What we believe about ourselves affects every aspect of our life and especially our relationships. It affects how we communicate with the rest of the world and also how we hear what’s being said to us. Sometimes, these beliefs become so deeply buried within us, we forget they are even there.
In some ways, the worst part about the sexual abuse I experienced were things that occurred before my abuser took advantage of me. It was the times in which people who were important to me made me feel worthless. These actions planted the seeds which allowed me to let my abuser use me at his disposal.
Some of things these actions told me were:
“My love for you is contingent on what you give me.”
“I’m not staying in your life or paying attention to you if you don’t entertain me.”
“You are a burden.”
“If someone is upset or sad, assume it is your fault.”
While it was rarely the intention of anyone in my early life to communicate these things to me, this is what occurred.
Why did I have these feelings and beliefs? Was it the result of a flawed outlook inside of myself or was it truly the behavior of everyone around me? The more I’ve reflected on what set the stage for my rocky teen years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is, both. While I now understand it was very rarely the intention of those I held dear to hurt me, the actions of, and more often inaction, of key figures of my early life (several affiliated with the Church) communicated that I was unworthy of their love. And even though I was blessed with many who loved me very well (both in my family and the Church), I heard the love I didn’t receive over the love that I did. I suppose this is human nature (or perhaps a consequence of original sin).
A few weeks ago I was asked to present a talk on the value of Catholic health care for the apostolate I work for. In preparation for this talk I sat staring at a picture of Jesus hung in my dining room. I felt him telling me “Remember who you are.” (Of course I was immediately taken back to my favorite movie as a child, The Lion King, but that’s besides the point.) In the few weeks since I’ve gave this talk, this phrase has come up more times then I can count. #IhearyouJesus.
So what does this phrase have to do with my experience of sexual abuse and the people and events that formed my sense of self-worth?
My journey of healing, in large part, has been defined by coming to understand and believe my truest identity. Healing has come from not only knowing that I am loved, but believing that I am delighted in by the Creator of the Universe. And this is enough to dispel the lies that I once believed about myself. All of the lies I once believed were rooted in a warped sense of identity.
Most people come to initially understand their identity through their parents or other strong influences in their lives. What these people say we are is very powerful and in some ways form our perception of how God views us. However, because we are all imperfect beings, parents included, flawed perceptions of identity exist. While I believe it is rarely the intention of a parent to neglect or communicate to their child that they are unworthy of love, unfortunately, it does happen. And it can be difficult to remember that one’s own flawed understanding of inherent dignity and self-worth is not always in accordance with the reality that God has set forth (a reality in which you are infinitely valued by an infinite God!).
The flawed perception that I carried of my own identity allowed others to treat me in accordance with this perception. I didn’t see myself as having value, so I allowed others to treat me like I lacked it. And those who hurt me were also acting in accordance with how they perceived themselves (I would venture to say that their perceptions were also very flawed).
Because I did not believe that I was treasured by significant figures in my early life, I did not realize I was treasured by Our Lord. Because of my flawed understanding of love, I ultimately saw our Lord (who is Love incarnate) as a judgmental law giver who I could never please. Someone who did not want a relationship with me but rather someone who I simply obeyed orders from. Someone who did not will my good, but only loved me for what I could do for Him.
Thus, I was predisposed to be pursued by those who used me for their own gratification. I viewed myself more like an object than a person, and thus I allowed others to treat me as such. I more easily entered into relationships with people who treated me this way, as it was easier to accept their perception of me than of someone who viewed me as a infinitely valued daughter of God. It was easier because I already believed what their treatment of me indicated. Living as if I did have value required an immense amount of trust that I just wasn’t ready for.
The reality that I was loved and valuable in the eyes of God challenged the perceptions I carried of my own identity, shaking me to my very core. I wasn’t ready to truly believe that I was worthy of being treasured and protected as a beloved daughter of God. This reality also required that I sit and wait patiently for authentic love while the objectified view allowed me to feel a sense of instant gratification that I was desired. However, once this gratification wore off, the reality that I was being used set in. And the sexual acts that I was subjected to ultimately communicated to me a lie that I was not worthy of complete commitment.
All sin is rooted in flawed perception of identity and my greatest failing in my story of abuse is neglecting to have faith in my truest identity (which I understood logically, but not in my heart). Faith in my identity would have required me to act in accordance with all I had heard about how the Lord views us as beloved, even though I couldn’t quite feel it. Thankfully, the Lord never gave up on me. I now know He wanted me to feel His love, but needed me to choose Him first for authentic relationship between us to exist.
Understanding your identity first starts with an accurate understanding of who God is (and He is indeed a loving Father who delights in you!). And while we will never understand Him completely, if we give Him an honest look, we know that He’s only ever communicated His immense love and longing for us. And our relationship with Him defines our identity above all else.
Who do you believe Christ is? Who do you believe that you are?