Updated: Dec 20, 2021
“You ok over there?” My friend’s question expressed concern despite the laughter in her voice.
The inquiry was provoked by the groans and giggles coming from my side of the room. We had been painting a mural for a friend’s child and I was tasked with the challenge of making the area just above the baseboards look like the bottom of the ocean, complete with cartoon versions of starfish, shrimp, and plankton. (In case you’re wondering, it was, indeed, a SpongeBob-themed endeavor!)
As one might guess, this was no easy feat, requiring me to hold circus-worthy contortions for extended periods of time. When I attempted to unfold myself from the floor and detangle from the brushes, paint trays, and tarps, my body staged a strong protest in the form of groaning with aches and pains.
I sheepishly told my friend I was fine but, for the rest of the day, I had a kink in my side. And the irony was that the only way to stop the dull ache it caused was to contort myself back into a more subtle version of the very same position that caused me pain in the first place.
Unquestionably, it’s painful to physically contort ourselves into unnatural shapes. I’ve done it a lot. Cleaning, painting, fixing something, hanging a picture. Even playing with my fur babies. Typically, there’s a cost to pay in the form of physical pain.
But, what about when we contort to conform in our relationships?
Just as holding an unnatural or ill-fitting bodily position can leave us sore or even injured, contorting who we are to fit the agenda or comfort level of others can leave us mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually sore… and sometimes, injured.
And just as the kink in my side was only relieved by returning to the same position that initially caused me pain, we can believe that the only way to feel love and acceptance, to get relief from our pain, is to contort and conform to what others need or want us to be.
What does “contorting to conform” look like?
In our daily lives, the contortions might be more subtle and internal. It’s different for many of us, but often, it can look like this:
-I won’t share my story. People wouldn’t understand.
-I won’t share my struggles. People will judge me.
-I won’t share my needs. People will think I’m high maintenance.
-I won’t share my accomplishments. People will think I’m bragging or looking for attention.
-I’ll say ‘yes’ when I really want to say ‘no’ so people will like me and find me valuable.
-I’ll put others first and make sure they’re ok. Then I will be ok, too.
-I will shrink myself/pull back to make others more comfortable.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Just as that day on the floor painting caricatures of sea creatures cost me two days of aches and pains, there’s a cost to contorting who we are, as well. The cost can come in the form of:
-A lost sense of self
-A diminished sense of purpose
-Disconnection from ourselves, others, and God
So, what do we do when we feel the need to shapeshift into some other, ill-fitting version of ourselves?
We can start by using an under-recognized superpower that we each possess. We can begin by being curious.
Curiosity is a great skill to develop and employ whenever we need to explore something about ourselves, our world, our relationships--- and, yes, even God.
Being curious keeps us open and out of judgment. It promotes authenticity, invites vulnerability, and pushes back on shame. Our curiosity can lead us to explore questions like:
-What is pulling me toward this behavior?
-Is this relationship safe enough for me to really be myself?
-Am I responding in an old way that is no longer needed or appropriate?
-What message am I hearing right now and is it actually coming from this person, or is it an “old tape” on rewind?
-What am I feeling in my body? When have I felt it before?
-How old do I feel right now? What was going on in my life at that age?
-What am I sacrificing to contort/conform and how does it diminish what and who I've been created to be?
These are just a few ideas, but curiosity can lead us to ask all sorts of powerful questions that can help guide us to answers and clues to finding our way back to the truest version of ourselves.
But, Don’t Go It Alone
The journey I’m proposing can leave us feeling weary and at times, discouraged. That is why I believe it is a road best traveled with safe, caring, and wise companions. For those of us who have experienced a childhood that was filled with the need to contort ourselves, the journey is also best taken with a clinically trained therapist. And in my experience, with a loving God who can’t be shaken, who calls you “the apple of His eye” exactly as you are. Who delights in you, with no need for you to contort, conform or become anything you’re not meant to be.
If any of this has resonated with you, take that as your cue to get curious and to unfold into who you are meant to be. Remember to find those who are for you. They will champion your efforts. Remember, there is no one else who can be you. The freedom that comes with realizing that is a good thing will change your life. I know, because it changed mine, too.
Oh, Hey! I am so glad you kept reading! This is the part where I tell you that we are here to help. If you would like to learn more, check out some other resources that can help at www.itsmyoutloudvoice.com/resources. You can also reach out to me through this blog. If, like me, learning to “unfold” into who you’re meant to be poses an added challenge because of your childhood experiences, I would love for you to check out Generations Deep: Unmasking Inherited Dysfunction and Trauma to Rewrite Our Stories Through Faith and Therapy. Learn more at www.GenerationsDeep.com. Happy healing! I am here and I am cheering you on!