The Wrong Jeans
Our styles of relating are formed and informed by the messages we internalize through our stories of harm and abuse. Here, Laura Wade Shirley, Participant Care/Fellowship Supervisor at The Allender Center, writes about a particular message that, like an old pair of jeans that no longer fits, she is learning to trade in for one that is new, life-giving, and fitted to the parts of herself that have been healed and restored.
I had spent the week prior preparing for a weekend of work at an Allender Center conference. Things that week seemed difficult and harder than expected. I had struggled with feeling weighed down and accused. Now here it was, a few days into the conference, and I was tired, and I showed battle scars from the work. The people I work with offered to pray for me, and soon I heard God’s voice…
The sweet words from a woman (a colleague) I barely knew came as I pulled away from an embrace with her. She looked at me and said, “You didn’t do anything wrong.” The words pierced me deeply. She knows nothing of the particularity of my story or my struggles. And yet, after being involved in the prayer time for me, she came to speak words from God that served as a balm to my soul.
As I drove home that night, my tears mixed with weariness and thankfulness. I had been taunted by accusation and lies as I fought on behalf of my group of conference participants. God then stepped into the darkness where I was hearing the enemy accuse, confuse, and exhaust me. Sweet words of clarity came through this insightful woman.
The power of this belief grew with savvy and subtlety; its impact was neither simple nor obvious to my naked eye.
One of the themes of my life can be summed up in this statement: “You are wrong: It is your fault.” Years of sexual abuse coupled with the falling apart of my parents’ marriage had taught me to believe it (the disintegration of life around me) was my fault. The underlying message that accompanied my childhood years was, “It is your fault: You did something wrong, and you are wrong.” These messages became the lens through which I had come to see the world. We all have ways of interacting with the world, which can be referred to as our “style of relating.” One of my fundamental styles of relating was this belief that I am wrong. The power of this belief grew with savvy and subtlety; its impact was neither simple nor obvious to my naked eye.
These days, this belief or style of relating flares in me when I fight with my husband. In conflict with him, my defenses war against the deep and insidious lies that were planted in me from an early age. Often I hear myself say to him, “I didn’t do anything wrong!” I am prone to defend myself furiously in spaces that bring me to a place of vulnerability. In such moments, my felt sense is that accepting my wrongdoing in the present would only confirm that I am and have been wrong, and that the conflict (past and present) is ultimately all my fault. In these moments, I am fighting a phantom figure from my past: one whose purpose was to convince me that I was wrong in all the ways I worked to conclude otherwise. And yet, the truth is that in relationships, there are moments in which I am wrong. In these interactions with my husband, acknowledging my wrongdoing and allowing myself to hear what he is saying (rather than continuing to defend against a phantom lie) opens a way to deeper connection between us.
A few days after receiving God’s words through my colleague, I was driving in my car and I felt a shift move through my body and heart. As my insides shifted, I again heard the words “You didn’t do anything wrong.” Now singing in my ears, I heard this phrase reprise over and over again. Soon came a deeper invitation: one that brought the possibility of giving up this shaming damnation at more of a wholesale level. What would my life be like if I gave up wrestling with this phantom accuser and believing the lies?
I have spent years wrapping the blanket-of-being-wrong around myself, and finding solace there. What would I do without this blanket, without this covering of familiarity? Like an old pair of worn but trusty jeans, I had taken on a style of relating that did not fit quite right and may not have even looked all that good, but the familiarity brought a version of comfort that offered supposed relief.
I have spent years wrapping the blanket-of-being-wrong around myself, and finding solace there.
There is something very enticing and alluring about defenses we have come to find comfort through. These lenses and defenses through which each one of us has come to see the world have been born and worn out of our particular struggles that haunt and taunt us. We each come to develop our own brands of unreconciled and enstoried pain, through the attempts of our young selves to translate words and worlds that are often too big, and at times too dark, to understand. We put on the denim defenses that help us manage the tenderness and fragility of youth. As we then start to grow out of the need for such defenses, they begin to look and feel like jeans that should fit, but don’t. The comfort they once offered begins to tatter and to fall apart at the seams. Like these old jeans, our defenses become outdated and create more problems than comfort.
When we become defensive, we always lose and give our power to others. When we become defensive, we wrestle with phantom figures, rather than the living breathing members of our present. This does not create intimacy or connection; it leaves us alone and afraid. Just like we were at the times when we developed the related defenses in the first place.
How much more freedom could come if I stopped believing the lie that says, “I have done something wrong; it is all my fault”? What cleansing could come in the grief that would follow me retiring my trusty jeans?
The sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of my neighbors was not my fault. Though I came to this realization over 20 years ago, even now God is still inviting me to return and to release the parts of me that are susceptible to getting drawn in by this lie.
This woman who spoke such kind and precise words to me (“You didn’t do anything wrong”) was a seamstress of God, coming to ask me to live in the truth of who He has made me to be: free, forgiven, and loved. He invited me to exchange my old pair of jeans with a new pair that are form-fitted with freedom and play.