God made us each with individual personalities and gifts, so why do those seem to get so easily muddled up in private fears and social anxieties?
In his book Samson and the Pirate Monks, Nate Larkins discusses a phenomenon that probably all human beings know too well.
“I was an adolescent when I first realized I am not always the same person, that there are several versions of me who appear and disappear in response to my surroundings.
“In those early days, the cast included Church Nate and School Nate, Home Nate and All Alone Nate, and they were definitely different people.”
He relates how, as he grew up, these different versions of himself began to multiply in order to meet whatever needs he had: Date Nate, Husband Nate, Pastor Nate, Businessman Nate, Father Nate, Loner Nate, Addict Nate.
The Polite Term: Secular Social Adaptation
Child development studies have a term that they use for the process that most children go through where they learn how to behave acceptably in their environment. This developmental stage is called “adaptive behaviors.”
This part of growing up is when a child realizes that certain actions allow them to experience more social success and less conflict with others around them.
To some extent, this is good, right?
Not acting out all of our thoughts and feelings is the basis of polite society where people don’t ram their shopping carts into whoever’s in front of them in the check-out line in order to hurry things along.
However, a problem quickly emerges when these adaptive behaviors grow into separate—dare we say—personalities who say and do things that the person they’ve sprung from doesn’t actually agree with or believe.
Probably every new spouse has stumbled across these strange alternate personalities a few months into marriage.
Suddenly their new husband or wife makes a comment that they are startled to hear. They go to a family reunion and are a bit surprised to see how their spouse acts around siblings or parents. An old friend comes over, and little shifts in the way their spouse laughs or falls silent are jarring.
It seems to simply be part of life. Different experiences cause us to act differently in situations that remind us of the past.
It’s fine, right?
Unable to Stop, Unable to Rest, Unable to Sleep
Reverend Lowell Grisham described our personas this way: “The false self is that ego-centered matrix of energy that each of us creates early in life as the way we try to get our needs met.”
Nate Larkins also pointed out in his book that this very common mutation of adaptive behavior is selfish because it exists in order to save ourselves trouble in social situations or to hide certain parts of our personalities from others. It’s not harmless either. It damages us.
“A false self can never rest. It looks like a real person, but a persona is actually just a hologram, a projected image, and it requires constant energy to keep that image up…. A persona is hollow, and is therefore plagued by a constant empty feeling. It may try to fill that inner void with any number of things—applause, excitement, food, sex, romance, knowledge, money, just to name a few—but the emptiness never goes away.
“A persona is afraid to go to sleep, because to sleep is to die.”
That internal damage—since we don’t dare rest for fear of being ourselves—has an even higher cost than most of us might imagine.
In a World Challenge sermon about blessing, William Carrol pointed out a poisonous side effect to not being the individual God made us to be. “Often times, when we put on a persona and choose not to be ourselves, it is hard for God to bless us with a special and specific grace.
“In order for God to bless us specifically we have to be specifically who we are.”
In the Bible, Jesus laid out this truth for his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it” (Matthew 16:24-25 NLT).
He knew this wouldn’t be easy. In fact, it’d be a bit like killing someone, like crucifying a hollow shadow-person.
Freedom From the Persona and the Fake
If adaptive behavior and then, less healthily, building personas are part of our human nature, how do we escape them then? They seem to do us more harm than good.
Perhaps this is part of what Paul talked about in Colossians 3:2-3, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
Many of these self-protective barriers we throw up between us and others aren’t necessary when God pulls us into the security of his plans for our lives and the freeing honesty that we’re not perfect and we do make terrible mistakes. Once we’re in Christ’s unshakable trajectory for our sanctification, it seems a bit silly to get defensive about our sins and screw-ups.
Why get scared of what others think? Their opinions won’t be the one that matters in the end.
The more we turn away from others’ views and turn toward a God-centered perspective on our worth and others’ value and what matters in the world, we’ll find that peace that Jesus promises his followers (John 14:27). We’ll find ourselves on a steady path forward because we suddenly have a light for our feet. We don’t have to guess what the next step will be because we’re trusting someone who already knows every detail of our journey from beginning to end.
The benefits of doing this are great, as William Carrol explains, “When we decide that we are not going to be someone else and we simply choose to be ourselves, God will begin to draw us into the blessing that He already established for us.”
As we die to these false selves, we find a life hidden in Christ.