The Secret to Being Loved—and Why It’s So Hard

The Secret to Being Loved—and Why It’s So Hard

Today I know I am loved. Radically, abundantly, lavishly loved. And, maybe for the first time in my life, I’m not just trying to convince myself that I’m loved based on the evidence. I’m not giving myself a pep talk in the mirror, convincing my heart to feel all the things my head knows to be true. I’m not trying to convince anyone that I’m lovable by attempting to earn their approval through my good behavior. I’m not grasping for an emotional experience I desperately long for but fear I don’t actually deserve.

No, this is different than in the past. Today, my heart and my head are aligned, and it’s no small miracle. Like turning my face toward the sun, I am holding still long enough to bask in the absolute goodness of knowing I am loved more than I can fathom—and I have done nothing to deserve it.

Why does today feel like such a victory? Wouldn’t anyone feel loved if they were surrounded by gracious friends, part of a generous family, and married to the best human on the face of the planet? Unfortunately, no. Just being loved (even when loved abundantly and well) is not enough to make someone believe they are loved.

Sometimes it takes breaking into pieces to experience the love that has been there all along. 

The last several weeks have been exhausting. Strike that—it has been a moment-by-moment battle for my sanity. Every single day for the past month and a half has been filled with some of the most difficult conversations, excruciating pain, spiritual heights, intimate moments, and crippling fear of my entire life. It’s been enough to make a person feel crazy—or at least worn down by intense emotions to the point of deep soul fatigue.

I’m sitting here writing for the first time since before all hell broke loose, watching the rain fall in torrents from the sky. Not even five minutes ago, the sun was shining and the sky was the brightest shade of blue. It happens like that in the spring, the weather changes quickly and unexpectedly. It’s a normal pattern each year, yet I’m still caught off guard when I’m outside without a coat and the rain pours down.

Pain always catches me off guard, too. Even though it’s a normal, expected part of being alive.

A few months ago, I had told a few close friends this was the year I wanted to be done with the insecurities and anxiety that had come in waves on and off for as long as I can remember. I told them I was ready to be free—I wanted to be my truest self, uninhibited by the old stuff I kept wrestling down, pushing it back below the surface of my heart.

No more working harder than I should because I am afraid of disappointing someone.

No more shaming myself for eating too much dessert or panicking if I miss a workout.

No more striving to prove that I’m competent even though I’ve been out of the professional world for several years.

No more hiding the pain of public humiliation from past failure.

No more fear of failing at whatever new thing I’m brave enough to risk trying.

No more longing for some other role that might satisfy my soul more than the humbling job of motherhood.

No more wishing to live any life other than the beautiful one I’ve been given.

No more pretending. No more hiding. No more performing. Only freedom.

I had no idea what freedom would cost. I didn’t realize it would require me to face every fear, forcing me to drag my husband, family, and closest friends with me through the muck and mire of my overwhelming emotions. I didn’t realize that in order to release anxiety, I would actually have to walk through it, allowing panic to fully surface in its various forms.

I didn’t expect freedom to cost so much.

But the miracle unfurled slowly, as my inability to hold myself together decreased exponentially with each passing day. I was falling apart, and I couldn’t hide it. Friends kept checking in, and I was too tired from so much heartache to pretend I was okay. The harder I worked to stop hurting, the more out of control I felt—I just couldn’t stop the storm from coming. But they never stopped checking in. They never stopped praying.

When I deserved it the very least, when I had absolutely nothing left to offer except my embarrassment over what a mess I was, my people just kept loving me. And because I was exhausted from my own battle with fear—my fear that if I couldn’t pull myself together, they would give up and walk away from my broken pieces—I finally couldn’t help but let their love in.

I needed to be loved, but I didn’t get to choose how—I just had to receive love in whatever form it came.

The rain has stopped now and the sky transformed back to blue, maybe even a clearer blue than before the storm. The air feels fresher from the rain, and somehow my lungs have a greater capacity to breathe in the gift of oxygen after so many tears.

I’ve never needed to know that I’m loved more than I do these days. Yet, the miracle is, because my heart has broken wide open, there is nothing left to keep love out. So I’m going to just keep letting it come. And maybe, just maybe, it will get out a little bit easier now too.

 

When Failure Leads to Freedom

When Failure Leads to Freedom

I love birthdays.  Everything about them. But especially the generosity with which people tend to shower you with love and adoration.  I especially like that part. I also like thinking about my birthday as a milestone, a flag in the sand marking the distance traveled since this time last year.

As I celebrate what my family lovingly calls my “birthday month,” I’m struck by how different my life looks today than it did just a few birthdays ago. I’m more myself, more alive, more secure in who I’m created to be, and more resolutely convinced that this life-long journey toward whole-hearted living is worth the hard work it requires.

I’m further on my journey than I used to be, but I’m still traveling one step at a time. And sometimes the steps are really, really hard. Remembering the journey gives me courage to keep pressing onward. Looking back, I can also see firsthand how nothing is wasted when surrender is the outcome. Because sometimes we have to fall apart to discover who we really are.

*     *     *

Five years ago, my world came crashing down.  It was the culmination of a lifetime of performing, achieving, working to earn my value in the eyes of myself and others.  I had always prided myself in my capacity to handle more than most people should, but my inability to see the danger of a lifestyle defined by busyness, urgency, and a need to be needed led to my breakdown.

For the six years before that point, I had been doing a job that I loved, but where my duties had gradually increased to a point that was beyond any one person’s capabilities.  I alternated between feeling inspired by the challenges of my role, gratified by the impact it allowed me to make on students and school culture, and feeling overwhelmed by the impossible weight of my responsibilities.

Stress was a constant.  I depended on adrenaline to get me through the days, and my mind would spin on overdrive during my workday and beyond. There was always too much to do and never enough time to do it.  It became more and more difficult to sleep, as if my body was constantly in fight or flight mode, trying to survive the danger of anxiety to my mental, physical, and emotional health.  I felt alone, as if the burden of changing school culture was mine alone to bear–prideful in my belief that I was even capable of such a mammoth undertaking.  But my passion and belief in the significance of my work made it easy to ignore the warning signs of an unsustainable lifestyle that was driven by a subconscious fear of failure.

I finally hit a wall midway through the school year five years ago when sleep deprivation and mental exhaustion forced me to deal with the limitations of being human.  I. Could. Not. Keep. Pushing. The job was too much for me.  My expectations of myself were too much for me.  I had reached my breaking point.

My husband had been watching me struggle, carrying the weight of my stress more and more in the previous months.  He agreed to let me submit my resignation, effective at the end of the school year, still several months away. The relief was indescribable, but so was my sense of failure. I ended up taking a couple months of sick leave, providing time for my body to recover from extreme fatigue and for my mind to slow down from months and months of constant spinning.

Even though I was desperate for rest, I couldn’t shake the sense that I was abandoning the students who needed me, the school I had poured my heart into, and my dreams of the positive changes I could make if I could just keep fighting. I was tempted to fill my time away from work with other stuff I never had time to do–but Corey kept reminding me to rest.  Don’t waste the gift of time, he would say. Just rest.

It was a fight, but a couple weeks into my sick leave I slowed down enough to start really sleeping again.  It was uncomfortable at first, but I finally learned to enjoy moments of stillness in my days. I was quiet and unproductive. I read books and attempted painting. I felt like I was wasting time, but in reality I was healing from years and years of spinning, striving, and working to earn the approval of others.

After my sick leave was up, there were still a couple months left in the school year. I went back to work with a new awareness of my limitations and with a much lower capacity for stress. I wondered with much trepidation, “Will I still have what it takes?”  It turns out that I didn’t.

I had changed for the better after two months of recovery time, but my job was the same as when I left it. I found myself unable to function at the pace I’d set earlier in the school year—it felt like I was sitting on the freeway while cars raced past and I was still struggling to start the ignition. I’d lost momentum in my teaching and credibility with my students, and I felt isolated and alone.  I just didn’t have it in me to keep pushing anymore, but I had to finish out the school year somehow.  I felt trapped. Stuck. Overwhelmed. Hopeless.

Depression set in quickly as I realized that my best efforts weren’t enough.  I was failing to live up to the standard of performance I had set for myself.  I was failing.  It was more than just a hard couple months at work, it felt like it was defining who I had become. My worst fear had become my reality—failure.

Somehow I managed to crawl across the finish line at the end of the school year, but things only continued to spiral downward. My confidence was gone, my energy was depleted, and I was finishing my Master’s degree as we prepared to move to a new town where my husband was called to a new job in ministry. Life was too much to handle.

I didn’t know who I was anymore.  I had always been Jillian the overachiever, the perfectionist, the hard-working one who can do it all.  Now I was just Jillian, the failure. What was I worth if I couldn’t do anything important? I could barely get out of bed in the morning anymore, let alone work to earn my worth in the world. I was spiraling quickly into darkness that felt consuming.

We moved and Corey started his new job, but I didn’t have it in me to even look for work.  Bless the man I married for seeing my desperate need for rest.  He told me again and again that taking care of myself was my job for the year. Even that was overwhelming some days.  I had lost hope. It seemed like this new version of myself was who I would always be now—paralyzed by anxiety and despair, believing that God had abandoned me and I deserved it.

In my hopelessness, I sat one morning alone in our living room, sobbing over the mess I had become. I finally cried out loud a desperate prayer for rescue, yelling, “God, don’t leave me like this!” I held nothing back. All my shame, anger, fear, and anguish came out in ugly tears as I realized that I had no hope of doing anything to change the way I felt. I could not rescue myself.

Freedom comes with surrender, and that was my moment of freedom.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, hope started to creep back in. There were small glimmers at first, then moments of relief, then even days and weeks at a time when I started to feel like myself again. I was able to talk about how I was feeling without being overwhelmed by hopelessness.  My eyes were lifted from my own consuming pain to see the truth that I had never been abandoned by God, I had just stopped believing his promises were true.

Months passed, and I realized that the circumstances that had brought me to such a dark place were divinely orchestrated. God used my sense of failure to rescue me from a lifestyle of busyness, perfectionism, and endless striving for approval that would have killed my soul if I had continued in it. Someone once told me that the only difference between a rut and a grave is its depth.  I had been digging my own grave.

It took failure to break me free from the pressure to perform.

It took hopelessness to force me to examine where my hope actually comes from.

It took coming to the end of myself to realize that my identity is deeper than the things I do.

I would have never guessed it at the time, but my greatest sense of failure has since led to a greater freedom than I’ve ever experienced. It has come over the past five years of learning to be still and rest in God’s presence, listen to his voice, and believe what he says about me. Freedom comes as I continually fail to live up to who I think I should be and instead choose to rest in who he says I am.

My strength comes in recognizing my weakness.

My freedom comes in surrendering my fear.

My purpose comes in sharing my story so that others might know that God is exceedingly trustworthy. I am living proof.

The Beauty of New Beginnings

The Beauty of New Beginnings

I’m one of those people that love New Year’s resolutions.  There’s something about a fresh start, like a real life do-over or something, that makes anything feel possible.  It feels like the gradual increase in caloric consumption between Thanksgiving and Christmas won’t count against me.  Like the whirlwind of family visitation, holiday festivities, and gift-buying won’t leave me too exhausted to regain balance. Like all the areas of discontent in my life can be channeled into specific action steps that will transform my life experience from this point forward.

Something about a new beginning recharges my battery, helps me shake my past failure, and motivates me to work harder at the things I decide matter most. Starting over in January (or February) feels like a fresh chance to apply what I learned through trial and error, as well as through joy and success in the previous year. This usually involves promising myself that this year I’ll eat healthier, exercise more, figure out our budget, be a more intentional mom and more loving wife, and generally become more disciplined in every area. The problem is, my renewed optimism often leads to an inflated perception of what is actually possible.  No matter how realistic I try to be about my goals for the year, there is always more that I want and need to change in my life than I have the capacity to accomplish.

And so at some point, months, weeks, or even days after I resolve to improve myself, I surrender to the reality that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.  I give up hope for a different future because of my inability to achieve what I set out to do.  Ah, the sting of discouragement.  It’s almost like the failure to meet my goals is more detrimental than not even trying to improve in the first place. Isn’t it better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all?  Yet each time my best efforts fail to bring about desired change, I feel more discouraged, less hopeful, more resigned to self-deprecation in that area.

All that to say, this year I found myself resisting my usually joyful tradition of creating resolutions.  This time around, I didn’t want to make any more empty promises that I couldn’t fulfill.  I didn’t want to put extra pressure on myself to do “one more thing.”  Because all striving for self-improvement has done until now is leave me feeling exhausted.  Beyond empty resolutions, I want this year to be different somehow—not just hoping it will be different, but experiencing real, lasting change.

Truthfully, my need for change is deeper than just the things I do—it’s my attitudes, thoughts, and hidden life that come out in behaviors that are much easier to try and fix than what lies beneath. If I’m honest, I don’t need just changed behavior, I need a transformed heart.  I long for a new beginning, a fresh start in so many areas, yet I’m painfully aware that my best efforts consistently fall woefully short:

My inability to deal with stress reveals itself when I raid the pantry for anything sweet that will bring temporary relief. I can cut out sugar to limit stress eating for a while, but anxiety always returns to test and eventually break my resolve. I need a deeper peace.

My lack of patience leads to words of frustration spoken harshly to my daughter at bedtime.  I try to remember to be the grown up who is bigger, kinder, wiser, and stronger—but then she gets out of bed just one more time and I become the parent I don’t want to be.  I need greater compassion.

My limited time and perspective make it impossible to be the friend I want to be to all the people I want to love.  I fail to pursue, miss opportunities to encourage, and cause hurt feelings by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.  I need real forgiveness.

My controlling agenda and selfishness with how I want to use my time comes out in anger and tears when my toddler wakes up early from a nap we both needed. My best attempt to spend a moment of quiet in prayer turns to frustration and mental expletives in a heartbeat—what a quick decent into ugliness. I need redeeming grace.

My self-centered view of marriage as a means to meet my emotional needs leads to resentment toward my husband when his needs conflict with mine. We both crave honest vulnerability and connection, yet all too often he experiences bitterness and disengagement from the wife who promised to put his needs above her own.  I need authentic love.

The list goes on and on. I need a new beginning not just every 365 days, but every day.  Throughout the day.  No matter how many times I resolve to live right, I come up short—and even if I manage slight improvement, I’m still not fully the woman I was created to be.  And I feel it.

My struggle with perfectionism tempts me to try harder, dig deeper, discipline myself more to be my best self.  The truth is, no matter how hard I work, we all fall short of God’s perfect, glorious standard.[i] I’m not just being hard on myself here—we were made to dwell with Perfection. The frustrating thing about living outside of Eden is that imperfection comes with being human, and it keeps us separate from the Life we were made for. We either seek satisfaction in places that fulfill us incompletely or numb ourselves to the disappointment that life is not what we hoped. These moments remind me that I’m missing something—I’m not the complete version of who I was created to be, and I’m unable to effectively, permanently change myself.  I need Divine rescue from the endless cycle of striving for self-improvement.

Maybe what I need this year isn’t to spend more energy striving to change the things I do; instead, I want to stop “doing” and let Grace transform the person I am. I want this year to be the year when I really learn what it means to receive God’s acceptance, surrender to his rescue from self-made perfection, and live in the beauty of a new beginning.

Peace instead of anxiety.

Compassion instead of impatience.

Forgiveness instead of failure.

Grace instead of control.

Love instead of resentment.

I don’t have to live in the hopelessness of my moments of ugliness, and I don’t have to depend on my own grit and determination to change myself.  I don’t have to be perfect, because I know Someone who already is—and his perfection rubs off on anyone willing to come close.

Hope is believing that change is possible—even if I’m not there yet. So this year, instead of working harder, I’m choosing to be more thankful for gifts of grace all around me.  I’m on the lookout for ways that God is already showing up for me, through me, and all around me.  Because when we spend our energy noticing the gifts of Love, our eyes and mind and heart focus on what’s true: God sees us and wants us, just as we are.  And thankfulness leads to transformation.

I’ve started keeping what my husband calls my “Joy Journal,” literally writing down the sweet moments and morsels of joy that I notice each day, no matter how big or small. It wasn’t my idea—I took it from a beautiful book that a friend recommended over a year ago called One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. There is something about keeping an actual written record that makes thankfulness more than just a passing thought—it’s like training my mind to make gratitude an automatic default.

The more I look, the more I’m starting to see Grace everywhere:

my fresh cup of coffee brewed just before I wake;

relief at a doctor’s visit;

the friend willing to watch my kids while they’re sick;

an unexpected date night;

family wrestling matches;

honest conversation;

a moment of sunshine to break up the fog;

those little arms wrapped tight around my neck…

There are always more nuggets of joy than I have time to write down. And the most beautiful thing? The list of gifts is always longer than my list of failures. Always.

The real relief for me this year is in believing that I don’t have to wait until January 1st to have a new beginning.  Today is a fresh start.  This moment.  As I choose to receive the gift of surrender, trading striving for thanksgiving, I find freedom to live fully in this beautiful moment. Imperfect but alive.

[i] Romans 3:23, New Living Translation