How early childhood impacts our self-image and faith
How we see ourselves makes all the difference in the choices we make in life, and therefore, our willingness to obey God. It is therefore crucial to be intentional about the self-identity that we choose to live by. Yet this may be easier said than done. Most of the time, our self-perceptions are subtle, subconscious and embedded as automatic reflexes, formed out of our earliest childhood experiences. Without crucifying these self-beliefs to the cross, we will struggle to live the fully resurrected life that Jesus Christ died to give all His followers.
Ephesians 4:22-24 ESV to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Impact of our earliest feelings on how we see ourselves
Most of us assume that our self-identities were formed during our teenage years, when we became more independent and began to “discover” ourselves.
Indeed, our adolescent years are very formative. During this period, our teenage brains were highly impressionable and vulnerable, and more sensitive to reward systems. This is a reason why social acceptance or rejection during our adolescence gets magnified and creates significant markers in our memories. Our brains create longer-lasting impressions of events that are emotionally charged.
Moreover, we tend to recall unhappy emotional memories with greater ease and in more detail than the happy ones. Even if we haven’t thought about them for decades, our hidden archives of painful teen memories can continue to subconsciously stir up anxiety in our hearts when triggered.
Yet our teenage angst is not where we began to formulate our earthly identities.
1. Prenatal conditions inside the womb
The foundations for the way we see ourselves can be laid as early as when we were still inside our mother’s womb before we were born.
Every emotion a mother feels causes changes inside her body, which can be felt by her baby through her hormones, heart rate, breathing, muscles, and tone of voice.
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: “I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself,
Luke 1:44 ESV For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
If our mother often felt anxious, for example, her body would have released a steady stream of the stress hormone called cortisol. Her blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing would also have increased and her muscles tensed up. All these do not go unnoticed by an unborn child. In fact, a fetus begins to “learn” that their mother’s world feels stressful and potentially dangerous. This can make anyone of us prone to being fearful and defensive even before we were born. Such traits do not help us in trusting and following God.
More on this subject can be found in the post, The lasting emotional imprints from the womb.
Also, see How our hearts subconsciously block God out.
2. Earliest childhood experiences
Our deepest impressions about ourselves continue to be formed in our first few years, when we were the most impressionable.
As little as one year old, we would have felt fear, frustration, embarrassment, empathy, and envy for the first time.
By the time that we were three or four years old, we would have started to develop ideas about our self-image and self-worth based on our interactions with our primary caregivers.
Even as toddlers, we were already highly social, intelligent, and intuitive. We would have picked up on both verbal and non-verbal cues from our primary caregivers, which have guided our observations about:
- What can I infer from their spoken and unspoken language?
- What elicits anger, ridicule, rejection, and disgust?
- How do I gain acceptance, attention, and approval?
- Do my caregivers consider me worthy of their time and care?
- Am I worthy of love?
Young minds are not always able to mentally comprehend grown-up decisions, emotions, or struggles, so even benign non-malicious experiences with the most well-meaning caregivers can leave us feeling confused, alone, rejected, or abandoned.
As a result, we will come to certain conclusions, independent of grown-ups and frequently with unintended consequences.
For example, children may feel unimportant, unloved, or abandoned simply because their parents:
- Left them in clinical incubators after birth without their mother’s presence and soothing voice, leaving them feeling anxious and alone.
- Were often too exhausted after work to play with them, leaving them feeling unimportant.
- Vented their stress and unhappiness at home, leaving them wondering if they had done anything to make their daddy or mummy unhappy.
- Had to move the family constantly due to work but that resulted in the child losing its best friends, leaving them feeling insignificant.
- Constantly told them “not to be a bad boy / girl”, leaving the impression that daddy and mummy see them as being bad.
- Suddenly had other priorities, such as a new child, work travels, or medical issues, leaving them feeling anxious about their worth.
- Left them mostly in the care of other people, such as their grandparents or nannies, leaving them feeling of secondary importance.
Negative childhood experiences tend to have a greater impact than positive ones, because of the stronger emotional anchor from the pain that is tied to them.
Furthermore, when there is a lack of biblical guidance or nurturing, we can be left to develop unbiblical ideas about ourselves that are based more on our fleshly instincts than we possibly realise. This could be the reason why God commands all parents to repeat His Word again and again to their children, as a way to safeguard innocent minds against misguided ideas and outright lies.
Deuteronomy 6:1-2,7 ESV “Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the rules—that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long… You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
Our self-image is built on sensory cues, not rational ones
Scientists say that our brains become fully developed around the age of 25, with the last part of our brains to fully mature being the prefrontal cortex; the region responsible for personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. The other parts of our brains that are more sensory in nature tend to develop earlier, while the cognitive, more rational side of us matures last.
This implies that we form ideas about our identities based on sensory, rather than rational, cues.
We believe we are a certain way because of the way we have felt “all our lives”. This then translates into how we think about ourselves as grown-ups.
The impact of negative childhood experiences
Negative childhood experiences will imprint deeply on vulnerable, unprotected hearts. The more we have felt alone, trapped, helpless, abandoned or rejected, the greater our sensory overload and the greater our instilled anxiety. This then leads young people to make some early decisions about themselves.
We may begin to believe sweeping statements that may feel true to us, but that are untrue when it comes to our identity in Christ. Here are some examples.
- “I am stupid.” | James 1:5 ESV If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.
- “I am ugly.” | 1 Samuel 16:7 NIV … The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
- “I am flawed and therefore unworthy.” | Romans 5:6-8 NLT When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.
- “I am all alone.” | Deuteronomy 31:6 ESV Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”
- “I am only a commodity.” | Exodus 19:5 ESV Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine;
- “I am weak.” | 2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
- “I am always lacking something.” | Philippians 4:19 ESV And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
- “Everyone is against me.” | Romans 8:31 ESV What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
- “There is no one who really loves me.” | Psalm 103:17 ESV But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children,
- “There is no one who really understands me.” | Psalm 147:5 ESV Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.
- “There is no one who really notices me.” | Hebrews 4:13 ESV And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
- “I am always overlooked for good opportunities.” | Ephesians 2:10 NLT For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.
- “No matter how hard I try, I always fail.” | Proverbs 3:5-6 ESV Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
We may close our hearts as a defence mechanism and make mental notes about what we want or need to be like in future, as a way to compensate for our inner anxieties.
Such self-beliefs provide footholds for Satan to tempt us into and enslave us to certain fleshly patterns. We may not be able to pinpoint the core motivation for why we do the things we do – until the Holy Spirit guides us to the root cause through fasting and prayer, confession and repentance. These root causes are often found in early childhood.
Romans 8:15 ESV For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
Galatians 4:7-8 ESV So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.
Giving up our self-perceptions from childhood
As children of God, we need to make a conscious effort to identify, confess, and turn away from our ungodly self-beliefs and renew our minds based on God’s Word.
Romans 12:2 ESV Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
When we were children, we may have reasoned as maturely as we could have at the time and chosen the best option available. Now that we are adults, it is time to give up our childish ways and adopt the mind of Christ. We no longer need to be enslaved to the views we formed in childhood. Instead, we ought to put on our identity in Christ.
1 Corinthians 13:11 ESV When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.
1 Corinthians 2:16 ESV “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
Praise God that He is never restricted by the labels we put on ourselves. The King of the entire universe gives each one of us a new identity.
Galatians 2:20 ESV I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Do we see ourselves incapable and under-equipped? Moses saw himself as an inept man that stuttered in his speech (Exodus 4:10), but God called him a “friend of God” (James 2:23) for following Him faithfully even when things got tough.
Exodus 4:10 ESV But Moses pleaded with the Lord, “O Lord, I’m not very good with words. I never have been, and I’m not now, even though you have spoken to me. I get tongue-tied, and my words get tangled.”
James 2:23 ESV And the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.
Have we made terrible mistakes in our lives? David committed murder and adultery, but God called him a “man after My own heart” for humbly repenting and remaining faithful to His Heavenly Father.
Acts 13:22 But God removed Saul and replaced him with David, a man about whom God said, ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart. He will do everything I want him to do.’
Do we see ourselves as inferior? Gideon saw himself as being weak and insignificant, being from the weakest clan, but God called him a “mighty warrior” because He knew Gideon’s potential to bring down mighty armies with God’s help.
Judges 6:15 NIV ESV “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”
Judges 6:12 NIV ESV When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, he said, “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.”
At the end of the day, it is not how we see ourselves that matters. It is the person who God has created to become that does.
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