Best-selling author Donald Miller candidly describes how he learned to break his past cycle of destructive relationships by identifying and dealing with shame and becoming genuine and vulnerable with others. (Part 1 of 2)
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Jim Daly: I’m Jim Daly talking with popular author and blogger, Don Miller, and Don, I have a question about intimacy for you. Why do you believe having a healthy, authentic relationship is like jumping into the deep end of a pond? (Chuckles)
Don Miller: Well you—
Jim: It’s a little scary!
Don: --you know, yeah, you’re talkin’ to the wrong guy about intimacy probably because I didn’t get married until I was 42, so if you learn through failure then I have a Masters or a Ph.D. It took a long time, but for me, you know, being that much older before Betsy and I got married, I just had so many bad relationships that I was really afraid to get into anything else because I just thought I’ve got nothing to offer a woman but pain and--
Don: --because there have been so many patterns in my life that I didn’t figure out till I got some help. And so, you know, I talk in this that you’re talking about, about just the fear of even going back into it and the fear that this is going to end up poorly. And yet, I’d gone to counseling and got some help and figured some stuff out, but part of just getting into a relationship period and part of letting somebody know you, it’s kind of that feeling of standing on the edge of a cliff, you know, jumping into some water where you don’t want to do it, but you know you gotta do it--
Don: --and then you … you just gotta do it, right? You gotta jump--
Don: --and let somebody know who you really are and trust that they’re going to be forgiving—
Don: --ok with it.
John: Well that is Don Miller and the chapter comes from his book, Scary Close. The subtitle is: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy, and that’s our topic on today’s “Focus on the Family” with Focus president and author, Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and Don has written books, Blue Like Jazz, Father Fiction, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, and as I said, this new one called Scary Close.
Jim: Don, let me ask you about that because Scary Close has hit The New York Times best-seller list. I mean you’re having great success touching the culture with your message. Why do you think that is? What are you doing that’s different from the general Christian message?
Don: Well, it’s probably an accident that it’s doing so well because I didn’t assume very many people would buy this book and so, I was more honest than I would have been if I knew they would have.
Jim: Does that, I mean, you talk in that book about fearful places. It’s interesting, coming from that background, that you’re able to unlock those places for your readers. You’re very vulnerable.
Jim: That’s a fearful place.
Don: It’s scary, except, you know, I had built a career, Jim, you know, I had best-selling books before and I ended up in this place where, you know, I’d put forward this kind of image of who I was, not consciously to sell books, but you know, when you’re sitting down to write a book you want to kind of put your best foot forward and those things. And then when I was around people I had to be the person that I kind of pretended to be in the book and I ended up with a sort of dual personality that became kind of exhausting.
And so, I think with this book and because I got the counseling that I got that helped me be myself and helped me have intimacy, I decided just to be myself in this book that just trust that people could like me or accept me as I was, even if I had serious issues. As a quote, unquote, “Christian leader,” I talked about fear of intimacy, talked about co-dependency, talked about my issues with controlling people and was just brutally honest and I think what I wanted was to write a book and just say “Okay, if we can be friends, we can be friends. And if not, then I want to go ahead and tell you why we can’t and you can just let go.” And what I found was that people were infinitely gracious and kind than I ever could have possible imagined. It’s 99 percent, it was the 1 percent that’s gonna throw a rock at you.
Don: And then, and the 99 percent are just kind of saying, “Me, too.
Jim: Why do you think we as humans, and even we ask Christians, why do you think we’re so scared of intimacy; being real?
Don: Well, I think we’re scared of being known. I think that, I mean, the theological reason would be that, you know, we are designed to be in the company of God, to enjoy God, to have a relationship and be so close to God. Because of the intricacies of the fall of man we’ve become separated from God. We, of course, have reconciliation through Christ, but that reconciliation really physically takes place at the wedding feast of the Lamb and until then, we’re still kind of pining for that thing that we used to get from God, that sense that I’m okay and I’m valuable and I’m wanted.
All those kinds of things that we get from God, we’re now sort of looking for from each other and we feel like if we’re not accepted by somebody, there’s this consequence to not being accepted and it’s a painful, hard consequence. And so, what we do is we, you know, we learn something that I can do as an act to get accepted. And for me, I remember going to this counselor and I cracked a joke or something like that and he said, “Don, where do you get your sense of humor from?” and I said, “Well, I don’t know. You know, when I was a kid, I made somebody laugh.”
He took a napkin and drew a little circle in the inside of the napkin and on the napkin, he wrote the word “self.” And he said, “Let me explain this to you, you were born a self, just a person that God loved.” And then he drew a second circle around that inner circle and inside that circle he wrote the word “shame” and he said, “Something happens to all of us at some age where we learn the lie that we don’t quite matter; that we don’t quite measure up and it makes us feel ashamed.
And we could’ve been taught that by a teacher or a parent, or a sibling or a number of sources.” And then he drew a third circle around the shame circle and he wrote the word “personality.” And he said, “So what we do to cover our shame is we learn, ‘Well, if I’m funny, people will like me, or if I’m intelligent, people will like me.’”
Jim: Or if you perform.
Don: Or if I perform, or in a religious circle if I’m really godly and perfect then I’ll be accepted in this. And he said, “The personality isn’t who you are and the shame isn’t who you are. You’re still this “self” that’s accepted no matter what and in order to really feel intimacy and experience intimacy, you have to let somebody all the way through to that real you and that’s where you connect with somebody.”
So that’s a terrifying place to be, because we have to let people know the things that we’re ashamed of and we have to let people know who we really are and we can’t trust this ace card that we throw around, that I’m good looking, or I’m athletic, or I’m smart, or I’m wealthy, or I’m powerful, or whatever those things that we learn to cope with.
Jim: If you, if you think about it that’s exactly what Jesus came to reveal to us, isn’t it? I mean …
Don: But not only that, He saw it!
Jim: (Chuckles) Yes.
Don: No one was fooling Him at all.
Don: He just thought these kids are playing a silly game.
Jim: Well, I know your heart.
Jim: He would say it bluntly--
Jim: --especially to the Pharisees. He was saying, “You guys are like white washed walls.
Jim: If you’re going to act religious, why don’t you be religious?
Jim: That means act like this, not like that. Are we repeating some of that today?
Don: Well, I don’t think it’s just religious culture, I think it’s human beings and yes, I mean, you know, you see any sort of, you know, you meet anybody, see anybody interviewed on television, you’ll watch them drop an ace card. You’ll watch them, you know, drop a name, or drop some reward that they won or whatever it is. When I went to this, this retreat center to get some help and it was a sort of therapeutic retreat camp and only 40 people go at a time and the rules when I signed up for this place, in order to deal with my own issues of brokenness, were you can’t give anybody your last name and you can’t tell anybody what you do for a living and you have to turn in your cell phone.
Don: And I would have never told you that being a writer was an ace card for me or it’s where I got my identity. I wouldn’t have ever said that until it was taken away from me. And people just, you know, I couldn’t tell anybody what I do and I just felt like I didn’t matter. And—
Jim: So your identity was gone.
Don: --my identity was stripped away—
Don: --and it took a few days for me to feel comfortable and it was only after I started making people laugh that I thought, “Oh! I matter now because I can make people laugh.” It’s amazing how our identity becomes a construct in order to be accepted, rather than letting people know who we really, really are. And I think that’s why intimacy is so scary, because ultimately, you know, even if we get married there comes a point, a year or two into the marriage where you actually have to stop acting ‘cause it’s just exhausting and let this person know who you are.
Don: And it’s terrifying. I think it’s very, very scary.
Jim: And I think few of us are equipped to have that kind of intimacy. We don’t learn it, it’s not well trained. I’m thinking of when you talked about humor. I can remember often times thinking of comedians, when you look at their background, it’s brokenness. And I experienced—
Don: There’s so much sadness in it.
Jim: --that. I can remember in high school I was kind of the class clown at times and I would jump on every little faux pas the teacher [said] in front of class, until finally my senior year, my English teacher, she challenged me. She said, “You’re really funny. I’d like you, the last day of school, I want you to do a full hour monologue--
Jim: --because “One,” she said, “I think I can do it and two, it’s kind of the penalty for coming at me all year.”
Jim: I mean, it was pretty bazaar, but I relate to what you’re saying, you mask with that humor; especially when you’ve been wounded. What are some other things that we do, beyond just, you know, if we’re broken to pick up the stick of humor? What other logs are in our eye?
Don: Well, I think everybody has their ace cards. I mean for me, I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed saying, “Well I’m a writer, you know, and I’ve written books,” and I make people laugh or I try to sound intelligent, or those kinds of things that we do to fit in. But everbody’s got theirs--beauty, athleticism, power, money--but wouldn’t you love to know that you could be accepted and loved without any of those things? And that to me is the invitation.
Don: You know what was amazing, I took some time off dating after I got some help and then when I started dating again I started dating Betsy and we ended up getting married. The invitation that I felt like God gave me when I got married was just to jump in. Just to do this, you know you’re 42; you’ve never been married. Let’s just, you know, it was as if God was just saying, “Let’s take it one step at a time. First get married,” you know, and then that was great. We had a wonderful first year, but moving into the second year I was really kind of praying about what the theme of my marriage would be for the second year and who I would want to be with Betsy. And I felt like God’s saying, “Don,” now this is year two, Jim, but I felt like God said, “Don, I want you to let her know you.” This is the second year in marriage.
Jim: What did that mean to you though?
Don: Well, it was so convicting, ‘cause I just felt like, you know what? I didn’t let her get to know me the first year. I played a role. I played the sort of heroic provider protector role that she really loved and cared about and of course, she knew me, you know, 85 percent, but there was a night, laying [sic] in bed, and it had been bothering me for several months.
There was something I hadn’t told Betsy about my life. It wasn’t scandalous; it wasn’t anything controversial, but it was just kind of a failure from my past that I thought, “I don’t want to let her know about that. That makes me look like lesser of a man.” And it just bothered me and bothered me and bothered me until one night Betsy was asleep, I’m laying [sic] in bed and it’s bothering me and I said, “God, I’ll tell her tomorrow if you want me to tell her.” And Betsy was awake and she said, “Are you thinking about something?” I thought, “Oh no, I’ve got to do it right now.” (Laughter)
Jim: Oh man, she woke up!
Don: (Laughing) I don’t want to do this right now. So I just said it—
Jim: You knew the Lord was nudging her. (Laughs)
Don: Oh, totally! No, I really believe that and so I told her and again, if I told your audience, they would roll their eyes, this is not a major thing, but it was, you know, it was embarrassing to me. And so, and still is and so, Betsy just kind of said, “Really? You were afraid to tell me about that?” And I said, “Yeah, I really kind of was.” We talked about it for a little bit.
What was amazing though, is, you know, and she didn’t think anything of it. And there was nothing for her to forgive; it wasn’t a wrong thing that I did, but I could walk into my house the next day and my home felt different. My home felt like a place I could rest. It’s kind of like having a toothache that you don’t know is there until the dentist makes it go away.
There had been a toothache in my life of acting and being tired because I’m playing a roll, when instead I could walk into my house now and my wife knew me. She knew who I was ‘cause I’d shared the thing that I had hidden from her. And to me, I think that’s the invitation and I don’t think it happens all at once and I don’t think we’re wise to stand up on a stage and air our dirty laundry, but I think there are people who God says, “I want you to get close. I want you to let them know you because there’s a kind of healing that happens when we do that.”
John: Well, some thoughts and rather candid admissions from Don Miller on today’s “Focus on the Family” with Jim Daly. We’re about halfway through our conversation today and if you’d like to follow up and get the book in which Don talks about intimacy and being real with other people, it’s called Scary Close and we have that at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or give us a call and we can tell you more. Our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Jim: Well you talk, in fact, about that jumping into the pond analogy, you know, where you have to leap, you have to trust people around you aren’t going to kill you for being vulnerable, being intimate. In fact you talk about lifeguards and –
Don: Yeah, there are more lifeguards than sharks.
Jim: (Laughs) Right! You know at the surface, I blanched at that thinking I don’t know if that’s accurate. That’s fear, isn’t it? When you there are fewer lifeguards, those that are going to come to your side, rather than those that are going to eat you alive.
Don: You know, I have a friend in politics in Washington, D.C. and I was having a conversation with him once and some politician was in trouble. I can’t remember who it was, but he made--
Jim: Just whatever week it is.
Don: --(Chuckles) yeah, whatever week it was, he made some stupid comment. And I said, you know, “Why can this politician make that comment and get attacked, but this other politician (who I named) can just get away with anything?” And he said something really interesting to me. He said, “Well, they’re both being true to their brand.” That this politician is letting it know this is who he is and people judge him by that, that he can get away with, not anything, but he can make stupid comments all day because that’s his personality, but this other politician had pretended to be perfect—
Don: --and when you pretend to be perfect, you are surrounded by judges waiting for you to mess up.
Don: And I think that’s one of the warnings by God to say, hey, be yourself, be open, if you’re broken, be broken; let people know who you really are. And the judge[ment], it’s amazing how much the judgment actually decreases when we’re in environments where nobody’s pretending to be anything that they’re not.
Jim: Well, and again, there’s so much there in terms of how we act today in the church and the desire, the rightness of that intimacy. When you talked about not knowing who we are in God and that creates these circles as you described them a minute ago, shame and--
Jim: --personality and at our core, it’s almost like God has a bunch of teenagers and what my teenagers say is, “Are we there yet? Can we stop?” No, actually my kids are pretty good about that, but what we do with God is we say we’re not good enough. You shouldn’t love me. I’m not worthy of Your love. We can say those things to our Father in Heaven, can’t we?
Jim: But that’s not how He sees us is it.
Don: No, no, it’s not at all. And sadly it is, there is this sort of Darwinian evil mentality that we experience here on earth and it creeps into the church and we forget that we have grace. And we should be the ones. We should be the community of people who have no problem being ourselves because there’s no penalty—
Don: --for being ourselves. And yet we’re not, we’re often even more putting on airs than other communities and we’re not known for grace; we’re known for judgment. And that’s a sad thing and it affects our ability to relate to each other and connect with each other and when we don’t really let people know who we are, our souls begin to atrophy, because the real self never sees any daylight. It never gets any love. You know, you can say you love my books and you love my writing and you love those things; that’s not me. That that feeds my ego, but it doesn’t feed my soul. It’s really only my wife who knows me and close friends who know me, who accept me anyway. That’s nourishment for me.
Don: It really has nothing to do with my ego and I’m thinking that a lot of us are mistaking our ego for our soul and God is not interested at all in feeding your ego. He’s interested in feeding your soul. So to put on airs in from of Him, I have a feeling He looks away and giggles about half the time at the stuff that we’re pulling, right? Because we’re--
Jim: Well that’s a nice way of looking at it.
Don: --a 2-year-old … 2-year-olds dancing in front of the family.
Jim: Well that’s what I mean, that’s what I mean by the teenager analogy. It’s like we’re in that proverbial car and we’re yelling, “God don’t love us and we’re horrible and how long before we get there? And--
Jim: --you know, we’re acting like teenagers. Let me turn the corner a little bit and talk about Betsy, because it’s obvious in Scary Close, her relationship with you has really changed your heart and that hopefully, is true with many of us, that our spouses have opened up a new window, perhaps new challenges. I think marriage, the reason, I’ve said this many times, John, I think marriage, what I am learning is, it’s all about becoming more like Him.
What does that mean? Selfless. I mean, God teaches us His very character through the union of marriage, because you have to be more selfless, you have to think about the other person, which I think what’s God’s character [is]. He died for us. Are we willing to do that in small ways for our spouse? That we don’t win. We don’t get our way. We’re willing to say, okay, I can just absorb this and let her, fill in the blank—
Jim: --whatever it might be. Do you see that analogy? Do you think that’s fair or am I off there?
Don: No, I think that, you know, most of my friends would say that I’m not the same person today that I was three years ago and I think the principle reason for that is Betsy. I mean, you know, I met Betsy years and years ago in Washington, D.C. She was running this bed and breakfast there that was kind of a ministry to people who were in D.C. doing business and really fell for her, got a crush on her, but she could smell from a distance that I had issues, right? She was not gonna date me at all and we kind of lost touch. We’d maybe e-mail once a year; I’d see her as I’d pass through town.
But after getting some help, saw her again and she noted something was different. Now Betsy comes from a very healthy family. She’s the oldest of seven kids and they’re huge fans of Focus on the Family, so this is giving me a lot of strength for it, Jim.
Jim: Well I like Betsy already!
Don: (Chuckles) A lot of street cred in the family! And they’re just a really wonderful family and you know, so, me getting some help was part of it, but then, I think if we really want to be healthy we have to surround ourselves by healthy people. I think there are people who aren’t good at relationships and I was one of those people and I had to go get better at it. To me being in a really healthy, successful intimate relationship was about as hard as running a triathlon.
Don: And you’re just not gonna get up off the couch one day and run one. You have to work at it; you have to do some self-reflection and some dying to yourself and figuring out where some of your issues come from. Are you controlling, are you manipulative, are you deceptive-- those sorts of things that don’t work in relationship. So the counseling for me was part of figuring that out and the other part was living it out with somebody who’s just unbelievably gracious with me.
I think one of the things that makes our marriage work, and we’re only a year into this, so I may still be in the honeymoon phase, I don’t know, but both Betsy and I are absolutely convinced we got the better end of the deal. I mean, we really, at our core, we just go, “I could never do better than this.”
Jim: That’s a good thing.
Don: Yeah, I think it’s a great thing! I thin[k] and, you know, studies have shown that contempt kills relationships, that when you actually think you’re better than your spouse, that’s the beginning of the end.
Don: And so, I don’t think Betsy and I will ever, ever get to that place, but you know, for me it was, it was dealing with the stuff; figuring out my issues and learning to be sort of selfless as much as possible, but it was also having a gracious spouse.
Jim: Well and it’s important, Don. People have heard us talk about counseling and how that helped you. Put that in perspective, because I know some people might be critical—
Jim: --saying it sounds that we’re leaning into psychology too much. It plays a role, understanding the way the mind works. I think there’s truth in what they have discovered in—
Jim: -psychology. And then you blend that with biblical truth and I think that’s the best of all of it. It’s God’s truth and understanding the way He’s wired a brain; a male brain, a female brain, all that interaction. You’re saying this place provided you the tools to understand better what reality was and it lines up with God’s Word doesn’t it.
Don: Yeah, there’s no question. The counselors that I met with were all believers. They all leaned heavily on God, and really what they helped me figure out was, in my own head, what’s the difference between what God is saying about me and what lies I’m telling myself based on some of my past. So, I get that. I think we can lean way too far into psychobabble, and I also think we can lean way too far into sort of religious formulas and over-spiritualizing things. When really you just need to learn to hold your tongue or something instead of—
Don: --just practical advice, so. But for me, it was unbelievably helpful to kind of go back and say, “Don, where did these lies come from that you’ve been telling yourself, that are causing all this dysfunction, and how can God speak into those lies and change that narrative that you’re saying in your own brain?” So I’m grateful for the Christian counselors I met with. It was very helpful.
Jim: Don, often times Christians can struggle with the idea of counseling, because we feel like we made a commitment to Christ, He’s gonna work these things out with us in the privacy of our devotional time or whatever we do. Sometimes people need a little help to talk to somebody who can help them frame it. What was that process like for you to say, okay, I need help, I need counseling?
Don: Yeah, I mean, part of that is just God’s design that we really thrive and get better in community that it’s not just a one on one. You know, we see Jesus going off one on one with the Father; we definitely want to go one on one. But we come back and He gets these 12 people together who really love each other and they get better together as a community, so that’s part of it because I don’t think isolation is necessarily gonna give us the strength and perspective that we need.
Jim: We do as human beings try to lean that way, don’t we—
Don: You know, we do because we don’t--
Jim: --why don’t we run the opposite direction?
Don: --I actually think we don’t want people to know our issues.
Don: We’re just, it’s just pride.
Jim: We’re hiding.
Jim: Adam and Eve.
Don: Then the other thing is, you know, I don’t know how your listeners are wired, but Jim, I can be so self-deceived. I cannot see my blind spots for years. And I can sit with somebody, especially a trained counselor and they can show them to me in five minutes. And so, probably else could too, all my friends could. For me, you know, I’d gotten into a final relationship through this bad pattern of relationships that I was in and, you know, none of them were really super scandalous or anything like that, but it was just dysfunctional, my dating habits. Finally got into a very serious relationship, the same pattern I’d been in before. Broke it off, really hurt her, was really hurting and I had a friend kind of pull me aside and say, “You know, I don’t think you need to do this anymore.”
Don: “You need to figure some things out.” And it was really a friend who did that for me and it was rock bottom. I mean, I just needed to get some help or otherwise I was never gonna get married, I was never gonna be in a healthy relationship, ‘cause I keep repeating this pattern. And, I had a friend, Bob Goff, he wrote a book called Love Does, and we were friends at the time, I mean, we still are, he’s still very close friends [sic]. And he called me and he also said, “Don, I think you need to get some help.”
And I was being beaten up in my own head and Bob said in this conversation; he said, “Don, you know you’re really good at relationships; you have really great potential to be just great at relationships.” And he kind of gave me this hope that maybe if I got help, there could be a good future for me. Now, you know, this was only four or five years ago. I would have told you my percentage chance of being in a good marriage four or five years later would be zero.
Don: But me trying to figure it out on my own was not going to work. And my friends, including Bob, who said, “Don, you’ve gotta get some help.” I’m so grateful for them, because the other thing is when I look back, I’m convinced the only person who could have brought me the few counselors who I interacted with was Jesus. He just put the right people in the right place. We often think of Jesus sending us some Bible verse, right, to help us. When you really look through Scripture, what Jesus often sends is a person.
Jim: Right, to challenge us.
Don: He sends a person to challenge us, to teach us. He sends Paul to this village who has, so you know He interacts with us through people bringing us the truth of Scripture and delivering it to us in the time that we need it.
Jim: Well, and I want to come back next time. We’ve run out of time, but I want to come back. I want to talk about shame, what shame does to us, as children as well as adults as we learn those patterns as kids. We’ve talked today about fear of intimacy, how we love to place our ace cards, as you called them. Lay those cards out and we hide behind them so often. Learning to be real; you’ve described that with Betsy. I want to dig in a bit more with that; it’s very instructive, I think, ‘cause I can put that in Jean and my’s relationship and see that both in healthy and unhealthy ways and you eluded to how we feed our ego rather than seeking what God wants for us and that’s human isn’t it?
Jim: So if you can, let’s come back next time and keep talking. Can you do it?
Don: Sounds good.
John: And that ends the first part of our conversation with Donald Miller, as recorded in Nashville, Tennessee and we'll have the rest of that for you next time and if you've resonated with what Donald has shared, you're gonna want to get a copy of his book, Scary Close. I've read it and it is full of the kind of transparency and vulnerability that you've heard today and I think it'll impact the way you see yourself in relationships. Find a copy at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
And you've heard from Don about the incredible impact that counseling has had on his life to get him to a point of being real and honest in relationships and if you need that kind of help, we have caring Christian counselors on staff here at Focus on the Family and it'd be our privilege to have you talk with them. Get some starting points for finding ways out of the pain and get into a healthier spot. They can also refer you to someone locally, as well. We have a vast network of trusted counselors that we work with. If you'd like to talk to someone, our number here is 800-A-FAMILY; 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
And it might be that right now things are really going well for you and you don't have the kind of difficulties that Donald has expressed he had to work through. Please know that our counseling team receives over 200 calls every day from hurting individuals who do need help. And we can only offer that because you make it possible through your prayers and your financial support. Please help us offer hope and healing and continue on in our mission and make a donation today, either online or when you call. And if you're able to make a generous gift of any amount today, we'll send a copy of this two-part conversation--a CD and also a copy of Don's book to you as our way of saying thank you for joining the support team and enabling us to reach out as we do through this radio program. Again, our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, I'm John Fuller, thanking you for joining us and inviting you back tomorrow, as we continue the conversation with Donald Miller and once again, provide trusted advice to help you and your family thrive.
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