Lora* sat ramrod straight, knees crossed, her right foot bouncing, as she told me her emotional concerns during our first counseling session.
"I don't understand what's happening to me," this mother of two said. "I wasn't stressed out when my heart started racing. I was just driving, unable to catch my breath."
Her blue eyes watered up and her neck flushed. Lora's symptoms characterize a common mental health problem—a panic disorder. As I listened, Lora confessed her family and her home consumed her time. Even on weekends, her husband orchestrated the family's activities.
"Lora," I said, "tell me what you do in your free time. What activities do you enjoy?"
She flipped her blond hair off her angular shoulders, laughed lightly, and asked, "What free time?"
"The quiet times you take for solitude? Hobbies? Pleasures? Or just plain having fun with a friend?" I pushed.
She didn't answer. Instead, she shifted her feet and smoothed her skirt over her lap.
"Why don't you just describe yourself to me, then," I urged. "Who are you?"
The woman's eyes reddened; her lips tightened. She studied the pattern on my rug. But her silence answered my question with a shout. She didn't know who she was. She'd failed to find—or to keep—her sense of self.
After she shared more information—mostly about her overwhelmed feelings, I offered my thoughts. "I believe your panic attacks stem from your not knowing who you are. You may be feeling this sense of panic, of being out of control, because you've lost yourself." I assured Lora she was similar to other clients who struggle with anxiety and depression. "You've buried yourself in the midst of your multiple roles. Your desire to please others has concealed your sense of Self. You and I need to help you answer this important question, "Who am I?"
Lora faced a problem threatening women today—loss of personal identity. This can cause panic and anxiety, depression and anger. Many factors place demands on us, whether from the workplace, our families, our aging parents, our health, our church, or friends. We're often taught to comply, to agree, to serve without complaint. Yet Jesus wants our lives to be full, fruitful, luscious (John 10:10). To help us and to continue to provide us with the nourishment our souls and identities need, he gives us the Holy Spirit, who in turn reveals to us who God wants us to be and empowers us to bear lasting fruit to his glory (John 15:16).
Regaining Your Lost Self
Often I'm asked, "How can I find my identity?" As women we're so busy giving ourselves away—to our spouses, children, mothers, friends, co-workers, even churches—that we neglect to care for ourselves properly. That's not God's design for us. We are supposed to lose ourselves in Christ—not have our identities sucked away by other people.
In Nice Girls Don't Change the World, author Lynne Hybels explains well why it's important for us to build into ourselves: "I thought denying my gifts and passions was part of what it meant to 'die to self,' as Scripture requires. I didn't realize there was a difference between dying to self-will and dying to the self God created me to be.
"Yes, we must live according to the ebb and flow of life's seasons, and our movement between ministry within the home and beyond the home must shift according to the needs of those seasons …. But …
"If year after year our lives are consumed with activities we've been neither gifted nor impassioned to do, and we never have a chance to slide into the sweet spot of giving out of our true self, we pay a higher price in ministry than God is asking us to pay. And that saddest thing is, when we allow this to happen, nobody wins."
As I began to work with Lora, I encouraged her to begin the journey of regaining her identity, her self.
Consider who God made in you.
The key to learning who you are stems from the idea given us by the Creator in the Garden of Eden: You are good (Genesis 1:31).
As Lora and I worked together, she began to truly realize and appreciate that she was God's workmanship (Ephesians 2:10). We studied together Jesus' parable of the vine and the branches (John 15:1-8). The Heavenly Father plants the seed of your identity. Christ the Son is the life-sustaining, sap-giving vine. Two actions—to abide in Christ and to allow his pruning—form your identity as a fruit-bearing branch. Only then can you produce everlasting fruit. To abide you must immerse yourself in the Word of God, which is life and spirit (John 6:63). And what is the nature of this eternal fruit? Souls changed by the Holy Spirit; a lifestyle imbued with the character of Christ; daily attitudes of faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13).
Retake ownership. Lora needed to rediscover and take ownership of her interests, opinions, and feelings—and not feel guilty or apologize for them. She read, listened to music, and watched quality movies in order to identify her traits. For example, she watched the movie The Last of the Mohicans and saw the qualities of service and loyalty in Cora, characteristics she had and could strengthen. She made a personal collage, which included photos of her likes (swimming pool, puppies) and her dislikes (loud music and shrimp), and pasted descriptive words at the top of each page (joyful; solitude; courage to be me). She kept a "feelings" journal, and practiced "I feel" statements with her family: "I feel disappointed that you worked late instead of spending the evening with us, like you said you would." Or "I feel frustrated when I have to tell you more than once to hang your coat up." Just the act of expressing her feelings gave her a sense of empowerment.
Say no. As Lora began to more clearly identify her likes, needs, and interests, it became easier for her to start to tell people "no"—a difficult task for a perpetual people-pleaser. But she found she could say "no" without apology when she put the "no" into context: Every time she says "no" to something, she's saying "yes" to something better.
I encouraged her to practice saying "no" without offering apologies or excuses. Just a simple "no" can free her Self to become more clearly aligned with God's work in her identity.
Get alone. Spending time alone may be one of the most difficult steps for busy women—but it also may be one of the most important. Lora took an inventory of her genetic characteristics (she'd inherited good looks, some shyness, intelligence, and a good musical voice from her parents), her God-given talents, and her personal values (such as chatting with her best friend, keeping a neat house and balanced checkbook, and playing outdoors with her children). She told people her "alone" time needed to be prioritized so that she might get to know herself and God better. After all, I reminded her, Jesus himself withdrew consistently to seek solitude.
Husbands, children, and friends may whine about your absence, but by drawing away to spend some alone time, you're better able to return to them as the strong, true you.
Finally, Lora rediscovered her identity: a woman loved and created by God, an important branch on the Christ-vine, worthy of the Gardener's clipping, culling, and shaping. As deeper quiet times sharpened her knowledge of God's Word, her spiritual identity matured. She became more and more empowered. She no longer felt like a dead branch, her sap sucked dry by the demands of life, or like a wilted stem too flimsy to state an opinion. She no longer feared "loss of control," because she'd given control of her life to the Gardener. And as she yielded to Christ, her panic attacks flowed away.
Julie Caton, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in Western New York. She practices on a farm with her husband of 41 years, Rick, a licensed social worker.
* Name has been changed.