Last night I had a dream that I’d taken my daughters out for a quick bite to eat. I wasn’t wearing makeup and my hair was in a mom bun. My clothing consisted of the get-up I throw on when I have to run my daughter to school in the am. If you’re imagining bleach spotted yoga pants and a freebie T shirt then you’re getting the picture. And to my surprise, in all my effortless mom glory, I ran into every single ex boyfriend I’d ever had. Like an assembly line of embarrassment, they each passed by to say hello, as I shrunk back at my corner table, feeling completely exposed.
Perhaps it’s because last night, as I sat around a table with my book club—our weekly gathering of sisters who share secrets, and sometimes talk about books—.
I told them that my dating life before marriage had been like a scavenger hunt for significance and validation. Each ex held a mirror through which I searched for who I was, rather than really seeing them for who they were. I shifted and adapted my appearance and personality for their approval. If they were happy with me, then I liked what I saw of myself in them. I liked how others saw me too, as the girl worthy of having a boyfriend.
So in my dream, as the lineup of familiar faces from my past passed by, I searched for approval, but their expressions were blank. I could no longer find what I was looking for in their faces.
The mirror game isn’t just a struggle of my past with ex-boyfriends, but an ongoing struggle as I look for validation in the approval and praise of the people in my life.
Maybe you can relate to the concept of mirrors in your own relationships. Have you looked to others to show you who you are? When others reflect back a positive image of yourself, it feels good, but the minute that person misunderstands you or doesn't offer the approval you crave, then your self-worth can be shaken along with your trust in the relationship.
When someone we love says harsh things about us, confirming our own self doubt, we need an identity that goes deeper than their perception. Even when the chorus of critics aren’t close friends, their harsh voices can ring loudly enough in our ears that they begin to sound like truth.
But there’s good news for you and I. Throughout our lives our circumstances and relationships will shift and change, but our God is unchanging. In our uncertainty and imbalance the best thing we can do is cling to the unwavering truth of who God is. On the surface it sounds overly simple, but it is a holy struggle that is messy and gets dirt beneath our nails as we dig for a grip on what is true, instead of surface realities and quick fixes.
Kay Warren tweeted, “I’ve sent my spiritual roots deep into the character of God for more than 50 years. Circumstances tried to brutally rip out the “tree” of my faith - but the roots held” (29 Jun 2018). This sounds like a beautiful metaphor, but I imagine in the depths of her darkest times it looked like shouts, tears, clenched fists, and days where she simply wanted to keep the shades drawn. But her roots held because in the face of Satan’s lies and the world’s slanted truth, God has been the truest thing she knows.
Growing roots deep is a process and a practice.
---It looks like being honest about our struggles in a journal or with a counselor rather than numbing the pain and disengaging from our difficult reality.
---It looks like mornings poured over scripture rather than browsing through the daily deals on Amazon.
---It means face time rather than scanning faces on social media.
---It looks like hard earned tears instead of an easy smile and uncomfortable laughter as we spend time with the people who really dig deep to see and understand us.
---It means, as Brene Brown puts it, “speaking truth to bull shit,” even it means our necks or reputations on the line.
---Sometimes it means keeping quiet when we know sharing the truth of a situation can steal, kill, and destroy rather than breathe life.
In her book “Unseen,” Sara Hagerty explores the beautiful, vertical relationship that forms with our Father when the image of ourselves in the eyes of other people feels distorted—when our best intentions are misunderstood. She says, “when another human being doesn’t see me clearly, I get to ask God who I am” (pg. 159).
When others don’t see me clearly, it’s hard for me to see myself clearly. My vision feels muddled by doubt, fear, and insecurity.
But God doesn’t look to the exterior things, but the state of our hearts.
Even when we mess up royally, even when we do the things we don’t want to do, and say the things we don’t want to say,
---when we’ve spilled the coffee grounds and yelled at our kids,
---when we’ve averted our eyes from the person in need,
---or shot damaging words at the person we love most, even then,
God sees through our yuck and looks at our hearts to find who we really are.
He knows the soft, childlike place in us that wants to be better, that wants to do the right things, that longs for his approval.
When your son’s face is streaked with shameful tears, and his arms reach out for your embrace, do you hesitate? Do you shake your head or think of how you can teach him a lesson?
Do you point out all the ways she’s failed? No. You hold her tight. You wipe away her tears.
You tell him you love him. You remind him who he is.
Reach out, and let God hold you. Let him remind you of who you are . He won’t echo the words of your critics, but without the need for words He’ll draw you into Himself and remind you WHOSE you are.
“The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love (…)
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.”
Psalm 103:8-9, 13
Unlike most of my dreams that fade in and out without a clear beginning or end, this dream had an ending. A really good one, actually.
The final ex-boyfriend approached the table, the one who had had the biggest hook in my heart. His smile was big and my heart felt small. But as he got closer I realized my husband sat beside me, holding my hand. My husband, Nathan, was the first person who I let find the real me, rather than changing to seek his approval. When I found Nathan, I didn’t feel hidden in another relationship, I felt known. As he sat wordlessly beside me I no longer felt shameful and exposed. I smiled and said hello to the old familiar face, and he left. He was no longer a mirror, just a person from my past.
We can’t put the weight of our significance and identity on the shoulders of another person, only God can bear that kind of load. When we remove the pressure for approval we can see others as on the journey with us. We can see our partner as a help mate to guide and travel with us as we become who God intends us to be. As we look to God to slake our thirst for love and acceptance, we can offer that love and acceptance to others, and extend grace to those that don’t see us through mercy’s loving lens.