“We discover the art of packaging our self. What begins a role we play becomes an identity. Our masks have become our reality; and we have become our lives.”
– psychologist David Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery
As we explore the issue of identity this ministry year, I am taken back to my own struggle with identity. The instability I felt was due to a number of factors: lack of affirmation throughout my childhood, a constant barrage of verbal insults and humiliation, and the demands of a perfectionist stepfather.
I believe that identity is bestowed. This is where we discover who we are in relation to God and to others.
A great example of this is when Jesus, upon rising up from the waters of baptism, is bestowed his identity as a beloved son through His Father’s affirming words.
I longed to hear those words from my stepfather. I wanted to know that I mattered. Yet any time I did something for my stepfather’s attention and approval, it never seemed good enough.
Copyright: axelbueckert / 123RF Stock Photo
This formed an identity within me that I was not good enough. The identity I received from the then-most important person in my life impacted me for years.
Deep within, I desired to be loved and to love others well. But my core anxiety of being seen as inadequate made me determined to keep others from seeing that. I created a false self that would do anything for attention and approval. I became a “good boy,” perfect in every way.
This was how I made myself feel adequate. But this form of defense didn’t satisfy my desire to be loved. It kept everyone at a distance to prevent them from knowing what was really going on within me. My false self, that broken, needy part of me, became my master. It defined me and drove me, protecting me from the fear within me and separating me from the true source of hope.
This was my response to the trauma my stepfather inflicted upon me. It was my way of trying to slow down the abuse. I saw myself as weak and inadequate. I felt powerless to protect myself, so I lied and deceived out of my wounds This was my way of trying to control how my stepfather and others viewed me.
Once we find something that brings us approval, we have to keep doing it or risk losing the affirmation it provides. The burden of the false self is that it must be constantly maintained.
Unfortunately, no one really knew the real me. No one knew of the pain and loneliness I struggled with.
So, in my early twenties, I turned to pornography, only to find that my attempts to cover my pain were also unsuccessful. They brought me more separation from others, leading to more loneliness and fear. I learned that trying to use an addiction to fix my life doesn’t work.
Since I chose to continue to control my own narrative, God seemed silent and distant for many years. My friendships felt hollow, distant, and unsatisfying.
Instead of finding the happy and comfortable life I thought control would afford me, I felt like I was on the outside looking in.
Maintaining this false self prompted deep anxiety that physically and emotionally exhausted me. But I had to continue to control the narrative through my good works. I didn’t want my inadequacies to be revealed, so I had to work harder than everyone else.
At the age of thirty-five, my life became unmanageable and I found myself not wanting to get out of bed. I was depressed. In addition, my denial was slowly cracking. When I entered therapy, I began to get some insight into my struggle with shame. Trying to control your image can impact more than your personal relationships; it can also impact your emotional health.
My need to control was my attempt to quiet the shaming voices from my childhood. Those voices kept me frightened and embarrassed, and prevented me from risking any action or real intimacy with others. They convinced me I was inadequate and kept me in a state of low self-esteem—even though, on the outside, I looked like a successful “good boy.”
That same year, a powerful message I heard on the choosing of life or death from Deuteronomy 30 convicted me. The Holy Spirit prompted me to confess the sin of my false self to a prayer minister. Even with the Spirit’s encouragement, it wasn’t easy as I wrestled, stumbled, and fumbled my way to the cross to confess and repent of my false self and need to control.
In my journey with Christ, loss or death always precedes renewal. For years I had suffered from a case of mistaken identity. I eventually learned that we find inner healing only when we look outside ourselves. We must face our true and damaged selves, yes, but only with the cross plainly in view.
Only God has the power to tell us who we are as his sons and daughters. We cannot successfully rename and restore our selves.
This realization has opened up an ongoing loving dialogue with God, in which he consistently reminds me that I am his beloved son. Through listening and reflection on the healing words God speaks, my need to control how others see me has greatly diminished.
David Alvarez was the pastor of healing and prayer at The River Church Community for fifteen years. During his tenure, he created an 11-week program called The Healing Path, which focused on healing past relational and emotional wounds that impact the way we relate in the present. Recently he launched the regional The Healing Path Ministries, training and equipping churches to run The Healing Path program.
David has spoken nationally and internationally on healing the father wound, overcoming shame, and accepting ourselves. Check out David’s blog for further insights into his life story and thoughts.