Matryoshka Syndrome


As a child I played for hours with a matryoshka doll. If you are not familiar with them, matryoshkas are wooden dolls first fashioned in 19th century Russia. Their smoothed wood surfaces are painted with vibrant colors and intricate designs. My doll had a crimson and rose design exactly like the picture above. My childhood delight in the matryoshka was not just about its artistic beauty; the doll was like a treasure box with ten more treasure boxes hidden inside. Each matryoshka has a seam and when I opened mine up, nestled inside was a smaller but equally beautiful doll. I’d lift out the next figure, take a few moments to study her design and then open that one to find another, and another, and another until I got to a baby matryoshka no bigger than a quarter. I’d take them all out and line them up in a row, full-grown to infant, studying the changes in their shiny coats. I imagined them a family of sisters posed for a portrait or perhaps images of a single girl captured at each stage of her development. There was something magical in the metamorphosis before me — the infant whole, her design simple, with every doll down the line growing bigger, her planes and slopes an ever-expanding canvas for the artist’s brush.

Twenty-some years later, the matryoshka is gone from my parents’ home but I thought of it today as I shared coffee with my friend Natalie. Natalie and I were catching up for the first time in several months and as such conversations go, we started off with general updates about our lives but were soon soul-deep in a conversation about the complex decisions and struggles we are facing and the spiritual weight of it all. We discovered ourselves asking the same profound question — what is stopping me from doing the thing that is good for me?

Natalie and I are intelligent women. We can easily identify what we want, what we need and how we can get to where we want or need to be. We agreed that the sticking point is often that we don’t do, that we don’t follow through. We wonder if that’s because we don’t have the courage or the energy to tackle what seem like a thousand matryoshka-like steps to our goals.

I’ve always had an expressive personality. When I was a little girl and I felt something (anything), I felt it strongly. I expressed my feelings in a spirit of freedom and exuberance, my volume and tone matching the fervor of my feelings. But as I grew from a girl to a teen, I received so many messages that said my feelings were too strong and that it was not okay to express my feelings strongly. Ultimately, the message I heard was that my feelings didn’t matter that much and therefore I didn’t matter that much. Inundated with these messages, I began to filter and dilute my expressions and to hold my ‘unacceptable’ feelings within me. At first it was like swallowing a zoo, but the longer I kept my cage closed, the more my feelings settled down. Eventually they diminished from roars to squeaks and moans dull enough to be mistaken for wind passing through branches.

From girlhood my life seemed to move with warp speed and I was suddenly in my mid-twenties in a counseling session talking about the abuse I was experiencing and about body image and some self-destructive behaviors that I felt powerless to overcome. As a competent professional and a seminary graduate, I believed that counseling was an investment in my health. As Corrie sitting in a room with a counselor, my choice felt way more scary than healthy because it meant reopening the zoo and letting all the animals out. I fought the stupid cultural stigma of needing counseling. Those old voices that told me I was making too much of my struggles rose up and taunted me like ghouls. I was taking steps toward a healthier me but I felt weaker and phony. Most days I strode through my work and relationships tall and confident. While counseling affirmed the strengths I had, it also forced me to see and feel the things that I had kept hidden within me for so long. Like when you walk across a sturdy lawn and your ankle rolls in a soft patch, there were now moments in each day when I stumbled upon and sunk into my vulnerabilities. After a few months of sessions it seemed like my life was just one big soft patch and my soul felt swampy — but it wasn’t all bad. It was also healing to have someone listen to my feelings and not minimize what they found. Wonder of wonders, my counselor thought that my emotions were natural, healthy even. With her it was acceptable to have a stale, zoo-full of feelings and it was safe to let them out.

Today, over a creamy chai latte I shared some of my story with Natalie. I reflected on how much I’ve healed and how I continue to grow from the seeds of that counseling. I’ve learned that there is a very healthy medium between suppressing my feelings and letting them control me. Sometimes it still seems a dangerous and scary thing to acknowledge my feelings to others, especially when I need to tell someone they’ve hurt me, but I need to tell them. There is a high cost to denying, diminishing and suppressing my feelings; when I do that, I drown myself in emotional debt.

A few weeks ago I received a series of emails from a man who was disappointed and frustrated by my actions. Knowing that few resolutions happen over email, I called him to ask for his perspective and to share my own. We cleared up some misconceptions and I accepted responsibility as I needed to. The teenage me would have never picked up the phone. The twenty-something me would have called but stuck to the surface and the facts and quickly ended the conversation. But the woman I am today made the call and took another very important step. Toward the end of our conversation, I kindly said that the language and tone of his emails made me feel belittled and patronized. I told him that my relationship with him is important to me but that I felt his method of giving me feedback was hurtful and therefore difficult to receive. I asked him to please call me or come to me in person the next time he has an issue with me. He had very strong response to my feedback but that’s okay. One of the most important things I have learned over the last decade is that in conflict you can’t control someone’s response, you can only control what and how you communicate. Though confrontation and working toward resolution is messy and difficult and not always successful, it is very important that we try our best.

Jesus taught that greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all of your heart, soul and mind. He said that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. I don’t know how you are wired, but for me it’s very easy to love God. As an individual and as a pastor, my passion is to love and care for others. It’s the “as yourself” part where Jesus and I wrestle. I’ve never been great at loving myself…I guess I just heard too many messages that told me that my feelings didn’t matter and so it wasn’t worth speaking up. But I am trying to love myself better and in many ways I’m succeeding. Being honest with that man and respectfully acknowledging that his words and methods hurt me was not just about me loving my neighbor, it was also a significant expression of me loving myself!

A few years ago one of my mentors asked me if I felt that I had a voice. That stunned me; it was a new question with a devastating answer. In an instant I said no and in the next instant I was saturated with grief over all of the times that I stewed and suffered in silence. As a girl, when my feelings were rejected and I began to stuff them inside — in that abyss of powerlessness — I surrendered my voice. As Natalie and I were talking today, the image of the matryoshka doll popped into my head. For so many years I lived out of the smallest version of myself. I was like a matryoshka frozen in the infant stages; I spoke only with a diminished or diminutive voice. The reality is that I am a woman worth so much, capable of so much more!


How many of us live as a shadow of our true selves? How many of us lead with a shaky whisper when our voices should ring with confidence? Learning to love ourselves makes all the difference. It’s no surprise to me that Katie Perry’s song Roar and Sara Bareilles’ Brave have become huge hits, especially with young girls. It seems like an epidemic, so many girls receive messages that they are worth less than others, especially boys, and that their feelings are not an important or acceptable part of the human experience. Maturity teaches us that these are lies. We are full of worth. Emotions are an important, God-created part of our being. This is so fundamentally true that even women who don’t know or love God are writing songs to encourage girls to find their voices and speak up.

“Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do
when they settle ‘neath your skin
kept on the inside and no sunlight
sometimes a shadow wins
but I wonder what would happen if you
say what you want to say
and let the words fall out
honestly, I want to see you be brave”  (Sara Bareilles)

“I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
scared to rock the boat and make a mess
so I sat quietly, agreed politely…
I’ve got the eye of a tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire
cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me ROAR” (Katie Perry)

Nesting-Dolls-dolls-2282268-353-333It takes a lot of love to heal from the toxic messages we hear. It takes time to rediscover your voice and courage to use it. Maturity born of mistakes teaches us to live large and use our voices without harming our neighbors. This is difficult work, but it’s so important to living an abundant life that it’s worth any cost.