Hair, face, eyes, ears, nose, chin, lips, teeth, back, breasts, stomach, waist, hips, butt, arms, hands, fingernails, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet, toes, body hair, pimples, scars, freckles, moles, birthmarks, skin, sound of our voice, what we say, what we do, what we wear, what music we listen to, the list goes on and on and on. These are the things that most adolescents focus on when determining what makes them acceptable to their peers.
The Need for Connection
Self-image is a complex beast. If we have a distorted image of ourselves it becomes very easy to fill our thoughts with feelings of disgust and worthlessness. This is better known as shame and it can fundamentally change the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world we live in.
Dr. Brene` Brown, in her book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power explains her research on the subject of shame as a study on the power of connection and the dangers of disconnection. When one considers the “process to the product” that is self-image, as an individual we must first understand that our primary drive is to be connected. The longing to belong serves many purposes; survival, fulfillment, success, and procreation.
Growing up as blank slates, our families, environments and culture shape how we “learn” to connect. We are taught skills and styles of connecting to others. Sometimes the means are healthy and affirming, and God-honoring, placing God at the helm and others accordingly. Other times we are not taught healthy ways of connecting. We are taught that violence, aggression, manipulation and other illegitimate means are what are necessary to get what you need and want. We are also taught that how we present ourselves to the world (immediate peer group) has everything to do with being accepted and therefore belonging.
When we are not affirmed as worthy of being connected to others we learn to see ourselves as deficient, broken, not valuable, insignificant, etc., but our need for connection doesn’t leave us, we simply learn other ways to get what we need.
Shame begets Shame
Dr. Brown goes on to say in her book that when we don’t attach in healthy ways we develop an accompanying belief system that is shame based and tells us things like, “Something is wrong with you”; “You are defective”; “You don’t measure up”; “Why can’t you be like….” and when we believe these to be true it becomes impossible to be “real” with others. Shame begets shame.
“When we sacrifice authenticity in an effort to manage how we are being perceived by others, we often get caught in a dangerous and debilitating cycle: Shame, or the fear of being shamed, moves us away from our true selves.”
In the case of the Christian, it moves us away from the Imago Dei, which is the image of God within us.
When we fail to see the Imago Dei in us, our vision becomes distorted and we don’t see clearly. It is the difference between having bad eye-sight and wearing corrective glasses or contacts. For those of us with bad eyes think about how many important details we miss when we aren’t wearing our corrective lenses. Think about the risk we are at for hurting ourselves or others while driving. The same kind of blurry vision clouds our ability to see ourselves clearly as children of God that are more precious than gold.
As we work with students, it is important to know that they likely have a fractured image of who they were created to be and how we interact with them can push them one way or the other regarding their ability to see themselves the way their heavenly Father sees them. For the adolescent, image is everything and as youth workers, we must have a solid theology of image that regularly challenges the cultural messages our students receive. We must help our students and their families recapture the perspective of the Imago Dei.
CHRIS SCHAFFNER is a certified addictions counselor working with chemically dependent ’emerging adults’ and is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.