Between Two Identities: Starting Your Self-Exploration at the Beginning
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
What if your current problems aren’t really THE problem? Many of us reach adulthood with a growing awareness that something is wrong or missing from our lives.
Maybe you feel, on some level, that everyone else has life figured out but you. Maybe you notice unwanted thoughts or behaviors that get in the way of feeling freedom and peace. Or maybe they cause hurt and conflict in relationships.
In response, you fixate on that problem right in front of you, throwing every Bible verse or self-help fix on it that you can, only to find that the problem re-emerges like a weed growing through a crack in the cement. Your best efforts to change yourself feel futile and exhausting. Hopelessness sets in.
Don't miss Lynn's first post, Between Two Identities: Discovering Who You Are According to God's Story. Before you continue, take some time to read and reflect on your identity in Jesus.
This inner turmoil hit me like a ton of bricks in my early 30s as I was in the throes of parenting three children. There’s nothing like a toddler to unravel your composure, upset your sense of balance, and make you question your sanity! At times, my emotional reactions were so intense, irrational, and hurtful that I seriously questioned if I was a Christian.
There was nothing “godly” within me that I could feel good about. I projected my needs and desires on my family in ways that I knew were hurtful. I did what I could to address the problems. But my best efforts failed as soon as I encountered another trigger.
This was when I started to take self-examination seriously. And I approached the endeavor like who I was as a wife, mother, therapist—and Christian—depended on it. I desired peace and healing, but I couldn’t have anticipated how long, slow, and gut-wrenching of a process that would be.
Now, I’m years down the road, and I can attest that starting that journey of self-reflection to unlock parts of your soul you’ve previously ignored is worth doing.
But this journey should come with a warning label. An honest examination of your life story holds the greatest potential: both for transformation and for pain.
It’s tempting to hold back, wanting to come to God with the “cleaned up” version of yourself to avoid judgment or displeasure. But God invites us to look at the true condition of our hearts—not what it should be or even what you want it to be. And he does so because he desires that we no longer “walk in the futility of our minds, being darkened in our understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in us.” (Ephesians 4:17-18)
Indeed, laying aside the “old self” starts with naming the truth about ourselves. And we can no more hide the truth of ourselves from God than a child who hides in a corner with their eyes closed, thinking they can’t be seen just because they can’t see.
If God formed us in the womb, and we believe that “he is intimately acquainted with all our ways,” it’s apparent that he is the primary author of our life story.
Therefore, the particulars of your life story are profoundly significant in God’s purpose and intention for your life. Your role, as co-author to your story, is to invite God to “search me, know me, try my anxious thoughts, and see if there is any hurtful way in me.” (Psalm 139)
Why Your Story Matters
Here’s the hard truth we often avoid: to meaningfully engage with your story, you need to start at the beginning.
The opening scene of your life story bears more significance on your identity formation than any other factor. In fact, besides genetics, your earliest relationships shape you more than any other single influence or experience in your life. From the day we come home from the hospital, our brains are online and begin to take in all emotional and psychological cues for survival.
Neuroscience now confirms what the Bible has always taught: we are hard-wired for connection and face-to-face relationships.
Dr. Curt Thompson says that “when each of us comes into this world, we enter it looking for someone who is looking for us.” Mirror neurons receive information at a rapid pace, and the implicit memory is fully operational, recording and storing images, sensations, emotions, and perceptions. As we start to assess our environment, we will make critical decisions about safety, trust, and personal awareness that implicitly direct the trajectory of our lives.
Our complex anthropology is rooted in our Creator who “formed my inward parts and wove me in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13)
Ancient wisdom acknowledges that our present identity only makes sense when we understand that the origins of our personhood begin in infancy.
The Psalmist rightfully points to the learned experience of trust and its profound implications, beginning in the parent-child relationship. And that is where we must also start if we wish to understand ourselves in the light of God’s truth.
What Every Child Needs
As unique as each of our stories may be, we all share at least four universal needs: to feel Seen, Safe, Soothed, and Secure.
These are the basic building blocks for our identity formation. Everything else will be built upon these four pillars as outlined in Daniel Siegel’s book, The Power of Showing Up.
A child’s developing brain needs someone who is attuned to their needs, cries, and emotional state. Like a frequency on a radio, we are constantly sending out signals to communicate with another person. And we need them to tune into our wavelength to have a sustained connection and growing self-awareness.
This involves the child’s needs of being noticed and attended to so they can regulate their fluctuating emotional state. Being seen in this way goes beyond visible cues, like what a camera would pick up—it is a relational seeing that involves an intentional attunement to the emotional needs of another person.
A parent’s job is to protect their child from harm and to avoid being a source of fear or threat to the child. The home environment should be a place where the child’s vulnerabilities are not exploited, dangers are minimized, and basic physical and emotional needs are met. A safe family allows for the expression of these needs without punishment or contempt.
Little kids feel big emotions. In fact, because the left (logical) side of the brain takes so much longer to develop, children primarily operate out of the brain’s right (emotional) side. Their limbic system registers fear, frustration, and danger, but they lack the capacity to calm themselves down. The parent’s role is not only to notice (see) when this is happening but to move toward the child in a soothing way, regulating the child’s inner distress from the outside.
When a caregiver notices a child’s needs, the caregiver calms them in times of distress and takes an interest in their inner world. This creates neural pathways in a child’s brain that set the stage for how they will “do” relationships for the rest of their lives.
A child who grows up in a secure environment will carry a crucial experience with them that has enormous repercussions for decades to come. On a gut level, they will know that even when things are hard, when they make a mistake, when they feel bad, or when something bad happens, there is hope. Re-connection is possible, relationships can be repaired, and they are not alone in this world.
You Are Normal
Secure attachment is certainly ideal, but does anybody really have a perfect childhood? Certainly not.
We may get some good things from our parents, but we don’t get everything we need. Why? Because there are no perfect parents!
The good news is that we are all on a level playing ground. All relationships occur in the context of a broken, fallen world where sometimes repair is not possible. Even under the best of circumstances, our stories will include loss, suffering, and harm. In fact, rupture is a common occurrence in all relationships.
No wonder it’s rare for most people to take their early story seriously.
The truth of our childhood may contain images or scenes that are disruptive and disturbing, so we bury it. Maybe we’ve been trained to live behind a mask to avoid further pain, or we’ve been encouraged to spiritualize (cover over) heartache and loss because of the discomfort it produces in ourselves and others. This leads to some common objections people have when it comes to story work.
4 Common Objections to Engaging Your Story
“Looking at your story is selfish.”
This objection is very effective in Christian circles and can quickly shut down self-reflection. Yet, there is no biblical evidence for this objection to be persuasive. Besides the fact that the Bible is thousands of small stories pieced together to a cohesive larger story, we see countless examples of individuals’ stories in Scripture that are incredibly detailed, graphic, and divinely instructive to us thousands of years later.
Moral failures, dysfunctional families, bad parenting, generational cycles of sin, murder, greed, lust, adultery—these were all written down for our benefit and reflection. If the Scriptural significance given to the minutiae of a person’s story is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), then why wouldn’t our stories also have value? Unless we get into the details of our own lives, we will be clueless, immature children instead of mature people who are well-equipped “for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12).
Neuroscience confirms that people who have a heightened capacity for and commitment to self-reflection have much more empathy than others who have not engaged with their story.
In other words, if you want to love others well and have the emotional intelligence to make meaningful connections, you cannot ignore your own story. I would argue that it’s selfish to NOT engage with your story, as it limits your capacity for love, intimacy, and self-correction.
“I can’t go back and change anything, so what’s the point?”
This might be one of the most common phrases I’ve encountered in my work as a therapist. It would actually be a great way to end a session early: “You’re right! Let’s get out of here and go do something fun instead!” Don’t worry. I’ve never said that, but it’s tempting!
Here’s the deal: If you think your past is in the past, you don’t understand how the brain is built and how it functions.
Your implicit memory that’s been online since birth has formed millions of neural networks in your brain. These continuously operate outside of your conscious awareness. In other words, at this present moment, you are every age you ever have been because your brain is continually drawing on its past experiences to help you make sense of your present.
As Christian therapist Adam Young states in his first podcast episode of “The Place We Find Ourselves”,
“The point of engaging the past is so that you can actually live in the present. Until you engage your past, your story, you are actually living as much in the past as you are in the present. The point of engaging the past is so that you can live more fully in the present.”
“My story isn’t as bad as other people I know.”
We certainly know people who have suffered greater harm, loss, or tragedy than we have. But that’s not a legitimate reason to avoid engaging with your own experiences of wounding and brokenness. Instead of comparing your story to someone else’s, compare your story to Eden. We’ve all been affected by the fall, so no one has escaped the curse of sin and death untouched.
“My parents did the best they could.”
This is a huge hurdle for many people to jump over, myself included. Out of love, we typically idealize our parents or want to gloss over the ways that they failed or harmed us.
But if we believe the Bible when it says we were all “dead in our trespasses and sins…living in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath,” then we can confidently say that no one has done the best they could (Ephesians 2:1, 3).
If that were the case, no one would need Jesus’s redemption for their sins.
Hard truth: your mother and father have sinned against you. That is a universal and biblically sound assertion.
Our resistance to naming the harm we experienced while raised by very flawed, sinful people is natural. But if we close our eyes to what has been true about our parents, or our family, we won’t gain the wisdom and insight that God intends for us to have about ourselves.
If the truth is what sets us free, then we may need to acknowledge and name some hurtful things with the hope of breaking free of generational patterns of sin.
How To Start Exploring Your Story
The setup of your life contains information that will ultimately help you live more in the present, grow in emotional and spiritual maturity, and gain insight on God’s purpose and intention for your life.
When we meaningfully engage our stories, some distressing feelings or memories may come up. If you can, invite a safe person in your life to be a sounding board for you as you start to think about things that you may have previously avoided.
It can be profitable to start with being curious about what emotions come up when you consider this depth of self-reflection. Maybe you simply stay in that place for a while before moving ahead.
When you’re ready, a basic way to get started is to get a journal and spend some time reflecting on those four universal needs: to be Seen, Safe, Soothed, Secure.
Ask yourself: To what degree did I experience each of these? What was present? What was missing? Who was with me? Who wasn’t with me?
Bonus: This exercise is relevant for adulthood, too, because we still need these four ingredients to thrive. In other words, the next time you get reactive towards someone, think about which of the 4 S’s was missing, or which one you desired the most. I promise you’ll get some mileage out of it.
Join me next time as we look at the second step of Identify Formation: Shattered Shalom.
These aren’t easy topics to consider, but my prayer for you is that God “would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to…know the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge” (Eph. 3:16-19).
Don't miss this opportunity to discover who you are in Christ and grow as you explore. Check out Lynn's first post and discovering who you are according to God's story.