- Written by Margaret Bernhart
When love beckons to you follow him Though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you yield to him, Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you. And when he speaks to you believe in him, Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden. For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so he is for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
From The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
Moving day had come and there was just barely enough room to squeeze the last of the boxes into the trunk of my old burgundy Catalina Pontiac. As cars go, this one was akin to maneuvering the QE2 and it was always taking on water. Its trunk leaked when it rained and my father had the novel idea of punching holes in the tire wells to allow the water to escape so as not to submerge what few earthly possessions I owned. As a last precaution I threw a thick sheet of visqueen over the top and shut the trunk. I turned to say goodbye to my parents and gazed into their tender, loving and sad faces. I had received their blessing, yet their devotion to seeing my dreams come true would come with a piercing price—the sorrowful severing of the umbilical cord that bonds parent and child together. We embraced through the tears and for a moment time was suspended. I felt like a little girl who was suddenly struck with a panicked desire to call the whole thing off, unpack the car and say, What was I thinking? As the consequences of my decision came hurtling into focus, the fact that I was the last to leave the nest, but the first of my three siblings to relocate only inculcated the thought to reverse course and stay. Adding to the pressure was the uncomfortable prospect of having to admit defeat and move back home, if this adventure went up in flames. What helped stay the course that day was an intuitive Yes that marked the dreaming, praying and planning phases and resonated through every minute detail. I hoped a larger sovereign plan was afoot. Standing there that day in the surge of emotions was a glorious and honorable rite of passage; I was being lured away from the only family I had known into the mystery of larger open waters. Time came to close the door on my life in Northern Virginia and to drive south down I-95 to make a new life in Tallahassee, Florida. I grew up on the inside that day.
Differentiation, a Key Component to a Healthy Identity
Differentiation is a lifelong process that grows our core identity. It’s how we become our own person with the ability to maintain a sense of self when buffeted with shifting circumstances, opposing opinions, when alone or in intimate relationships. During adolescence it sprouts wings. Those who never risk flight get stuck in this stage. Without a solid identity our influence and legacy in this life are diminished, like footprints on a beach that quickly vanish when the tide rolls in. The immature self is so porous that it loses its shape and substance, and must be reinforced through the validation of those who appear like a reflection of them. Difference is seen as a threat. One either flees it by avoiding curiosity and dialogue, or combats it through the formation of a strident, arrogant façade that acts as a barrier, protecting the fragile identity.
The Pull that Reveals Our Wall of Self-Protection
Self-protective walls are common during the early formation of an identity, however as these defensive responses become ingrained, a relational style develops. The more entrenched it becomes, the greater the severity of harm to our souls. Self-preservation leads to self-absorption on one hand, and an independent pursuit of life apart from God. And the control we exert over never being hurt again only fortifies a broken, arrogant, and unresponsive heart. We can discern a relational style by the palpable pull we feel in a person’s presence. For example, the opinion pollster makes decisions by tuning out their soul and substituting someone else’s thoughts for theirs. They appear high functioning until left alone. The pull is to suck you into their vacuous soul and have you rescue them. The pull of another type of opinion pollster, the politician, can feel pushy, slick, and unreadable. We experience them as deceptive. The tough know-it-all’s pull repels you through intimidation, competition and arrogance. In a different way, the complimentor camouflages through kind words a subtler agenda of, Please affirm me and don’t reject me. The pull encourages flattery while shunning honesty. The laissez-faire peacemaker sells his soul to circumvent conflict at the expense of integrity, courage and loving well. The pull is to stay shallow and superficial. The leader who avoids the turbulent challenge of leading is often experienced as helpless or a victim, the pull invites pity and the absolution of responsibility. All of us are caught in the mire of self-obsession.
Emotionally Conjoined Couples
When talking with couples caught in the vortex of constant conflict, often the real issue has less to do with communication and more to do with the demand for validation. Emotionally conjoined couples find their identity in the relationship. Both are more likely to be emotionally stunted to the same degree, sharing a profound sense of worthlessness. A trifecta of conflict develops with each pontificating, You hurt my feelings when you said or did this. As the emotional entanglement takes a toll, they are unable to disengage and emotionally walk alone due to their lack of internal fortitude. The driving force behind the defensive and angry responses that demand understanding and vindication is the need for validation. The coupe de grace is when couples pull friends and their children into the fray; it is always the ultimate selfish attempt at filling the void that seeks to suckle from the approval of a larger audience.
Often well-meaning pastors and counselors suggest affirmation exercises as it seems obvious that this is what’s needed, however this only prolongs the cycle of unhealthy dependency. Once the compliments subside, conflict erupts again. Internal validation, the fruit of differentiation, can never be grown through the words or actions of another person; it must be formed in the valley of the shadow of death where we wrestle with ourselves and with God. In the crucible of intimate relating, conflict is the gift that ushers in the glory of what marriage is meant to be. When couples shout, I can’t take this any longer, I tell them I’ve been waiting for them to finally give up on all their coping strategies. Now, a healing path can begin that places God at the core with each partner becoming the person he designed.
Intimacy and the Lies We Believe
Reinforced by our culture is the belief that intimacy is about mutual trust, acceptance and communication. This misconception couldn’t be further from the truth as it engenders a coercive quid pro quo relationship. The often quoted phrase into me see correctly defines intimacy as it is about taking down walls and offering who we are without the demand for reciprocity. Few things in life are as risky. Another lie that we believe is that intimacy is the antithesis of conflict, distance, and discomfort. These seasons are as much a part of intimacy as sharing, closeness and peace, and actually serve to enhance it. Differentiation is the key. One well-known psychologist suggests, The person with the least desire for intimacy always controls intimacy in the relationship as long as partners are dependent on validation from each other. Sadly, the joy of sacrifice is rarely experienced between couples with low functioning identities. Since there is little ability to make choices to lay down their life as they either feel entrapped and resentful or flee their fear of engulfment.
Healing Only Comes Through the Dark Night of the Soul
Growing up emotionally with a solid identity involves a violent severing of the need for approval and understanding of others. There is a shift to listening to our own soul and trusting that our greatest joy is found in God and drinking from his validation. This interior journey isn’t for the faint of heart, as the darkness is illuminated only by hope and founded on the faith that the Creator has given us a soul that is designed to reflect him through our own unique personality. Sound appealing? Before you sign up, you will need to know the emotional landscape of the journey. Opportunities to gain a solid identity will surface feelings of disorientation, anxiety, and incompetence. Indecisiveness and its cousin, fear of failure, will loom large in your thoughts. Severe loneliness and feeling exposed before others will haunt you. All of this is necessary for our emergence from behind self-protective walls, and no longer relying upon people to affirm our identity. Either we step into these uncomfortable opportunities or we are dragged kicking and screaming. It is in these defining moments when our small, shriveled and fragile soul is nourished. Sadly, some people decide transformation is too risky and anxiety, pretense, and flight make the safest prison of all. Taking this journey eventually leads to what is deepest in us—God and an identity that transcends human categories. We touch the terrain of heaven as we become more peacefully centered in God with an identity that trusts our own view of reality and yet is open to additional input. We formulate our own opinions, yet are curious about divergent views. While not agreeing, we are able to see another’s point of view. And as we feel deeply for others, we can more easily disengage from their emotions and struggles. Humility undergirds us with an accurate view of ourselves and of God. Self-reflection and awareness of our own sin patterns make us able to choose responses when engaging with others. We unabashedly ask for forgiveness and are generous in forgiving. We would rather understand than be understood, knowing that no human being can truly fathom the depths of our hearts. We become more comfortable with solitude, and, whether with others or alone, we know that we are singularly accountable to just One. We no longer demand from others what only God can give. Bringing God pleasure becomes our highest goal. Our days are filled with a greater sense of gratitude. Each time we move into the mystery of larger open waters, we fear less.