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The Gift of Encouragement
Restoring Heart to Those Who Have Lost It
By Marjorie J. Thompson
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Courage of Authentic Self-Love
One of the deepest forms of discouragement human beings can experience revolves around a personal sense of self. When people don't feel good about who they are, those feelings negatively influence virtually every relationship—with work, others, and God.
There are many people who have not actually received much by way of love or affirmation in their lives. They often feel small, unimportant, "not good enough" in the eyes of the world. Perhaps they struggled to achieve in school. Perhaps they received more criticism than praise for their best efforts. Their parents may have been emotionally immature—preoccupied and distant, or demanding and punitive. Many people of solid character and virtue have experienced being ignored or overlooked for those who seem more gifted or charismatic. Those in positions of authority often underappreciate modest but steady gifts and skills.
During thirty years in ministry, I have learned that even people who seem highly successful and self-confident can suffer a basic lack of self-esteem, most often rooted in their early history with family and school. True self-esteem is not egocentrism but a capacity for healthy self-respect and realistic self-confidence. It could be called authentic love of self. In the Great Commandment, alongside wholehearted love of God, Jesus says, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself" (Matt. 22:39). One writer has wryly noted, "If you do a bad job of loving yourself, your neighbor is not going to benefit much from that formula." For in addition to those who have not in fact received much love, countless people have difficulty allowing themselves to receive love—either from God or others—and consequently have trouble loving themselves.
Those who lack healthy self-esteem are not well equipped to esteem others in healthy ways either. They are likely to idealize the gifts and capacities of others while denigrating their own, or to judge others harshly as a way to deflect and disguise how they despise themselves. These are mostly unconscious behaviors. When you observe persons habitually criticizing others, face-to-face or behind their backs, you can becertain they do not feel good about themselves. Likewise, when people praise others and demean themselves, you can see their impoverished sense of self.
Deep-seated lack of self-esteem is related to a pervasive sense of shame. Shame differs significantly from guilt. Guilt is related to what we do or fail to do, whereas shame is related to our sense of who we are. When shame grips us, it is not so much our actions that condemn us, but somehow our very being. Children who are perceived by other children as different in any way are often ostracized, excluded, or bullied in school. Perhaps they are considered unattractive; have physical or learning impairments; represent a culture, faith, or sexual orientation differing from the majority; or are simply introverted and shy. These children are at risk for developing a sense of shame about who they are by virtue of traits they have little or no control over.
I have observed parents repeatedly tell their children that they are bad boys or girls. These parents do not think to distinguish between person and behavior. The message their children hear is not that what they have done is bad, but that they themselves are bad. Such children are likely to suffer pervasive, unconscious shame. Children with healthy self-esteem can sometimes articulate the difference between doing and being. A woman once told me of an incident when her husband had yelled at their five-year-old son, calling him "stupid" for something he had done. The little boy, looking shocked and puzzled, replied to his father, "Daddy, I know what I did was dumb, but I am not stupid!" Happily, in this case, his father saw the validity of his son's words and apologized to him. Children without healthy self-esteem, who have not learned this distinction in their own experience, lack the confidence to speak to an adult in this way.
Dear friends of ours adopted from a war-torn country a child who had been emotionally abandoned through the first year of her life. Her overwhelmed caretakers at the crowded orphanage had stuck a bottle in her mouth and had changed her diapers, but there had been no time for cuddling or comfort. Despite an outpouring of love and care from her adoptive parents, this child's impoverished sense of self resulted in years of aggressive behavior, social isolation, and the cultivation of a material-centered life to compensate for the emptiness she felt within. Children who are abandoned or abused, physically or emotionally, have a hard time embracing a positive sense of identity. Their feelings of shame translate into thoughts such as, "I don't count"; "I'm not worth caring about"; "I'll never amount to anything." When children lose heart at an early age, they are likely to suffer lingering consequences throughout their adult life.
Early childhood experiences are not the only way we lose heart. Some people suffer a string of losses and calamities in their adult lives that leave them reeling. It is hard to comprehend why certain persons suffer many more afflictions than others, as if they literally attract negative circumstances into their lives. It may be possible to trace their woes to unconscious self-negation, but that effort lies beyond our task. We only need to be aware that a person who has suffered repeated blows in adult life—physically, financially, or emotionally—will often sink into deep shame and depression.
People with a weak sense of self are among the most challenging for those of us in healing and helping professions. Even with years of therapy, it can be difficult to make up for the emotional losses of early childhood, and we cannot undo patterns of adult tragedy and pain.
Of course, we do not need to suffer from deep-seated shame or self-hatred to feel the weight of discouragement in our lives. The ordinary ups and downs of life provide many ways to lose heart! Even the most self-confident among us knows the sting of failure at times. At various periods of my ministry, I recall situations like these:
Watching her marriage fall apart, a perfectly capable, gifted woman sinks into feelings of guilt and despair, wondering if she is fit to live a married life at all.
A child with wonderful imagination and mild dyslexia is held back in school for a year to gain reading skills, and feels deeply embarrassed; he sees all his friends go on to the next grade, and thinks he must be a dumb loser.
A brilliant young professor makes a needlessly insensitive remark to a student and comes to see that his emotional and social skills have not caught up with his intellectual powers.
A woman completely at ease and competent in her own cultural setting suffers a collapse of confidence as she tries to make her way in an unfamiliar culture.
Discouragement like this is generally circumstantial rather than deep-seated. Each of us has limitations and inadequacies that can result in a poor self-image under certain circumstances.
As spiritual caregivers, the first thing to understand is that we are not here to fix or solve one another's problems. We do not need to find solutions, achieve healing, or fill another person's emotional needs. Indeed, we cannot do these things, much as we might like to. The compassionate heart in us wants to rescue others from their pain. Yet the sooner we let go of the illusion that we can fix people's brokenness or heal their pain, the more helpful we are likely to be to them. We are not here to save others, but to point to a deeper source of healing and grace.
Practical Helps for Encouraging Healthy Self-Love
What can we offer to people whose sense of self has been wounded and diminished? What perspectives and practices of faith can help strengthen, reframe, or open possibilities of healing to someone whose capacity for authentic self-love has been shaken, frayed, or damaged?
1. We can be present with our full attention and listen with active care. This is one of the best ways to encourage others in their confused and disheartened state. To be fully present, without a sense of hurry, is in itself a witness to the value of the person you are with. It says, "You count; you are worth my time and care." This unspoken message serves as a counterweight to the internal messages of self-denigration playing in the head of someone struggling with self-worth. When we listen deeply and attentively to anyone, we are saying in effect, "What you think and feel and experience are important to me." Being taken seriously and listened to are among the most healing realities we can offer individuals searching for a sense of their own value or seeking to reorient their lives following disorientation.
When we truly listen to a person, we discover that beyond spoken words we can "hear" emotions, gestures, physical postures, and facial expressions. We learn to "read" a more complete communication of feelings, to perceive the impact of a person's experience as well as the facts of a person's life. Beginning to understand a fellow human being this way is a genuine expression of Christian love—indeed one of its most important expressions. Listening well requires of us a certain maturity of spirit, a willingness to step out of ourselves and enter the reality and suffering of another's world. It asks of us a suspension of judgment, a welcoming patience that invites the speaker to discover what is within and find words to articulate his or her inner truth. Quaker teacher and author Douglas Steere highly valued this ministry of deep listening: "To 'listen' another's soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another."
Such listening becomes "holy listening" as we recognize God, present within and between us, in our speaking and listening. By grace, there are moments when the human listener drops away and the speaker encounters the Great Listener, who loves us without conditions and before whom our rationalizations are exposed, our motives purified, our prayers reordered. Then we begin to see both our true condition and our next step of the journey more clearly. Such is the gift we can offer one another through deep listening.
2. We can offer messages of hope from our faith. Perhaps the best place to begin is with the assurance of God's tremendous love. If you don't already do so, you might wish to start jotting down Bible passages that speak of divine love to human hearts, perhaps as you come upon them in your own devotional time. All of us need reassurance of a love far beyond our own capacity. Indeed, since human love can be both fragile and fickle, the idea of God's unconditional love can be hard to trust, especially when life circumstances seem to contradict it.
Here is where the promises of our faith become a beacon of hope, a bulwark against our natural doubts and fears. At times of turbulence and uncertainty in our lives, we frequently cling to the Scripture stories, teachings, and promises that most assure us. The following represent a few of the passages I return to often when seeking or sharing the certainty of divine love:
The Lord is compassionate
very patient, and full of faithful love.
The Lord's faithful love is from
forever ago to forever from now
for those who honor him. (Ps. 103:8, 17)
When Israel was a child, I loved him, ...
I took them up in my arms,
but they did not know
that I healed them.
I led them
with bands of human kindness,
with cords of love.
I treated them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks;
I bent down to them and fed them. (Hos. 11:1-4)
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won't perish but will have eternal life. (John 3:16)
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.... No one has greater love than to give up one's life for one's friends. (John 10:11; 15:13)
Who will separate us from Christ's love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, ... or danger, or sword? ... I'm convinced that nothing can separate us from God's love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. (Rom. 8:35, 38-39)
Those who dwell in self-denigration will often affirm God's love as a general principle but struggle to believe that it applies to them personally. If this seems to be the case for any persons you are visiting, you may assure them of this: the witness of Jesus shows that God does indeed love them personally, regardless of who they are or what they have done or not done. In Christ, God reveals a profound understanding of human weakness and limitation, showing a far greater willingness to forgive than we often have readiness to receive. Indeed, the only thing that can separate us from God's love in Christ is our own unwillingness to receive the gift! Sometimes in imagined unworthiness a person thinks, God wouldn't forgive someone as sinful or as stubborn as me, or How could God possibly love someone as foolish as I have been? But this seeming humility is really an odd form of arrogance. To make oneself a permanent exception to God's grace is disguised pride. Such self-deception is perhaps best pointed out with humor and a gentle smile: "My! You mean you're such a hopeless case, even God can't love you?"
3. We can remind believers of the wonderful gift of their baptism. In this sacrament, we are spiritually united with Christ, joined with the mystical body of Christ. Thus we are promised that God sees us, in Christ, as the Beloved. The essence of the words God speaks to Jesus at his baptism—"You are my Son, the Beloved"—is also what the Spirit speaks to us through the faith community at our baptism: "You are my beloved child!" This promise is especially clear in the First Letter of John: "See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God's children, and that is what we are!" (1 John 3:1). The assurance of our belovedness in baptism can be a deeply healing grace. The great reformer Martin Luther, when "beset with devils" and losing heart in his personal struggles, would touch his forehead and repeat aloud, "I am baptized; I am baptized!"
If those you are visiting have been baptized, you may find an appropriate moment to remind them of the meaning of their baptism and the assurance baptism gives us of being deeply loved by God. It can be helpful, if possible, to offer a simple ritual of baptismal remembrance. Ask those you are caring for if they would be willing to receive a physical reminder through water and touch. If so, get a cup of water, dip your fingers in, and touch the person's forehead with a few simple words, such as: "(Name), remember your baptism. Like Jesus, and with Jesus, you too are God's beloved!" You do not need to be ordained to offer the simple service of such a ritual. This is not the sacrament itself, but a sacramental act of remembrance.
4. We can suggest a few spiritual practices that might be helpful to someone trying to discover or recover healthy self-esteem. Only by God's grace does real healing of self-worth take place, yet certain practices can help set the stage for grace to operate more freely. Your suggestions may help a person find an interior opening of mind and heart to the deeper healing of the Spirit.
People who struggle to acknowledge their worth harbor an anxious sense of self. A helpful practice for those who fear they are not good enough to "deserve" God's love is the practice of simple faith affirmations. These are usually drawn directly from Scripture or from worship liturgies grounded in Scripture. They can be paraphrased or personalized so that the words apply directly to the one who speaks them. Here are a few examples based on the Scripture texts shared and the reminder of our baptismal identity:
The Lord is compassionate, and full of faithful love for me.
Nothing can separate me from God's love in Jesus Christ!
Jesus, my good shepherd, loves me as a friend.
I am baptized and beloved in Christ.
You can suggest such examples, but it may be more useful to help persons find their own affirmation. Ask, "What would you most like to believe and trust more deeply right now?" Work with them to clarify and simplify the statement they respond most strongly to and seem ready to claim for themselves. Explain that such affirmations may be spoken aloud or silently within one's heart. Generally one repeats the phrase inwardly for a few minutes, gently and slowly so as to savor the words and absorb their meaning. This is done several times a day, especially when anxious. It is a practice that helps calm distracting thoughts and feelings by focusing one's attention on God's loving presence. You might suggest that people write down their affirmation on a sticky note or small card, placing it where it will regularly catch their attention—perhaps on a laptop rim, bathroom mirror, or bedside table. Some people create a banner for their computer screen from such an affirmation, where it greets them before they begin desk work.
Excerpted from The Gift of Encouragement by Marjorie J. Thompson. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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