Transforming Church Team Blog
resourcing leaders…reenvisioning the future

Defining Self (Part 2)

Dr. Jim Osterhaus

Dr. Jim Osterhaus

“Okay,” you might be saying, “I understand that I need to be more self-aware, so that I can be more clearly defined, so that I can lead more effectively. But how do I go about doing this? I’ve taken lots of surveys in the past.”  Let’s think for a moment what specifically it is we’re attempting to be aware of.

Personal Definition
So how do we get defined? Probably one of the more compelling stories of scripture has an answer to this. It’s the story of Jacob and Esau, their birth and upbringing. In Genesis 25, we have Rebecca pregnant with twins. When these two boys are born, Esau emerges first. He’s evidently hairy, so the parents name him ‘Hairy,’ or Esau. Then even more striking is Jacob’s birth. He emerges grasping his brother’s heel. Now we know babies instinctively do two things: suck and grasp. So Jacob is doing a very natural thing, grasping Esau’s heel. But the parents, and I think in particular Rebecca, see this act, and this reminds her of something – her brother Laban (and of course, herself). That schemer who was always “grabbing her heel” to trip her up as she grew. And we can assume, by her own actions, that she had a lot of the schemer in her. At any rate, she names her son, Jacob or schemer, then goes about coaching him in how to be an effective schemer.

Parents ‘name’ us, looking at particular qualities they see (or think they see), and begin the process of shaping us. The more comfortable parents are with their own selves, the more apt they are to elicit the qualities they first experience in their newborns (those God-given qualities that are ‘hard-wired into each of us). Unfortunately, more often than not, rather than seeing what God had created in us, parents impose who they think we are. Parents highlight and mold certain characteristics in us, and deny/suppress other features, based on their values and belief systems and their own stories. Characteristics approved of are highlighted. The rest are shoved into the background.  Society then steps in and degrees what is appropriate and what is not.

What’s left of my `self,’ the me that the outside world experiences?  Those parts of my original self that were acceptable to my parents and the world are allowed to stay.  So my exterior self is this patchwork of parts glued together and displayed, and in the shadows lies still other parts of me that have been cast off.  We don’t know these parts are still there, but they are. And these discarded parts have an annoying way of popping up at inopportune times. (note: you can find a much fuller discussion of this in my book, Family Tales (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997).

Surrounding this self is my personal boundary, which may or may not be constructed and maintained adequately. It is probably the place where one can determine self-definition the quickest. Another way of saying this, those with strong self-definitions have appropriate boundaries. Those with poor boundaries invariably have a weak self-definition.

Personal Boundaries
Boundaries set limits. A personal boundary is a place where your reality ends, and mine begins. Our boundaries are a clear definition of our personal space, physically, emotionally, intellectually, sexually, and spiritually. To be a well-defined person is to be a person with clear boundaries – I know who I am as opposed who I am not. Sounds simple. But for all of us to a degree, and for others in particular, the establishment and maintenance of good, clear personal boundaries is a daunting task. Boundaries are the personal ‘fences’ in that they:

•    Define who we are and what we value, believe, think, feel and do.
•    Restrict access and intrusions.
•    Protect priorities, and
•    Help us differentiate between what is personal (what we call the Red Zone) and professional (Blue Zone).

In our book, Thriving Through Ministry Conflict, we include a questionnaire on boundaries which I now reproduce here.

For some folks, boundaries are too porous. See which of these statements might describe you.

  • I have difficulty making up my mind. Y/N
  • I have difficulty saying no to people. Y/N
  • I feel my happiness depends on other people. Y/N
  • I would rather attend to others than to myself. Y/N
  • Others’ opinions are more important than mine. Y/N
  • People take and use my things without asking me. Y/N
  • I have difficulty asking for what I want or need. Y/N
  • I would rather go along with other people than express what I would really like to do. Y/N
  • It’s hard for me to know what I think and believe. Y/N
  • I have a hard time determining what I really feel. Y/N
  • I don’t get to spend much time alone. Y/N
  • I have a hard time keeping a confidence. Y/N
  • I am very sensitive to criticism. Y/N
  • I tend to stay in relationships that are harmful to me. Y/N
  • I tend to take on or feel what others are feeling. Y/N
  • I feel responsible for other people’s feelings. Y/N

If you answered yes to three or more of these, your boundaries are too porous, with beliefs, information, values, and opinions flowing freely in and out without a clear definition of self.

Now look at this list and see which ones agree with you.

  • My mind is always made up. Y/N
  • It is much easier for me to say no to people than to say yes. Y/N
  • My happiness never depends on other people. Y/N
  • I would rather attend to myself than to others. Y/N
  • My opinion is more important than others’. Y/N
  • I rarely, if ever, lend my things to other people. Y/N
  • Most issues appear very black and white to me. Y/N
  • I know exactly what I think and believe on almost every issue. Y/N
  • I have a hard time determining what I really feel. Y/N
  • I spend much time alone. Y/N
  • I keep most of my thoughts to myself. Y/N
  • I am immune to criticism. Y/N
  • I find it difficult to make and maintain close relationships. Y/N
  • I never feel responsible for other people’s feelings/. Y/N

If you answered agree to more than three of these, your boundaries are probably too rigid. Yes, too rigid. You might think that agreeing with many of the above statements gives you good, strong boundaries. But boundaries must be permeable enough to allow new information to enter to influence you in useful ways.

You can see, by the nature of each question asked, several of the aspects of personal definition that are important. Do I actually know what is important to me, what my central purpose in life is, where I’m going in life, how I plan to get there.

Mental Maps
My personal definition and my personal boundaries all combine to construct my mental maps. As we grow and acquire life experience we reach conclusions as to how people and things will act. Based on those conclusions we then construct mental maps of our world and the people in it. Our maps guide us in our approach to the world and usually provide sufficient degree of predictability as to how people and things will behave to enable us to move through life with some degree of confidence about what we’re doing and what will happen as a result of what we’re doing.

The conclusions we reach about our world we call “impressions”,  “opinions”,  “points of view”,  “beliefs” or “values”. Which label we use depends on the degree of conviction with which we hold the conclusion. In constructing our mental map of the world we form many hundreds of thousands of conclusions.  Some of these only come into our conscious awareness in response to a situation we find ourselves in, and many never come into our awareness.  Some don’t come into our awareness until after we’ve responded to a situation. Thus we may find ourselves saying “I never thought I’d do a thing like that, I don’t know what got into me I’m just not that kind of a person!”

Competing Values
This is all well and good about personal definition and boundaries, and mental maps. But I live in the real world where I confront many situations every day. How does any of this apply? It applies precisely in those everyday situations, because it is in those varying situations

People interpret their problems according to their mental maps. And a central component of these maps are the values they contain –what matters most. Unfortunately, because of a variety of inputs and experiences, our values aren’t nicely aligned one with another, as we would like to think. In fact, we have many internal competing values. Many of these competing values arise from things I value for myself personally as opposed to things I value for my family and the surrounding community. I want to reach out to my neighbors and form strong bonds of community. At the same time I want to be left alone. I need to work long hours to make money. At the same time I like to spend a lot of quality time with my spouse and children.

Next, I want to take a look at the sources of our competing values – all of those elements that make each of us so complex internally.  Then we’ll look at how these interact with one another to sabotage us as we set our goals and attempt to do our lives authentically.


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