“How can I say no?” my mom asked, “You wouldn’t love me anymore.”
January 17, 2018
My mother and I had recently experienced a small but significant breakthrough in our relationship after 11 years of dissent and contempt.
Throughout my entire childhood, I had always been on Mom’s team. Dad was seen as the enemy. Although Mom first recruited me to her side as a playful gesture, she eventually sought me as her actual teammate during her fights with Dad.
But Mom was also on my team. That meant that I got to have everything I wanted: scooters, bikes, expensive food, and phone-after-phone-after-phone. Even when Dad passed away and my relationship with Mom turned sour, her giving and sacrifice never ceased. In fact, it doubled and tripled—especially after a bad fight. I don’t think I ever heard her say the word, “No,” even when she was deeply unhappy about something. This was the usual pattern: I’d ask for something superficial (whether it’s new clothes or going to the mall), she would make a face of disapproval, grab her keys, and drive recklessly to wherever I wanted to go to express her disapproval. But she wouldn’t say, “No.” She thought that having no personal boundaries meant being sacrificial and loving.
I learned later on that her definition of love meant giving ceaselessly, even out of bitterness. She allowed other people to invade her boundaries because she feared that communicating her needs would make people love her less. She loved me, but her motivation wasn’t love. It was fear. She grew up thinking that her worth rested firmly in the hands of others—not herself and certainly not God. As a result, she often felt out of control and had frequent breakdowns because she didn’t understand her own self-worth and couldn’t protect her own limits.
Pretty soon after my dad passed away, Mom labeled me as, “The disobedient girl your dad warned me about.” I was suddenly no longer on Mom’s team—I was the enemy. Yet, I still got everything I wanted because my mother couldn’t say, “No.” She only threatened to kill me and then kill herself whenever she reached her limit. If this was what I thought of love, no wonder why my self-worth diminished by the time I reached 10th grade!
“See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him” (1 John 3:1).
I love that John’s letter begins with the reminder of our intrinsic worth as God’s children. I learned this immediately after coming to faith, but I hadn’t internalized it until recently. God had been working on restoring my sense of worth for the longest time. He knew that it was damaged, even though I tried tirelessly to convince myself that my self-worth was fine and I didn’t need any useless reminders.
At that time, I didn’t recognize what was in my ‘well’ of worthiness. My well contained my accomplishments (I was a fresh Berkeley graduate), my handsome and meek boyfriend, my financial freedom, and my seemingly bright and successful future. Since all of those things made me feel worthy, I naturally lost myself when all of it came to a screeching halt. My Berkeley education couldn’t get me a high-paying job, my financial freedom was compromised, my sweet and meek boyfriend became traumatized and defensive, and my future seemed as uncertain as ever. I was so unhappy with life that I thought even God had abandoned me. Well played, life.
When I lost every treasure in my well of worthiness, I slowly became unhinged. My inherited lack of boundaries began to show. I controlled other people but I couldn’t control myself. My anxiety and depression spiraled out of whack, and I landed in the mental hospital for 72 hours on suicide watch. Never did I understand my mom’s anxiety so well until my own self-worth collapsed.
Since then, the Lord had been patiently and sweetly helping me heal by reconstructing my well of worthiness. I slowly surrendered to Him the breakable, temporary things I once held onto so tightly, one by one, as I learned to trust Him. I imagine the process looking something like a little girl handing over to her father her secret stash of treats, one candy at a time, even though she really, really wanted them. Full-blown tantrums included. Still, the treats gave her cavities, so she decided to hand them over to her wise parent albeit reluctantly. What happens when the little girl handed over her last treat?
She didn’t get a broccoli in return. She got a huge hug and a, “I’m so proud of you!” from her father. I’m currently at the hugging stage and it feels amazing. I wouldn’t trade another treat in the world for my heavenly Father—especially when both of us endured so much to get to this point.
I love how patient God is with me. I wasn’t forced to empty out my well, even though I could imagine how frustrating it must’ve been for Him to see me stumble over my own naivety. God pursued me for years before I finally gave up and trusted Him. Similarly, He’s not going to control you like a robot. He will wait patiently until you realize that the things that currently compete for your self-worth aren’t even worthy for that position.
Little by little, God restored Himself to His rightful place in my life. My accomplishments, relationships, success, and future hopes and dreams now pale in comparison to how happy I am to be loved by God. I was tested again yesterday when I felt hurt by someone who was previously at the center of my well of worthiness. Before, I would’ve felt betrayed, enraged, and unworthy, but yesterday, I immediately remembered who was in my well. Surprise: not this person! The only person who belongs in my well of worthiness is God. It doesn’t matter what other people think of me because my self-worth is in what God thinks of me, and I’m pretty sure that He thinks I’m adorable!
That settled it. I felt joy bubbling from within so I took a stroll down Brand Blvd to soak in my newfound source of confidence—my heavenly Father beaming down from above.
So, I want to ask you this today: What is inside your well of worthiness? Is it your ambitions, accomplishments, go-getter attitude, or optimism? Is it your boyfriend, girlfriend, children, parents, friends, or bosses?
All of these relationships and ambitions are inherently good, but when they get dropped into your well of worthiness (either on accident or on purpose), they become the very thing that defines you. And let me tell you something sad: one day, that thing might just disappoint you, and you will be left in pieces because you’ve literally lost the very source of your identity.
No one was designed to give you your identity except for God. Your well is eternal. Nothing in this world can fill it up and make you feel truly fulfilled. Even if you’re happy with what’s in your well right now, it’s not immovable. Life will happen and people will change. Allow God to empty your current well of worthiness and fill it with Himself. Only then will you be able to experience lasting joy and peace even in the midst of trials.
It’s also important to note that there aren’t any layers to our wells. Something is either in or out. There shouldn’t be any room for anyone else, besides God, to occupy this well. The human heart is such that as soon as we allow something to define our sense of worth, it overshadows what God thinks about us and we become paralyzed with the fear of losing our self-worth. Our breakdowns, insecurities, and unhealthy entitlements all result from putting the wrong things in our wells.
If the only thing in your well is God, you can always be sure of your self-worth because His love for you isn’t subjected to circumstances or moods. His love for you is unchanging. You’ll find it easier to empty out your well and surrender it to Him once you discover that He is trustworthy. Can I say a prayer for you? Let’s retreat into a quiet corner, away from all the noise. Take a deep breath. Let’s pray.
Dear Heavenly Father,
There’s nothing I want more than for us to experience peace, joy, and freedom in your name. Please help us to empty out our wells and fill it up with yourself. Inhabit our identities and give us full confidence in you. Lord, you are so good and you know our needs before we even realize it. Please continue to pursue us all the days of our lives. We want to get to know you more and fall deeper in love with you. Grant us healing and wholeness, in your name! Amen!