Friday, November 2, 2012

Facing the Shame

Last week, we went to a conference to recruit students for our school. Last year, the topic was psychological disorders. This year, the topic was guilt and shame. Listening to some amazing teachers and counselors talk about a common human problem-- shame-- gave me lots to process. 

Shame is a word for which I had no category for a long time. No emotional connection happened when I heard it talked about. I, probably like most people, assumed, "I don't really struggle with that." But the more I learned about the patterns at work in my life (ways I had learned to think and feel, ways I'd learned to relate to others and to God, etc.) the more I realized that shame was was a very powerful dynamic in my life. One of the problems with shame is that it's sneaky. It is a shape shifter-- it can mask itself as other issues. For me, shame hid behind phrases like "low self-esteem," "a bad high school experience," or even "perfectionism."

Here's what I mean. Shame is a feeling and experience of worthlessness, rejection, embarrassment, loneliness, exposure, dirtiness, _______ (fill in the blank). It can be the result of your own sin or the sin of others. I've written in a number of blog posts about the shame I experienced as a result of abuse. That's a relatively straightforward example, but as I continue to experience God's healing I'm realizing that the feelings of shame which characterized so much of my life have many sources.  I'll just briefly share from the three examples I mentioned. 

Low self-esteem. I am a full-fledged, fairy-dust sprinkling, poetry writing, endlessly singing, Lord of the Rings loving artist who grew up in a culture that valued... athleticism. Needless to say, eight grade was a bit awkward. Is there anything wrong with having different interests than most of my peers? Of course not. But being made fun of for it? Getting awkward stares in the hallway? Finding notes written by my classmates about how much of a loser I was, then having to go to the worst of all places in middle school-- P.E. class-- with those classmates? In other words, being shamed for who I am? That's something that eventually might get couched as "low self-esteem." 

A bad high school experience. Near the end of my freshman year, my father passed away from cancer. It was the culmination of his four-year battle with the illness, and my reaction to it sent me in a thousand wrong directions. I hurt myself and others in the process of trying to ease my own pain, and as a result, my sin became public. I found that after a certain point, my peers identified me-- they associated me-- with my sin. I became "the girl who ______." Instead of finding a safe place to hide in the wake of my father's death, I found myself even more exposed than ever. It's normal to have growing pains in high school, to be sure. But to experience feelings of nausea or anxiety upon returning to my hometown afterward? To be so haunted by past relationships or conversations that a "reunion" seems unbearable? To feel just as small, outcast, despised, exposed, dirty, __________ (fill in the blank) in the eyes of those peers today as then? It would be tempting to run away from it all by labeling it a "bad high school experience" and never looking back. 

Perfectionism. I've blogged about my humorous "to-do list idolatry." Personality differences allow for things like this, of course, but what about the sense of desperation and despair I feel when I don't get through my to-do list in a day? When I "waste" an hour napping and then feel the need to punish myself later? Just today I locked my keys in my gym locker and had to wait 30 minutes for someone to help me. I literally cried. "How could I be so stupid? How could I let a whole 30 minutes just get wasted like this? I don't know how I'll make up for it!" I was battling a deeply buried belief that I must "pull my weight" in order to earn my right to life. If I fail, well, shame on me. 

I realized this past weekend that these shameful feelings-- whether they fall under the "dramatic life experiences" category or not, shape my thoughts and actions. They shape the way I see God, myself, and others. And while it might be more convenient to ignore them, it's more freeing to face them. And I realized this past weekend that only the gospel gives me the power to face the shame. Because only the gospel really acknowledges the weight of the problem  (there is truth to what I feel) and offers an answer (but God has intervened, and that changes everything!)

The gospel says to my low self-esteem, "You are a precious person made in God's image. He loves your uniqueness and quirks and interests, and others have wronged you by shaming you for it. The weight of their sin is grievous and it is right to feel the pain of their words. Now, listen to God's words about who you are. He made you and He alone has the right to define you." To my bad high school experience, the gospel says, "You did sin against God and you stand guilty before Him. Your failure is a serious problem that must be answered for. But God loves you so much that He took your sin upon Himself so that you can be free from it. Now, through trusting in Him, you can be associated with Him-- not your sin. Now, you'll no longer be known as "the girl who _____ " but as "the girl who belongs to Jesus." To my perfectionism, the gospel says, "You are not god. You can't be perfect; stop expecting yourself to be! You are accepted and loved by God as His child; there's nothing more to do to prove yourself or earn His affection. Furthermore, He will provide for you to get done what He calls you to. You don't have to carry the heavy burden of trying to make it all happen." 

I realized this past weekend that apart from the gospel, I could attempt to deal with the shame by writing it off as nothing. I could plug my ears to the hurtful words people said to me, and bury the shame of their disapproval. Or, I could acknowledge my pain before God and experience His comfort and affirmation. I could avoid acknowledging the shame of my past actions by writing it all off as high-school drama. Or, I could face the reality of my sin before God and others and receive His complete and total forgiveness and freedom, standing before Him and others now with a new identity. I could normalize the slave-master of perfectionism by saying it's part of my personality, or I could accept my imperfection before God and be freed from the impossible yoke of living up to standards God Himself doesn't place on me. 

Are there areas in your life where shame might be hiding? What makes you afraid to face it? How might the gospel-- God's response to your sin and the sin of others against you-- change things? 

1 comment:

Lauren Winstead said...

Your posts are always an encouragement to me :) I so appreciate your transparency & vulnerability, Hannah. Hope things are going well in Texas!