The “lessons” we learn about ourselves
The deepest lessons we learn in life aren’t from the classroom. They’re not on paper. Not even in the field.*
Instead we learn them from each other. From how others treat us. These lessons can happen in the moment, between the lines. Sometimes they’re explicit and outright. They can be enriching, affirming, warming… or damaging, painful, self-diminishing. Through the way others act toward us, we learn what they think of us. So often, we believe that what they think of us is what we really deserve — even without realizing it.
A friend chooses to spend time with you and listen to you in your darkest times: you learn that you’re worth patience, compassion, care, and listening, even when you can’t give back. You have value beyond what you have to offer. You’re more than your usefulness.
You find out that the loved one you trusted lied: you learn that others cannot always be trusted. You were taken advantage of.
Your daughter runs out of the house when you get home from work to jump into your arms: you learn that you’re loved and wanted outright. You are missed. You’re wanted near.
Your mom shakes her head and says, “why can’t you act more ladylike?”: you learn that being ladylike is what you should be doing, and whatever you are doing is apparently not that, because your mom thinks it’s wrong.
These lessons sink deep into our shoulders, run with our blood, settle under our tongues and charge our very movements. We carry these lessons in our bodies and in the way we react to and approach the people around us. They prompt us to become freer, less worried, more secure, happier, or more on edge, afraid, guilty, hobbled. The lessons that hurt, we learn the hardest. And a lot of the time, we don’t even see ’em. We take them as gospel, as truth, as lived knowledge, and in doing so, surrender so much power to false and limiting ideas of who we really are.
I grew up with lots and lots and lots of these soul lessons, like we all do. The lessons I wanna talk about today are the lessons I learned about my very self, because I have a hunch that you reading might have learned your own too. I am unlearning them. I hope you’ll find what you need here to start unlearning yours too.
Making saints and exiles of ourselves
When I was growing up, the people around me had a lot to say about who a person should be and how they should express that. Back then, it seemed so simple, even beautiful. We were Evangelical, and all our identity was in God: his servants, his bride, his children all rolled into one. Our purpose on Earth: to bring God glory, please him, and expand his family. We weren’t meant to try to be anyone other than who God wanted us to be, his specific blueprint for each of our lives, our epic role in his story of millennia.
I “knew who I was in God” and that was all that mattered; being anyone beyond a submissive, pious, cheerful, wise, grateful helper (as a girl, this of course was my future role) was “foolish”, “vain”, “empty”, and “arrogant.” When I did things unexpected or unapproved of, my mom would say, “I know you, and this isn’t you.”
Growing up, I hated who I was, because I thought that the girl people saw WAS who I really was. It turns out that I had situational mutism, a severe anxiety disorder that begins in early childhood, and where the sufferer isn’t able to physically speak (or even nod, smile, make eye contact, etc.) in certain social situations. SM sidelined me in life. I spent so much time on the periphery of rooms, aching to be a part of conversation and fun and friend making, but every time a joke or hello! or comment popped into my head, it stayed locked in the cell of my vocal chords. So I unintentionally formed a reputation as that really quiet religious girl — the one who didn’t talk or smile back.
This was a powerful lesson I learned day after day for years. One that I am still-unlearning: that I am not “one of the rest of you”, that I’m “a piece of furniture” (as one person sometimes called me), that I am on the outside of life looking in.
That’s why I loved the lessons that my religion taught me about who I could be. Self-improvement is built right into Evangelical Christianity. It’s called “sanctification.” It’s the idea that, from the moment they believe, anyone who becomes a Christian automatically begins an eternal process of becoming a person more like Christ: full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc. They are becoming saints — sanctified.
I cherished this promise. I drank up the peace of its reassurance. Sanctification was a guarantee that no matter how lonely or inferior or awkward or unkind or quiet or not-enough I felt, or how many bad habits I couldn’t break, I only had to wait and trust in God, because he would change me.
But there was a dark side to sanctification. Sanctification wasn’t just God working in me continually to change me for the better. I was supposed to become more like Christ by becoming less of my original self. Scripture said there was no good in my original self, and I could never, ever hope to change myself; only God’s power could transform a wretch like me. In fact, all the language about “being made new” was violent. Visceral. I was supposed to die to myself. To kill my “old man” (not my dad, my old self!) so God could create a new one. Carve. Mold. Break me to make me. Christianity asked me again and again to extinguish and empty myself from existence.
And so, without even knowing, I sent my original self into exile.
And, ya know, that is what you do when you believe the “lessons” people give you about how little you are worth, or how little you can accomplish, or that your rights matter less than theirs — you send yourself into exile. You push yourself away. You learn to see your true self as enemy, as other, as dirty secret. You stop listening to yourself. You agree with what others say about you and become the enforcer of their underestimations, their deliberate hurt and their misunderstandings.
This is what I did. These are the lessons that Evangelical Christianity, and the consequences of my situational mutism, taught me.
- That I had no right to exist. By rights, God could have destroyed us all, but he didn’t and I shouldn’t forget it.
- That I couldn’t make myself a better person. Only God could do that. I had no power, creativity, or rights over myself. I shouldn’t try to be anyone beyond what others had in mind for me.
- That the only way I could be redeemed as a human being, after being born so flawed I deserved eternal torture by default, was to put my original self to death. That my authentic self deserved violence and silence.
- That I should continue being unnoticeable, invisible, unheard — unwitnessed for who I really was.
I took these ideas and believed them, and because I believed them I forced my original self, my authentic, vibrant, free-spirited, friendly, warm, cheerful self, into exile. I shut out her voice. I fell out of touch with what and who I really wanted. And I tried to flinch and dance away from any action that might lead to people judging me as too much or not enough for the box they had constructed for me. I allowed myself to believe that who they thought I was — that religious, timid kid cut off from conversation and human relationship — was all I could be.
I can’t emphasize enough how deeply these lessons affected me on an almost cellular level. I grew up cut off from what I wanted, because wanting was vain and selfish, and because of this, I had unwanted sexual experiences. I gorged myself on food, then tried to whittle myself away in shame for expressing an appetite for life. I felt chronically unwanted or separate even around friends. I avoided mirrors. I didn’t take medicine when I got sick or get food when I was hungry. I didn’t even realize I could move chairs out of my way. I didn’t reach out and make friends. I didn’t know how to connect with people because I was disconnected from the self I really had to offer. I didn’t speak my mind or pursue what called to my heart. I wasn’t living.
Because when I was told that I didn’t deserve to be and create my authentic self, I believed it. I thought that these “lessons”, which were really other people’s projections onto me, were the truth of who I was and who I could be.
Maybe you grew up hearing the same sort of thing too. Maybe you’re from a religious tradition — Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim, Jewish, and more — that told you, you are not good. Be less of you so you can be better.
Or maybe you weren’t religious, but you were still told that the way to be better or good was to be less you. Because of your family. Your culture. Your gender. Your abuser(s). Maybe you weren’t outright told “die to self”, but you still felt you had to shrink. To be less you. Less authentic. Less here. Less loud or quiet. Less rebellious, awkward, clumsy, forgetful, unphotogenic, distinct… human.
- The oldest child: be responsible, don’t play like the younger kids do, be an ambassador for the family name over your own, others first.
- The girl: sit up straight, cross your legs, wear skirts, don’t cut your hair that short, don’t play in the mud, like dolls, want babies, please men.
- The survivor: your abuser’s right to express their frustration toward you trumps your right not to be hurt by them, their feelings matter more than your pain, be still, be quieter, don’t disagree.
Radical acceptance: finding myself in a fitting room
I let other people’s expectations of me become my limitations. As long as I did that, I could never be anything more than what people imagined me to be. But I’ve come to realize that my imagination is way better than any of theirs.
The lessons I was taught were dead wrong. To heal, I had to realize just how wrong they were. I had to apologize to my original self, the one I sent into exile, who I was supposed to kill and be less of, for everything I believed about her. For all the things that happened to me because I believed them: letting so many people take advantage of me without taking action to change my own circumstances. I would never have believed them if they hadn’t been taught to me, so they are not my fault; but only I can change their effects now.
I realized this in a fitting room in TJ Maxx. Retail therapy, y’all.
Trying on clothes was really painful growing up. In a world where I felt so controlled, the fitting room was our little secret between me and the mirror, a magic little box where I could indulge in clothes I’d never wear outside it. It was like trying on selves and futures, but guilt was my constant companion. Hot flashes of shame coursed down my back when I stood in front of the racks, wondering, will people think I’m trying to pull off being someone I’m not?
But when I became independent, I got to take myself shopping, and over time, with effort, the shame melted into the background. So that’s where I found myself, in a fitting room in TJ Maxx with clothes I didn’t even know I liked. Trying them on felt like a laugh of relief, like breathing fully after a life of shallow gasps. The old lessons in my head said, this isn’t what people are used to. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. You look ridiculous.
But I’m strong enough now to know my instincts and even sometimes what I want… and I knew that this? This was what my original self liked all along. People not being used to this didn’t mean this wasn’t me. It just meant that now it was time to show them who I really was. If I liked it, if I wanted it, if I found it pretty or meaningful or funny or cool, I wouldn’t vet it anymore to sniff out possible judgment, criticism, or shame. Instead, I would accept it all, radically, along with any judgment or labels that came with it.
That changed everything. I bought the clothes. I showed them to my roommate, laughing, but unapologetic. And as I wore them, I still heard those old lessons, the ones that pushed my original self down into exile all that time. But I didn’t listen to them. Instead I realized that there was a whole other way to be me right in front of me: to acknowledge other people’s judgments of me without letting them change me.
All this time, I allowed other people’s expectations of me become my limitations.
I can be aware of what people will think of me without apologizing for it. I can say to the world, this is who I am, take me as you will. No more allowing other people’s reactions to me to define me, to shame me, to burn me.
It’s time for me to be playfully, gleefully, freely me, without apology. To take back the power I gave other people when I allowed their idea of who I was to dictate who I was. People make judgments. It’s what they do. I can’t change that, but I can take the power back from them by no longer reacting to them.
I am no longer defining me; I am living her.
1: Me and my twin, original-selfing from the start; 2: back when we were still believing and living in Christian conditions; 3: a year ago, look how much happier we are as college heathens!, and 4: a low quality pic of one of my happiest moments. This is who I am: glitter in my short hair, dancing with a rainbow flag, and my ink showing through.
Survivors, questioners, nonbelievers, humans, this is encouragement I have for you:
Don’t let people’s expectations of who you should be limit who you really are.
Don’t keep believing negative “lessons” about who you are and what you deserve — indoctrination, cultural norms, family dynamics, gender roles, abuse, everyday human hurts. They are not an authority. They’re a projection. Take your power back from them.
Allow yourself to imagine who you could be, beyond what you’ve always supposed to be. Get back in touch with who you always were. In all their awesome, kickass, nerdy, cool, inspiring, relatable, human glory.
All of this makes me think back to one of the names of God. It’s a pretty badass story. Moses asks God what name he should call him by to his people. God says, “I am who I am.” I used to find this so confusing and mysterious, but now, as an unbeliever, I actually find it awesome. God didn’t define himself. He said, I am that I am. I am who I am.
That is what I’m saying now. I am that I am. In these clothes. This style. These words. These actions. These vibes. I’m getting there. I’m daring to imagine and become a person so far beyond anything God and other people had in mind for me. And I’m no longer giving power to the “lessons” about the powerlessness and limitations that my self was meant to have. I take that power back: I am that I am.
When we realize that negative “lessons” are just expectations, underestimations, miscalculations, on other people’s part, and that who we are goes beyond anything anyone else can define for us, we take back our power. We set the standard for how we should be treated with compassion, vision, and love for ourselves, no longer allowing others to teach us the baseline of what we deserve. We bring our original selves out of exile and make them sacred. Make them heard. Make them real.
Let’s finish with words from 3 of my favorite healers: Kirsten (The Crazy Herbalist), whose articles about plant allies and the role of stories in healing from trauma changed everything for me 2 years ago; Lilia Tarawa, whose style, love for others, and joy in a free life makes my heart sing; and Nayyirah Waheed, whose poems make me feel called out and called in at the same time.
The cultural stories which ask us to be smaller or other than who we are are not acceptable. The violence done to us without our consent is unacceptable. The lack of collective support many of us feel is isolating and a very real thing. Long live the resistance and the resistors and that small but so potent voice inside that knows something else is possible for us.
Transforming trauma is about re-writing our stories, releasing the lies that have permeated our cells and finding new songs.
– For Survivors, by Kirsten
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you were born for you.
you were wanted by you.
you came for you.
you are here for you.
your existence is yours.
yes.”― Nayyirah Waheed,