I was in elementary school when I was first taught the “perfect” comeback to bullies who used their words as weapons against me.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” I’d scream at my taunter across the field during recess.
We’re taught when we’re young that words are just words, that when someone says something hurtful we shouldn’t let it bother us. It’s not true. It doesn’t matter. We shouldn’t care.
But if that’s true, why do we tell people that we love them? Why do we feel emotional connections to the lyrics of our favorite songs? Why do we read books and poems and listen to speeches and podcasts?
Words have power. A lot of it.
I didn’t realize it, but things had changed. In a matter of weeks I had gone from being wanted to not… and the only tangible reasons I had to hold on to were in the form of a few vague sentences strung together in an abrupt and unexpected conversation.
That string of sentences has played on repeat in my head for weeks now, leaving more questions than answers, and they’ve formed a complicated and long-winded narrative about who I am and what I’m worth.
You see, the problem with words is that we can’t always mold them perfectly to convey what we are feeling and thinking. Humans are fallible creatures and we’ve spent our entire existence figuring out ways to try to improve our (very imperfect) communication system into something desirable and effective. “Communication is key” we say. We have classes on it, podcasts, and books. We hold conferences about it and spend hours and hours rehearsing conversations and speeches. Yet more often than not, in our day-to-day interactions, we stumble to find the right string of syllables to express our emotions clearly and end up with vague half-expressions of what’s going on in our hearts.
This inability to communicate well provides a playground for the liars in our heads to run rampant with false narratives and half-truths that engrave themselves deep into our souls. We create stories around words that were never said in an attempt to come to grips with a reality that doesn’t always make sense.
I’ve been writing a story in my head throughout my lifetime about rejection. At a young age, I convinced myself that I needed to earn the right to be loved. I lived in a household where love was the reward for an outstanding academic record and athletic ability. I developed a deep fear of being unloved and my experience with neglect provided the foundation for an ongoing mental narrative based on rejection. No matter how great I was or how hard I tried, I was never going to be enough, and as a result, no one would ever want to be in relationship with me. That is the story that played on repeat in my head for most of my life.
The summer before my senior year of high school, I had an experience that changed my whole world. I went to a summer camp and the speaker told a story one night that flipped everything I had ever thought about myself on its head. He stood at the front of a room packed with high school kids and told us that as human beings, our value isn’t determined by our actions, but by simply being alive.
My world was shaken. Someone who didn’t know anything about me stood up and told me that I was valuable and worthy of love, no questions asked. He didn’t know that I had a 4.0 GPA and was taking advanced placement classes while working 30 hours a week. He didn’t know that I had placed on varsity as a freshman in softball. He knew that I was there…and that was enough.
Since that year, I’ve spent countless hours trying to rewire the way I view myself.
I’ve filled dozens of journals, scribbled quotes on my mirrors in eyeliner, and written reminders in sharpie on my hands.
You are lovable. You are loved.
But there are days when I struggle…days when the truth doesn’t always win. Those days have been more consistent lately because of those sentences that have made a home in my head, and I’m in the process of grieving. Not because the narrative of rejection in my head is true, but because it hurts and its hard to battle that narrative every second of the day. To be honest, sometimes I just don’t have the energy to look those lies in the face and tell them to back the hell off. Sometimes I’m tired of fighting and I fall prey to the deceitful nature of the voice inside that tells me I’m not wanted.
Someone once told me that as human beings, our deepest desire is to be known, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think in addition to being fully known, we want to be loved, because to be loved but not known is superficial and to be known and not loved is torture.
So we run away in fear and we pretend to be something we aren’t. We wear masks and put on facades and shy away from being ourselves because we’re afraid that who we truly are isn’t lovable.
I think that fear is valid in this world that we live in. I think we live in a culture that tends to value people based on how much money they make, what kind of clothes they wear, and the type of car they drive. We live in a society that views success a destination that can be reached through hard work and determination. We present the American Dream as the ultimate gospel of hope and we tell people that being lovable and successful are synonymous.
Though our fear of rejection in this harsh world is valid, it isn’t true, and we have to store that somewhere deep into our souls. Another person’s inability to stay isn’t a determinant of our value. Deeper than our narrative of rejection has to be a narrative of unconditional love and a recognition that this world is broken and imperfect. Louder than the liars in our heads has to be a story that we could never imagine in our wildest dreams….a true story of hope that looks us in the face and sees us just as we are, without any evidence of our failures or success to taint the reflection, and says,
You are known. You are loved.