Henri Nouwen, the noted spiritual theologian, once wrote: “As long as you think that you need people to be yourself, you are not really free.” I remember feeling the piercing pain of my own insecurities when I first read Nouwen’s words. Something in me was jolted and I immediately sought to distance myself from the truth of what he was saying. After all, who wants to think of himself as being held captive?
My initial reaction was to convince myself that I would no longer be bound by people; that I was going to live free and break loose from my imprisonment. If the problem was people, I was determined to disconnect from the source of my internment and learn to live a life devoid of the crippling relationships that keep me bound. But I quickly realized that my desire to shake free from the grip of people around me was a form of avoidance–I did not want to confront the real issue.
No matter how much I tried to live in isolation, I still felt like I was a prisoner. No matter how much I tried to separate, I kept running into my imprisonment. I was confined by feelings of inadequacy. It was then that I began to understand that the problem was not people; the problem was me. It was my internal desire to be valued that held me captive. Nouwen’s words dislodged me because they forced me to confront a painful reality that I believe many of us live with: the tendency to base one’s identity and self-worth on other people’s opinions and expectations.
Many of us have found ourselves guilty of being dependent on validation from others, and that dependency has been fueled by the search for confirmation that one’s life is relevant. I know that there are some who do not struggle with this issue, but there are many others who wrestle with rabid insecurities and feelings of purposelessness that have a crippling effect on their lives. For such people, there are few emotional mechanisms that reinforce an inherent sense of worth or value–the yearning to be constantly affirmed by others therefore provides some sense of security, albeit a false one.
But the constant quest for validation can be addictive and detrimental to the development of one’s character. This quest can leave one psychologically bruised, stagnant and, perhaps worst of all, transformed into a shadow of one’s self. In this state, one may never fully arrive at an awareness of one’s true identity and may even languish in a labyrinth constructed by the irrelevant thoughts and unwarranted whims of others.
As a person of faith, my belief in God has sustained me in the midst of my insecurities. I have come to the radical realization that my identity is not dependent on the estimations of inconsistent people–my identity is steeped in my deep and abiding connection to God. God is the only one who truly knows me! God knows us in the depth of our being. What a liberating truth.
God knows our faults, failures and foolishness. God knows our hurts, habits and hang-ups. God knows all of the things that we would never want other people to know about us and God still continues to shower us with love. Perhaps living in the freedom of God’s love can liberate us from our dependency on people. It just may be that true freedom can come from living in the light of God’s presence and love.