A Young “Leader”, Valued for all the Wrong Reasons

Me in High School

I was a very esteemed member of the small private school I graduated from. Most people might have considered me to have been lucky, been jealous of my “status.” My peers looked up to me. My teachers applauded me. I was valedictorian of my class and won the “Student of the Year” award numerous times. I was told I was very gifted and would do “great things” for God. I was chosen to go to Leadership Retreats. I seemed happy and confident, was attractive and intelligent. I was a “shining example”… But inside, my own light was so dim.

I was heralded as a leader at my school. In reality, I was a teenager who was starving for validation (of my true self, though I didn’t know it then) and acceptance. It is easy to look at teenagers who are “trouble-makers”, who break the rules and rebel, and think “Wow, they have issues.” But my experience was exactly the opposite. I had some serious issues, painful doubts about my value and very little sense of my identity. But I just chose a different way of trying to mend those issues. I chose to mend them by excelling and being the “Golden Girl.” I found myself in a system with rules that I found easy to follow. Because I followed them so well, I was heralded as a leader.

The rules in the religious system of my school were: you have to know the right answers about God and Christianity; you shouldn’t trust your own humanity or desires; you must be well behaved good people who don’t swear, smoke, dress promiscuously, have sex, watch bad movies, or listen to bad music; you must sacrifice your life for God and find his will for you (which, to my young mind, meant I might have to do something I hated for the rest of my life… but God would be pleased); you must be an example to the WORLD of how great God is (by being academically superior, by being good kids, by making a difference). We were under eighteen years old!! Speakers came and told us how the world needed us to be heroic Christians so we could make a difference for God. We were taught about other religions and how they were wrong in what they believed- we were taught how to “defend our faith.” We were taught to be good examples when we played sports with “non-Christians” (don’t lose your temper, be nice, be positive). We were told (in a nutshell), “You are free to pursue any kind of life you want, even outside of Christianity- BUT, wait and see how unhappy you will be if you do…”  We did performances at other churches and schools to show how amazing we were as a school and as students. The more “godly” we were, the more applause we got. I excelled at doing all these things.

I learned to gain my value from “system pleasing” at school. The better I became at “system pleasing,” the more I was applauded as a leader by the bigger leaders and the more I gained my sense of value from THAT as well. PLUS a huge feeling of responsibility that other people’s spiritual growth depended on ME… PLUS the pressure of having to keep up the “perfection” facade so I could keep getting the approval I thirsted for so I could maintain my threadbare, patched together self-esteem. The sad truth was, I was not a leader. I was actually a supreme follower who had found a powerful way to gain approval. A system that is concerned primarily with its own survival more than it is concerned about the people in it easily takes advantage of that kind of a “leader.” I was taken advantage of in being valued more for what I could offer the system than for just being me.

A healthy system would have encouraged me to cut myself some slack; it would have nurtured me to become my own individual beyond exalted, “Christian” achievement; it would have offered their version of the truth, but also welcomed opposing ideas and “outside the box” thinking. It would NOT have applauded me for being a copy cat or a puppet. A healthy system would have helped me learn that how I really felt or thought was GOOD enough and that I was accepted for more than just my accomplishments and good behavior. A healthy system wouldn’t have put so much pressure on kids to be heroes for God (heroes as defined within its own rules). A healthy system would have said, “You can bring God glory by being YOURSELF. Not by squashing your own desires to death under the microscope of ‘is this God’s will’?”  A healthy system wouldn’t have propped a girl up as an example only because she mirrored everything the system was teaching her.

In this religious system I blindly followed the lie that I was valuable for serving a system outside myself, not valuable for being me. I walked a tightrope of good behavior and spiritual achievement which ultimately left me hollow and disconnected, anxious with so much responsibility and the need to be “right and good” to help someone else’s cause rather than for my own benefit.


13 response to "A Young “Leader”, Valued for all the Wrong Reasons"

  1. By: dawn Posted: 6th July

    Nikki, That made me really laugh! Thanks!

  2. By: Carla Dippel Posted: 6th July

    Dawn, welcome here! Thank you for sharing your heart. I believe, like you said at the end of your comment, that your genuine “this is me and I’m not going to try to be perfect” way of living is the godly way. I like how you describe meeting people exactly where they are at- I have found that to be really powerful too, and it empowers people to grow at the same time. Thanks very much Dawn.

    Nikki, I enjoyed your story, your comments, your honesty! Thank you, and hugs to you.


  3. By: Nikki Posted: 5th July

    Dawn I just read your comment and I can so relate to the part where you said “I almost rebel in front of them because I don’t measure up to their standards” because when I was younger I did do just that. I rebelled and made a name for myself in some ways. I felt that I was not accepted and church to me was no different than school meaning in youth group I never measured up it was the whole “click” attitude that one would find in school of who is popular and who is not of course I would expect this from kids but I also ran into this with many adults. It is sad to say the least as much as many churches denounce the world and its “wicked” ways they don’t realize they bring the world in with them in so many ways..

    When I am around those who have this imaginary standard of religious perfection it is an automatic response to rebel I often say things totally off the wall that leaves most people not knowing what to expect from me .. Like for example (I am a preachers kid and a few years ago my dad was preaching at this church) one night after services the ladies along with my mom were standing around talking (now none of these ladies really ever caused me any grief matter of fact they accepted me more than any other church has ever accepted me so what I did was not really to catch them off guard but to catch my mom off guard LOL so in my rebellion I don’t play favorites LOL) as we were all standing around talking (they had been talking about problems and issues that they were having with their kids and families) I spoke up with a very straight face and said “I have a severe problem” they all looked at me with some concern (even my mom did) and I continued with a straight face as I said “My problem is my mom is sleeping with the preacher” (being that my dad was the preacher at the time I wasn’t lying) LOL needless to say the ladies laughed but my mom could have dug a hole and buried herself in it .. my poor mom does not know what to expect from me although she now says that nothing surprises her LOL …

    But that is how I am but I am much worse when I am around the extreme “religious self-righteous” … I have always had the knack to really ruffle some feathers whether intentionally or not because I have never walked that imaginary chalk line no matter how hard I have tried I never could! And that is all religion is about “Peoples way of making themselves justified” … which religion is not the same as being like Christ!

  4. By: dawn Posted: 5th July

    I sometimes struggle with Christians because of the way we need to be so “Perfect”. When I get around the “perfect” Christians I almost rebel in front of them because I don’t measure up to their standards. The great commision was to go and make diciples. I think sometimes, some people in the church set the bar so high they loose the fact that they need to meet people where they are for who they are.
    I know a man that I think has it right. He is a very “good” man but never looked down on others, or puffed himself up because he is “good”. He meets people where they are at and accept people for who they are. I have seen it to many times when Chritians look down on others and don’t accept them for where they are, for who they are. I call them the Holyer than thou Christians. Jesus wasn’t like this.

  5. By: Carla Posted: 5th July

    Manuel, I love your story! I’m really glad you shared it~ it gives a really good “taste” of what freedom feels like and the value of knowing who you are apart from other people’s opinions. Thanks Manuel. Congratulations on winning third place too! 😉

    Splinteredones, it’s true- the “pleasing” I did can be done in any kind of system. I’m glad that your understanding is motivating your recovery- I am definitely finding the same thing to be true. 🙂 As for Christianity, I can see your point! But, I think the heart of Christianity is life giving and about true freedom. It gets misused by people, and other religions/systems are too. Thanks for being here, as always.

  6. By: Splinteredones Posted: 5th July

    Wow. What a mess you were taught. I also believed for very different reasons that over-achieveing would be my salvation. I thought surely if I pleased my mother she would love me enough to save me from
    her cousin, my primary pedophile. But in reality there would never be “enough” to fill the holes in her. I am
    recovering this crap slowly but the better I come to understand it the easier it is to differentiate my truths from her needs. Great post. Makes me thankful I’m not a Christian that really seems to mess with kids alot 😉

  7. By: Manuel Jones Posted: 5th July

    This is definitely abuse. I can see how you got tangled up in it all and how easy and right it seemed at the time. I think that all parents do this to some extent with their children whether at a religous school or not. Or course, the fact that you were at a Christian institution just compounded the problem even further. Why? Because they definitely have do’s and don’ts and “training” therapies for the alumni. I think many more cases would be reported but too few people recognize the abusize side of this type of dilemna that happens there. I’m going to tell you a little about myself and try not to go off on a tangent. When I was in public High School, I was third in my class being slightly outdone in grades by my two best friends. One day, the school was going to have a talent show and I wanted to be part of it by lip syncing and dancing. I even correographed a number for two of my friends and picked out the song. The issue was that I was a smart guy and by the school standard I didn’t need to do this and it was quite “weird” for many to see me in a dramatic dance oriented scenario. But for me, this was all too easy because that is who I was and was comfortable with myself. The student body didn’t know what to make of me. Since my parents never really tried to bind me to a particular system they were o.k. with whatever I wanted to do. So I had my permission, I had my parents permission because they didn’t object to me just being me but I might not have had the student body’s permission at least in their sterotypical mind frame. The gist of my story is that I knew who I was and the school and/or religious system (which was weaker than your case) couldn’t stop me from being me. By the way, at this time I did not know Christ as savior. A few years later I would come to know Christ via my love of music but that is another story. I feel that because of me always being allowed to be myself, upon finding Chirst, I could follow him for all of the right reasons and find true significant in a relationship with him. I am so glad that my parents weren’t religious although they were believers in Christ at the time. Hopefully anyone reading this will encourage their children to just be themselves.
    PS I won 3rd place right after Janet Jackson and Twisted Sister

  8. By: Carla Dippel Posted: 5th July

    Nikki- I’m chuckling at your point about giants in the Bible being destroyed. I’ve never thought of that before!

    Like you describe, it’s sad when anyone becomes a slave of a certain system to gain approval. What I’ve realized is the real tragedy for myself (and others like me) is that I was so young, I didn’t have the maturity to choose differently. I’ve known some young people who saw the truth earlier than me… But for the most part, we don’t have the confidence to really think bigger than the situation we find ourselves in, especially if we don’t have adults or other leaders in our lives to help us figure out what’s going on.

    I felt so guilty for so long because I KNEW that I wasn’t being “myself.” I knew that I was playing a part. I knew that it was hurting me. And this guilt made my suffering worse. Not only did I feel how I was lacking, but I beat myself up for not knowing how to fix it.

    I like how you mention grace Nikki, because that’s what I’ve learned to give to myself now that I’m in recovery, in very large doses. I am able to say, “Carla, you didn’t know any better… You were so young, and so lost… You didn’t WANT to be religious or fake. You just didn’t know… And now, you are on the right path.” That hope is there for ALL of us.


  9. By: Carla Dippel Posted: 5th July

    Wow Diane. Thank you for these comments. Your ability to not conform is, in my view, a gift, even though it has felt so lonely. You are absolutely right- I did what I did because, honestly, I didn’t know WHO I was. Like Jeanette mentioned in her comment, the abuse from my home life left me with little identity to live out “myself”. I agree that some people keep heading down that destructive, soul-killing path and start choosing to take harsh advantage of others to feed their false sense of identity. But a lot of people, like me, conform because they’ve lost themselves. I actually felt jealous of my peers who were NORMAL, who didn’t have such responsibility. I wished so badly, for so many years, that I could just be myself and make mistakes and not have to be perfect. But in my younger years, I had no idea how to do this (and just believing that God loved me didn’t help either- that’s probably a whole other blog post!) I can say now that I’m thankful that my depression and anxiety got worse and worse… It helped me to seek for answers and healing which I did find.

    Hugs to you Diane. I am so glad that you are your own unique self, going against the grain.

  10. By: Carla Dippel Posted: 5th July

    Jeanette, wow. Thank you so much for sharing more of your story, and for your wonderful encouragement. There are so many ways that we try to survive in these kinds of systems. The reasons you describe for the development of your alters make SO much sense. Most of my memories of junior high and high school just feel numb (except for a few of the most painful or happy ones). I think there are a lot of people who suffered as I did, with this blanket of depression in their past, but don’t have the resources to get to the root of it, don’t even realize that that blanket of depression doesn’t have to be “normal”. I hope, just like you say, that this post will shine some light for others who struggled like we did. BIG hugs to you Jeanette- it is more than awesome that we are regaining our true “selves” that were squashed so long ago. Love, Carla

  11. By: Nikki Posted: 5th July

    Very good write and very deep as well … I tried that system myself and came out empty handed furthermore I was being some one I was not. Religion never impresses God and that is what this system boils down to. The only form of religion that is acceptable before God is to visit the widows and the fatherless and to be unspotted nor transformed by this world (james 1:27)

    What I have seen and been through in the “Christian Culture” is it is performance based and they do lay a lot of emphasis on these so called “Spiritual giants” the problem with that is .. the only giants the bible speaks of were either destroyed in the flood in Noah’s time or beheaded by a fourteen year old kid named David.. God is not basing His grace and love on our performances .. Grace is unmerited favor meaning we don’t earn it nor deserve it otherwise it wouldn’t be called Grace.. there is more idol worship in many of the Christian main stream doctrines then there is of worshiping God and accepting the reality of who we are ..

    As I struggle to get out from the tangle web in my own life I have had to face many battles within myself to be honest I have felt disheartened and I have had to struggle with my faith but the good part about it is .. is that I am not a slave nor am I having to live my life based upon others expectations .. true enough we should want to set a good example but at the same time we are still human and we all struggle with something that is why I tell people “don’t follow me I may just walk into a wall”

    Thank you again for sharing : )

  12. By: Diane Posted: 5th July


    Thank you so much for sharing this story. At times I have wondered if I was always going to be on the ‘outside’ of every system or group because in the end I can never conform in the ways you mentioned and at times wondered if I was the one with a problem. The older I get the more I realize that there is something inside of me that makes me determined to be myself no matter what others think. If I do things for their approval I realize that in the end most of them turn out to be people I don’t respect anyway because they don’t have enough decency to just be themselves – they are living to please the system thinking it will fill their void. I can’t stand it when people mask who they really are. I don’t think you did this in a way that was purely for your own gain. I think you were lost. I think you have found yourself and I wish people understood more that God wants us to BE WHO WE ARE even if it means going against the grain. Jesus was a dissident. It must not have been easy for him. Sometimes the real leaders are the ones who stand alone.

  13. By: Jeanette Posted: 5th July

    Carla, you have just described the world I lived in as an adolescent and young adult, to a T. And given my already very confused and abusive background, it was in this very strict, fundamentalist world that I developed two distinct alters. JD, the perfect female submissive Christian girl; virtuous, God fearing and rule adhering young woman with no dreams, no desires, just a young woman who followed the rules. Seth, the intellectual, theological, male leader. The development of a male alter was due to the fact that females were given little opportunity to become the thinkers in that system, afforded little respect if they stepped out of their submissive and ‘quiet’ roles, as stated by St. Paul in his epistles. But I was a thinker, I was intellectual, and so a male alter had to be created in order to live out this part of me without condemnation.

    I am so appreciative of you and your courage to address this subject. The environment you describe creates such confusion and frustration and squashes any kind of individuality of persons who are trapped in the system.

    I will be spending a lot of time thinking and feeling my way through this subject that you have presented, as the timing was perfect for me, you have NO IDEA! There are a lot of wounds that need healing in me from my time in the religious system we have shared in different times and different places, but we know we were in the same hell.

    You are an awesome young woman Carla, and I’m so proud of all that you bring to this blog, for all your courage in putting yourself and your painful journey out here so that we can connect and learn from each other. YOU ARE THAT LEADER CARLA!!!! But you have found that leadership in the unique way in which you were created! Stay with it, continue to grow into it! You are a gift!!!


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