When I hear the word “innocent,” it makes me cringe. Not in a “She’s innocent until proven guilty” kind of way, but in the “She is young, lovely, and innocent” kind of way.
I’ve tried to release that feeling when it comes to others, but I must be honest that when I think of those words in context of my younger self, it feels like everything under my skin shifts. Not for the little girl I was at 5 or 8, or even 12. I can honor her innocence. But 16-year-old me? Or 20-year-old me? The lovely, innocent maiden-type in the prime of her youth? She irks me.
Maybe that’s weird for some people—people who aren’t skeptical about things that are too pretty, too nice, or too precious. This version of me from ten to fifteen years ago seemed like an exemplary Christian young woman, zealous in her convictions, committed to living a pure and righteous life. The church told her to embody the godly young maiden; becoming her was an asset, nay a guarantee, for THE way to follow God’s plan for her life.
I feel like that innocent maiden turned out to be a liability.
She was beyond innocent; she was naïve. I have spent many years resenting her for it.
There are many things that contributed to her innocence and/or naivety: A Christian household with protective parents; American cultural messages about romance, from Disney movies to rom coms; the tendency to fall into very black-and-white, either/or though patterns. And certainly, the false guarantees and formulas communicated repeatedly from purity culture.
That teenage version of me wasn’t prepared for an abusive relationship with a boy from youth group who had a personality disorder. And even though I ended that relationship and found a much healthier relationship down the road, that 21-year-old me wasn’t ready for the impact of a sexual pain disorder when she got married to an incredible man.
As many of us do when we reflect on younger versions of ourselves who walked through really painful things, we try to figure out if we could have avoided all that pain—pain that has the capacity to linger in our present. And because it’s easier for me to blame myself than it is to admit all that was out of my control (be it a toxic ex, a body with chronic illness, or a system of beliefs like purity culture), I’ve often opted for being angry with that lovely, young maiden. I’ve felt frustrated with her for being so naïve, for not paying attention to the warning signs that led to being used and manipulated, for being so easily blindsided. (And yes, I hear all my Enneagram 8 energy there.)
Except you can’t prevent being blindsided. We cannot prevent all the experiences that make us feel vulnerable or bring us pain. To be vulnerable is part of the human experience; it cannot be eliminated, even though many of us still work really hard to minimize those feelings as often as possible, even to our own detriment.
My favorite author is Brene Brown. Her writing around vulnerability in all seven of her books has been the most impactful content I’ve read over the last decade. I’ve realized that in order to heal, I’ve had to work on making peace with my innocent, maiden self. I needed to offer her kindness and protection, instead of resenting her and treating her like she was a liability. She deserves a spot of honor in my heart, and she still has things to teach me.
She reminds me that I can be sweet and lovely. She reminds me that it is okay to live without my guard up so consistently, not because she is naïve, but because she is tenacious and courageous enough to risk it in order to taste the goodness waiting for her on the other side of that risk. She’s not jaded and cynical, chafed by the world and all of its injustice. She believes in goodness and change, and she fights for it. She knows that the deep hopefulness of her love is healing and good. I need all those reminders in order to be able to merge her goodness and innocence with the wisdom I have now earned. She is part of me, an important part, and I am better because of her.
Nicole Clifton is a Phoenix native, a voracious reader, an Enneagram 8, a passionate advocate against injustice, and committed to being a life-long learner. She has her masters in psychology and lives her life as a writer, speaker, and leadership development specialist. She is also a storywork counselor and life coach with Restoration Counseling. Nicole and her husband have been married for almost 10 years. To hear more from Nicole, you can find her in these spaces website, her blog, or view her TEDx talk. Learn about coaching or story work with Nicole at Restoration Counseling.