Editor’s note: This piece is reprinted by permission of the author from an earlier post on her blog. Kimberly’s session on this topic at AWTY was so well received that we thought others who weren’t able to be there might also benefit from this essay as well as her book with co-author Alison Cook, Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies. We are happy to report that Kimberly provided copies of her book for us to have available in the CIVA Store, where you may purchase a copy at a discount.
By Kimberly June Miller
When I was less than a year old, my parents divorced, and my biological father moved to Europe. Even at that young age, a part of me absorbed the impact of the loss. Apart from my summer visits with my older sister to see him, my father was mostly absent from our lives. He was a fun-loving Disney Dad during our annual trips—perpetually entertaining—yet also emotionally superficial. I don’t remember many times that he shared authentically in ways that truly connected our hearts.
As I grew up, I felt his absence acutely. I had a hole in my heart the shape of a charming but distant father. When I was eight, my devoted mom remarried a caring psychotherapist. I had a loving family, but the subtle, chronic ache in my heart from my father’s absence wouldn’t subside. I found myself drawn to distant men who, in one way or another, reminded me of my dad. Part of me was telling me I must have done something wrong; this struggling part of me thought the best strategy to address my heartache was to try to make myself more worthy of love.
As a graduate theology student in my early twenties, I was, by all appearances, breezing through life. No one would have guessed the internal boundary conflicts that threatened to derail me. That is, not until one evening in Vancouver, when my dear friend Jo-Anne and I were sitting in my apartment visiting. I asked her if she had any ideas about how to make my chronic longing go away. Wise beyond her years, Jo-Anne somehow understood that we can comfort ourselves when we get space from our pain. The psalmist demonstrated this concept when he said, “I have calmed and quieted my soul” (Ps. 131:2 ESV).
Jo-Anne handed me a throw pillow from my couch and suggested I hold it as if it were the younger, sad part of myself. The experience helped me realize that my pain was only one aspect of my soul—not the sum total of my personality. I felt immediate relief . . . and curiosity. I wanted to find out why embracing my pain worked so effectively.
Looking back, I realize that Jo-Anne had taught me how to focus on a hurting part of my soul which still felt the experience of abandonment as if it were continuing to happen. The ability to get some space from, and observe, this troubled part that was stuck in the past gave me the perspective I needed in order to pray for it and do something about the grief it was so bravely bearing. To help me focus, I hung the last picture taken of my mother, father, sister, and me together on my bedroom wall. I was the baby perched on my father’s shoulders, and we were sitting on the stairs of our yellow house with yellow carpet and white scalloped trim. I looked at that picture each night and let twenty-five years of sorrow stream down my cheeks as I fell asleep.
Praying for the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, I focused on my heartache with compassion and curiosity, providing the connection this part of me needed. As the pain subsided, I felt relief. Ironically, when I welcomed my sorrow in this way, it took up less space in my soul. I was able to appreciate more fully the blessings in my life, including many wonderful male friends and mentors, and a devoted stepfather who has become a role model for me. With God’s help, I put a gentle boundary around my sorrow, so it could settle comfortably in one chamber of my heart rather than threaten to overwhelm me. I felt an affinity with Teresa of Ávila who wrote, “I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms.”
God gives us the ability to gain distance from—or differentiate from—suffering parts of our souls. Biologists observe how cells differentiate and become more specialized as they divide. Psychologists use the same term when they speak of gaining some distance from another person. Likewise, the process of internal differentiation refers to gaining distance from parts within yourself. Differentiating internally empowers you to recognize that a part of you is not all of who you are. That realization alone can bring relief from hurting thoughts and feelings. Once you have differentiated from a part of yourself that is hurting, you can then connect to it from where the Holy Spirit dwells inside of you.
Beloved author Henri Nouwen wrote in his book The Inner Voice of Love, “You have to trust that there is another place . . . where you can be safe. Maybe it is wrong to think about this new place as beyond emotions, passions, and feelings. ‘Beyond’ could suggest that these human sentiments are absent there. Instead, try thinking about this place as the core of your being—your heart, where all human sentiments are held together in truth.” From this place, you can invite Jesus to be with the sad or conflicted parts of your soul, and you can witness His power at work. In partnership with God, you can befriend and lead the wounded and lonely parts of yourself into an abundant life (John 10:10).
Jesus said: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5). All parts of you can abide in Christ, as He abides in you. I have learned, as I gain some distance from a part of myself that is suffering, I develop compassion for myself and others. Instead of criticizing myself for feeling a certain way, I am able to care for this wounded part of myself. When lovingly held within healthy boundaries in our hearts, vulnerable parts of our souls can transform into beautiful aspects of our humanity—channels of empathy and grace.
Kimberly Miller, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, speaker, and retreat leader, earned degrees at Davidson College (B.A. in Religious Studies), Regent College (M.Th.) and Azusa Pacific University (M.A. in Clinical Psychology), whose goal is to help others to “become the most peaceful person” they know, by helping them to cultivate a strong inner life guided by purpose, compassion, and an awareness of God’s love.