Life Isn’t About Proving Yourself (It’s About Being Yourself)


Photo Credit: Andrushko Galyna (Bigstock)

They were so nervous they could barely pronounce their own names.

Last month, my oldest son Aidan participated in his first Scholastic Bowl match. His younger siblings and I arrived, not really knowing what to expect. In hindsight, though, I should have known. After all, I was thirteen once.

I remember.

I remember what it was like to feel like my worth was up for grabs every time I opened my mouth, to feel like the outcome of every endeavor would either prove my worth or reveal my lack thereof. In other words, I remember what it was like to feel shame. The truth is, somedays, I still feel it. We all do.

Because we’ve still got a scared kid inside of us somewhere.

As rookie Scholastic Bowl spectators, we wound up in the wrong room with two teams from other schools, but we watched anyway. At the beginning of the match, the captain of each team had to rise, introduce himself, and introduce his four teammates. Both captains, upon standing, turned bright red, spoke with quavering voices, spat out the names as clearly as possible through all the adrenaline, and sat down as if someone had kicked their legs out from under them.

When you don’t know that your worth is infinite, eternal, and precisely equal to everyone else’s, any moment of life can feel exquisitely dangerous.

In other words, when we believe that what we do is who we are—that our successes and failures are the best estimate of our value—then every Scholastic Bowl and athletic contest and class project and friendship and marriage and job and career and calling becomes a high-wire act.

Will our sense of self survive to walk another day, or will we free fall into the net below, which collects the masses of people who don’t really matter after all?

This fear can make an ordinary Scholastic Bowl match on an ordinary Thursday afternoon feel like your life’s final exam, when the truth is, it’s simply a brushstroke—a bit of color splashed on the canvas of a life—one moment in an ordinary, but potentially beautiful, existence. Shame blows everything out of proportion, distorts every image in the rearview mirror.

In life, there are no final exams, only small brushstrokes.

Lately, I’ve been writing a lot about the book I’m publishing—one reader even scolded me for turning “a once helpful blog into a blatant marketing opportunity.” But the truth is, for more than five years, on this blog, I’ve simply been writing about the brushstrokes of my life. Now, my book is another brushstroke. I have to write about it because, right now, it is what’s happening in my life. At the same time, if I allow my shame to blow it out of proportion—turning it into my life’s final exam—like a middle school Scholastic Bowler, I’ll barely be able to pronounce my own name.

The poet Rumi writes, “Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.”

Shame will keep you in your head, where the story is all about proving yourself. However, the great calling upon your life is to find your way into the center of your heart, where the story is simply about being yourself—loving what you love, and living what you are here to live.

If you’re like most of us, you have a lifetime of brushstrokes waiting at the center of you. It is time to quit walking the high-wire of your shame. It is time to start walking on the solid ground of your truest, worthiest self. It is time to paint what you want to paint upon the canvas of your life.

One ordinary brushstroke at a time.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.


P.S. My new book Loveable is available for pre-order and, for a limited time, when you order Loveable, you will get a free bonus—The Year of Listening, Loving, and Living—a second full-length book I’ve written as a practical companion to Loveable. You can click here to find out more.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

52 thoughts on “Life Isn’t About Proving Yourself (It’s About Being Yourself)

  1. This is so timely and WONDERFUL, as usual. My 13 year old daughter came home yesterday and got a 66 on a math test that she studied so hard for. I sat and gave her space, listening to her question, doubt and shrink smaller and smaller as she tried to figure out how this happened. She likes good grades. I hugged her and told her just what you write about, that this math test does not define who she is. It doesn’t even change the fact that she is, in fact, a super mathematician. I, too, have been there so many times and continue to be in my life. That 13 year old girl, 11 year old, 16 year old…… on and on, she lives on! You are spot on. I might add….. the reader who scolded you, my impression is that it’s more about the reader than you 😉 just a reflection! Write on and Right on Dr. Flanagan, we all benefit from your sharing AND I pre-ordered your book as soon as I found out is was coming out!

    • Shannon, this tender moment between you and your daughter is priceless. She is so lucky to have a mom who is helping her untether her worth from her performance. And thank you for your kind words about my writing and book, not to mention pre-ordering it!

  2. Fabulous blog this morning and a good reminder as to what’s important in life. Having recently retired my husband and I are in that transition period. We both struggle with the process of finding and becoming comfortable with our new identities. Our life lens has been focused for so long on our careers it’s an adjustment to look at and value our new selves in retirement. Your blog reminded me that we are entitled to focus on ourselves as we all have worth no matter what phase of life we are in. Thanks for the reminder!!

    • Patricia, you’re right on. Our careers, especially when we love them, can create the illusion that our self is the same as our work. You and your husband get to free yourselves of that notion now. I trust it will eventually bring you great joy!

  3. Thank you for this article! I gave birth to my first child last Thursday, and have been struggling mentally and emotionally with the magnitude of the task of caring for her, building it up in my head, feeling a lot of shame and insecurity. Your article reminded me that each little action I do for her is just a “brushstroke” in the big picture of raising her, and it’s OK to take it one day at a time.

    • Congratulations! What a beautifully mindful welcome to the world you’ve provided your daughter.

      • Thank you 🙂 I love reading the comments on Dr. Kelly’s page because they’re insightful and kind, unlike many other comments on websites.

    • Dominique, can I just add that my heart just swelled when I read your post? As Kelly said, your mindfulness already sets up a beautiful future for her..and for you! Good for you, girl…you’ve got this. And, it’s so important that you continue to reach out…don’t allow yourself to isolate. I so remember the propensity to do that myself when I was overwhelmed or discouraged…don’t go there! Congratulations on your new precious gift…your brushstrokes are going to be beautiful.

      • Thank you, Donna, for the kind words of encouragement. It’s good to know these thoughts are had by others, too.

    • Dominique…..on Saturday I witnessed the birth of my 6th grand baby and that feeling never leaves us. Who am I to be a part of this beautiful miracle called birth? And you summed it up so beautifully in your words… each little action I do for him is just a “brushstroke” in the big picture of his life…..and it’s OK to take it one day at a time.

    • Dominique, congratulations to you and your little one, who is so lucky to have a mom who is already working so thoughtfully to become a loving mother. Three very, very wise people have already replied to you below. Ditto, ditto, and ditto.

  4. Thank you Kelly~I so appreciate how vulnerable you are willing to be with all of us strangers each week. it is because of that very fact that you are so easy to connect with.
    If I could bring up the book (sorry to your reader who doesn’t want you to talk about it so much) I am unclear about the free book, does that get sent out at the same time as the other one? I did order both a while back but for some reason thought the free book would be sent right away. Don’t ask me why I thought that….LOL

    • I’m glad you asked, Betty! When you sign up for the bonus, you should immediately receive the Introduction chapter of the bonus book in the welcome email. Then, on March 21, the day Loveable releases, you will receive a second email with the entire bonus book. If you need anything else, feel free to email me from the About page, and I’d be glad to help!

  5. As always, I am encouraged by your post! I only wish I knew how to present this important “thought” to my grandchildren. It seems that sometimes they are encouraged to be “the best” or the “winner” in their endeavors. When they don’t come out number one they feel they are failures. My grandson once said, “I am a loser!” When he didn’t win in a competition. It broke my heart!

    • Judy, it’s a great question. I think we’re all seeking ways to communicate this to our little ones. I’d be curious if any other readers have specific suggestions? I suspect that simply by being the same present, loving, and affirming grandparent, regardless of how they perform, you are sending a powerful message to them.

      • I hope I can continue to have the opportunity to do that . It does appear, though, that the older they get, the less they have time for grandparents.

        • Judy, for what it’s worthy, I went through a time in adolescence when I quit thinking about my grandparents (wish I could have a do over on that one), but then in college started spending time with them again whenever I could. I hope you experience the same thing!

        • That’s exactly what my mum says about her 4 grandchildren aged 12-17… I say to her :”don’t give up mum, you will always be more significant in their lives than you think you are ….still say & do those things you want to with them even if they don’t appear enthusiastic, it will rub off on them slowly but surely…your wise ways will shine through one day…”

    • I think we could all use reminders that just because you lost does not make you a loser. Just like when you make a mistake, you are not a mistake. Or if you do something bad, you are not a bad person. Good, smart, capable people can still make dumb mistakes. We just need someone to remind us of it.

  6. You have an awesome way of dialing in my enthusiasm for the mundane. Wednesday won’t know what hit it.

  7. “…friendship and marriage and job and career and calling becomes a high-wire act.”
    – This has been true for me. Without being in the same place with all those measures as others that I know, I continue to judge myself as inadequate and unworthy. Nervously teetering in a high (visible) place fearing the worst all the time. Not cool. More power to real life high wire performers but I need to get down and be me. Still working on that part, “Loveable” gave me some good clues on how to reclaim myself.

    “However, the great calling upon your life is to find your way into the center of your heart, where the story is simply about being yourself—loving what you love, and living what you are here to live.”
    – Reminds me of 2 Corinthians 3:3 where the faithful are considered the “epistle of Christ…written in the fleshy tables of the heart.” The place where my core faith resides is also where “I” am. My beliefs, thoughts, and actions tend to pull me away from that core because of the lack of self worthiness permeating my life. I just need something else in me to click; something else to just relax; something to shake me by my internal (little one’s) shoulders and tell me I don’t need to think I am anything else but worthy to be me. I know it’s a choice, a daily, moment by moment choice and I still struggle to choose it. I still have trepidation and anxiousness about choosing to be myself rather than a pitiful showcase of what I think everyone wants me to be.

    • JC, your comment made me think of a quote from Richard Rohr’s blog today. Here it is. I hope you are encouraged by it to be persistent. “We cannot make moments of spontaneous awakening occur. But even so, we find our way to the strategy that underlies all methods of meditation: freely choosing to assume the inner stance that offers the least resistance to being overtaken by the graced awakenings we are powerless to attain. As we cultivate the habit of this receptive openness in daily meditation, a more habitual meditative awareness slowly becomes our way of experiencing our day-by-day lives. As we sit in meditation, being as sincere and attentive as we can be, we realize, little by little or all at once, that we are immersed in the mystery that has awakened us and is drawing us to itself.”

      • I have done this before. I have taken moments; simple, direct, and unfiltered moments to direct my attention inside. Listening and privately expressing what I hear outward. I directed those thoughts and feelings and beliefs into words on journal pages, words in prayer, and some exercise to include my body in the process. When I did that, purposefully, every day, even for a few minutes each, I found some peace and some grace as you might label it. I need to get back to that again. I fell off the “personal attention” band wagon and choosing to get back on has been a struggle since I fell.

  8. I woke up this morning with that song “Worried” playing in my head. (picture the commercial with the dog trying everything to hide his bone, and worried he hasn’t found his safe space) We are on the brink of some major life decisions that not only affect us, but our kids and grandkids. What if we’re wrong???? What if What if What if What if…..stop. Remember to remember (quoting you) to stop and know that this is just another brush stroke in our lives. It is not going to redefine us. Thank you. Truly.

    • Donna, when I read your comment, the voice of my therapist came to me, and this is what I imagined him saying, “Yeah, I’m sure parts of it will be wrong, but you’ll figure it out together. That’s what you guys do.” He was always so good at reminding me that I’ve made lots of mistakes on the way to a place in life that I don’t mind so much, so future mistakes will be manageable to. I hope that feels comforting and not minimizing!

  9. What a great article! I’m so glad you are writing a book about this issue (and glad you mentioned it in the blog as well) as I was reading I had the thought that I wish you would write a book on this and then you said you are in process! So excited for when it comes out. It sounds like a great resource to give to others as well. Thanks!

    • Thank you for that encouragement, Liz! I’m always deliberating about how much to mention it or not, so I appreciate the affirmation that something good came from mentioning it today.

  10. Thank you! I needed to see this today. I’ve never once read anything referencing Scholastic Bowl, and my son is participating for the first time this year. I’ll be sharing it with him after school. When something like this pops up in my email exactly when I need to see it, I’m sure it’s a sign. (And today is my mother’s 36th birthday in heaven.)

    • Good luck to your son in Scholastic Bowl! I’ve discovered it’s as competitive as any other competition, and I’m sure he’ll benefit from you disentangling his worth from his performance.

  11. Thank you again, Kelly, for another brilliant blog post. We all struggle to be “ordinary” because we have somehow “learned” that ordinary is not good enough, yet that is all that we really are. When we take away all the fame, fanfare, glitz and starlight, under all of that, we are still just ordinary, beautiful, broken human beings trying to do the best we can. What we do need to work on more, however, is the awareness that we are all in this together. When we are more aware of our common humanness, we can then recognize our own worthiness just being ourselves and we can also recognize that worthiness and beauty in others. When we are unaware is when we mess things up.
    BTW, I LOVE your posts and your writing! I’m glad you took the risk to write your book! It’s awesome!!!

  12. You are a legend. This is so beautifully written and so incredibly wise. This is a lesson I’d like to share with my two daughters.

    • Joni, when my kids give me a hard time tonight, I’m going to tell them I’m a legend, so they need to listen to me and straighten up. 🙂 I’m hope this resonates with your daughters too!

  13. Thank you Kelly, for yet another reminder of the magnitude and beauty of life. I’ve been struggling with this in the past few months, and sort of broke myself down and re-built myself with this “new” perspective to life. Jobs, activities, relationships, they all have a beginning and an end, but the timeline of life keeps going on. I didn’t realise it’d take all my might to step back and truly see the bigger picture! Thanks again.

  14. Delightful!
    I felt like I was there in the midst of it all.
    In 2 Thessalonians, I just read about the Lord giving us power to fulfill every good purpose in life. For you, your faith, family, counseling, and wrangling of words into something your readers were thinking but hadn’t the language to express, are rich elements of purpose in your precious life. People are precious, period ~ every single human ever created, and what a joy to be surrounded by so many! Your book is a part of the sharing of belovedness, how could you not share it here? I’m excited for mine to come. May God bless it in the hands of all who read it and bless you (and your household) for accepting the vulnerable role of author.

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