consequences if I changed our emotional dance. While Pete was not an ogre by any means, I still feared his disapproval because it went right to the core of my identity: if Pete was mad at me, then I felt I must be bad. The very thought of Pete, or anyone for that matter, thinking poorly of me felt worse than death.
But one thing was clear: I was already dying. I couldn't breathe.
For the first nine years of our marriage, I conformed and accommodated myself to Pete's desires. I quickly dismissed my desire to go back to school because it clashed with Pete's already overloaded schedule. I avoided "hot button" topics I suspected might arouse tension in our marriage. I was unable to tolerate the discomfort and pain of Pete's pouting or, worse yet, his anger toward me. What was I to do? Wouldn't he be miserable if I started to be my own person?
Yet, I soon realized this issue went much deeper and wider than my relationship with Pete. Unhealthy patterns of self-sacrifice and accommodation overflowed into every area of my life—in friendships, church, parenting, and my family of origin.
Like most people, I enjoy it when people tell me, either verbally or nonverbally, that I am okay. This is a good thing. I enjoy being supported and accepted by Pete and others. The problem comes when validation from others becomes something one must have. Sadly, I needed it; I had to have it in order to feel good about myself. In other words, I was okay with myself as long as I felt others were okay with me.
Relying on the approval of others for our sense of self-worth is a direct contradiction of biblical truth. Our "okayness" —that is, our lovability, our sense of being good enough—ultimately must come not from others but from two foundational realities:
We are made in God's image. Being made in God's image means we have inherent worth. We are sacred treasures, infinitely valuable as human beings apart from anything we do.
We have a new identity in Christ. When we begin a relationship with Christ, we find our new identity in him. We now rely on Jesus' sinless record for our relationship with God. We are lovable, "okay," and good enough because of Christ. There is nothing left to prove.
For years, I memorized key verses, did Bible studies on Galatians and Romans, and meditated on the righteousness of Christ as the foundation of who I am. Nonetheless, large portions of my identity remained untouched by the truth of Christ's love for me. My daily reality was that my lovability came not from Christ but from how others perceived me. I needed people to think I was a great Christian and a good person. As a result, I often found myself saying yes when I wanted to say no even when I was miserable.
I relate to the apostle Peter in his struggle to become free from what others think. After Jesus' arrest, the twelve disciples desert him and flee. Peter, however, follows him into an outside courtyard during Jesus' trial and is recognized by various people as his friend. Yet he denies knowing him three times. His fear of disapproval overrides what he knows and believes intellectually to be true. Peter previously confessed Jesus as the Messiah, yet this conviction is not deep enough in him to stand up to people's possible rejection and disapproval (Matthew 26:31–75).
In the same way, my identity in Jesus was not as anchored as I imagined. Although my marriage and church were significant sources of pain for years, I was fearful of tampering with these systems. Like the apostle Peter, I could not stand up to rejection and disapproval. I finally acknowledged that my biggest obstacle in making healthy changes was fear of what others might think of me.
That shocking truth rocked me to the core. Like Peter, I was living an illusion. I believed in Jesus as Lord and as the Christ. I enjoyed the love of God to a certain level, but it didn't penetrate deeply enough to free me from being afraid of what others thought.
Biblical Heroes Wandering Off Track
You and I are not alone in this approval addiction. Scripture is filled with examples of people who got sidetracked by looking to others to tell them they were okay.
Abraham, for example, lied out of fear for his own safety—a fear of what the Egyptian king might do if he found out Sarah was Abraham's wife (Genesis 12:10–20; 20:1–18).
Jacob lived out of fear of what other people thought. He went along with his mother's lies rather than confronting her (Genesis 27).
Reuben preferred to treat his brother Joseph kindly rather than sell him out as a slave, but the pressure of nine brothers overwhelmed him. Concerned about what they would think if he were the only defender of his younger brother Joseph, he joined with them in a dreadful crime (Genesis 37:12–36).
Aaron went along with the discontented congregation waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai after forty days. The people wanted a god they could see and touch, so Aaron finally succumbed to the pressure and built a golden calf to ease their anxiety (Exodus 32).
Timothy's tendency to be fearful and give in to those around him almost caused the church in Ephesus to be taken over by false teachers (1 Timothy 1).
In all of these situations, the consequences of looking to others rather than God for validation and approval were disastrous—for the people themselves, for their relationship with God, and for the people they loved. So it is with us.
Wandering Off Track Today
We say Christ has changed our lives. But has he really? How deeply? Consider a couple of present-day scenarios.
You go out to lunch with six other people. You are strapped financially but go because you really enjoy these people and you want to spend time with them. You order salad and water at a cost of six dollars to stay within your budget. Meanwhile, everyone else orders entrees, appetizers, drinks, and desserts. You become nervous when you realize the waitress has put the entire order on one bill. You silently pray they will not divide the bill equally.
"They would never do such an insensitive thing," you repeatedly mutter to yourself.
After a two-hour time of sharing and eating, someone enthusiastically recommends, "What if we make things easy by just dividing the bill equally? It averages to about twenty-five dollars each, including the tip."
"Yes, that's great," everyone chants in agreement.
"Twenty-five dollars each!" you angrily think to yourself. "I don't want to spend that kind of money, but what can I do?"
On the inside, you're dying, but you say nothing because you don't want to ruin the festive atmosphere or, worse yet, be seen as cheap. You pay the twenty-five dollars but feel resentful and vow that you'll never do this again. A month later, you lie when refusing a lunch invitation from the same group by telling them you have a previous commitment.
Here's another example.
Joyce is a longtime Bible study leader and a model for many in her church. Joyce tries out a new hair stylist recommended by a good friend. However, as she sits in the chair, she grows uneasy about what she is seeing in the mirror.
Inside, she is thinking, "Oh, no! I don't like this haircut at all! This is a disaster." Despite her growing alarm, she says nothing to the stylist. She continues to smile on the outside and make small talk, all the while praying the torture will end soon and that the damage will be manageable.
When the beautician finally finishes, Joyce can scarcely contain her anger. Nevertheless, she thanks the stylist profusely in front of the other customers. In fact, she feels so guilty about her anger toward the woman that she tips her double!
Sometimes our need for others to tell us we are okay is so subtle and pervasive it can be both difficult and frightening to recognize it in ourselves. Let's consider a few more scenarios.
You are hurt by a friend's comment, but you say nothing because you don't want to be thought of as touchy or irritable.
Your mechanic gives you a bill almost double what he originally quoted to repair your car, but he is busy with other customers, and you don't want to make a scene by asking for an explanation.
You are out with a group of friends who want to see a movie. Everyone except you wants to go see a particular movie, but you don't want to be seen as difficult or disagreeable, so you go along and don't say anything.
Your family wants you to attend your aunt's retirement party sixty miles away. You do not want to attend, but you go anyway rather than face your family's disapproval.
You remain in an unhealthy dating relationship with someone because you don't know how to end it.
You're afraid of the repercussions with mutual friends and wonder if people will think, "What is wrong with him? Another failed relationship? Does she want to be single forever?"
You are visiting with neighbors but don't discipline your four-year-old child's misbehavior because you fear he or she might embarrass you with another temper tantrum.
You have an employee who is underperforming and being a drag on the rest of the team. You keep hinting about the need for change, but he is not getting the message. You are the supervisor but cannot bear the thought of causing him to lose his job. Rather than fire him, you hire another person to cover for him. Your resentment grows.
Your boss uses inappropriate language around you, some of which is sexual in nature. You say nothing lest he think you are a "stuck-up prude."
You haven't changed your hairstyle for more than ten years because your spouse is so against it. Yet you resent how much time you spend to take care of it and long for a change.
You would like to speak to your spouse about your sex life but are afraid to say anything. You are not sure how he might react.
Pay attention to yourself over the next few days. Observe your interactions with others. Determine the number of times your words and actions change in order to gain the approval, or avoid the disapproval, of others. The shifts we make in our behavior are often subtle and beneath the level of our consciousness. So be alert!
Loving Yourself for God's Sake
For many Christians today, the love of God in Christ remains an intellectual belief we affirm rather than an experiential reality that transforms our thoughts and feelings about ourselves. As a result, we continue to look for love from other people in destructive ways. Bernard of Clairvaux, the great Christian leader in the twelfth century, spoke of how the love of God leads to healthy love of self. He called this the four degrees of love.
1. Loving ourselves for our own sake. We want to avoid hell and go to heaven, so we do the right things such as attend church, pray, and tithe. When the threat of hell is removed, our spiritual life quickly dissipates.
2. Loving God for his gifts and blessings. We are happy with God as long as things are going well in our lives. When trials and setbacks begin, we become disappointed and withdraw from him.
3. Loving God for himself alone. At this stage, our love for God is not based on our feelings or our circumstances. We love and trust him for the beauty and goodness of who he is, not for what we can get out of him. We see our setbacks and sufferings as gifts to strengthen our faith and love for him.
4. Loving ourselves for the sake of God. At this fourth and highest level, the width, length, height, and depth of Christ's love—a love that surpasses human knowledge—has now penetrated the depth of our being, setting us free from our need to borrow that love from others.
The gospel frees us to understand who we are in the light of God's love for us in Christ Jesus. We have value and significance but not for what we do or what others might say. We are "love worthy" because God loves us. God's perfect love drives out any fears of what others think. We discover that his love, as the psalmist writes, is better than life (Psalm 63:3).
Excerpted from The Emotionally Healthy Woman by Peter Scazzero, Geri Scazzero. Copyright © 2010 Peter Scazzero and Geri Scazzero. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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