Janet, tell us a bit about yourself – who you are and what you do.
I often refer to myself as a person who gathers stories, a practice I have enjoyed for many years and in many ways: being a wife for over 30 years, mother to four (now) adult children, a hospital chaplain, a gardener, a spiritual director, a church nerd, a friend, and a lover of the stories of Scripture. I am also a person who helps people find language for unfamiliar spaces and places in life like trauma and grief or transformation and growth. I am a deep see-er, a grief-magnet, a good listener, a dangerous hoper, and a woman who speaks with a voice to be heard. The shape my work has taken recently has been spiritual direction, writing, leadership development, and speaking.
You’ve just published a book, My Own Worst Enemy. In a nutshell, what’s it about?
My Own Worst Enemy is a book primarily written for women that helps us face our struggle with self-sabotage so that we can live more free, satisfying, fruitful and radiant lives. The book tells the stories of several modern day women, including my own, placed alongside the stories of a few women in Scripture, highlighting observations from those ancient stories that offer us wisdom and insight for this particular aspect of the spiritual journey. We look at the various ways self-sabotage can show up in our lives as well as how the struggle to shine changes as we grow. We also look at pro-active choices we can make to build resilience against this powerful but generally hidden force.
What set you off on the journey of writing this book? Was there one incident that triggered it?
A little more than ten years ago, I was in graduate school at a seminary and enjoying my studies toward a Masters in Spiritual Nurture. One day I was having a conversation with one of my professors about what I was seeing in the book of Ruth. For the first time, I had begun to bring my experience of being a woman to how I read the stories of women and I was seeing new facets to that old story. My professor affirmed my insights and invited me to share my thoughts with my classmates in a course he was going to be teaching a few weeks from that day. I was enrolled in that class myself and happily accepted his invitation.
I took some time to prepare what I wanted to say and felt confident going into the class; however, when the moment came for me to actually speak, I did not take the podium he had offered me but simply stood briefly, said a few words, and sat down. I completely sabotaged this wonderful opportunity but had no idea what had happened inside of myself or why. All I could remember was this accusing voice just beneath the surface that kept saying, “Just who do you think you are?”
As I began to talk to friends about that day, I discovered how common this experience of self-sabotage was for women. (Few men I spoke with struggle in this same way.) Surprisingly, there was also a remarkable similarity to our stories. Many women even used those very same words in describing their experiences: “Just who do you think you are?” Interestingly, few had ever talked to other people about their experiences or been able to sort through it themselves. There was a great deal of confusion about shining and pride as well as hiding and humility. The more I spoke with women, the more I recognized how much self-sabotage had cost the Kingdom of God, how many brilliant and beautiful women had been silenced, temporarily or even long term, by these painful encounters. My personal curiosity became impassioned exploration.
Why do you think some women are their own worst enemies?
More specifically, many women battle an unhealthy tendency toward self-contempt. The inner tones of the “Just who do you think you are?” voice are usually loaded with acidic critique and void of self-compassion. Additionally, we also often lack a distinct sense of self-awareness, personhood, and voice. As natural nurturers, we tend to be so focused on our calling to care for others that we can neglect or lose a healthy sense of our authentic, creative, and radiant self. That loss of clear identity makes us very vulnerable to the voices of self-sabotage.
Is it possible to overcome that inner critic? What’s the first step?
Counter-intuitively, I think the first step is to turn toward those voices and answer them. You might have noticed that the primary accusation of self-sabotage is a question, albeit one that seeks to silence us more than to be answered: “Just who do you think you are?” It is amazing how quickly a simple answer of “I am… I am not…” can calm the accusations. But that’s not a strategy I invented, it is actually a pattern you can see in the Bible.
For example, in the story of the woman with a hemorrhage (Luke 8) we see a woman who had been physically healed but was still hiding in invisibility when Jesus called her forward. She was likely still hearing the inner critic voice of “unclean” and needed a second healing that only Jesus saw. For this woman, wholeness came as she responded to Jesus’ stubborn invitation, stepped out of the shadows, and simply told her story. “I am… I am not…” In Hannah’s story, (1 Samuel 1,2) the critical voices she faced were externalized so meeting the temptation toself-sabotage looked like saying “No” to others, learning to boldly and unapologetically own her pain and desire, and going her own way. “I am… I am not…” It is amazing how these ancient stories can speak to the heart of our struggle to live full and radiant lives today.
In my own story, I have found it very helpful and freeing to make my own “I am… I am not” list. For example, I have come to own the fact that “I am a writer” not because I have had three books published, but simply because as I experience life, sentences, paragraphs, and outlines form in my head. In some ways, I cannot, NOT write. So when I walk into a bookstore and the shelves full of books seem toscream “Just who do you think you are taking on another writing project? The last thing the world needs is another book,” I simply reply, “I am a writer. It is just what I do. It is my gift to steward as best I can, not perfectly, simply authentically.” Or, when I speak to a group, I often open the time with the collect for those who influence public opinion.
Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices:
Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read;
that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous;
to the honour of Jesus Christ our Lord.
In those words, I confess to myself and those who hear me that “I am one of many voices.” Internally, I am also confessing that “I am not the end all, be all greatest speaker of all time”… nor do I need to be. I am one of many voices, saying what I see, seeking to do my part to be helpful.” In unapologetically owning who I am and who I am not, I can relax into freedom to be myself: authentically, creatively, and radiantly.