I had it better than most people. My parents had never divorced, I was never abused, and I never got into drugs. But somewhere along the way, I learned that I didn’t measure up; that I was, at best, plain-looking; and that if people were looking for a friend, I’d be the one left standing on the outside.
A New Beginning
Although all I wanted was to be loved, it wasn’t until I met Jesus that I knew what real love was. It was like coming outside after a long, hard winter and finding spring had arrived, with the warm sunshine on my face, vibrant reds and yellows everywhere I looked, and the sweetness of lilacs and honeysuckle in the air. Before, I didn’t even care about living. Now, I was ready to take chances and meet new people.
That’s probably why I volunteered at the sheltered workshop for the mentally disabled. I wanted to make a difference. But I think the people I served helped me more than I helped them. While I was there, I was like a sponge—ready to learn from every person and opportunity. Everything I heard and did seemed to make me a better person—or at least, almost everything.
Some of the workshop staff had gone through tough times: divorce, financial struggles, and troubled relationships. They had come to the workshop as a kind of therapy, where helping others was a way to help themselves get a new start. Over time, a few shared their stories of recovery. That’s what got me to reading some popular self-help books that these survivors recommended. I was curious to see if they had discovered something I could use, too.
Taking a Wrong Turn
At first, I felt energized. The books talked about how past experiences could affect our view of the world and created “tapes” that would replay in different life situations. These, in turn, would influence our mood and thinking. Then, there were the behavior patterns, sometimes called “defense mechanisms,” that a person would take on as a way of dealing with the faulty “tapes.” The books promised that if I could learn to turn off the bad messages and replace them with good ones, I could learn to overcome the negative patterns and be free to create a new “me” that wasn’t bogged down by a screwed up past. That all sounded wonderful in principle, but I discovered there was a difference between reality and theory.
First, I spent a lot more time focused on myself while I tried to analyze everything I was doing. Contrary to what the books said, much of the way I thought and acted was not just the result of previous bad experiences and programming. Trying to force everything into this system often didn’t work. For example, sometimes I was selfish and didn’t handle things well, or I was rude and impatient with people. But when I looked into my past, I couldn’t find an event responsible for the way I behaved.
My self-help books told me to focus on all my positive qualities and ignore the negative ones. Eventually, I realized that doing this meant I had to lie to myself. Instead of helping feel more together, I felt like I was breaking apart inside and walling off the parts I didn’t like.
I also was supposed to develop positive behaviors through force of will, determination, and practice. But no matter how hard I tried, there were some things about myself I just couldn’t change. Besides, people around me apparently hadn’t read the book, because they didn’t respond to my efforts the way I thought they should. I wasn’t as influential as the self-help gurus led me to believe. I couldn’t change others or alter life circumstances.
Then, there was the problem with love. I came to see how self-focused we all were. I could get others’ attention and get people to laugh and like me, but I knew I was just playing a role. I wasn’t being real. When somebody seemed to like me, I wondered if was the real “me” they liked or just the part I was playing. Yet, if I acted like myself, I was ignored.
Worst of all, the whole approach led me to think more about myself, not less. In the end, it did the opposite of what it promised: rather than gaining freedom, I became more like a slave.
On the Road Again
It wasn’t easy letting go of the do-it-yourself-makeover approach. It felt like it should work. I wanted it to work. But I couldn’t follow Jesus and try to run a self-renovation program at the same time. I had to make a choice.
Fortunately, I never stopped praying. God showed me that he loved me regardless of what I thought, looked like, said, or did. Instead of denying the truth about myself and my weaknesses, Jesus told me to embrace them. Instead of having to be some kind of superwoman, Jesus wanted me to be genuine, and his Spirit would help me change at the right pace and in the right way. Instead of always thinking about myself, I was encouraged to love God and the others around me. I start giving life to others instead of expecting to receive it.
Don’t get me wrong. The books I read had a lot of good ideas, and in a world without God, they’re probably the best it has to offer.
The self-help methods did help me in one thing, though. They showed me the futility of a life without God; an empty promise that leads to a dead end. And learning that lesson led me back to Jesus and back on the road to real healing.
Lost & Found is Tara’s real life story, told as part of a series on spiritual heroism.