This is my last post for October’s 31 Days Writing Challenge. While I didn’t write every day I was able to get a lot of the thoughts that have been percolating in my brain out onto the page. And I still have more things I’d like to write so I think I’ll continue with November’s NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month). This one is less restrictive in that I can post anything – it doesn’t have to follow a particular topic. So you’ll continue to see more of me.
On to my post for October 31…
Something was shared with me that beautifully speaks to connection and vulnerability. There is a common greeting among some tribes in South Africa; it would be equivalent to saying “hello” in English. The expression is Sawubona which literally means, “I see you”. A common response to this greeting is Sikhona which means, “I am here”. The order of the exchange is important as according to their tradition, until you see me, I do not exist. It’s as if, when you see me, you bring me into existence. It means we do not exist without each other and our existence holds little meaning if we are not seen.
This speaks to connection. We are wired to feel connected to others, to feel that we belong. How many times do we feel “unseen”, that people don’t see who we really are or that we have no voice? I know I’ve felt that lots. It is a horrible feeling and often tied to a sense of shame. Sometimes it wasn’t ‘safe’ to be seen so I learned to hide myself. Unfortunately, for me, it also meant I hid myself from me – I didn’t know who I really was (I’m still growing into that as I learn to take down my vulnerability armour from the past).
If you’re in an environment where the people you long to feel connected to are using their energies to keep their vulnerability armour in place, it means they have limited capacity to actually “see” you and you don’t feel ‘safe’ to be “seen”. So everyone stays walled up within themselves. It can be a vicious cycle.
Yet I believe there is hope for us. If we collectively learn to take down the vulnerability armour and intentionally allow ourselves to be seen and then to intentionally see others, we will significantly increase our sense of connection with each other. And that’s a good thing. It will take vulnerability – showing up and being seen always does. But the connection and empathy and love we will experience is absolutely worth it.
The alternative is disconnection and staying walled up in our fortresses, not letting anyone in and not letting ourselves out. It might promise the illusion of being ‘safe’ but in the long run it crushes our souls.
We need each other. We are shaped by each other. It is in our relationships that we experience love and belonging and connection and empathy. These are the things we need to walk through this world that is marred by struggle and pain. Without them, we are dying inside.
So I want to encourage all of us to intentionally take small steps to “show up and be seen”. To embrace vulnerability, even in small ‘baby-steps’ ways. To risk. And even though we will fall down sometimes, don’t be afraid to get back up again. Find those people who truly care about you, let them carry you through the hard stuff. But don’t shut yourself out from the world. Because we need you and the light that you bring and the Imago Dei that is represented in you. You are beautiful and you are loved and you are “seen”.
Grace and peace to you this day.
In the vein of “being seen”, I’m curious to “see” you and know who has been following me this month. If you could “like” my Facebook post link or add a comment here in the comments section, I would love that. Thanks!
Jesus said, “I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). I believe the ‘abundant’ life Jesus was talking about speaks to wholeheartedness, to wholehearted living. The wholehearted have developed a resiliency to shame. Just as Jesus modelled vulnerability for us, I believe He lived and modelled a wholehearted life for us. And He wanted us to have that too.
At the core of wholeheartedness is “…vulnerability and worthiness: facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risk, and knowing that you are enough.” (Brown, B. Rising Strong (2015). New York, New York: Spiegel & Grau. p. 274)
Jesus embodied wholeheartedness. He faced uncertainty: think about growing up in Egypt, being the son of a carpenter, not having a permanent residence…
Jesus faced exposure: He allowed Himself to be “seen” by all people, whether the peasants or the rich Pharisees; He experienced criticism and judgement from the religious leaders but He was still willing to engage with them (even after they tried to stone him to death).
He faced emotional risk: He opened Himself up to the people and to His disciples; He wept over Jerusalem because He knew they would reject Him and be destroyed and yet He still loved them (Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome 40 years later); He wept at Lazarus’ tomb when He saw his friends mourning and in despair; He considered His disciples His friends and they ran away when He was arrested. He took a lot of emotional risk and experienced pain and sorrow as a result.
And yet in all of this, Jesus knew the Father loved him. He knew He was enough. People may argue that Jesus was God so of course He knew He was enough. But Jesus became a human being, with all the brokenness that comes with that. Jesus experienced pain and disappointment and He still lived wholeheartedly, so much so that he prayed that God the Father would forgive the people who had condemned Him to death (and not just any kind of death, but an excruciating one).
When I think about the things that the wholehearted practice, I think Jesus practiced many, if not all, of them too: authenticity, self-compassion, a resilient spirit, gratitude and joy (He thanked His Father publicly), intuition and trusting faith (He trusted the Father and only did what He saw His Father doing), creativity (He never healed someone the same way twice and He was creative in the telling of His parables), play and rest, calm and stillness (He often went off by Himself to pray), meaningful work (His ministry), laughter, song and dance.
I see a correlation between the wholehearted and the life of Jesus. He really did show us a better way to live and He made a way for us to live abundantly now, in this life.
As an evangelical Christian, I grew up hearing the Gospel and knowing about the Four Spiritual Laws. I knew about “asking Jesus into your heart” to be saved. My perspective and thinking has shifted and I now have some issues with the traditional evangelical approach to preaching the “Good News”.
If we go back to what I was writing about at the beginning of the month, the research on shame shows that everyone experiences shame and that shame drives us to hide. Yet when we tell people about becoming a Christian we focus on how they are sinful (as their identity) and how they’re not good enough.
This is completely counterproductive and here’s why: in telling people they’re not good enough we’re essentially heaping shame on them. And shame drives people to hide. At the same time, we tell people they need to come to God. Why would someone come to God when they’re hiding in shame and have been told that HE doesn’t think they’re good enough? This is certainly not the Good News from my perspective.
Here’s what I believe: people already know they “sin”. People outside the church don’t use the word “sin” but they can certainly attest to hurting each other and themselves, of messing up, of making mistakes. They experience shame and so they know all too well the feeling of “not good enough”. As Christians, we don’t need to remind them of that and reinforce the message of shame (and with that, fear).
Jesus did tell people to repent of their sins and turn to God. He saw how they were lost and broken but He focused on their actions (guilt) and not their identity (shame). He didn’t want them to be afraid and hide. And actually, he said that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17).
Jesus talked about love and said that loving God and loving others were the most important things (Matthew 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-34). He talked about God’s extravagant love for us in parables such as the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8). And He said people would know we are followers of God if we love one another (John 13:34-35). This isn’t typically what evangelical Christians focus on when sharing the Gospel.
While I believe that our “sin” (and shame) separates us from each other and God – shame drives disconnection – our sin does NOT diminish our worth in God’s eyes. We are of such value to God that He sent His Son to save us from our sin and shame (“God so loved the world…” John 3:16).
Which brings me back to the “Imago Dei” – the image of God. Why don’t we start here when telling people about God? That they bear the image of God, that they are beautiful and precious to Him. That He loves them so very, very much. He longs to have connection and relationship with them. It’s not about God controlling our lives – He gave us free will. It’s about relationship. He wants to remove the things in our lives that drive disconnection, that come between us and God and between us and each other. This is for our benefit. This is for healing and wholeness. His grace says that “we are enough”, we are accepted; we aren’t condemned. Through God, we have a way out from under our shame. Jesus made a way for us through His death and resurrection to come back to God in relationship. I don’t exactly understand how, but through this Jesus dealt with our separation from God (which included hiding in shame). Our part is simply to accept that this is true, to receive that love, and to be open to a relationship with the One whose image we bear.
This is a much more compelling message in my eyes. Instead of a message which has shame and fear as the foundation, we have a message of love, acceptance, and belonging – those things all people are wired for – those things which are ultimately fulfilled in our relationship with God. A relationship which brings freedom and healing and life. Good things! Good News! That’s what I want to focus on.
There’s a concept that I ran into a while ago. It’s called the “Imago Dei”. It’s Latin and translated means “image of God”. The idea is that all humanity is created in the image of God. This comes from Genesis 1:27 which says “God created man in his own image…male and female he created them.”
The thing is that when we start to view people, all people, as bearing the image of God, we start to see beauty in all people, whether they go to a church or not. At least this is what I have experienced. And when I stop to consider that all people experience shame AND all people are made in the image of God, I see more and more the things we have in common rather than the things that separate us.
It is no longer “us” vs. “them” or Christian vs. non-Christian. I can see beauty in everyone and I look for God’s likeness in everyone. This has reduced my fear – I used to be terrified to share my faith with those not going to church because they felt like “the other” and I feared that. But not anymore.
My love for all people has grown. It’s easy to love people when you realize we are all in this together and no one is better than anyone else. We are all on equal ground. We all walk through this life, broken and hurting and in need of love and empathy and connection. These are the things which unite us. This is our common humanity. There is amazing beauty in that.
Because I am better able to love people and not fear them, I am more compelled to share my experience of love and grace with them. I want them to know love and be free, too.
I think we would do better to start with how we are the same when relating to non-church people than how we are different. This makes sense to me when I understand that we are all longing for connection and belonging, to be accepted and loved. Why not begin from that place of our common humanity, of the Imago Dei?
I’ll talk about how this relates to the “Good News” (i.e., the Gospel) tomorrow.
I want to talk about surrender. Dictionary.com defines surrender as follows: “to give oneself up, as into the power of another; submit or yield; to give (oneself) up to some influence, course, emotion, etc.” Surrender involves a tremendous amount of vulnerability. You can’t surrender without becoming vulnerable.
Sometimes we surrender to a process. I remember when I was giving birth to my firstborn. I had never been through childbirth before, I had no idea how long this was going to take, and I was experiencing A LOT of pain. Somehow I knew I needed to yield (surrender) to the process going on in my body; if I fought the pain – trying to stop it – I would end up in more pain (and it would probably take longer) than if I just let things happen.
I believe God asks us to surrender to Him. Because God is love, the surrender is to love. And it is the love of God that heals us and transforms us…if we surrender to it. This comes in the form of little steps of trust, taken over time. We learn that God’s love brings life and wholeness and healing and so we learn to trust and surrender in deeper ways.
When my first husband was dying and the paramedics were trying to resuscitate him, I was desperately begging God to save him, to not let him die. I was so scared. In the midst of my pleading and terror, there came a moment when everything became still inside me – it was as if I was in the eye of the storm. And in that moment, I laid it all down. I said to God, “You are God, and I place EVERYTHING in Your hands.” I surrendered my life, the life of my husband, and the lives of my two sons into God’s hands.
I believe it was God who enabled me to surrender at that moment – I don’t think I could have done it without Him. But I had walked far enough on my journey up to that point that I believed God loved me and that I could trust Him with my life, even though my world was shattering into a million pieces around me. I knew I could cling to God, that He would not abandon me (and that He wasn’t abandoning me in that moment).
And I believe that because I surrendered my life to Him, it opened the door for God to take care of me and my boys in ways that I could never imagine. Through that experience and the journey I have had since then, I have been transformed for the better. I am more healed and whole than I ever thought possible.
I would not wish what I went through with losing my husband on anyone. But I understand now, more than I could understand before, the power in surrender. It’s not about striving or fighting. It’s about yielding and giving up. When we can do that, God is able to work His Life within us.
“Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20,21 [emphasis mine])
I haven’t been feeling that good emotionally lately – too much emotional processing going on. Somedays I feel okay and other days I feel crappy and so, so tired. Today is one of the crappy days. I was planning to write a post on surrender but I just don’t have the heart or energy to put it together today. So I don’t have anything for you…except my vulnerable, worn out self. Thanks for sticking with me on this journey. See you tomorrow…hopefully.
I believe one of the things Jesus came to Earth to do was to model vulnerability for us. If you take a look at Jesus through this lens, you start to see his life from a different perspective:
- He didn’t have a home to call His own (Luke 9:58).
- He told His disciples that in order to be a leader they needed to be servants and slaves (Matthew 20:26-27, Mark 10:43-44). Those are very vulnerable positions.
- He allowed a woman to wet his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair (Luke 7:36-50). That’s quite the intimate act on the part of the woman but allowing someone to do that to you involves intimacy and vulnerability, too. The Pharisee who was hosting Jesus was upset that Jesus was letting this happen and I wonder if part of the reason was because he felt too uncomfortably vulnerable being witness to this.
- Jesus wept, more than once. He wept for Jerusalem (Luke 19:41) and he wept at Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:35).
Then Jesus washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17). He took off his robe, wore a towel around his waist, and washed the disciples’ feet. How vulnerable is that?! On top of that, he told the disciples that he was setting an example for them to follow in doing this. I believe not only was He telling them to serve others but to be vulnerable in the serving.
And finally, there was the crucifixion. Jesus allowed Himself to be mocked, stripped and beaten. He allowed men to torture him by hanging him on a cross, naked and exposed for all to see. I can’t think of anything more vulnerable than that. To me, His sacrifice is that much more beautiful in the vulnerability of it. He didn’t hold anything back from us, but was completely naked before us. So great and true is His love for us.
There’s been some pretty emotional stuff happening in my world lately. Lots of processing, lots of thinking about the stories I tell myself. Yesterday, something triggered memories of deep wounds and it left me feeling very, very emotionally ‘raw’. And it got me thinking about what I wrote two days ago about vulnerability (Why Vulnerability?).
I believe there are ‘degrees’ of vulnerability, and while I haven’t figured this all out, I know that it’s not healthy (or ‘safe’) to share all my most intimate details with everyone I meet. In fact, doing this is a shield against vulnerability as I mentioned in my Vulnerability Armour post (see “letting it all hang out”).
Brene Brown uses a beautiful phrase to describe being vulnerable. She says we share with those who can bear the weight of our stories. These are the people we have built connection with, we’ve cultivated these relationships, there is trust and mutual empathy – in other words, these people have earned the right to hear our stories in honesty and vulnerability.
This doesn’t mean we’re not honest in the rest of our world. We should be! But the ‘degree’ to which we are vulnerable will depend on the strength of the relationships we have with the people we are with. The more intimate and ‘raw’ the vulnerability, the smaller the circle of people with which that is shared. I’m going to call this ‘healthy’ vulnerability (I just made it up; it’s not from any research I’ve read).
I’m just starting to figure this out. It wasn’t something I really thought about before because I had so much vulnerability armour up there wasn’t much vulnerability happening. But as I’m slowly learning to take down the armour, I’m thinking about what it actually means to be vulnerable. How much do I share online? How much do I share in my larger church community? How do I learn to be vulnerable in a healthy way with the people closest to me? It’s easy to throw the old vulnerability armour back on when I’m feeling uncomfortable and exposed. How do I not do that and allow myself to be ‘seen’ without being overexposed at the same time? I don’t have the answer for that.
Because of what happened yesterday, I decided not to go to a mini women’s retreat at our church today. I knew I was feeling emotionally tender and ‘raw’. The retreat would mean hanging out with 30 women that I have varying degrees of closeness with – for the day. I was anticipating what would happen – either I’d throw up my vulnerability armour and pretend as if everything was okay or I’d be a weeping mess at the back of the room. Many of those women don’t have the strength of relationship with me to bear the weight of what I was feeling and processing. While this might have been an opportunity for women to surround me and encourage me, the scene could just as easily have backfired with people who don’t know me potentially giving ‘pat’ or inappropriate responses which would have left me feeling worse. So I opted to stay at home.
Considering my degree of emotional tenderness I chose not to be with a larger group of people, although I would have been willing to be with a smaller group that I am closer with (like my church life group), though probably not for the entire day. I’m finding making these decisions involves learning to have healthy boundaries and to understand what we need. Sometimes it’s okay to consider ourselves and our well-being first. Too often I put others and their expectations first to the detriment of myself. I think it serves us well to become more self-aware and to take steps to care for ourselves in the ways we need to when in pain. And this means sometimes saying, “No”, and that’s okay.
So, embrace vulnerability in healthy ways and be true to yourself. They must not be mutually exclusive.
So far this month I’ve talked a lot about shame and what we do to try to cope and protect ourselves from it. We put up shields and armour in order to hide. What are we hiding from? I’d say it’s from being ‘seen’. When we’re in shame, we feel worthless and unworthy of connection. We don’t want to be ‘seen’ for fear someone will further increase our sense of shame. The problem is that hiding keeps us from connection and it’s in connection and experiencing empathy that we can begin to walk out from underneath shame.
Which brings us to vulnerability. Vulnerability is necessary for connection. How can I feel a connection with someone when they won’t let me ‘see’ them and/or I won’t let them ‘see’ me? It is in taking down our shields and allowing ourselves to be ‘seen’ (i.e., being vulnerable) that we can truly have connection with others. This is where empathy and wholeheartedness grow.
It’s not an easy thing, especially for anyone who has experienced trauma in their lives. Often there is so much pain around vulnerability and so many walls of protection built up, that stepping into vulnerability is difficult. But…it’s not impossible. It takes baby steps with those people whom we trust (and sometimes with the help of professionals), with those who can bear the weight of our stories. With each baby step into vulnerability and receiving empathy and understanding in return, walking into vulnerability becomes a little bit easier.
Vulnerability involves risk. There are never any guarantees how the other person will respond. And sometimes the people we most love and care about will let us down. Even with knowing this…even so…I believe vulnerability is absolutely worth it. There is no other way to get through our healing to the other side. How can we become healed and whole if we never let anyone catch a glimpse of our brokenness and pain? If we never even admit it to ourselves? Sometimes vulnerability means being vulnerable with ourselves and taking the risk to see what’s really going on inside. And then reaching out to others.
Vulnerability is not easy for me. My vulnerability shields and hiding techniques are pretty entrenched, and I’ve had to do the work of learning to stop using them. I still have a long way to go. I want with all my heart to live as the wholehearted do, to learn to be vulnerable and authentic, because I know that’s where real connection happens. It’s where I won’t feel alone.
We all put up shields and masks to protect ourselves. We’ve convinced ourselves (or others have convinced us) that this is the best way to walk through life. But I believe there is a better way, a way that will bring deeper meaning to our lives, if we’re willing to take the risk to step out and be seen. Won’t you join me?
Empathy is a strange and powerful thing. There is no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of “You’re not alone.” (p.81)
Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, New York: Gotham Books.
Everyone experiences shame and there is no way we can eliminate it from our lives. As Brown puts it, “As long as we care about connection, the fear of disconnection will always be a powerful force in our lives, and the pain caused by shame will always be real.” (Daring Greatly, p.74)
The answer is shame resilience. This is “the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we have going into it.” (Daring Greatly, p.74).
The four elements of shame resilience (as listed in Daring Greatly) are:
- Recognizing Shame and Understanding its Triggers
- Practicing Critical Awareness
- Reaching Out
- Speaking Shame
It takes a certain amount of emotional intelligence to work through this process. Can we recognize when we are experiencing shame and are we able to learn what triggers it? This takes practice and a degree of curiosity. There are times when I have reacted (in shame) to something and I think to myself afterwards, “What was that about? Why did I react like that?” If I ask the questions long enough, I can begin to see patterns (in some areas of my life, at least) and learn to recognize the shame triggers. This also involves critical awareness, asking ourselves what messages we’re telling ourselves when we’re in shame and testing those messages. Are they true? Realistic? Would I talk like this to others?
Reaching Out is so very important in developing shame resilience. It is by sharing our stories with those we trust, with those who care for us, that we can experience empathy (the antidote to shame); it’s how we can experience connection and healing. Just as shame happens between people, it also heals best between people (Daring Greatly, p.75).
Speaking Shame can be very, very difficult to do, but it’s amazing what happens when you can actually do it. Shame wants to stay hidden so when I can actually say (out loud), “I feel shame” it actually cuts shame off at the knees. It loses its power over me.
I know this from personal experience. My husband and I were having a group of friends over for potluck supper one evening. In our home, we have the housecleaning duties down to a science: my husband has one area of the house, I have another area…we can get the house cleaned within an hour. But on this particular day, I had been out for the afternoon and got home late. Company was arriving in less than 45 minutes. My husband had already finished his part of the housecleaning and I was frantically trying to get my part done.
The more the clocked ticked, the more shame I felt – “why did I stay out so late? This is all my fault. I’m a terrible person. What are people going to think of me?”. But even then, I couldn’t actually say out loud, “I feel shame.” My husband sensed my growing tension and asked me, “Are you feeling shame?” Even to get the word “Yes” out of my mouth was difficult. But I took a deep breath and said, “Yes…I feel shame.” It was amazing. Just saying those words seemed to deflate the balloon of tension within me. I started feeling calmer and things didn’t feel like “the end of the world” anymore.
I wouldn’t have believed speaking shame could have that kind of effect until I experienced it myself. The problem is shame is not something we talk about in our society, so speaking it is countercultural. It’s not impossible; it just requires a different way of thinking about it.
Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about empathy – the antidote to shame.
Source: Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, New York: Gotham Books.
I’m taking the information I list in this post from Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly and I’ll list source information at the bottom of this post.
Here’s a great quote from the start of her chapter on the Vulnerability Armory:
“As children we found ways to protect ourselves from vulnerability, from being hurt, diminished, and disappointed. We put on armor; we used our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors as weapons; and we learned how to make ourselves scarce, even to disappear. Now as adults we realize that to live with courage, purpose, and connection – to be the person whom we long to be – we must again be vulnerable. We must take off the armor, put down the weapons, show up, and let ourselves be seen.” (p.112)
The armor Brene Brown talks about acts as a shield against vulnerability. The major shields (used by just about everyone at some point) are:
This is the experience of feeling the intense emotion of joy and as soon as we feel that, our thoughts immediately go to catastrophe. Here’s an example: my life was looking pretty good – I had a decent job, good friends, my children were healthy…and in that moment my thoughts went to “something bad is going to happen, I’ve got it too good.” I’m very good a rehearsing tragedy and less good at accepting (and enjoying) the moments of joy when they come to me.
If I can make myself ‘perfect’, then I’ll feel accepted, and I can avoid the feelings of shame, judgement, and blame. There are a few problems with this – I can’t attain perfection, it sets me up to feel more shame because I’m never ‘good enough’, and it becomes a vicious cycle of striving and self-loathing. This was (and is to a lesser extent) my modus operandi.
Numbing can come in the form of addictions and eating disorders. But…it also comes in making ourselves super busy, eating chocolate when we feel crappy, playing video games/watching TV/surfing the internet for hours, having that glass of wine to ‘take the edge off’ our day. The research shows the main drivers for numbing are shame, anxiety, and disconnection. These are very uncomfortable feelings and when we don’t have strategies for sitting in them, we numb the emotion (which means we actually numb all emotions – we can’t ‘selectively’ numb).
Some less common shields are:
- “Viking or Victim” – these people have no use for vulnerability and possess a worldview that sees all of mankind categorized either into “Victims” (those who can’t hold their own and are being taken advantage of) and “Vikings” (those who are constantly on guard against being the victim, who dominate and try to stay in control)
- “Letting it all hang out” – this is oversharing when there isn’t the level of connection in the relationship to bear that level of vulnerability (floodlighting) as well as oversharing with the intent to shock and get attention (the smash and grab)
- “Serpentining” – the immense efforts used to avoid vulnerability; it might mean “trying to control a situation, backing out of it, pretending it’s not happening, or maybe even pretending that you don’t care.” (p.165)
- “Cynicism, criticism, cool, and cruelty” – these are pretty self-explanatory and do a good job at shutting down vulnerability in the person and in others
In the Vulnerability Armory chapter in Daring Greatly Brene Brown talks about the things we can do in each category to help us take down our shields. I don’t have time or space to go into them but here’s the source information for the book:
Source: Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, New York: Gotham Books.
Yesterday I talked about grace. The challenge is to believe it. There’s something Jesus said: “Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.'” (John 6:28-29 NIV)
This never made any sense to me. How can ‘believing’ be ‘work’? And how can it be the work God would want us to do? For someone who thought she needed to DO things in order to be ‘good enough’, this was completely counter to my thinking. I had heard all sorts of other messages in church, like praying and reading your Bible and being ‘good’. Believing…that wasn’t on the list (I’m guessing belief was assumed).
But I think I’m beginning to understand what Jesus was talking about. Living the life God desires for us is so much more about what we believe than what we do. What we believe drives our actions. Living that abundant life is hindered when we don’t believe Jesus and we believe things that are not true.
What did Jesus tell us? That God had come to “be with” (i.e., have connection with) his people, with all people (Matthew 1:23). He told us to turn from our darkness (and shame) and come to the Light/God (repent) (John 8:12, Mark 1:15, Luke 1:78-79). He told us that God loves us…so much so that He was sending Jesus to make a way for us to have connection/relationship with Him again (John 3:16). Paul tells us: “But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:17, NLT [emphasis mine]). He also says: “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. (Ephesians 2:8-9, NLT [empahsis mine]).
Now this is tricky, because there are lots of people who think they believe. The question is: what are they believing? If what they believe means they experience fear and condemnation (or shame) on a fairly consistent basis then I would suggest they take another look at what they’re believing. There is no fear in love (1 John 4:18) and God is love (1 John 4:8) so fear and shame wouldn’t be what I expect to see from someone who believes Jesus and believes His message of grace.
Believing and accepting grace is not necessarily an easy thing. Shame blinds us to grace. When we are bound by shame, we feel unworthy to come to God, we hide, and we stay bound up in blindness and unhealthy ways of being. This is where fear and condemnation have a field day. We stay hidden and shrink from vulnerability, which makes is difficult for us to understand or experience grace. I know this was true of my life.
For me, my journey towards grace involved taking baby steps of trust with people who I felt truly accepted me. With that slow increase in trust, I was able to ‘hear’ the True things they were saying. I experienced love and belonging. My beliefs started to shift – away from the lies in my head towards the Truth of the message of grace. With each ‘shift’, it became easier to embrace grace (even if it was the tiniest part of grace). And each time I received healing and love through this process, it became that little bit easier to trust and embrace more of grace.
This is where liberation and life happens. When we are able to believe and receive God’s grace, we stop being afraid and we stop hiding. We understand our identity is secure in the love and acceptance of the Father, Son, and Spirit. We can come to Him in our brokenness and He heals us and sets us free. We can be vulnerable. And this process is grounded in what we believe. All the doing in the world (to make ourselves better) will not achieve this. It’s also a life-long process. We will all experience shame throughout our lives. Believing Jesus means while we may have bouts in the darkness, we don’t have to stay there permanently. We can live in His love and light.
For any of you who have followed my blog for a while, you’ll know that grace is a big deal to me. It’s a very big deal to me. And here’s why: for someone who grew up in an environment underscored by shame, who deep down felt was never good enough no matter how hard I tried…GRACE is the lifeline.
It’s the lifeline to experiencing connection and love. It’s the lifeline to learning to have compassion for myself (when all along I learned to hate myself – I would say terrible things to myself, things I would never say to anyone else). Grace is the lifeline to learning to be vulnerable (when all along is wasn’t ‘safe’ to be vulnerable – I learned very well how to ‘hide’, how to not let people see me because that would have been far too risky – my sense of self-worth was already being hammered…no way I would give anyone the chance to hammer it more).
Without grace I would be dead inside. I need to know, I need to hear, I need to experience over and over and over again that I AM worthy of love and belonging. Because God says so. I have His unmerited favor…that no matter what I do, no matter how broken, He loves and accepts me unconditionally. I have always had His love. I have always belonged to Him. Nothing in all creation can separate me from His love.
The messages I learned to tell myself are still in my mind, lurking under the surface. When I get struck by the warm wash of shame, they kick into full force, telling me I am the mistake, that I am stupid, that I am worthless. When I am experiencing these strong feelings in the darkness of my soul, I can look up and see the Light and it reminds me that grace is holding me and it will not let me go. Even though I feel like crap, I can tell myself that God loves and accepts me, that I am enough, that I am worthy of love and belonging. I may not feel that at the moment, but leaning into these truths helps lift me out of my hole of shame.
Because of grace and my growing ability to receive it in the midst of my brokenness, shame does not ‘knock me out’ for as long as it did before. Before I would be living in a shame storm for weeks, months, years. Now, I might be knocked out for a couple of hours, days, or if it’s really bad, a week at the most.
So I will keep talking about grace; I don’t think we talk about it nearly enough. I will make it a big deal until the day I die. It is Life to me. Or as Glennon Doyle Melton says: “Grace is the only buzz I have left and they will take it from my cold, dead hands.”
Here’s the video where she says this – it’s worth watching the whole thing.
I’ve written about watching Brene Brown’s TEDx talk on “The Power of Vulnerability”. This is the part that blew my mind:
They just believe???? Isn’t there something they DO??
And it struck me: it’s GRACE.
The wholehearted know grace: “the freely given, unmerited favor and love of God”. They believe they are worthy of love and belonging because they know grace. I truly believe that.
More on this tomorrow…
I love the concepts of “light” and “darkness” and they are strewn all over the Bible. John in particular uses these metaphors. Here’s a few passages:
“God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed.” [emphasis mine] (John 3:19-20, NLT)
“Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, ‘I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.’” [emphasis mine] (John 8:12, NLT)
“I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the dark.” [emphasis mine] (John 12:46, NLT)
“…God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other…” [emphasis mine] (1 John 1:5-7, NLT)
To me it seems that what John is talking about is linked with vulnerability and shame. The idea of light brings to mind thoughts of being seen, truly seen, without the masks and facades I may put up to protect myself. It has to do with vulnerability. Darkness brings to mind hiding and I’ve already talked about how shame drives us to hide. We don’t want to be seen so we withdraw, we put on masks, we do whatever we can to not be exposed.
In the first passage I quoted, the people who “do evil” hate the light precisely because they are afraid their sins (actions) will be exposed. I think these people are living in shame, and they hate vulnerability. They would rather live in darkness than be seen in the light.
I’ve mentioned this before: I think one of the reasons Jesus came to this Earth was so that we wouldn’t have to walk in shame. Look at the John 8:12 and 12:46 passages. Jesus is saying we won’t have to walk in the darkness (in our own shame).
And the 1 John 1:5-7 passage tells us one of the results of living in the light: we will have fellowship with each other. I haven’t talked a lot about vulnerability yet (I will later on this month) but vulnerability is a vital part of our sense of connection with each other. The strength and depth of our relationships is linked to our capacity to be vulnerable with each other. Walking in the light, which I believe vulnerability is a part, means we have fellowship and connection with each other. And the research confirms this.
Tomorrow, I’ll talk about grace and my “aha” moment.
Take a look at this:
“Now the man and his wife were both naked, but they felt no shame.” [emphasis mine] (Genesis 2:25, NLT)
“At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness.” [emphasis mine] (Genesis 3:7, NLT)
What happened in between? The Fall. This is the story of Adam and Eve and how sin entered the world.
So here’s what I think: the Bible says that sin entered the world when Adam and Eve chose the forbidden fruit (Romans 5:12). I don’t know all of what that means, but I do believe that when sin entered the world, shame entered along with it.
According to the research, everyone experiences shame so this fits with me. It is universal to the human experience. And what did Adam and Eve do? They hid from God. Just like the shame research says: shame thrives in secrecy. In hiding. In covering ourselves so we won’t be “seen” (i.e., vulnerable).
So there you have it: our initial disconnection from God as a result of our own sense of shame. And what do I see God doing throughout history? Doing what He could to reconnect with his people, with all people, in the way at the time that they could grasp it. I believe that is why Jesus came to Earth. To make a way for us to have connection with God and not hide in our shame. We needed to be absolved of our shame. So Jesus died to say that we don’t have to carry that shame anymore. Grace is the way back to God.
And here’s another thing I’ve been thinking about: Paul talks a lot about our “sinful nature” (Romans 7 & 8, 1 Corinthians 3:3, Galatians 5, Galatians 6:8, Ephesians 4:22, Colossians 2). What if when he talks about the “sinful nature”, he’s talking about our unhealthy, harmful, hurtful ways of dealing with our shame? Puts a different perspective on things, doesn’t it?
Growing up in an evangelical church, I had the impression that the “sinful nature” was my flawed – almost evil – self. Something to feel…shame about. But as I mentioned in other posts, shame does not bring about positive change, rather it is correlated with destructive behaviours. So this attitude seems counterproductive. How can I stop doing the things I hate about myself when I feel deeply flawed?
But…if we view the “sinful nature” from the perspective of shame as the driving force behind it, then accepting grace – that we are loved and accepted by God even in the midst of our brokenness – is what rescues us from our “sinful nature”.
I’ll admit I haven’t done a theological study on this, but I don’t think what I’m proposing as a perspective is counter to what the New Testament authors wrote about. For me, it’s a more liberating perspective. It’s no longer about trying to somehow contort myself into being a “better” person. It’s about resting and receiving the love and grace of God. When I live my life from that place, being a “Christian” (i.e., little Christ) becomes more like breathing and less like striving.
Tomorrow, I’m writing about my thoughts on the concepts of light and darkness and how they fit with this whole topic.
While the felt experience of shame is the same for men and women (Brene Brown calls it the “warm wash of shame”), what triggers shame is different for men and women. Let’s break it down:
The number one trigger is around our appearance and body image: we’re not thin enough, young enough, beautiful enough. It doesn’t matter that I’ve given birth to three children, I should still be able to get rid of that bulge around my tummy. Why should I care? Because I’ll look “better” and right now I don’t look quite good “enough”. It’s crazy and I’m as susceptible to it as any other woman.
Coming in at a close 2nd is motherhood. And it isn’t just mothers who get hammered on this one. How many times has a single woman been asked when she’s going to get married and for the married woman, “when are you going to start having children”? So much of our identity as women is wrapped up in this. And it sucks. How many times have I compared myself to other mothers and felt I didn’t measure up? How many times have I felt like a crappy mother because of what my children did? And in the midst of those crappy feelings I’ve snapped at my children instead of offering understanding and empathy, which is what they really needed.
According to Brene Brown in Daring Greatly, there are 12 shame categories: appearance & body image, money & work, motherhood/fatherhood, family, parenting, mental & physical health, addiction, sex, aging, religion, surviving trauma, and being stereotyped or labeled. But undergirding them all for women is the expectation to be perfect and on top of that, it should be effortless. Our culture has handed us a list of conflicting, competing expectations of who / what / how we “should” be. And we can’t possibly meet all those expectations so we’re inundated with messages of shame.
For men, there is only one trigger: do not be perceived as weak. It happens in all the shame categories but the message is still the same – don’t be weak. I think this is a tragedy. It puts men in a straight-jacket and makes it extremely difficult for them to work their way out from under shame. Because most of the time, being vulnerable and showing empathy are considered “weak” in our culture. These are the very things that help people process their shame and develop resiliency to it.
I’m only scratching the surface on this topic. Brene Brown talks about it in her TED Talk: “Listening to Shame”. She also writes about it in chapter 3 of her book Daring Greatly (Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, New York: Gotham Books.)
Emma Watson gave a speech to the United Nations launching the “HeForShe” campaign in September 2014. In it she highlights the ways in which our gender stereotypes harm men as well as women. I believe it does a good job illustrating what I’ve been talking about in this post. It’s well worth taking the 12 minutes to watch.
There’s another comment I’ve heard as I’ve been talking about shame with others – pride is the opposite of shame. And along with that comment comes the argument that we should use shame to deal with pride in people.
In my opinion, pride is born of shame. It is shame, the feeling of not being good enough, that drives many people to pride and arrogance. According to Dictionary.com, pride is “a high or inordinate opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority, whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct, etc.” People who are proud feel the need to prove that they are better than others. They consider themselves superior to others and treat people (or certain types of people) as inferior.
To me, this reeks of shame. Why do they have to be better than everyone else? Because they don’t accept themselves. They have something to prove, whether it is to others, to the people closest to them, or to themselves. Deep down inside, they don’t feel good enough, so they need to bolster themselves to a place where they can feel a sense of worthiness but this is at the expense of others. If they truly believed they are “enough” there would be no need to try to grab that worth from other people. They would find that worth within themselves.
Unfortunately, in my experience, the people who are most proud are the ones who would say they don’t experience shame at all. I believe it is incredibly difficult for them to admit their shame because that very act begins to dismantle what they have spent so much energy propping up – they are better than others. But if they admit to feeling unworthy that would mean they aren’t actually “better”. And their whole worldview could come crashing down. There’s too much at stake to go to that place so they stoically proclaim they have no shame and any attempts to uncover that Truth are often met with a harsh response.
I wish I knew how to help these people. Dumping shame on a prideful person certainly won’t help. Chances are they will dig in their heels and feel completely justified in their arrogant behaviour due to the attempt to “shame” them. Because “they don’t experience shame”. The shame tactics will only serve to reinforce their pride.
I believe that in order to be set free from the chains of pride, a person needs to face their own internal sense of unworthiness. But how do they come to that place? My guess is coming to an understanding of grace and being able to actually receive it would certainly help in this process. But I think there are a lot of people out there who “think” they understand what grace is and yet haven’t really been able to embrace it. Because embracing it acknowledges our need for grace and thus, our own brokenness. I’m sure doses of love, gentleness, and empathy can help to break down the armour of the proud person. But I don’t have any easy answers for this one.
Tomorrow I’ll talk about shame triggers and how they are different for men and women.
Some people may argue that a little shame is good for modifying behaviour. I’ve certainly run into that attitude before. And I felt plenty of it growing up. “How could you be so stupid?!” “Don’t be such an idiot!” Here’s the thing: shame did modify my behaviour. Or more like fear modified my behaviour – the fear of being berated (i.e., the fear of feeling shame). From the outside it looked like using shame worked. But what it did to me on the inside produced self-hatred and anxiety. It wasn’t a good thing.
I think this is why significant portions of our society still believe that using shame is perfectly acceptable. On the outside, it looks like we’re getting the results we desire, but at what cost? The research is abundantly clear: “there are no data [emphasis mine] to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behavior.” (Daring Greatly, p. 73). As I mentioned yesterday, “shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying.” (Daring Greatly, p. 73).
Remember that there is a difference between shame and guilt according to the research. I am not advocating to not hold people accountable to their actions. But it is just that: holding them to their actions. I know that for my own children, if I address the behaviour and affirm my child’s worth as being intact and not linked to their behaviour, I have much greater success in motivating positive lasting change.
Tomorrow: I’ll be talking about shame and pride – two sides of the same coin.
Source: Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, New York: Gotham Books.
I’m taking a lot of what I write in this post from Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I’ll list source information at the bottom of this post.
According to Brene Brown’s research, shame is:
“…the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” (p.69, Daring Greatly) It is real, felt pain. I can attest to that. I know that sinking, gut-wrenching feeling at the pit of my stomach when I feel incredibly worthless.
Brown elaborates further:
“Shame is the fear of disconnection. We are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hardwired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging (two expressions of connection), is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Shame is the fear of disconnection – it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, and connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong.” (p. 68, Daring Greatly)
Everyone experiences shame. I’m sure there are some of you that are thinking that you don’t “do” shame. That’s actually not true…unless you’re a sociopath, because according to the research the only people who don’t feel shame are the ones who are unable to feel any empathy. But I can understand why you might think this. Let me give you an example. Years before I learned about shame through Brene Brown’s work, I would not have admitted I had shame. Yet I grew up immersed in an environment of shame. At a subconscious level, I felt incredibly unworthy and so there was no way I would talk about this because it would mean allowing someone else to reinforce what I already felt – utterly worthless. It’s bad enough to feel worthless yourself, but to run the risk that someone else is going to say, “you’re right, you are worthless”, is just too painful.
So it kept me hiding. This is the power of shame. “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.” (p. 66, Daring Greatly). We’re all afraid to talk about it and the less we talk about it, the more control it has over our lives. (p. 68, Daring Greatly). There have been people who have spoken things to me and about me that made me feel worthless and I believed those things. But because I felt so much shame, I was terrified to open myself up to someone else, for fear they would further feed my shame. But it is precisely through opening myself up to people who could speak Truth to me that I could begin to stop believing the lies and come out from under shame.
When we’re in shame, there are a couple of ways people tend to deal with it. “…in order to deal with shame, some of us move away by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets. Some of us move toward by seeking to appease and please. And some of us move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive, and by using shame to fight shame…” (p. 77, Daring Greatly). I fall into the “appease and please” camp. The way I dealt with shame was to try to make everyone happy, to try to be perfect so people would accept me, so I could have the connection I desperately longed for. Although I am more aware of the motivator behind my actions, I still very often find myself trying to appease and please. It takes time to unlearn these things and I will probably be in the process of unlearning this for the rest of my life.
Before I go any further, I want to define a few things. In terms of the research, there is a difference between shame and guilt. Shame is linked to identity – it says, “I AM bad.” Guilt is not. It says, “I did something bad.” There’s an important distinction here.
“We feel guilty when we hold up something we’ve done or failed to do against our values and find they don’t match up. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but one that’s helpful… [It] motivates meaningful change. Guilt[‘s] influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive… Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying.” (p. 72, Daring Greatly)
This makes perfect sense to me. If I am living in shame, it is who I AM. You can’t change who you are so there is no way to change the things you do that you hate. If you can’t change the things you hate about yourself, what hope is there? It is not surprising to me that shame is correlated with so much destruction.
So there you have it: an explanation of shame. Tomorrow I’ll be taking on the argument that “a little shame is good”.
So I watched Brene Brown’s TED Talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” and it blew my mind. I might have thought before her talk that “yeah, I’ve heard about shame…no big deal…” But she started to describe what it was: the fear of disconnection. She started talking about this idea of “not being good enough”. This grabbed me because I know all about feeling “not good enough.” She said there are people out there who seem to have a deep sense of worthiness (who are these people? I’m certainly not one of them!). And she talked about how vulnerability fit into all this.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What was Brene Brown really saying? It seemed that what she was talking about was at the core of our humanity. It’s what drives our actions. As I processed her talk, I began to see how most of our unhealthy, hurtful actions to others and ourselves, all come from this place of shame, of “not enough”. Why was I yelling at my daughter for having a meltdown? Because deep down I believed I wasn’t a good enough parent and her meltdown was a reflection of my inadequacy.
For me, Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability has given me a new set of eyes to understand myself and others. I understand more than I ever did before the deep, deep feelings and beliefs of “not enough” that drive me to do things that hurt others and hurt myself. I’m not looking at the symptoms anymore; I’m looking at the actual cause. And by going there and unraveling that my whole worldview and belief system is shifting and my life is so much more “whole”. I have more peace, more love, more patience… (hmm, that looks a lot like the fruit of the Spirit). It’s a wonderful, beautiful thing.
And I have so much more compassion for others and even myself. Many times when I see or experience something hurtful, I see it as driven by shame. I know what it is to be driven by shame. It’s a horrible place to live from, so I feel pity and compassion more than anything else.
The research has given me language for what I experience. It is helping to unravel the belief system I held that told me over and over again that I wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t until I dove into Brene Brown’s research that I started to understand what that belief system really was. But I can assure you, that what she’s found in the research is absolutely true. I’m so grateful she’s shared it with the rest of us. Truth, knowledge, understanding has a way of bringing incredible freedom and life if we are willing to allow ourselves to be changed.
I’ll talk about what shame actually is tomorrow.