“You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.” This is the golden rule of habit change in New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit.
At a young age, we learn the difference between good habits and bad habits by the praise and criticism we receive from our most immediate influencers – family. Positive reinforcement – love and affirmation – shapes the decisions we make as children. The absence of love and affirmation also affects the worldview we adopt and the types of narratives we tell ourselves about who we are.
When we get older, a switchover happens. We not only care what our family thinks, but we’ve also invited our peers, bosses and mentors into the conversation. At the core, we still crave love, but as we open ourselves up to more people, we are susceptible to getting even more crushed by rejection, abandonment and criticism. All the while, we’ve fallen into the bad habit of letting others tell us who we are. So then how do we reclaim our identity once and for all and live as a beloved child of God?
Examining five areas of my life helped me understand that I am more than a compilation of broken stories woven by the hand of God. I’m a daughter who is set free – free from guilt and shame. There a difference between living for the approval of man and living already approved by amazing grace. Give these questions a chance and begin to discover who you truly are as you navigate your 20s and 30s.
1. Family: Who am I?
Growing up, my mom was my biggest influencer. She instilled good work ethics and habits that pointed me towards a successful future. I was submissive and obedient and would do most anything she asked. Most of the time, it made sense to comply because I knew she wanted what was best for my life. I highly valued her opinion of me, and my identity was grounded in being a good daughter.
Over time, I realized the reason I fulfilled her every wish was because she rewarded me for good behavior through affirmation. I loved receiving her approval and making her life as a mom as easy as possible. As I got older, I also enjoyed pleasing relatives, friends, pastors and professors. But my addiction to approval and acceptance was met with an aversion to rejection and abandonment.
In college, I developed this nasty habit of testing people. If they passed, I’d stay friends with them. If they didn’t, the friendship was over. I met kindred spirits who struggled with the fear of rejection and got in the habit of cutting people out at the first sign of disloyalty. We’ve built walls around ourselves that make it difficult to trust people. Why? Because rejection hurts, and we’ve experienced it in unforgettable ways. I sought counsel from pastors and learned it’s also a heart issue I had with God.
When I moved to New York five years ago, I began to understood why grace and intimacy were terrifying to me. But in order to get to this place, I had to face some unpleasant memories from my childhood. I got a taste of what it’s like to embrace my past when I went on a retreat with 40 women from my church three years ago. There, between the shores of Long Beach Island and cozy cabins of the retreat center, my Father met my fears with His unconditional love. It happened during one gathering where the leaders encouraged us to recount our most vivid childhood memory.
I remembered the night my dad left. My parents were getting divorced, and my mom told me not to tell anyone. Though her attempt to reassure me felt like an emotional abandonment, I was in the habit of listening to her. So I kept silent for two years. Every day, I went to my room, shut the door and sobbed quietly. I was afraid my mom would see me and tell me to deal with it or worse, feel like a horrible mom. Just when I thought I couldn’t go through this exercise any longer, something happened.
Breakthrough. As salt water streamed down my face, I felt God’s warm hand comforting me and telling me He feels my pain. He didn’t abandon me the way I thought everyone else did. He was right there collecting every teardrop. That day, I vowed to stop telling myself the lie that I need to earn God’s love and put on a facade for others. I claimed the truth that I am loved unconditionally.
Through drawing up a painful memory of the past and giving it to God, I was able to denounce lies and claim truths. Even now, when I feel rejected and emotionally abandoned by family, I’m learning to surrender all of my unresolved relationships to God instead of fighting to earn my place back with them. It’s possible for redemption to touch every life that is transformed by the blood of Christ. The battle is not against flesh and blood but against the dark forces. I’ve been praying for God to reverse generations of unhealthy habits that have become norms in my family starting with me.
2. Workplace: What do I do?
After graduating Columbia Journalism School at age 23, I was offered a full-time job as a journalist in the suburbs of New York. The role was a few rungs above entry level, paid a meager salary and was removed from Manhattan, the city where I had committed to a church. But I knew it was a tough market, so I accepted the position and endured grueling commutes in and out of the city every day.
Still, I took pride in telling people I’m a business reporter whenever someone would ask, “What do you do for a living?” I felt privileged to be in a role not many young reporters got the opportunity to experience. My profession sounded respectable and cutthroat to others, and I let what others thought about my occupation puff up my worth. Overtime, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was unhappy.
I was one of two millennials in the workplace amongst seasoned journalists. I wasn’t receiving support and feared asking for help was a sign of weakness. I was also afraid to ask for feedback because I didn’t want to receive criticism. Then one day, my boss sat me down and said, “You’re not a good fit for us.” Those words felt like a ton of bricks. He showed me some stories I wrote that he approved of – one of them was a firsthand account of my mission trip experience to Cincinnati where I tackled the topic of gentrification, its effects on the displaced families in Over-the-Rhine and how a local church was the glue to that community. I braced myself for the punchline.
“I can tell these are the types of stories you enjoy writing,” my boss said as a smile spread across his face. “So go out there and find a nonprofit job!” Though it hurt to be told I’m not exactly what the company is looking for, my boss’ “criticism” was surprisingly encouraging and liberating. Instead of walking out of the exit interview completely crushed to smithereens, I took away positive feedback.
Rejection in the form of a job loss doesn’t change the way God views me.
It merely exposes what I’ve placed my confidence in. During my second experience with unemployment, this became even more solidified. Instead of frantically searching for jobs, I took advantage of my time away from the field to pray for deeper intimacy and greater faith. All the while, I trusted God is preparing me for a major life and career transition. He even opened up opportunities to minister to unemployed sisters.
I’m confident the good work He began in me will carry on into my next job. When the enemy reminds me how far I’ve fallen, I take heart knowing that I am called to keep walking. Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Next time someone asks me, “What do you do?” I want to say, “I’m in the business of clean slates. I got my start by losing a job or two and trusting God has better plans.”
3. Culture: Where am I from?
Our identity is shaped by our way of life, whether we were raised in the suburbs, city or country. And the culture and people in our geography impact how we live and who we consider to be our neighbors. Within these locales, we form habits that we attribute to external influences in our surroundings. But really, these habits are the byproduct of beliefs we’ve adopted during childhood.
Attending one of the biggest Korean Presbyterian churches in the greater Chicago area and studying at one of the most attractive state universities for Asian Americans in the Midwest, I got comfortable being around other Asian Americans. Though I was never opposed to going to an ethnically diverse church or college, I grew up with mostly Asian church friends who only had other Asian church friends. When I moved to New York after college, it was natural for me to select a mostly Asian church.
I thought the workplace was where I’d make an effort to embrace diversity. I enjoyed working alongside non-Asian co-workers but come lunchtime, I wanted to eat with the Asians. It wasn’t just me who acted this way. Everyone had a crowd, usually made up of people of the same skin color. I felt like I was in high school all over again, or to take it further back, in the Jim Crow era. Something didn’t sit right. How could I live in the most culturally and ethnically diverse city and be so insular?
When I reflect on my upbringing, it makes sense why I had such a warped worldview. After experiencing rejection and abandonment, I got in the habit of choosing people whom I thought were most similar to me, even if it meant keeping my surroundings tight with Asians. But I realized that’s not the way God intended for me to live. I’m like Jonah running to Tarshish when God wanted him to reach the Ninevites. And now, the great whale has swallowed me up and spit me out in Portland, Oregon, where Asians are the minority in my neighborhood and church. Personally, I see it as a great change. It challenges me to embrace my upbringing while getting in the habit of opening my borders to new neighbors. We’re called to be ministers of reconciliation to every tongue, tribe and nation.
4. Singleness: When is it my turn?
As singles in our 20s and 30s, we can’t help but wonder when it’ll be our turn. Social media and dating apps exacerbate this unhealthy obsession with marketability. At weddings, we are told whoever catches the bride’s bouquet and garter is next in line to get married. These superstitions only mess with our minds and make us think that if we’re single there’s something wrong with us.
In college, it was fun to imagine who my future spouse would be. I would think about which guys have the personality and looks I liked and imagine those traits going into a blender to make me the perfect husband. When I entered young adult life, things felt more serious. I’d exchange curated lists of must-have qualities in godly men with sisters and stay up late to discuss them at lengths. Through the rumor mill, I heard there existed a list of most eligible single men at the church I attended. Sure, it was all fun and games. But it actually made me feel like time was of the essence.
Unless… I jump ship and look in a completely different pool. After rushing into an unhealthy relationship with a guy I met on Coffee Meets Bagel, I was so upset that it didn’t work out. It wasn’t his rejection that hurt as much as it reminded me of all my past rejections. When I turned 25, I threw out my list. I asked God to heal me of my wounds and teach me to be single-minded.
Once I let go of this constant need to have a guy who will affirm me, I found true joy in being single.
Learning how to love nothing and nobody more than I love Christ was a necessary step towards God opening the door for me to meet my fiancé.
Through this experience, I learned that nothing we do can expedite the “delivery” of our future spouses. Everything is in His perfect timing. After learning what season of life my significant other and I were in when we met, there was confirmation that this was God-ordained, nothing we could’ve planned or anticipated in our own shortsightedness.
5. Ministry: Why do I feel dissatisfied?
As we mature in our walks with God, we kick bad habits to the curb and start developing healthy ones like serving others. Some of us have been asked to step up as worship leaders, Bible study teachers, intercessors, mission team leaders, elders and even pastors. These all sound like godly pursuits, but at the end of the day, we always need to evaluate why we do what we do. That is, we need to check the motive of our hearts. Is it to feel loved? To be respected? To build a reputation?
When I started serving in young adult ministry, I had the audacity to think that my church needed me. I would say, “Yes” to everyone and everything, and over time, I felt like I had a pretty stacked ministry résumé. The affirmation I received kept me going, but only for so long. Down the road, I felt dissatisfaction and resentment for creating roles for myself and thinking I would single-handedly revamp ministries that were struggling. By my fourth year, I felt burnt out and quit a bunch of ministries. What I needed at that point was to check just how filthy my feet were. Let me explain.
Jesus says in John 13, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” When we’re focused on our service and not on the servant of Jesus, we forget that ministry is about people, not a checklist of tasks to conquer for the praises of man. After “failing” at different ministries, it was humbling to love people the way Jesus did when I didn’t have any personal successes to boast in.
The burden lifted off of my shoulders when I no longer viewed serving as what I can do, but saw it as an opportunity to partner with what God is already doing.
Our labor in the Lord is never in vain even if we don’t see a single fruit or personal reward. But if we’re finding ourselves frustrated by everyone and everything because we’re not being appreciated, especially as we’re serving, take a step back. Whose approval are we seeking? God doesn’t need us. It’s a privilege to partner with Him to love people well. If we’re not ready to do that yet, or if we’re biting off more than we can chew, let’s start by admitting that we’re weak and allow Jesus to minister to us.
Each of these questions, albeit challenging, have caused me to take a hard look at habits that are making me less dependent on God and more reliant on myself and others. When we embrace the reality that we are a new creation, we’re no longer controlled by fear. We don’t walk around hurting others or justifying the grievances we have against them either. What childhood experiences shape your worldview and self worth? How do they affect your relationship with God and with others?