Owning My Body’s Story: A Decade-Long Journey

As a writer, I’m pretty perfectionistic about my words. I want them to come out perfectly, and when they inevitably don’t, I edit them until they’re exactly what I want them to be. I’ve “edited” this post in my head for months now, and something is urging me today to just… write. To just get it out. It’ll be wordy. It’ll be heavy. But, if you’re here reading this, I hope something in my freely flowing, highly imperfect thoughts will reach your heart.

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About 11 years ago, I was diagnosed with scoliosis.

Scoliosis is a condition where your spine bends to the right and left, and you’ve got all these crazy curves, twists and resulting muscle imbalances in your body.

This was my spine in the fall of 2007.

I wore a back brace for a few months– I’m not going to talk about that now, because it’s a whole other can of worms to talk about wearing a bulky plastic shell every day when you’re a freshman in high school. And then my doctors, my parents, and myself decided that a spinal fusion surgery was the best option to treat my crazy-looking spine and prevent it from causing further problems.

So, a little over 10 years ago, 14-year-old Allie underwent an 8-hour surgery. She went in with a crooked spine, and she came out with a straight one, held up by 19 screws and two titanium rods. Honestly, the “healing” process after that didn’t take me that long. I was up and walking within 12 hours of my surgery (not a happy memory, to be honest). I went home four days after the surgery, and within six weeks I felt nearly like my “normal” self.

 

This was maybe two days post-surgery. I’m pretty sure I was only smiling because (a) morphine is powerful and (b) someone had just brought me a mountain of french fries.

But now I had a beautiful, straight spine and no pain. End of the story, right?

Wrong.

For quite a while, I lived like I was invincible. And for quite a while, it worked out just fine. I was in marching band throughout high school, and I did all the same things I’d done with it before the surgery– twisting, awkward bending, the works. I ran in college, and did a couple of 5K and 10K races. I had this crazy period where my roommate and I got up three times a week and went to the gym at 6 AM (miss you, Carlota), where I ran some more, worked with free weights, did a zillion planks/squats/crunches/whatever I wanted.

For all intents and purposes, I treated my body like it was normal. Like I had just as much or as little chance of injury as anyone else. Like it was impossible to break rods, impossible to overdo my exertion, impossible to hurt myself. For a while, it worked.

 

This is what me spine looked like immediately post-surgery. I’m bionic!

And then the pain came back. I remember the first time it happened. I was in an office on 8th Avenue in Nashville, working my first-ever internship in the music business. I was sitting in my chair, and when I stood up to walk to another room, I had this horrible shooting pain down my right leg.

What the heck? My back is fixed! It’s straight!

I’m supposed to live pain-free for the rest of my life! Right? Wrong again.

I’ll spare you the details, but an MRI showed that the unfused vertebrae under my fusion (I only have two that can still move freely below the rods), were under some serious pressure because my muscles weren’t strong enough to keep my body weight from literally almost crushing that bottom part of my spine. I was 19 at the time, and had the same kind of spinal disc issue that you see in someone in their 70s. COOL.

I just muscled through the pain (read: whined about it but did nothing to remedy it) for about a year. I did a little bit of physical therapy, but didn’t have the discipline to keep up the exercises, so the pain never fully went away. I lived mostly pain-free for a while, but I still had some bad days where it hurt to walk. I hate saying that because it sounds dramatic, but that’s just where I was in by body.

Fast forward to two years ago, and I started taking barre classes. My core grew stronger. My body confidence skyrocketed. Best of all, my pain finally leveled off at a lower level than I’d experienced in years.

Last summer, after meeting a smart, driven, compassionate Pilates instructor named Erin Myers, I decided I wanted to train to be a Pilates instructor, too. Erin is ridiculously knowledgeable about scoliosis and body movement. I’m now right in the middle of my instructor training, and I’ve learned more about my own body and spine in the last few months than I ever thought imaginable. I’ve learned how to release my own muscle tension, strengthen my own weak spots, and just take ownership of my body and how it operates.

 

(^^Here’s me working with Erin recently on a video she made about Pilates for spinal fusion people)

I look back now and realize that ten years ago– when I first had my surgery– I didn’t really heal. I just muscled through and shoved aside anything that felt hard (Yes, 19-year-old Allie still had that same mentality when the pain came back… history repeated itself). I focused on the straight spine, but I didn’t stop to deal with the emotions I was experiencing. As you read earlier, I obviously didn’t really change how I treated my body, either.

I don’t think it ever occurred to me to own my story when all of that first happened.

Really, I’ve only realized how much I need to own my story in the last several months. I spent the last ten years just trying to defy my story and prove (to the world? to myself? who knows) that I could do anything a “normal” person could. That’s why I did all that running in college. That’s why I became a barre instructor. That’s why I attempted to train for a half marathon last year (LOL, it was a no-go on so many levels for me).

These days, though, I’m “healing.” I’m owning who I am, what I look like, how I feel, and where I’ve been. I’m working through it all, little by little. Instead of just doing whatever I feel like with my body and blowing right past its limits, I’m finally getting to know my “new normal” on a deeper level. Some days that’s hard. Some days it’s freeing. All days it’s exhausting.

 

Another view of my fused spine. That hardware makes it just a little difficult to be a “flexy Lexy” anymore 😉

There are days when I wake up and feel angry about my spine, my scoliosis, and the limits my fused spine put on my body’s movement capabilities. There are days when I wake up and my body is screaming at me, my muscles are tight, and I feel like I’m living in an 80-year-old body (y’all know I’m old at heart, but this body is still 24, so that ain’t okay).

But, there are also days when I wake up and thank God that my surgery didn’t have any major complications– I’m not paralyzed, and my organs aren’t in danger of being crushed or damaged by a deformed spine and off-kilter ribcage. I thank Him for my straight spine, even though it prevents me from doing a lot of those cool, Instagram-worthy yoga poses and Pilates moves. I thank Him for my ability to move my body, and for the knowledge I’ve gained about myself through being a movement-practitioner-in-training.

My body still isn’t perfect, and it still causes me pain– physical and emotional.

My back doesn’t look like a normal person’s. It’s got a pretty obvious scar, and it still looks lopsided in places where the muscles are still out of balance– the same way they were long before surgery. My right shoulder blade still sticks out further than the left– again, the same as it was before my surgery.

My still-imperfect body, on the exact 10-year anniversary of my surgery: December 27, 2017.

 

Sometimes I tell myself my body is ugly. I tell my body I hate it. I ask God why it’s all messed up. Why it has to have a giant scar. I stay in my pajamas until 2 PM on a bright and sunny Tuesday, and get stuck in a mental and emotional slump because I wish my body was different. I wish my story was different.

But in the big picture, I’m done trying to defy my story. I’m done trying to prove that I’m something I’m not. I’m ready to feel at home in my own body, and feel like a character who’s still fully living her own life story– not trying to shove it away and rewrite a new one I like better.

When I was trying to decide whether or not I should train to teach Pilates, I asked the Lord to share His heart with me. A few hours later, I found myself humming that song, “Hands & Feet” by Audio Adrenaline (you know you want to listen to it— you’re welcome for the late 90s CCM throwback). It’s a pretty old song, and one I hadn’t heard in ages. But the words go like this: “I want to be your hands. I want to be your feet. And I’ll go where you send me.”

Simple, so simple. But all of a sudden, I realized that Pilates is meant as a way for me to be the hands and feet of Jesus. To literally use my hands, my feet, and my entire body as Jesus would have– to teach others how to find healing in their own bodies, no matter how messed up they might seem. To lead others to own the story He’s given them, just like I’m actively doing myself.

I ran across this verse a week or two ago. It’s in Psalm 119, a chapter you’ve probably heard about, especially if you grew up in church.

“Your hands made me and formed me; give me understanding to learn your commands.” –Psalm 119:73

It was one of those times when something “jumped off the page” at me. I had just woken up with an aching back– one of those 80-year-old body days– and I literally prayed to God and asked him to give me some kind of peace. And this was it. All I have to do is acknowledge that he made my body exactly how he wanted it to be— curved spine and all. He knew I would live with this body. He knew it would give me a story to share with others. He knew what he was doing.

And now it’s my responsibility to follow his command to “be his hands and feet.”

So with that, you’ll find me fighting a battle most days. A battle to live in my own body and love it, even when it’s imperfect.

Oh, and you’ll find me doing this (see below), because I’m finally celebrating my body’s unique abilities.

I’m finally owning my story.

 

Some thoughts on middle school

The other day I was working and blasting some Ben Rector music in my office– a routine thing for me. I’ve listened to every song Ben Rector has ever made– probably a thousand times over by now– but when the song “Like the World Is Going to End” came on, for some reason it stood out to me this time. If we found out the world was going to end, one line talks about “calling everybody who I ever hurt and reconciling.” I thought about who I’ve hurt, and my mind didn’t go to anything recent. In fact, it went all the way back to middle school.

Middle school is a rough time for most of us, and maybe I’m biased, but I think it could be worse for girls. Middle school was the first time I became aware of what I looked like and what people thought of me. I had a lot of firsts in middle school, but probably one of the most impactful things that began for me in middle school was my comparison of myself to others.

My life became a constant effort to measure up. To the pretty girls. To the popular girls. To the girls who had the nicest clothes, shoes, purses, and everything else that was trendy (Hollister and Abercrombie, anyone?). When I really stop and think about it, it makes me sad that I spent such formative years believing that I wasn’t good enough and would never measure up.

I did all the things I thought I was supposed to. I don’t necessarily regret wearing makeup or buying a shirt from a cool store– I look back now and realize they were just silly decisions that don’t matter at all now that I’m more than a decade removed. But  there is one thing that I do regret, and that’s how I treated people. All I could think about was boosting my own status and making myself look better, and I didn’t know it at the time, but that selfishness came at a cost.

If I’m being honest, I don’t believe I was a “mean girl,” but I also look back at some of the people who were in my life at that time, and I wonder what could’ve happened if I had treated them with kindness, rather than snubbing them, gossiping about them, or even making sarcastic remarks to their faces to win points with the “cool crowd.” This isn’t a “what if,” story, and I know we can’t change the past, but sometimes I think back on those people and I cringe. If I had to follow the words of that Ben Rector song and call everybody I’d ever hurt to reconcile, I’d be calling people whose last names I can’t remember to apologize for things I don’t remember saying– but I know I was hurtful.

The past is what it is, and knowing that I may never again see some of those people that I hurt in middle school (and beyond, for that matter), I can’t dwell on it. But it does influence how I think today. Am I treating people in a way NOW that will make my 2027 self cringe? Am I truly treating people with kindness as often as I can, or am I still stuck in the selfish rut of using people to make myself look better? The painful truth is that it’s a mix of both, and because I’m an imperfect human, it may be that way until the day I die.

But I’d like to think that just by being aware of my own hurts, I’m slowly learning that other people aren’t as perfect as they appear to be. In some ways, aren’t we all still stuck in middle school? It’s different now, and we’re all generally functioning pretty well for ourselves, I’d say. But we all still have hurts. We feel out of place at times. We feel like we’ll never measure up. We hurt people because we ourselves are hurting.

Maybe our hurts aren’t over whether or not we have a Dooney and Bourke (did I even spell that right?!) purse or the newest color of “potato shoes,” but our hearts still experience that same pain of rejection. Of feeling like the outcast. Of feeling like we don’t belong, and we never will.

As adults, though, we have the advantage of knowing ourselves better. Middle school is confusing, and puberty messes with our hormones and minds. But now, we have the blessing of being just a little bit more self aware (most of us, anyway), and personally, I think it’s time for me to use my own maturity to focus less on myself and more on others. To move past the filters of my own hurt and shame, and to realize that someone out there– EVERYONE out there, really– needs my kindness more than I need them as an emotional punching bag.

I don’t want to relive middle school. I don’t have the happiest memories of that place. But, if digging out some of those memories has forced me to have this shift in perspective, maybe it’s worth it.

Self-compassion: Take a minute to un-hate yourself

We all have an inner critic. Some of us have developed healthy ways of dealing with its voice, and some of us listen to it because we don’t know there’s an alternative.

For me, it says things like:

“Geez, can’t you just get out of bed already? You’re so freakin’ lazy. Come on.”

“Wow, you’ve never screwed up this bad before. You must be hitting rock bottom.”

“You are so stupid. Why didn’t you prepare for this? Duh.”

“HEY YOU. GET IT TOGETHER. You idiot, you’re letting things slip through the cracks.”

Yesterday morning, I missed an appointment that had been on my calendar for almost a month. I straight up forgot it was there, and I was laying in my bed scrolling through Pinterest when I got the “hey, where are you?” call. Immediately, all of the thoughts I just just listed out above actually went through my head– verbatim.

Those thoughts are not harmless.

Here’s a few descriptors of how those words felt: Harsh. Condescending. Unfiltered. Un-loving.Un-compassionate. Unkind.

Truly, I’ve been listening to my inner critic an awful lot lately. I let it tell me my worth, which is why I’ve been depressed and unmotivated for several weeks now. I let it dictate my schedule and social interactions, which is why I don’t seem to leave my apartment unless I absolutely have to. I let it piece together my identity for me, which is why I’ve experienced more moments of self-loathing than ever.

Could I say those things to another human being without having a hugely negative impact on our relationship? HA. No way.

More importantly, would someone who loved me ever say those things about me?

Nope. Hence the problem– I have a hard time loving myself. Having compassion toward myself. Being kind to myself.

This morning after dragging myself out of bed (literally, I had to grip a piece of furniture for a moment to keep myself from going back), I sat for a moment in my apathy and the harsh voice went nuts. Then, something clicked, and I decided I didn’t want to feel like a worthless blob all day.

Worthless blobbing.

Worthless blobbing.

I made myself eat breakfast and have a glass of water. I wanted some coffee but didn’t want to take the time to grind the beans, wash the pot, blah blah blah, so I made a cup of tea instead. I grabbed my journal.

Now, I know based on experience that my self-compassion level is generally low. Last fall, when I took a class based on the teachings of my fave Brené Brown, one of the group leaders told us about a website based entirely on self-compassion. On more than one occasion, it has served as a great guide for those moments when my inner critic sends me into a spiral and I end up feeling like I’m drowning in complete self-hatred.

It’s easy to remember, too: it’s just self-compassion.org.

I know it’s a little out there, but the one that’s helped me so much is the “Self-Compassion Break,” which is essentially a short, guided meditation to remind you to love yourself.

As a side note, when I think of having to stop and force myself to love myself, this is the mental picture I get:

IMG_4910

STOP IT. I DO NOT NEED YOUR LOVE. JUST LET ME BE ANGSTY.

Anyway.

The one I did this morning was a writing exercise because, as you probably know if you’ve ever met me, I’m a writer. When I stopped to consider what had really put me in the pit this morning, it was my own negative thoughts, so I chose to do this one: Changing your critical self-talk.

The whole point of this post was just to tell you that your self-talk and the way you relate to yourself is SO incredibly important to the way you live your life. I know it sounds a little new-age-y, but if you aren’t aware of how you relate to yourself, and how you talk to yourself, you could really lose yourself and your identity if you let your inner critic take over.

More importantly, if your self-criticism is the guiding voice that you live your life by, you’ll miss the absolute truth of what God says about you.

Listen, I’m not here to give you a hunky dory solution for feeling bad about yourself. I’m not here to send you some fluff about improving your self esteem so you’ll feel happy. I’m here to tell you that the way you choose to relate to yourself has direct eternal results.

If you’re too busy telling yourself you suck when you mess something up, you’ll miss the opportunity to bask in the grace God has for you.

If you’re hung up convincing yourself that you’re hopelessly flawed, you’ll forget that the Creator of the Universe made you in HIS image, and he’s given you some good qualities to share with the world, therefore you’re not 100% flawed.

If you listen to that inner critic, pretty soon it’ll drown out the voice of the Lord, telling you that there’s hope and joy and peace in His presence.

So take a minute. Be still. Quiet your mind. And un-hate yourself so you can feel God’s love for you.

Here are a few resources that inspired this post:

  • A website full of research and exercises, created by Dr. Kristin Neff: self-compassion.org
  • message entitled “Psalm 12: God’s Words, Man’s Words,” on the importance of words from Dr. Michael Easley, Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood, TN

If this article resonated with you, please subscribe to my blog via email or let me know you liked it. I’d be honored to hear your story and continue sharing mine with you.

Living in the discomfort of the unresolved.

Right now, I’m living in a period of change and nearly constant trial-and-error.

I’ll readily admit that in my recent lifestyle changes and job transition, I’ve fallen back into my default mode where I feel the need to cram all my life experiences from day to day into either “good” or “bad,” “black” or “white.” My default mode does not tolerate the unresolved, in-between, not-sure-what-this-is, gray areas.

I don’t want unfinished. I don’t want “in progress,” “to be determined,” or “under construction.”

No. I want perfection, and I want it now. In my relationships, in my housekeeping, in my work, in my appearance, in everything. With the blinders of my human nature over my eyes, all I want is for things to be finished and tidy and wrapped up in neat little packages and put on a shelf so that I can live with peace of mind, all day, every day.

Yeah, okay, that sounds so great. Right?! Except life REALLY doesn’t lend itself to that idea… not now, and not ever.

In church on Sunday, the pastor told us all somewhere toward the end of his message to just take a moment and pray. He had a specific topic he wanted us to ask God about, something that related to his sermon. But, by that point I was thinking about lunch, and I zoned out on the guided prompt part (sorry, Lloyd).

Anyway, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath and I nonchalantly prayed, “Well God, hey.  It’s been a while I guess. I’ve been working really hard at things and I feel like I’ve got my life sorta together for once, so I haven’t really needed to talk to you that much… so… yeah…”

Now, I’ve never audibly heard the voice of God, but He’s spoken to me before just by bringing things to my mind– images, phrases, memories. And I can’t explain it, but when it happens, I know it’s Him. So while I was halfheartedly telling Him that I didn’t need His help (which, LOL at that idea), I felt this powerful stirring in my soul, and He said, “Be still. Stop striving.”

Here’s what happened in my head in that moment:

… WHOA God is that you?! (spoiler alert, it was)

Like a true workaholic, my gut response was, “I don’t want to be lazy! I can’t just stop.”

His reply? “Laziness is irrelevant.”

Long pause.

“My grace is sufficient for you. Live in it.”

“Um. What. Striving is what got me success, right? Come on, I can’t just quit.”

Again, I just heard, “Be still.”

In this phase of my life, I’m living in the discomfort of the unresolved. Like most everyone, I experience conflict and pain, along with the daily worries of life, and I carry the weight that I can’t go to bed at night with all my ducks in a row.

Isn’t it just like God to speak right into the middle of that struggle I didn’t even know I was having? I thought I was doing fine on my own! Isn’t it just like Him to take a quiet moment, and show me how much I’ve been living by my own human tendencies?

My sinful, “default” mode of living comes with a huge desire want to fix everything I’m going through. I want to fix the hurt and the unfinished things in myself and in others. The voice of Satan (in the form of shame, as always) tells me I need to keep working my butt off to be in the “good,” day in and day out because that’s the only way to earn happiness, earn success, earn favor and earn love.

But God says, no. Just be still. He already favors and loves me because I’m His child. And what He wants from me now is to be still and live in the discomfort of all the unresolved, “in progress” things.

The verse literally says:

“He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted’ …” (Psalm 46:10)

It doesn’t say, “Keep scrambling 24/7 to put everything in an orderly category of black or white, and I will be exalted.”

To exalt Him, I must just BE STILL. Be still in the gray.

As much as I hate that notion, and as much as I’m trying to resist it and may always resist it as a human, I know deep down that He’s commanded us to be still. He doesn’t command us to run around like busybodies and try to keep everything perfectly tidy.

So, if you’re reading this, and you’re right there with me– trying to hold your life together (and maybe even feeling like you’re successful)– I think that constant striving is a sure sign that you need to be still. Take a deep breath, and let’s trust Him in the discomfort of the gray.

If this article resonated with you, please subscribe to my blog via email or let me know you liked it. I’d be honored to hear your story and continue sharing mine with you.

Let go and love (yourself).

“You HAVE to get an A on that paper. Your grade depends on it.”

“Wow. That sucked. You should’ve prepared more and maybe you wouldn’t feel so bad now.”

“Come on, just get up and vacuum. Look how dirty that floor is.”

“Why didn’t you put more effort into that? It could’ve been perfect if you’d tried harder.”

“You only checked off half your list tonight. You shouldn’t have watched that episode of Fixer Upper.”

Are any of those familiar? Do they resonate with you? Do you hear them (or something similar) weekly, daily, or like me– hourly? Unless you’re surrounded by some really critical people, they’re probably not coming from others. They’re not from external influences. They come as the way you talk to yourself, whether you realize it or not.

At their core, they’re the voice of perfectionism. They’re the voice of the SHOULD, the WHAT IF, and the YOU HAVE TO. The voice of burnout. The voice of driving yourself into the ground striving for something unattainable. The voice of oppression.

I’m no expert at drowning out that voice, as you’ll know if you’ve been around for a bit (see here). But, on this long journey to having grace for myself, I’m slowly learning how to displace the voice with positive thoughts and actions, even if just for a little while. I’m slowly learning to let go of the expectations of perfection I place on myself, and choose to love myself instead.

And go back and read that again– CHOOSE to love myself instead. I have to CHOOSE to live in imperfection, rather than being a slave to the voice in my head. It’s not something that comes naturally for me. Maybe it does for some people, but my default is to beat myself up. So loving myself and freeing myself from my own expectations is a conscious– and sometimes difficult– choice.

Anyway, I know I can’t be the only one who struggles to give herself grace, so I hope someone’s heart feels a little less alone as I share my own thoughts and strategies for letting go and loving myself.

 


 

1. Create margin in your life.

What does that even mean? In its essence, it means saying no. It means not packing your schedule to the brim. It means not living in a way that you’ll never have time to deal with the unexpected. For me, I love packing my Erin Condren blocks chock full of washi tape and stickers to show myself how busy I am. It makes me feel important to be busy. But at the end of the day, I most often look back and either (a) feel exhausted or (b) hate myself for not accomplishing everything, because my 5:30 appointment took longer than I thought and set me back for the rest of the evening. Give yourself space in your day, and tell yourself it’s okay to have time that isn’t 100% scheduled and planned.

2. Schedule blocks of “me time.”

What? No. That’s stupid. I don’t need to do that… I have fun times already scheduled! Yes, but do you have time to sit and just BE?  I’ve found that setting aside time and putting it in my calendar is helping me be more intentional about taking care of myself. At the beginning, I would have to write “5-6 PM Me Time” in my planner, seriously. I think setting a time boundary on it helped me to feel less guilty about taking time to myself, because I knew at 6 PM I would get up and be productive again.

3. Recharge, don’t numb.

Speaking of “me time,” use it wisely. I once read a great article that posed a great question, “Are you numbing, or recharging?” I now can’t go a day without asking myself that question. You can do the same activity, and on different days it could be numbing, or it could be recharging. For example, one of my favorite things to do is watch Fixer Upper (Chip and Joanna are my jam, y’all). When I’ve had a horrible day and I don’t want to deal with my anger/frustration/sadness/feelings in general, turning on an episode would probably be numbing. I’m running to something to escape something else. And that compounds the original problem. But, if I’ve had a horrible day, and I sit down and take time to breathe and process my emotions, and THEN I decide to watch an episode to make me laugh, I’m recharging. It’s all about the motivation behind it– so really stop and ask yourself why you do what you do before that Netflix binge.

4. Hide your to-do list from yourself.

Yes, for real. I make my daily to-do lists in my beloved Erin Condren planner. They’re great, and they usually have a checklist sticker with hearts. But at night, I take an hour to literally close my planner, put it in my bag, and I put my bag in my coat closet, even if for just ten minutes. This has everything to do with giving yourself permission NOT to be productive for a time out of your day. If you can’t see it, the task list can’t daunt you. So choose to make it unseen, and give yourself that space to enjoy just existing for a bit. It’s hard at first, but when you’re intentional about breaking away from tasks, you’ll be surprised how much it becomes a habit. A habit that brings so much freedom.

5. Give yourself reminders that you don’t have to be perfect.

For me, it helps to write reminders and put them where I’ll see them. My love of office supplies helps this one, because I’ll take time once a week or so to write something on a sticky note or a pretty piece of paper, and then stick it to my office computer or put it inside my car’s little catch-all pocket next to the steering wheel. Write something as simple as, “Take a break,” or “Perfection is a trap.” When you have a moment of clarity about your own expectations, take the opportunity to create some kind of reminder for yourself so you can carry that clarity with you everywhere.

 


 

All in all, perfection is not attainable unless you’re Jesus. Which, last time I checked, I’m not Jesus and you’re not Jesus, either. This life the Lord has given us is not about being perfect– it’s about becoming whole in Him. We would have no need to cry out to Jesus if the voice of the Oppressor wasn’t constantly trying to remind us of our imperfections. If imperfection didn’t even exist, there’d be no room for growth. And if there was no room for growth, sanctification in the Lord wouldn’t happen.

So, learn to embrace imperfection, and He will grow and change your heart to be more like His. Learn to love yourself exactly as he made you– the beautiful, flawed human that you are.

“I was given the gift [of imperfection] to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees […] Then He told me,

‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.'”

2 Corinthians 12:9-10, MSG

If this article resonated with you, please subscribe to my blog via email or let me know you liked it. I’d be honored to hear your story and continue sharing mine with you.

When you preach truth to your future self.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think when you’re a writer, half the time you write things that you yourself desperately need to hear (if that is actually just me, awkward). In this particular case it’s absolutely true– I wrote this to myself, and I really needed to hear it today.

But here’s the thing: I wrote it four years ago yesterday. Isn’t it funny how history repeats itself?

If you’re stuck in a dark place or feeling hopeless, I pray this serves as a reminder that joy is a choice. Optimism is a choice. Being the hands and feet of Jesus in terrible circumstances is a choice.

Let’s never forget the gift of choice.

*****

OPTIMISM IS A CHOICE

(first published here on March 7, 2012)

Optimism is not a personality trait. It is a choice. And disappointment is not a crippling injury. It is a stepping-stone.

For a long time, I believed that pessimism was something uncontrollable that is ingrained into a person. I thought it could not be reversed because it was simply a part of their being. But in reality, one’s reaction to everyday situations is a direct indication of their character.

In the event of disappointment, the things that run through your head and flow out of your mouth are not a result of your genes, your upbringing, or the situation. Your reaction to disappointment depends solely upon YOU.

Although we may not admit it to ourselves, our hearts most often want to choose negativity. We desire attention, and often that desire fuels a self-piteous reaction when we’re faced with something that doesn’t go our way. We want others to see how miserable we are because we have the ridiculous notion that spreading our misery to others will somehow make us feel better. But in fact, in our complaining, we only make ourselves more miserable and place burdens on those around us as well. When we allow negativity to overtake our thoughts, actions, and speech, we are essentially encouraging those around us to do the same.

If our hearts choose to hope, however, the ideas flowing through our minds and out of our mouths will inspire others to have hope as well. By being optimistic, we can prove to ourselves and to others that it is entirely possible to experience disappointment and heartbreak without allowing it to crush our spirit and hinder our motivations.

Does that mean we can’t be upset? No. Being optimistic doesn’t necessarily mean never shedding a tear. It does mean, however, that we must control every thought we have and force it to be bent toward hope, not toward despair.

Does that mean we can never let on if we’re upset? Do we have to hold it all inside ourselves? No. Friends exist to lend a listening ear, but we must be careful to be listeners as well, and not always speakers. Instead of wallowing endlessly in our current sorrows, we must learn to focus on how we will change our situation in the future. Instead of constantly bombarding friends with complaints disguised with claims such as, “I need your advice” or “I just need to vent,” we must learn to tell our dear friends about our disappointments while never losing sight of hope for a better situation in the future. If we wallow endlessly in our current sorrows instead of trying to discern how we will change our situation and choose to constantly bombard others with our struggles, we’re giving in to the very mindset that will be our own demise. We’re giving in to pessimism.

Is it easy to remain optimistic through every situation that comes our way? No, it’s not. But does anything worth accomplishing ever get done without an enormous amount of work and unshakeable determination?

I am determined to make a positive impact upon those around me, and in doing so, I know that I must remain optimistic through whatever may come.

Until I reach my goals and dreams, I will be patient and not let disappointment take hold of me. I will not let failure define my outlook. I will not let heartbreak crush me.

I will not be ruined.

“We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”  2 Corinthians 10:5

 

When Satan guards the door to your heart.

On Thursday morning, I said something stupid to a person who matters to me. It was something hurtful. It was something disrespectful. It was rooted in a wrong assumption, and I never bothered to ask for clarification before I armored up and threw out my jabs.

By Thursday afternoon, I knew what I’d said wasn’t okay. I knew it was hurtful. I knew the person on the other end of the line probably felt less than great after I said it. But it was too late. I’d lost control of my words. And I’d already said it.

On Thursday night, I wanted to apologize.

I picked up the phone. I said I’m sorry, and I asked for forgiveness.

Silence.

As the person on the other end of my phone took a breath to speak, I braced for the worst. But, I wasn’t met with any hurtful words, just a simple question of what made me say that in the first place. Was there something else you wanted to talk about? Is there something deeper you’d like to discuss? It seems this has been bothering you before just today.

No, I said. It’s just that I assumed (insert wrong assumption here).

Well, that’s not correct. Please ask me before assuming.

OKAY. FINE. I’M NOT PERFECT. I MESSED UP. STOP ATTACKING ME.

I’m not attacking you. I’m going to go now. Let’s talk later.

Click.

Well. That’s not how I wanted that to go. What happened?

The way I see my heart in that exchange, it’s like a house. A house somewhere that the weather is wildly unpredictable and could change at the drop of a hat in my favor… or not (so basically, a house in the South, if I’m being realistic).

My house is safe when the door is shut. It’s warm and dry and comfortable.

When I open the door, I don’t know what weather I’ll get. It’s a risk. It’s a gamble. I could open it wide and receive sunshine, only to have torrential rain come in a moment later and mess up my warm, dry, comfy house. Or, I could throw it wide open, and take in sunshine for hours on end. I just don’t know which one I’m going to get.

So, if I was truly being vulnerable, I’d leave the door open and hope for endless sunshine, despite the possibility of rain.

But unfortunately, Satan has been guarding the door to my heart. And here’s how he does it… let’s call him The Oppressor (because after all, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor,” as I’ve said before):

Allie: “Okay, self. Let’s apologize. You messed up. Time to own up to it and say you’re sorry. You did a bad thing, but it doesn’t make you bad. You did an unlovable thing, but this person will still love you. You are still lovable. Let’s do this.”

The Oppressor: “Whatever. You’re horrible. You’ll never be good at relationships if you can’t get this passive aggression under control. Get it together.”

Allie: “Shut up, Satan. I’m opening the door, and I’m going to apologize.”

The Oppressor: “Fine. You better open it just a crack. Wouldn’t want to let any rain in.”

I apologize. I say what I want to say. And I mean it. I am truly sorry, and I say that.

Then comes the questioning. Was there something else I wanted to talk about? Is there something deeper I’d like to discuss?

The Oppressor: “Oh, look at that. Your apology wasn’t a good enough explanation. I told you you’d never be good at relationships. You idiot, shut the door! Look at those clouds of questions rolling in! Shut the door before you let the rain in, stupid.”

Instead of sitting in the uncomfortable, but vulnerable place I had to go for the apology, I listened to him. Instead of reminding myself that a few clouds don’t mean the sun can’t shine through, and that this might not even equal a downpour, I let him talk me out of risking it. I shut the door. I stopped being vulnerable and immediately became defensive.

Why couldn’t I block him out? I had listened to– and obeyed– the voice of Satan. But then, why is he the one guarding my door anyway? Why did I let him get anywhere close to my house?

Satan is always standing idly in the street in front of my house. He’s like the ultimate creeper on my heart. He watched. When I stopped reminding myself that I’m a child of God, he inched his way up the driveway. When I stopped praying throughout my days, he made his way up the sidewalk. When I stopped setting aside time to look to my Bible, he made it to the door and started yelling insults at me through the mail slot (Yeah, my imaginary house has a mail slot. I’m an old soul, okay?).

It’s as simple as that. He was guarding my door because I stopped fighting him. But I don’t want him guarding my door anymore. Jesus died so that he could live within my heart, all the time, and he’s the one I want guarding it from the inside out.

So, Satan can yell insults through the mail slot all he wants, and he can warn me to keep the door shut so I don’t let in the rain. But from the inside, my Jesus will whisper in my ear and tell me to open the door. To take the risk. To step outside, and to tell Satan to get behind me as he harps on me about the dangers of getting wet in the rain.

And besides, I think Jesus would probably dance in the rainstorm anyway.

 

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P is for Perfectionist: Are you “perfecting yourself to death”?

I’ve heard it said that “realizing you have a problem is the first step to recovery.” I used to think that idea was limited to addiction and alcoholism, but as it turns out, “realizing you have a problem” is actually pretty close to saying, “Humble yourself and examine your heart.”

My story of dealing with perfectionism is a long-running one, and I don’t think it has an end in the near future. Truthfully, it may not end until my life has been lived, and I enter the Kingdom of God. Yay, lifelong sanctification…?

But, even though the end of my journey may not be on this earth, I can point out a distinct starting point. The part where I had to “realize I had a problem.” It looked like this:

Perfecting Ourselves Cover

About a year and a half ago, I started a second round of counseling with a Christian therapist. After about three weeks, she pulled out this book.

“Now, I’m not sure if this will describe you, but maybe take a look at the description on Amazon and see if it sounds relevant. If so, maybe that’s a good starting point for unpacking some of the struggles you’re telling me about.”

I did read the description, and I thought it was a pretty good match. So I stuck it on my iPad and started reading. The beginning was a lot of technical research (which was interesting, but not really helping me).

A few chapters later, though, the phrases “academically gifted children,” “controlling,” “exhausted and exhausting,” “craving approval,” and a bajillion others came up.

Uh oh.

I had to put it down. Opening the book felt a bit like opening the door to a haunted house and praying that something doesn’t come flying out at your face. Except, things did come flying out at my face and I couldn’t take it. Once I hit the “types of perfectionism” chapter, it was exactly like seeing myself through a microscope, and I was scared to look at myself that closely.

At that point, I was not at all ready to “realize” my problem. But, surprise– it wasn’t going away. A couple months later, I finished school, and I finally made myself read through the rest of the book. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was step one on the road to healing from the stronghold that Satan had on my mind and on my heart.

This book was the exact thing I needed to “realize I had a problem,” and I’m writing this very post because I think it could help others, too. To name a few symptoms that it really nailed for my own heart:

Performance anxiety, fear of failure, depression, indecisiveness, procrastination, all-or-nothing thinking, overactive conscience…

I could go on forever. Essentially, I’m convinced that this book was written about me.

I don’t pretend to be an expert by any means, but I’m finally starting to recognize my own negative thought patterns and false beliefs about myself. In the weirdest way possible, it’s freeing to be understood. It’s simultaneously terrifying and refreshing to read something like this book and think, “WAIT. You mean other people have thought that, too? You mean, I’m NOT the weirdest human on the planet?!”

For fear of sounding like one of those lawsuit infomercials (“if you or a loved one have suffered an injury from X drug, call the number on your screen”), I hesitate to say this. But, if you’re struggling with perfectionism, or with a lack of self-grace, don’t sweep it under the rug. That voice that keeps pushing you is Satan. And there are resources out there to help you. And there are people (Like me! Let’s talk!) who can lift you up and encourage you and help you identify your own darkness and lead you to light.

I’ve been floored by the responses I’ve gotten since I posted my initial “when things don’t go according to plan” story, and that’s why I feel the need to keep declaring that there’s HOPE.

So, if you find yourself in a dark place similar to mine of self-hatred and shame, don’t settle for living like that. “Perfecting yourself to death” will (quite literally, sometimes) lead you to death and destruction.

There’s hope, and His name is Jesus. I feel like I’m a living example of how His hope can change a life and a heart, and I’d love to share all of that with you if perfectionism is in your life, too.

You’re not alone, and you’re also not called to live a life dictated by Satan’s voice. Reach out, and Living Hope is there to pull you out of the darkness.

**A side note– If you want to read the book I’ve talked about, you can find it by clicking here. Also, I’m completely serious about talking to you about perfectionism if you think it’s something in your heart. Satan can’t thrive when we find healing community, so let’s chat!**

 

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P is for Perfectionist: Naming the inner critic

Last week, I shared a piece of my journey in discovering grace. If I’m honest, I was more than a little terrified to post something so vulnerable, but I was overwhelmed by how many people reached out to me and told me they were struggling to give themselves grace, too. With that, I want to keep sharing my story in hopes that someone with a similar struggle might find freedom.

It’s been a journey. Not an overnight transformation. Not a couple months of therapy and a few really good self-help articles. It’s been a journey that started over a year ago.

I think my struggle with perfectionism has been around for longer than I ever realized. I’ve battled with anxiety and depression off and on for more than two years now, and I’ve everything to try and deal with it– in depth counseling, books, Bible studies. But I didn’t actually identify the root problem as perfectionism until this time last year. Awareness was the first step to healing.

The word “perfectionist” had been used to label me for the majority of my life, and I don’t argue with that label. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a “perfectionist” in the sense that most of us commonly think of that word: I like things to be neat and organized, I strive for my best in my work, and I like to be in control.

But, perfectionism is so much deeper than a typical type A personality. It’s very much an “all-or-nothing” mindset. If I can’t do something absolutely perfectly, I might as well not even try. If failure is more than a 3% possibility (which, let’s be real, is true for most things in life), perfectionism tells me that I shouldn’t risk it– just stick with the things I can control the outcome of. Unless I’m completely perfect, it’s not good enough, so to save myself from the shame of not being good enough, I eventually just stop trying to do anything at all.

Do you see where the cycle comes in? I set expectations of perfection on myself. I become anxious because I want to act and fulfill those expectations, but I feel like I’m not good enough. I’m afraid of failure. Eventually I shut up the voice of anxiety long enough to convince myself to act.

And when I do act, I fall short of perfect. Why? Because I’m human.

In my “less than perfect” state, I become depressed, and I beat myself up for not being good enough. I hate myself for a few days/weeks/months, depending on how resilient I am in the situation, and then I set my sights on a new goal. “Maybe I’ll be perfect at this. I learned last time that I’m not perfect at that, but maybe this is the place I can ace absolutely everything.” I get fired up and excited about this new chance to prove to myself that I’m good enough, and before I know it, those expectations of perfection for my performance are filling my head, and the ensnaring cycle begins again.

The quote at the top of this post is one of the truest things I’ve read throughout my journey. A few months ago, I saw a shortened version of it printed in a book as:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”

Now, I don’t know enough about Anne Lamott to know if she wrote this in the context of Christianity, but when I read it, I immediately knew that “the opressor” for me was quite literally Satan.

For a long time, I imagined Satan as the blue-haired character Hades in the Disney version of Hercules (shout out to all my 90s kids who know exactly what I’m talking about). In my mind, he was just a ridiculous character that I could choose not to listen to. I could use my Herculean strength to tell him to shut up any time I wanted. I was totally fine to just make Satan get back in his box and fume with his animated blue hair, right?

No. Wrong. Very, very wrong.

In my childish, sheltered view of Satan, I didn’t realize that he was (and is) a living force, and he was working on me every single day. For me, Satan’s voice was the one in my head telling me I could be happy if I could only achieve perfection. “YOU can do it, pick yourself up and prove to the world that YOU are amazing. YOU can be perfect.”

But what I failed to remember, is, who’s the only being that is truly perfect? Spoiler alert. It’s not me.

It’s God. Satan hasn’t changed his trickery since the day of Adam and Eve. In Genesis 3, the serpent tells Eve that she “will be like God” if she eats fruit from the tree. She knows it’s disobedient to God if she eats from the tree, but she does it anyway.

My “forbidden fruit” is the idea of having it all together. You know, looking good all the time, being a rock star at my job, having a Pinterest-worthy home, and being the best fiancée/daughter/sister/cousin/grandkid/friend that I can be. Satan tells me I CAN be perfect if I just tell God, “hold on, I’ve got this,” and make my own way. I know it’s disobedient to intentionally live my life on my terms without seeking the Lord, but I do it anyway.

I’ve come to realize that doubting the power of Satan–and believing in your own ability to fight him off– is essentially the same thing as telling God, “I don’t need you.” And boy, is that a dangerous place to be. As I once heard it described, the wrath of God comes when He “takes his hand off” and allows us to live like the horrible sinners we are. And when we essentially tell Him we don’t need Him, I’m pretty sure that gives Him the right to take his hand off and let us wallow in our own brokenness.

Thankfully, though, our God is a gracious God, and though I’ve made plenty of mistakes because I ignored Him over the past several years, I can come back to Him. I can cry out to him and ask Him to put his hand back on. There is NO WAY I deserve His help after I’ve chased my forbidden fruit ruthlessly for years and years, but He is a God of mercy and unconditional, mind-blowing love.

As such, here I sit at my kitchen table staring out at the trees. And I’m reminded through His creation that His presence is still with me and my broken self. He gives me the gift of His presence even after I turned my back on him and listened to and believed “the oppressor” for so long.

He never left me, even in my wandering.

“No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Joshua 1:5

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When things don’t go according to “the plan.”

Luke and Allie

As of last Sunday, December 6th, Luke and I have been engaged for a full year.

The plan was to be engaged for less than a year.

The plan was that wedding prep would go oh-so-smoothly.

The plan was for me to live in my current apartment for less than six months.

The plan was to have a beautiful fall wedding where everything would be perfect.

The plan was to be happily settled into married life by Christmas 2015.

But right now, I sit in my little apartment almost ten months after I moved into it, and it’s decorated for Christmas. Just this morning I renewed my lease to live here for another term. Clearly, it’s December, and that means fall has come and gone.

And, as you may have noticed, we are not married.

The funny thing is, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In late February, right after I moved to Tennessee, Luke brought up the possibility of postponing our wedding. He felt that we weren’t as ready for marriage as we’d thought, and he wanted to slow down and take more time before we made such a huge commitment. I was extremely concerned with how that would look to other people, and the thought of deviating from “the plan” that we had already set in motion was absolutely terrifying to my anxious, control freak self.

I’m ashamed to admit that in my efforts to maintain that control, I failed to acknowledge that he was right. In fact, I was downright disrespectful to him, pushing back and invalidating his feelings every time we would discuss it. How could he not consider what other people would think? I’d already chosen my bridesmaids, told my extended family the wedding date, booked a venue and asked a dear friend and mentor of mine to be the officiant. What would all those people say when they found out we were throwing on the brakes? What will they assume? Will they see us differently? In my type A, perfectionistic, self-centered world, those thoughts were enough to keep me up at night– literally.

Eventually, I gave in. We postponed our wedding, and the phone calls I had to make to friends and family to let them know were probably some of the most difficult I’ve ever made. I was so buried in shame, I had to do some intense deep breathing before every phone call to keep from folding into the fetal position on the floor. But to my surprise, every single person I told responded with such love and grace. My MeeMaw was the last person I called that night, and she told me that she loved me and she loved Luke, no matter what. She was certain that if we put Christ first, that he would bring healing and bring us to a place of being ready for marriage, if that was his will.

I remember hanging up the phone with her, and I sat on my couch for an hour or more, crying until I couldn’t anymore. Oddly enough, they were tears more of relief that my loved ones had offered to walk alongside us in this journey, rather than judging and condemning. I had expected the worst, but those closest to me demonstrated grace. And that night, I believe, was the beginning of my own journey to understanding grace.

Throughout college, and especially as I transitioned to living life as an independent adult, I had grown to function out of a place of black-and-white, no-room-for-gray perfectionism– to the point of carrying around very real anxiety and overwhelming shame and self-criticism in every part of my soul. I had no grace for myself. I was either perfect at everything, all the time, or I was worthless. And in reality, perfection is just not attainable, so I lived in a state of believing I was worthless. At everything. All the time.

Throughout the last year, though, the Lord has been merciful to me, and He’s used every circumstance in my life to bring that to light, and to change it. In all honesty, it’s been an incredibly difficult year of examining my heart as Jesus sees it.

Postponing our wedding was big, yes, and the time that Luke and I have shared getting to know each other’s hearts has been nothing short of a huge blessing. We’ve both learned so much about each other and about ourselves, and it’s truly incredible to see where we are now as compared to where we were as a couple earlier this year. Starting my first full time job brought its own dose of humility, and my spending habits and bedtime have certainly changed as I’ve learned to take better care of my body and the resources God has blessed me with.

But I think the biggest transformation I’ve seen in myself is that I am now aware of the importance of grace.

The Lord has shown me how loving I can be just by extending grace to others (and to myself). And you know what? That’s really hard to do. It’s something I’ll be learning how to do for the rest of my life.

I’ve learned that I don’t have to live life in fear. I don’t have to make everyone like me, all the time, every day. I no longer see life as either perfect, or completely worthless. I don’t have to control everything in order for it to be a good thing. I don’t see everything as either black or white– I’m learning how much joy comes from living in the gray and choosing to accept and extend grace.

Nothing in my life has gone according to how I’ve planned it over the last year. But I look back on the past year, and I realize that God has used my relationship with this loving man in my life to put “sandpaper to my heart,” as a new friend of mine put it (read that here). I was perfectly fine to sweep all of these things in my heart under the rug and never deal with them.

But God had other plans. He wanted to smooth them out and change my hear to be more like His. So I’m learning to let go of “the plan,” relinquish control, and live in the scary, weird, thrilling, joyous place that is the gray.

“Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” Proverbs 19:21

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