Monday, March 5, 2012
Loneliness, Self-Image, and Acceptance
People talk a lot about the value of "self-awareness" -- being yourself, despite what others may think. The unsettling reality, though, is that for many of us, our own self-image – how we see ourselves – is defined by what others think of us. Although we may not want to admit it, much of our own identity is shaped by the opinions of others. People who feel liked and accepted by others typically have a more positive self-image than those who feel rejected, unappreciated, or unloved.
Earlier, I addressed why some people tend to isolate themselves from others. This happens when a person feels unloved, disconnected, or unwanted. For most people, rejection plays a huge part in this. Rejection hurts, but continual rejection breaks the spirit. When a person is continually rejected, or feels unaccepted by others, that person will stop reaching out to avoid the pain of rejection. In my own case, rejection by my peers, from as early as I can remember, in addition to my own broken family unit, feeling rejected and unloved by my father, led to isolation and withdrawal.
The truth is, all of us need to feel accepted and loved. This is a vital part of the human experience. Initially, one looks for acceptance within his own family unit. If this is denied, he looks for acceptance elsewhere, among friends and others outside his own family. A lot of times, people will identify with those from whom they find acceptance.
When we know that others will accept us for who we truly are, we are more likely to open up and allow others to get close to us. If not, we can react in one of two ways – we will either retreat, and close ourselves off from people, or simply project a persona that is appealing to others, and will enable them to accept us. A person can only take so much rejection before completely withdrawing......at the same time, he can only pretend to be someone else for so long before that person begins to morph into his projected identity.
I am a huge Twilight Zone fan, and one of my favorite episodes of all time is The Masks. The plot centers around a rich man who is near death, and his adult children and grandchildren, who are very greedy and fake. Before dying, the rich man calls his family to spend one last evening with him. The family was set to inherit a large sum of money, but in order to do so, each of them had to agree to wear a mask for a few hours, until midnight. The masks were a representation of the true nature of each person, but they were unaware that these masks had supernatural powers. By midnight, the faces of the people wearing them morphed into the mask, so that their face assumed the shape of the mask they were wearing. Who they truly were on the inside became visible on the outside. They could no longer hide their real person. This sort of reminded me of how a person's identity, over time, can morph into the mask that he wears.
Everyone strives for the acceptance and approval of others. We all want people to accept us for who we truly are -- but if this fails, many of us are more than willing to become who we think others want us to be, in order to gain acceptance. It's unfortunate, but true. We sacrifice our own identity in order to feel loved and accepted by others; after all, it is better to be accepted and loved for who others think we are than rejected for who we really are. In doing so, we assume the identity of the person we think others want us to be.
It is not really difficult to see how this manifests itself practically. If a person is part of a particular group, he will make decisions based on his acceptance into that group. For example, a person who wouldn't normally take drugs may start to experiment because it's what his friends are doing, and he wants to identify with them. People call it “peer pressure,” but down deep, it is really just a desire for acceptance. A Christian may be afraid to share his faith because of what others may think of him. His identity is in Christ, but for fear of rejection, he rejects that identity in order to please those whom he desires acceptance from. Thus, one's actions are defined by his desire for acceptance, and his fear of rejection.
For a person who longs for acceptance, oftentimes, an identity shift is in order -- meaning that a person will adjust his own identity to suit those whom he is trying to gain acceptance from. He will become whoever he thinks he needs to be in order to avoid rejection. I find it sad when I hear a person complain: “I have lost sight of who I truly am.” Depending on the person he is trying to please, a person can project multiple images, wear multiple masks – one for his family, for his friends, for his co-workers. What it all really boils down to, it seems, is wanting to be accepted by everyone, and a fear of rejection, for whatever reason.
I suppose that if a person does this for long enough, he can lose sight of who he truly is. That person thinks he is receiving love and acceptance, but it's simply a counterfeit. A lot of times, we want to be loved and accepted by everyone – but this is not reality. No one who is real with who they are can be loved and accepted by everyone – but even so, many of us still try.
How many times have we heard a person say “He/She is not who I thought he/she was.” How many other times have we heard a person say “No one understands me. I'm so lonely – no one knows the real me.” I suppose that if a person strives and strives for acceptance, even if that person receives it, he/she can still be desperately lonely – especially if that person is only projecting an image in order to gain acceptance. No one knows who they really are, because they only know who they think others want them to be. How can anyone truly connect with others on that level?
That is not true love and acceptance. The real person becomes isolated, behind the masked facade. This is conditional love and acceptance, and whether we want to admit it or not, as human beings, that is all we can really offer someone most of the time. Jesus, on the other hand, knows who we are, and loves us unconditionally. He sees the person behind the masks – the real person -- and loves us for who we are. He saw behind the mask of the Samaritan woman when He told her that she had 5 husbands. He saw behind the religious masks of the Pharisees, when He told them that they were whitewashed tombs full of dead men's bones. He sees the heart of every man, and loves him unconditionally.
With Christ, we do not have to pretend. We do not have to feel lonely, distant, and unconnected, trying to please Him by being who we think He wants us to be. This is one of the reasons why a spiritual connection with Christ is such a deep one. He connects with the real person. It is impossible to put on an act with Jesus. He accepts us for who we are – He is the one with whom we can truly open up, completely, without fear of rejection. Only God can fill the deepest loneliness because only He knows us on the deepest level. He knows our fears, our hurts, our longings – those experiences that we feel we cannot share with anyone, God knows them.
And He loves us in spite of them.