A Critical Spirit

An encouraging voice or a critical one? That is a question I've been asking myself a lot recently,  regarding the 'voices' I've been listening to and the voices that escape my mouth (and fingers as I type).

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We don't typically mean to be critical but our judgment usually shows our heart just the same. Sometimes we tear others down because we feel bad about ourselves. Sometimes we point out flaws because we would rather direct attention away from our own. And sometimes we are just proud. Plain and simple.

I am so guilty of this. I would like to think that much of my sin comes from underlying feelings of unworthiness, and that's probably true to an extent, but I also have to face the facts. Being a follower of Christ requires that I take responsibility for my own temptations and poor judgment. Intention does not neutralize impact. Harshness makes us unattractive, especially to those that do not know Christ.


When my words are harsh and my attitude is demanding, I am thinking of myself as better than others. I am failing to see the person, failing to see potential, and trying to orchestrate change in the wrong way. That's the truth.

We all do it. ... while driving, while working, while sitting in church. We even use social media to to push perspectives and criticism.  Women, I think, are particularly skilled in this area. Most of us are very good at, uh, knowing it all.  I know I am. [insert laugh here].

We have our own ways (we call that independence). We have the wisest words (we call that teaching). We have knowledge and experience to advise (we call that correction and discipline). We gossip about other people, "bless her heart" (we call that conversation). The way we label it sounds pretty good, but our true intentions might label it differently. Might. I only know where my own heart falls short.

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I wanted to share some things that I have been meditating over because I know that I can be ugly sometimes. It's a heart problem. It's a pride problem. -- It's a problem. Let's leave it there. -- And I know that heart change doesn't necessarily require knowledge (of mind) it requires a willingness to grow. It requires teach-ability and it requires a spirit of humility.  Even the most seasoned preachers and most knowledgeable scholars have things to learn. Information can come from all sort of people in all sorts of positions, in all walks of life. Some of the most valuable lessons I've learned are from some of the most broken people.

Perhaps unity as the body of Christ is achieved through listening to one another. There is no place for cruelty in the church. We speak in love and we speak with conviction, but not at the expense of respect. A body can easily be torn apart and broken down by the cancer of criticism.

Knowledge isn't everything. It's attractive, commendable, and necessary ... but knowledge doesn't win the heart, only love and respect can do that.

With respect to my personal life, I like to think of myself as a critical thinker. I have a lot of thoughts and visions and plans and hopes. And I do try very hard to make people see my point because I feel very strongly about the power of grace in ones life (my life). I also like to win.  And I know that at times, I have sacrificed my sweetness.  And for that I am sorry. As it turns out, I'm less of of "critical thinker" and more of a "critical stinker", a lot of the time.

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Here are a couple of differences, that I've been meditating on, between "constructive" criticism (critical thinking) and having a critical spirit:

Critical Thinking sees potential
A Critical Spirit finds fault

Critical Thinking asks questions
A Critical Spirit makes assumptions

Critical Thinking desires understanding
A Critical Spirit wants to be right

Critical Thinking desires growth
A Critical Spirit expects perfection

Critical Thinking appreciates differences
A Critical Spirit devalues other perspectives

Critical Thinking offers grace first
A Critical Spirit offers discipline first

Critical Thinking acts as an advocate
A Critical Spirit acts as [the] judge

Critical Thinking is respectful
A Critical Spirit is arrogant

Critical Thinking is responsive
A Critical Spirit is insensitive

Critical thinking sees the big picture
A Critical Spirit has tunnel-vision
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I want to be better; for my family and for the people I come into contact with. I want to be a light.


It's hard to know how to find balance grey areas.
What do you think? Do you have a way of drawing the line in your life?


Guilty

I feel guilty. 
All the time.
I feel blamed, useless, not good enough.  I feel as though I should be able to do more, handle more,  work faster, give more.  I should be capable of speaking better words, loving others better, being more encouraging. I should be "sweeter", more holy, more ...  More. More. More.  I feel as though I am responsible for fixing everything and keeping the peace, even when I'm not directly involved.  I feel deep down as though the problems and frustrations of others are a direct result of something that I did, or said, or didn't do.
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It's hard to remember instances where I was made to feel guilty or blamed (with specific words) in my earlier childhood years, partially because, children have a natural grace and innocence about them. But somewhere along the line, somewhere in the middle of extremely high expectations and harsh words of criticism, I started feeling the blame. I would cringe if I made a mistake or had any sort of accident (especially if I made a mess). I fully expected to be punished for being irresponsible, selfish, and/or stupid. I thought that when my sister behaved wildly (like children often do) it was a reflection on me. When my mom would cry, or rage, or get sick, it was because I created too much stress for her;  because I wasn't a good enough listener or because I couldn't fix the situation. This mentality definitely came to a head the summer before my 17th birthday, when I was specifically told that I was to blame for my mom's illness and stress and temper and exhaustion. Those words sealed my belief and still have a great impact on my life as an adult.

These days, sermons and messages feel like they are built specifically to attack me. I often find myself sitting in church, listening to a sermon about "respecting your parents", "keeping your family whole", "having healthy emotions" or "having a quiet and gentle spirit" and translating the message into something more along the lines of...
"reasons why [Lauren] is a terrible Christian"
"reasons why [Lauren] should never be a leader"
"reasons why [Lauren] will never be as righteous as [so-and-so]"
"reasons why [Lauren] is a terrible wife, and mother, and friend"
"reasons why [Lauren] is never going to be free"
"reasons why [Lauren] will never be enough" 

Those thoughts and feelings are a knee-jerk reaction to feeling faulty. When we are told over and over again how bad we are and how inferior we are, we begin to feel utterly defeated. But they. are. lies.

 "I have to tell myself, "Not everything is about you."


Apparently, I say "I'm sorry" for all sorts of things. And I don't even realize that I do it most of the time. It's yet another subconscious (verbal) reaction to feeling like something is my fault, a result of my doing. My father-in-law often comments on my quickness with apologetic words and it always get me thinking.  -- If I'm always sorry for everything, am I ever really sorry for anything real? It's relatively easy to flip from feeling guilty about everything to feeling guilty about nothing. It's important to seek the truth and distinguish between guilt and conviction.

The thing about sermons and advice is, they are meant to instruct. A heart can easily become unteachable because of the protective walls built around it (always trying to maintain any semblance of pride). It's self-preservation. The heart can also easily be crippled and crushed because words feel like knives. They feel personal and cut straight to the core.  And because abuse causes us to generalize negatively about ourselves, we also tend to generalize and draw conclusions that maybe weren't meant for us.

"It's not about you being detestable, [Lauren]."
"It's about you being a human-being in need of direction, and mercy, and grace."
"It's a call and challenge to be better, not an accusation."

I have been trying to label my feelings so that I have a better grasp of how to handle each of them as they arise. It's often difficult for me to decipher between guilt and true conviction. How am I supposed to know when I am making myself feel bad, and when I am being led to make positive changes?

Generally (here we go with that word again), I am learning that conviction is different than a false sense of guilt. Conviction is that small whisper, those daily self-audits, that help us to align our goals with our current actions. It is honest, but generally kind. The goal of conviction is to encourage positive change. It wants us to become better, more whole, more holy, as a result of seeking Christ. 

Guilt, on the other hand, is usually a deafening voice. It's an aggressive, repetitive, growl of ridicule. It can rarely be escaped or made silent, even with modified behaviors. Guilt from the enemy is a thought pattern and a cruel cycle of destructive thought. These thoughts and feelings are not useful for building up. That wicked voice of guilt is cold, and isolating, and purposeless, and chaotic. And it can not be the voice controlling us.
Unchecked and unheard "conviction" (I'm sure) can also become pretty loud. But, I trust that if I am really seeking what is right (and paying attention to what and who I'm listening to) the truth will be brought to light.

I am constantly fighting between feeling and believing, emotion and fact. It's an exhausting battle between believing what experience has taught and what truth really is. I have to remind myself daily (on a minute by minute basis, even) to be careful who I'm listening to.  And I have to remember that despite constantly feeling defeated, I have to keep those "walls of pride" in check as well.

In the words of C.S. Lewis, [Mere Christianity]
"True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less."

To the Label-less Sufferer

Emotional and mental abuse creates scars with no obvious physical ailments, with no "appropriate" stories to share, and no discernible villains to put behind bars. There is little help and little closure. Labels help us categorize and compartmentalize things in our lives. But suffering can't often be labeled and tucked into neat little boxes. We experience and we process but . . .

Emotional and mental abuse breaks our "processor". Emotional abuse strikes in a particularly vicious way, making us question our own identity.  Our head begins to question even the most basic matters of the heart. The constant psychological stress and continued searing pain of contempt exhausts our spirit. It poisons all of our thoughts and either makes us cynical or so idealistic that, in our minds, it's impossible to be anything less than perfect. One's own judgment and knowledge becomes a casualty of war.

One of my first steps in seeking truth and healing is learning to label. Labeling helps me see things as they actually are rather than how they are through the eyes of someone else. As I go on this journey of discovery and truth, I want to be able to share the ups and downs, progress and setbacks. Hopefully it will help someone else in their journey ... or help a friend reach out to someone they know.

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Here are some thoughts, lessons, and labels I have learned over the years [and am still working through if I am being completely honest]: 

Speaking about abuse is not disrespect. It is not ungratefulness or pride or harsh judgment. It is coming to terms with the facts. It's putting your emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being as a top priority.

Healing from abuse requires support. Unlike many other sufferings, this form lives within the mind and heart only. It's hard to be supportive about something that we aren't familiar with, haven't experienced, or can't see. But trying ... that is what really counts. Someone that has suffered at the hands of an identity thief [abuser], really needs affirmation. It can take a long time for the light to win.

Working through abuse is not living in the past or dwelling on the bad. Overcoming distorted views requires digging through the garbage. It required picking through things that are rotten and fraudulent while searching for everything that is ethical and honorable and honest.

It's grief. It's fear. It's doubt. It's distrust. 
It's questioning. It's uncertainty. It's confusion. 
It's identity. It's vulnerability. It's personal.


It's mistrusting everyone and everything, including yourself. It's being unable to trust that you are capable of hearing Gods will and making well informed choices. It's assuming that people really do think the worst of you. It's fearing that the cycle of abuse will continue with you. It's constantly second guessing every feeling, option, choice, intention. It's making yourself sick by playing through all the scenarios and realizing the main component of contention and concern is ... you. It's hard.

Abuse makes you certain of only one thing, that you are the problem. You are not enough. You are failing. You are destructive. You are unwanted and you are deplorable. It's being bound by invisible chains that make asking for help, needy and not asking for help, foolish. It's about hating who you are, how you got here and how you are thought of.  It's about never living up to expectations. It's seeing love and acceptance as a direct result of action and effort.

"You can do anything you put your mind to" they say ... but your mind is a mess. You feel crazy, misunderstood, and misinterpreted. You live and love in a constant state of emotional exhaustion. You overthink everything. Everything. You desperately want to be accepted for who you are, but you aren't really sure who that is or who that should be. Church sermons designed to correct bad behavior feel designed and directed at you. Harsh advice breaks your heart and shatters your emotional stability. Every comment penetrates to your core, not because it's cruel or wrong or even meant for you but because you believe every bad trait and character flaw is you, defines you. It can take years to recover from a stray comment that further confirms your weaknesses and fears. Compliments are usually rejected until they begin to outweigh the heaviness within your heart.

Emotional turmoil is never really knowing what you are good at. It's insecurity. It's constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for love to become conditional. It's remembering that your feelings don't really matter. It's knowing that your perspective isn't valid or valued. It's hating manipulation but falling for it every time because you hate discord and desire to please. It's complete vulnerability. It's the risking bearing your soul or becoming an impenetrable fortress. It's cold and it's isolating. It's helpless. It's infuriating. It's worth weeping over.

It makes crying shameful and anger invalid. It makes boundaries impossible. It makes anxiety the primary emotion. It makes mountains out if molehills. It makes lions into lambs and lambs into vicious lions. It makes you prey. Prey to your own thoughts, your own fears, and others' assumptions. It always keeps true love at a distance.

Suffering is hard, no matter who, and why, and how it happens. We experience loss and hardship, broken dreams and broken promises. We question who we are and who we want to be.  We question authority. We question spiritual matters and ultimate truth. We wonder if we are failing and we consider life on greener pastures. 

The main thing about suffering is ... it takes time to heal. It takes strength. And it requires divine intervention. It requires freedom from the bondage of emotional and spiritual darkness. It requires a new identity. It requires a healer.
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To the label-less sufferer, 

God sees you. He wants to make your heart whole and full. He will fight for you. You are loved. You are known. You are wanted. 



Renewal. Revival. Truth.

17 years old.  I was sitting in her living room, her hot breath on my face. Hushed words with so much intensity. I was told how ignorant, god-less, un-christian, "common", cruel, ungrateful, disrespectful, worthless, and evil I was. I was videotaped as I sobbed and shook and wished I could die. I was told that my school friends needed to see how their "Christian" friend and leader really acted. I was asked if I would be embarrassed to show my friends the "real" me. I was asked why I was crying and why I was angry. I'm a "lucky little bitch". I was told that I was the reason for her sickness and strokes/seizures, for her outbursts, and rage, and thoughts of suicide. I was finally left to sit alone. I wasn't allowed to speak or cry or move off the couch, because I would contaminate the rest of the house. I was disgusting.  -- A tiny house in the middle of the country, no streetlights, and the continued "conversations" that were meant to be heard through paper-thin walls about my worthlessness and cruelty. Then nothing. Just crickets outside in the black.

Eventually, one of them appeared again and pulled me close. She laid my head on her lap, brushed the little hairs from my temples and told me how proud of me she was and how good I was.
And that's the night that I died.

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The summer before my senior year of high school. A normal time for uncertainties. A time for hopes and dreams, questions and fears. A time when the future is equally exciting and terrifying. A time when we most desire stability and belonging, when we seek direction and hope. 

After a years of issues and a particularly severe year of emotional torment, I left my school, my church, my best friends, my boyfriend, all of my positive influences, my leadership roles, people that knew me and respected me as a person, half of my family and all normalcy and sanity. I was forced to move out of state to live in a camper with my mom and my 7 year old sister. No drivers license, no car, no freedom, no friends, no church, limited calls, if any. Definitely no contact with my Dad. We were "starting again", away from everything that she hated, no loved, no hated, no loved.

She thought that we needed counseling. But "we"meant me. If I would just let go. If I could just love her more. She couldn't understand why I didn't love her enough to be entirely happy about leaving everyone and everything. We sought counseling at a little church but once they actually caught on to what was happening, we would find fault in those manipulative traitors and and stop going. The game would be played and apologies made for past boyfriends or behaviors or "working too much" but never admission or apology for the current situation. 

A bad example to my sister ... a diva, a brat, cruel and callused, selfish, ignorant, uncaring, disloyal. A liar. The mental and emotional control went on for what felt like years. I had no right to be depressed or upset, angry or sad. I had no right to feel unless they were her feelings. No right to speak unless they were words that she wanted to hear. I felt like I had nothing. I didn't matter. I was either screamed at or ignored. My voice didn't matter. My opinion didn't matter. My emotions didn't matter. I had to shut down. So I did. I went into emotional hiding. I prayed so much that summer. I walked to the campground playground when I could. I would sit swing and listen to praise music to try and find something bigger. I was dying inside. 

Apparently my sudden silence was taken to be a "cry for help" and I was literally wrestled into the car and taken to the ER while they bombed the camper for roaches where a doctor prodded me with questions about my depression and "thoughts of suicide". I never wanted to or threatened to kill myself, I explained. I just didn't want to be tormented. I wanted normalcy, stability. I want to feel loved. I want to be away from my mom's 'friend'. But what what my mom (apparently) heard from the doctor was quite different. "She hates you. She loves her Dad. She doesn't want to be with you."

The scratching squeak of the glass doors sliding open was the only thing I heard as we walked into the parking lot. No eye-contact. No words. Finally one word, not so hushed this time, "In". The door slammed behind me. A few moments of piercing silence, just the sound of the pouring rain on the hood, and then every word and name in the history of names.
"How could you tell some stranger lies about your family?!"
"You're lucky to be alive right now."
"You're lucky you weren't slapped shit-less in the parking lot."
"No one wants to look at you because you're worthless."

"You're dead to me", she said.
And for the first time in my life, I really wished I was.

We drove to a laundry mat. You know, just going about normal business while my mom stared off into the distance and I wept uncontrollably. I couldn't breathe. When the car finally stopped, I ran to the closed down gas station next door and melted beside the pump, praying for God to have mercy on me and just kill me rather than torture me like this. They didn't follow. More than an hour later they drove away, while I still sat at that closed gas station. They eventually came back because my sister saw that I had been left behind and melted down. They made me get back in the car and told me that they only cared where I was because they were responsible for me and "would be damned if they went to jail for some little bitch". We drove off into the middle of nowhere to that tiny hell-house with just trees and fields and darkness. So much darkness.

My innocence was slaughtered that day and my identity was stolen. I was left questioning who I really was, what value I really had, and what I could possibly offer anyone in life, especially God. What I knew to be true was completely altered. My identity had been forever changed.

There is certainly much more to this story, good things, great things, and bad things... God did incredible things and wonderful people worked very hard and loved me so well.

But my purpose in writing this is two-fold.
1. To work towards truth. And I can't work towards truth if I can't ever speak the whole truth. I feel things deeply and personally because those attacks were personal.  My "trust" issues are valid. My hardships may not be particularly blog-worthy or visible or memorial-able but they are no less real.
2. To encourage other people that my not have a "platform" or physical proof of injury, to know that they aren't alone. You are valuable. You aren't crazy (as much as certain people would like you to think you are). You are wholly loved.

Lots of people have written books and blogs about abuse, loss, addiction, tragedy... but I feel like emotional abuse is rarely spoken of because it's label-less. It's not a "platform" that's seen as acceptable or reasonable or truly tragic. It's messy, somewhat self-inflicted, continuous, and most who have experienced it don't ever get "past it" or away from the influence of their abuser. Like an addiction, it's always calling from the shadows.

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The wounds still haven't really healed. It's been more than 10 years and these scars can still be easily opened. I fight my own personal identity crisis daily. These things may have been brushed under the rug, buried beneath the surface, or never acknowledged but that doesn't make them less true and it certainly doesn't make them less painful or toxic.

I'm sure that many people will be quick to tell me to count my blessings and to be grateful I wasn't beaten or physically tortured. And I am thankful about so many wonderful things in my life that I certainly don't deserve. The truth doesn't negate thankfulness. There are people who would say it's best not to speak of these things but respectfully, not speaking of these things is just more isolation. Because until you've been in a place of mental and emotional chaos at the hands of people you believe love you, you don't understand. And to the abusers who refuse to acknowledge the things that happened, it's real. It's been very real for me these past several years and it has affected every single aspect of my life -- from my marriage to my children to my relationship with my sister to my aspirations and decision making abilities. But honestly, the worst of all is my spiritual life. You made me doubt things I never knew I could. I walk on eggshells in my own mind. I can't even be "good" without thinking that I'm probably doing it for the wrong reason.

I will never let you in fully, again. I will not let you hurt my family. I will try to protect those that I love against torment. I will not let you control my mind or my emotions. I will protect my boys, because that is what parents do, protect their children from harm. So instead of guilt-trips and conversations about forgiveness, lets converse about this... when you can acknowledge that all these things were done and said, then we can communicate. Until then, it's not actually a conversation... it's manipulation. 12 years and these sores still burn so wildly that there isn't a day that goes by that I don't feel the sting. I need to cut off the cancerous limb and all the twigs that have sprung from it.

I need to be able to tend to the true heart issues in my life. I need to hear the truth and believe it, good and bad. How am I supposed to work on issues when I'm consistently made to feel as though I'm insane? How am I to seek truth and believe the truth when I'm not allowed to speak about true things that happened?

I'm finished with being fearful of what people think and assume. I'm finished wondering if people understand me or really care about me. I'm finished second-guessing. I'm finished feeling crazy. My identity doesn't come from you or your friend. I know, in my mind, that you both were wrong, but my soul still feels tormented.

My faith needs to be greater than all the fears within me. I want to believe that God can heal even the invisible wounds. I have been wholly crushed and wholly lost but I know that I am wholly loved, if I accept it and believe it.


And that is my meditation for this year: Renewal. Revival. Truth.
I'm ready for this endless winter to be over and for spring to come once again.