Whether in sincerity or in jest, at some point in our lives, it is likely that most of us have uttered some variation of the phrase, “That’s just how I am”.
The truth is, we hear people say seemingly benign phrases like this all the time. But, do you know what is funny about sayings like this? Rarely (if ever) do we hear someone say them in relation to a positive character trait.
Think about it. When are you most likely to hear (or say) something along the lines of “this is just how I am”? Go ahead, think on it. I’ll wait…
Do some of your more selfless traits and generous moments come to mind?
Yeah, me neither.
I heard statements like our phrase in question a lot when I was growing up. It usually meant something to the effect of “I’m not changing so don’t ask me!” Sometimes it meant, “I’m telling you like it is, and I don’t care what you think…. or feel.”
The statements were wielded as a means of ending a conversation or emphasizing that nothing was going to change, so there was no point in trying.
On the surface, statements like this can temporarily make us feel like we are in control; like a threat has been averted. Nothing is going to make us think or act differently. We have decided.
Drawn a line in the sand.
Set our foot down.
Closed the book.
Elvis has left the building.
But if we look deeper at our seemingly benign little phrase, what is it that we are really saying? What messages do we convey to our family, friends, and coworkers when we shut them down with something like “that’s just how I am”?
Can statements like these sometimes be a barrier to the relationships we really want? Or worse, weapons used to harm those we care about?
Recently, “that’s just how I am” was uttered by someone I care about in the context of a conversation with me regarding the impact of trauma. It was all too clear that their reasoning behind the statement was to shut me down. It did not matter that on this particular subject, I have quite a bit of experience of both the personal and professional varieties.
Mind you, I was not asking them to “do” anything. Rather, I was requesting that they simply lend an ear; to listen to my experiences. But they were having none of it. In their mind, the way to make quick work of the discussion was to blatantly state, “This is just how I am. Take it or leave it."
They were immovable. Impenetrable. An emotional Fort Knox.
And, while I knew they loved me, I did not feel loved in the moment.
Naturally, my first response was deep frustration (Cuz, I’m human!). Then, upon further contemplation, my frustration turned to sadness.
As I watched my relative scamper to regain solid footing from what was undoubtedly stirring memories and emotions within them, I could not help but see the prison they were choosing as well. It was as though I could hear the clank of metal on metal.
With their statement, the bars closed. The bolt was thrown; convincing them that change was not only unnecessary, but impossible.
When I hear a client say things like, “This is just how I am”, or any flavor of that statement, I typically ask one of two questions. First, tongue in cheek, I will ask the obvious: “then what are you paying me for?” (Cuz, #therapist).
But the more serious question I invite them to answer is this:
“Do you want to be this way?”
And do you know what blows me away nearly every single time I ask that question? What blows me away is that rarely has it occurred to them that not wanting to be this way was even an option. Their prison; invisible to them.
While it blows me away, I also get it. For a long time, statements like our phrase in question were sort of like a theme song for my life: “This is how I am”, sung in my head by some low and thunderous voice, accompanied by a chest rattling heavy metal beat and a screeching guitar riff. Punctuated by the infamous “one finger wave”. All fueled by my pain and rage.
It was my shame response. My armor against self-reflection. My antidote to change.
It was my prison.
The saddest part was that I not only used the statement to convince others and shut them out, I used it to convince myself too. It took some time to realize that the “way I was” was in fact not the way I wanted to be.
Because, more than anything else- I wanted to be free. And it can be difficult to know when we are not free.
But freedom comes at a cost. It will cost us the beliefs we hold about ourselves, others and even God that keep us in “self-protective” mode.
It will cost us the refusal to look at our past and the impact it has on our present.
It will require letting go of how we are, to become who we are meant to be.
That day in conversation with my relative, they could respond in no other way, because to do so would require seeing how they came to be the way they are. All the trauma and pain and self-medicating that has contributed to the life they live now would need to be seen for the destructive forces they are.
A threat to their “how” is not something they are ready for. From where they sit, the pain of change is still greater than the pain of staying the same. And, you know what? I get that too.
So, what about you? Do you feel stuck in a “this is just how I am” state of mind? Perhaps you are not sure. Here are a couple of questions to help you consider the answer.
· Are my relationships healthy and are they working out for me?
· Have I acknowledged the hard parts of my story and begun to process through them?
· Am I able to see the behaviors that keep me stuck in patterns that are unhelpful at best,
and harmful at their worst?
· Do I feel fully known by the people closest to me?
· Am I free to be who I really am, and does that align with who I believe I am created to be?
· Is this how I want to be?
Let your answers help you find the freedom you are created for. If you are ready to take your next step in the journey, please consider getting some help. If you are not sure what that looks like, feel free to reach out to me. I will help in any way I can.
I know the idea of change can feel overwhelming and uncertain, but in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.”
You will never be sorry for taking the steps necessary to set yourself free.
And to my fellow believers out there, remember, it is for freedom that Jesus came to set you free. That is not just some “afterlife” thing. That freedom is intended for this life. It is meant to help you discover your true "Who I am" statement, while there is breath in your lungs and a difference to make in this world.
If you would like more help and resources on how to create the life of freedom you were intended for, check out our resource page at www.itsmyoutloudvoice.com/resources. This week, we are adding to our library! Check out Think Differently, Live Differently by Bob Hamp, LMFT.
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