When it comes to self-knowledge, we’re all stuck in a paradox. The problem is that our perception is itself flawed, and those flaws extend to recognizing our own strengths and weaknesses. We go through life thinking we’re great at things that we’re not and undervaluing how good we actually are at other things. For example, some people can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but because they lack the ear to hear how out of tune they are, they happily sing their hearts out. Others are wonderful singers, but because they hear music so well, they notice small imperfections that the rest of us don’t, so they’re convinced they sing poorly.
We spend a lifetime with ourselves and haven’t a clue who we really are.
This week, we celebrate the feast day of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who first popularized the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Before her success, though, she didn’t want to tell anyone about her new idea because she was convinced that it had no value. She didn’t think she was good or smart enough to make a positive contribution to the world. In her letters to her superior, she frequently wrote about being, “the most wicked and unworthy sinner imaginable.” She explained in another letter that she didn’t want to correspond with anyone at all because she didn’t want to bother anyone with her unworthy thoughts. This was a young woman who didn’t realize how special she truly was.
Then she met Claude de la Columbiere, who became her mentor — and was later canonized a saint himself. He was the first person to encourage her and offer positive feedback. Until he came along, she doubted herself terribly. Under his guidance, Margaret Mary developed self-confidence and was set free to make her mark on the world.
Personal growth is impossible when we don’t accurately know ourselves, because we haven’t the faintest idea where we may or may not need improvement. Here are some of the lessons that Claude helped Margaret Mary to learn as she began her path of self-discovery …
Talk to a confidante
While it’s true that we can be easily discouraged if we listen to the wrong people, a good confidante may actually see us more truly than we can see ourselves. Margaret Mary was doubted by many people before she met Claude. He was different, exactly the person she needed to hear from, and Margaret Mary wrote that he helped her believe in herself with “faith and humility.”
When you’re struggling with doubt and self-image, be honest about it with someone who cares for you. You’ll come away from the conversation encouraged and energized.
Don’t over-emphasize the negative
Pride blinds many of us, but for a certain personality type, the opposite tendency occurs — to dwell on the negative. This causes never-ending paralysis and anxiety. Margaret Mary was like that, so Claude emphasized the positive with her. He reminded her to keep in mind goodness and how infinitely blessed she was. Underestimating ourselves is every bit as harmful as overestimating ourselves.
Don’t let your past define you
In a letter later in life, Claude wrote that the secret of true peace is “to abandon the past and future entirely to God’s mercy.” In other words, don’t allow the past to poison the present and don’t allow an imaginary future to define what happens right now. Dwelling in the past isn’t a true reflection of who we are right now, and although it’s healthy to plan ahead, our imagination about the future may be very mistaken. Failures should stay in the past and the future is unwritten.
Realize how much you are loved
Feeling unloved makes us lose perspective of our true value. In the midst of Margaret Mary’s failures, doubt, and feelings of inadequacy, Claude insisted that it was vital for her “to believe, in spite of anything that tries to persuade you to the contrary, that you are loved … in spite of all your miseries.” This isn’t an empty self-esteem cliche. Those who love us see us most clearly. Find those people and let them support you during difficult days. When you are loved by others and become able to love yourself in a healthy way, you will have a more accurate picture of who you are.
St. Claude was always honest with those he counseled. He helped St. Margaret Mary to recover an accurate picture of herself, neither too humble nor too proud. With that knowledge, she became like a singer who could for the first time sing a beautiful song with no fear. She went out and changed the world. So can you.
Jesus revealed his Heart to Margaret Mary, but it was this saint who brought it to the world