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.

 

My Stained Glass Life

My Stained Glass Life

We started looking at minivans on craigslist last week. Yup, minivans. The car I swore I would never drive—the one you have to trade in your cool card to own. The car that says, “I care more about opening the doors by pushing a button than about pretending to be young and hip and sexy.”

But the thing is, I’m not young or hip or sexy—I’m a mom with two kids under five and more crumbs and abandoned toys in the backseat than I know what to do with. My current car is so small that I have to move the passenger seat all the way forward for my daughter to sit behind me—my legs are too long for any more of this nonsense. The time has come to look past cool and embrace my real life. Ugh…I must be growing up.

A couple years ago, as a friend and I were talking about my dream car with all the fancy bells and whistles I would never be able to afford, she made a statement that changed everything for me. She said, “I never want the car I drive to make people think I’m something I’m not.” It hit me—I want a cool car so others will think I’m cooler than I really am.

And it made me ask myself, what else am I pretending to be so that others will think I’m more than I actually am?

I’ve spent too many years thinking that if I work hard enough often enough, I actually can pull myself together. I believed the lie that if I could just…

figure out how to work out consistently,

keep my house clean,

remember birthdays,

avoid dessert,

manage my budget,

update my wardrobe,

plan healthy meals,

organize creative activities for my kids,

find time for myself,

and do it all without being tired,

THEN I would feel like enough. And more importantly, others would think I’m enough.

In reality, if my value is based on my ability to live up to the impossible standards I set for myself—aided by Pinterest, social media, and a tendency to compare and compete—I will never measure up. I just can’t do it all. No one can.

I don’t want to pretend to be more than I am. Pretending to have it all together is kind of like driving a fancier car than I can afford—and it’s a barrier that keeps people from seeing the real me, flaws and all. And my flaws are many.

For example, parenting brings out ugliness in me I never knew existed; staying home with my kids is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Not to mention the guilt that comes with admitting I’m not completely satisfied by the beautiful gift of motherhood (gasp!).

You should also know that I’m a recovering perfectionist. It’s still a battle to believe that my performance does not equal my value. I am continually relearning that failure is not the enemy—but failure to risk failing is.

I struggle almost daily with what I see in the mirror, choosing to believe that beauty is not how our world defines it. It can’t be bought, applied, or styled, and it doesn’t require me to exercise for it or lose weight to find it. Beauty only grows as my body changes and ages and my heart softens and deepens.

Add to the list of flaws that I’m a terrible housekeeper. Just the thought of cleaning the house again overwhelms me—didn’t I just clean the bathrooms last week? Wasn’t that enough? Don’t even ask what’s for dinner…

I don’t know how to ask for help. I’m learning the hard way that I can’t do as much as I think I can. It is paralyzing and humbling and exhausting to worry more about burdening others than to ask them for what I need.

I’ve experienced depression so deep and crippling that the thought of continuing to live was unbearable. I know what it feels like to lose hope to the point of believing death is the best option—and I know that it’s possible to come out of the darkness more alive than ever before.

The list goes on—and yet, the freedom to admit I don’t have life figured out is worth the risk of being perceived as the mess that I really am. I’d rather live honest and free than hide behind an inauthentic self.

Fellow perfectionists, performers, and strivers: You are already enough. You can stop trying so hard. You are enough because you are made on purpose to reveal a God who shines most brightly through your cracks.

I don’t want anything in my life to create a perception that I’m anything other than a real human person, dependent on grace to get me through each moment. And if you’re a real human person who struggles in any way, I want you to know this: You. Are. Not. Alone.

I don’t want to waste any more energy or time trying to make myself into someone I think you’ll like. Instead, I want to allow the pieces of my life to be displayed as they are—without pretending. Transparent enough to let God’s perfect light shine brightly through my brokenness. Like a stained glass window.

The journey I’ve been on over the past couple years has been one of identifying the themes of struggle, heartache, joy, and passion throughout my life and asking God, “What do you want to do with that part of my story?” Over and over, the answer has been something along these lines: “Tell the world how you’ve seen my beauty—and let my beauty shine through your cracks.”

It feels scary to admit that I’m such a work in progress. But I want to be brave and honest and curious about the things I experience—and give others permission to do the same. Our lives are too short and too precious to pretend they’re not hard. Let’s be brave together instead of struggling alone.

May we all have the courage to tell one another the truth about how we’re really doing, holding with tenderness the pieces of others’ stained glass lives entrusted to our care. You are enough, struggles and all. Let the Light shine through your cracks.

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.