Feeling the Shame
BookTrends - The Shame Exchange: Trading Shame for God's Mercy and Freedom
By: Steve and Sally Breedlove, Ralph and Jennifer Enni|Published: October 28, 2009 6:56 PM
When we started this project, I (Sally) wasn’t so sure that I had an issue with shame.
I am a firstborn with a built-in drive toward perfectionism. Guilt I get. It’s what I feel every time I don’t measure up to my own standards, much less God’s. But shame...well, that’s for people who fail a lot, who just don’t have the chutzpah to achieve. I have always been determined not to be one of them.
But as I listened to the stories of everyone we interviewed and as I talked with my husband Steve and with Ralph and Jennifer, my carefully buried shame began to emerge. It lay hidden beneath my drive to achieve and to project an image of worthiness. I realized I needed healing too.
You may find the same thing happening in your heart as you read this book. We encourage you to enter the difficult process of facing and experiencing your shame. It is natural to resist. Shame does not want to be exposed. It’s elusive, quick to rename itself. It takes on many disguises, vociferously blaming others. The stories in this chapter may help you. They are true stories of men and women of different ages and ethnicities. We have changed names and details to protect confidentiality, but the circumstances and feelings are accurately and fairly described.
You may be one of those people who says, “Skip the story part; just tell me what I need to know.” But we learn by listening to the lives of others, and we encourage you to take the time to read the stories in this chapter and throughout the book. As you read, you may wish you could help these people see they don’t have to feel ashamed. The insensitivity, selfishness, and wickedness of others were wrong and not their fault. You may get angry at those who did the wounding. You may want to remind the storytellers that God doesn’t see them the way they see themselves.
Resist these urges. Instead let these stories help you ask important questions: Where does shame come from? Is it always from something outside of me? Or is there some shame I bear that cannot be explained away as “something someone else did to me”? We will have time enough as we make our way through this book to differentiate between the shame that others put on us and the true shame that we really need to own. And don’t worry! We won’t leave you there. It is only the first step on the path to a brighter, freer life.
Jennifer and I traveled to meet Frances, an African American woman, at a crisis pregnancy center in a nearby city where she serves as director. It was a cold December afternoon, but as we entered her office, the sun streaming through the window warmed the room. Rising from her chair, Frances welcomed us and then shut the door so that we could talk openly. As her story unfolded, the tranquility of that winter afternoon contrasted sharply with the childhood she had endured.
“I’ve always known shame,” she said, “not by name but by the dark, suffocating weight I’ve carried inside me from my earliest memories. When you’re poor and black, the world puts shame on you—it’s a given in our culture.”
Mixed into that racial shame was a stinging embarrassment about her body. She had always hated how fat she was. The kids at school called her “the blimp.” Her parents did not teach her even the basics of personal hygiene. The taunts of other children made her realize that they saw her not only as fat but also as dirty and ugly.
If that wasn’t enough, her teeth were crooked, protruding, and unevenly spaced. But her parents mocked her the few times she gathered up the courage to ask if they could be fixed. Teeth, weight, race, and hygiene—it all added up to a potent brew of shame.
Frances reached into her purse, found her wallet, and pulled out an old picture from its hiding place behind a credit card. The little girl who stared at us had that blown-up look of true obesity. Her pigtails were tied with twine; her dress was a dismal hand-me-down; her tight-lipped smile hid her teeth but also contorted her face.
As we looked at her photograph, Frances recounted the memories that picture held for her of the fourth grade. All the other girls had come to school scrubbed, in their best dresses, with ribbons in their hair, ready for the annual picture day. But her parents and her teacher had let her sit in front of the camera in an ugly, worn-out dress with her hair a mess. That day was her first encounter with shame’s power to stab the heart.
Frances’s family lived in the projects; her father had a secure government job; and they went to church. Those things should have represented a measure of goodness, but it was only a façade. Behind the surface, shame had a special place in Frances’s home—its power multiplied by the darkness in her family.
The afternoon light was fading as she talked. Frances turned on a lamp beside her desk, and her words came more slowly. Her father’s drunkenness and rage fueled the sexual and physical abuse he forced upon his three children. The pain of what he did to them made the issues of poverty, ugliness, and race pale in significance. The children had nowhere to turn for protection. The African American culture itself locked them in. Family honor was key. To ask for help, to look for comfort or safety outside the family, was a greater wrong than what was happening to them.
As she moved into her teen years, the world beyond her family compounded her shame. Frances attended a middle-class school, bused there by government mandate. But no teacher or guidance counselor encouraged her or helped her see her potential. The school simply endured her presence. Whatever life she might have dared to dream about was choked almost to death by the loneliness and cynicism she encountered at every turn.
As she neared adulthood, sexual experimentation, alcohol, drugs, and listlessness occupied her days. But even in the good moments she attempted to wring from sex or alcohol, she still felt trapped, suffocating under a blanket of shame. If you’re trash, you might as well do trashy things, she would say to herself. So she did. Again and again. Better to believe she was garbage and act on it than risk hoping at all for something better.
Then, in her early twenties, Frances met a group of Christians who accepted her and helped her believe she wasn’t doomed. She decided she had had enough. She wanted to make something of her life. She finished her GED so she would have a high-school diploma, and then she won a full scholarship to a good university. Frances made a vow during that time: She would be strong enough to protect herself and strong enough to find ways to fit in as a successful person. But success did not take away the horrible voice inside whispering that the real Frances was too dreadful for others to see.
Years passed. The Christian friends she had made kept loving her. She learned to open up and trust them, to let them know her secrets. She found a good counselor; she gave up the destructive habits that had plagued her life. Frances is now in her early forties. As we sat with her in her office, we sensed her peace. The warmth in the room came not just from the afternoon sunlight as it streamed through the window but also from her.
Can shame like Frances has endured really be that profoundly healed? Can a person find freedom from shame’s power? The questions begged for an answer.
Seeing the profound freedom in Frances was one of the best moments in our interview process. Her shame was obvious and understandable, but surprisingly she seemed to be moving toward substantial restoration in her life. Her story confirmed what we were learning in our own lives—it really is possible to exchange our shame for the mercy and love of God. How we make that exchange is, of course, the topic of this whole book.
No matter what has happened to you, God stands ready to begin the work in your own life of trading in your shame for His mercy and love.
Jennifer and I talked to Claire a number of times, and her story emerged slowly. As we began, I wondered if Claire really had any shame. Her life seemed immune to the possibility. Her family represented Old Southern stock, vestiges of landed gentry or American nobility, a background few can claim. For generations Claire’s family had been at the center of its city’s culture and power. Her great-grandparents bought property in what became one of the most prestigious parts of the city and then passed that land down to the next two generations, subdividing it as it became more valuable. A view of the river filled her family’s living-room window, and a deep sense of heritage filled her heart.
Claire’s family had heroes. A few were well-known American leaders and philanthropists. Others had made significant contributions in the worlds of finance and education. Oil paintings of these heroes were distributed between the houses of her large extended family; everyone had a famous relative looking over his or her shoulder. To that gallery Claire has added other people she admired. She is a relentless reader, and biographies are her favorite.
She took it all in, she told us, absorbing the motto her family lived by: To whom much is given, from them will much be expected. To be somebody, you had to do something. Early in life, she determined to live up to this standard.
In many ways, she succeeded. Scrapbooks and photo albums tell the story of the honors she won during her high-school and university years. “Most people would have described me as a wonderful young woman,” Claire said, her voice tense over the phone, “but all I felt was a drivenness to achieve more. In my mind, I was mediocre. Who would ever write my biography? My name would never be a Wikipedia entry, much less in a history book. I’d probably never even have my own oil portrait hanging in a grandkid’s dining room.”
Once Claire married, her moderate level of success haunted her. If she were really good, really worthwhile, she would have accomplished something important by now. She began to doubt her intelligence, her self-discipline, her abilities, even her husband’s love.
Then came motherhood. Parenting was harder than she thought it would be. Her children did not respond to her as she expected. She had been close to her mother and her grandmothers—admiring them, wanting to be like them. Why didn’t her children feel the same way toward her? Had she overidealized her own childhood? Did she have difficult kids? Was she flawed as a mother? She had been given so much—didn’t that mean God expected a lot from her?
As Jennifer and I talked with her over several months, Claire admitted to things she never felt she could say out loud, to anyone. “I hate what a depressing, complaining woman I’m becoming,” she said. “Am I really the only person in my family struggling with worthlessness? I know that everyone else thinks I am so close to having it all. I tell myself I ought to be content and at peace, but I’m not.”
Self-talk doesn’t help. Neither does her faith. She leads a Bible study at her church, but by the next morning, the ache is back. Her friendships bring little relief. She’ll have lunch with a group of women she really likes, the conversation will go well, but when it is over, she feels that she didn’t measure up. Why can’t she gratefully embrace what she’s been given and believe life is good?
Claire continues to hash it out with the two of us. She has heard our stories as well. Maybe her struggles lie in her temperament (was she born morose or fearful?), or perhaps she isn’t grateful enough. Maybe she tries too hard or not hard enough. Fundamentally she just feels bad about feeling bad. How can shame be a problem when most people would say she hasn’t failed at all, that she has been so extravagantly loved?
What do you think? Is Claire’s problem a shame problem? Or is she just too introspective? If that is true, what makes a person so introspective?
Cornelius took time off from packing his house to talk to me (Steve). Everything but a few clothes and books were going into storage for at least a year. Within a few weeks Cornelius and his family would be somewhere in
Though we were just sitting down to coffee, Cornelius launched into the interview with amazing candor. “My family traces their Christian heritage back to missionary work in China in the nineteenth century. Hudson Taylor himself told the story of salvation to my great-great-grandfather. Each generation since has passed on the truth of Christ; it’s from my own family that I learned the gospel. But it’s also from them that I inherited the chains of cultural rules and expectations, a prison my family brought with them when they immigrated to America.”
For four generations, it was clear that the oldest son in the family was dedicated to Christian work; the others were dedicated to professional accomplishments. Cornelius was the second son, expected to be the intellectual and professional star.
But even in elementary school, he struggled. He was a decent student, but the hard work it took to maintain a B average made it clear that he would never be accepted at a prestigious university. His cousins had chosen Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and the
Everyone around him was living up to the family code, but try as he would, Cornelius simply could not make the grade. He dreaded high-school graduation, knowing he would fail the family system.
But something else in the mix made it even harder on his parents.
Cornelius sipped his coffee and looked out the window. “I love sports and military history,” he said. “What I really wanted to do was go to West Point. But my parents couldn’t stand the idea. They had left Hong Kong as they saw the gathering storm of World War II. Few things are more shameful to them than a military career. They forbade me to join the high-school ROTC, but I did it anyway.”
One of the lowest days of his life, a day that twenty-seven years later still feels like a kick in his stomach, occurred in early September of his tenth-grade year. His parents surprised him by showing up at school during his drill practice. In full view of all his buddies, they yelled at Cornelius and the commanding officer. Cornelius dropped the class, but deep inside he vowed he would never give up again. He would stick to his guns and take more risks despite the heavy weight of his family’s disapproval.
This vow began to work its way into the fabric of his decision-making. As he pursued his relationship with God at university, Cornelius concluded that he was called to Christian ministry as a pastor. Yes, it was against the established family rules, but his older brother, the one who had been given the generational mantle of ministry, wanted nothing to do with God. It seemed logical to Cornelius that his parents should applaud his ambition. But again he was disappointed. In their minds circumstances should not alter what was meant to be. Cornelius was meant to get an education and find a lucrative profession. That was his place in the family.
Cornelius’s frustration and anger clouded his sense of joy and purpose as he trained for ministry. The nagging pull of shame was always with him—he had let his parents down. If only he had been smarter, if only he had been more of the son they expected.
As he entered full-time ministry, his parents’ shame at his choices receded into the background. Other things stirred up his sense of impotency. Leading a Chinese American church was more difficult than he had imagined. He preached as sincerely and as well as he knew how. He tried to care for people, to be a spiritual man, to lead his congregation, but nothing really happened. The church barely grew.
The congregation reminded him of his own family. Most of the parents in his church had only two goals for their children: academic success and financial prosperity. Music lessons were the only acceptable after-school activity. Most families were inconsistent in their church attendance. If it wasn’t exam season, they were traveling the state for music competitions. As a pastor, he could not crack the code of values and expectations his people embraced. He was failing to break the larger cultural system, just as he had failed to break it in his own family.
New questions troubled his soul, questions that carried their own reproach. Maybe he had missed God’s will in refusing to submit to his parents’ wishes. Maybe his mediocrity was not just academic but also spiritual.
“I know the ‘right’ answers here,” Cornelius said. “I know that true spiritual success in God’s eyes cannot be measured by numbers—it only comes from being loved by God and from living a faithful life.” He shrugged his shoulders. “In my mind, I’ve still failed, and I’ve had enough.”
Choosing the pastorate against his parents’ wishes had been a real risk, but it still left so many unanswered questions inside. Perhaps his choice had not been radical enough. Now at age forty, he was determined to do exactly what he wanted to do. It was crazy, but he wanted to do something to break the hold other people’s expectations had on him. He was tired of his sense of public shame and the personal inadequacy controlling his decisions. His wife was a successful investment adviser and had made enough money to take an extended time off. His three children were just entering their teens, and if he didn’t act now, they would never be able to do this as a family.
I had been at the coffee shop for almost two hours listening to Cornelius’s story. As he finished, we sat without speaking, watching through the plateglass window as the sun disappeared from the horizon.
Cornelius hesitated, then spoke once more. “I’m glad we are leaving. I’m looking forward to a whole year without a BlackBerry or cell phone or daily e-mail checks. I’m looking forward to being with Ruth and the girls. But you know what? I really don’t think it’s going to stop the voices inside. How do you ever get away from the sense that you will never live up to anybody’s dreams, not even your own?”
Cornelius’s story leaves us with a troubling question: Even if you break the system, can you silence the voice of shame?
What We’ve Discovered from the Stories
As you have read the stories of Frances, Claire, and Cornelius, you may have noticed that your story has some of the same elements. That certainly happened to us.
Again and again we concluded that we all have uneasy voices muttering in our hearts. No one is exempt from the power of shame. Everyone struggles on some level with the troubling thought that all is not well with my soul.
It’s easy to see the work of shame in Frances’s life. Harsh things happened to her—sexual abuse, her father’s alcoholic rages, the shame of being dark skinned in a white-dominated culture, the choices she made.
Her story contains another common, compounding element of shame: No matter what was done to her, if she broke the code of silence and looked for help, she would have exposed her family and brought an even greater shame on them all. The people around her would have judged her more harshly than they judged her father. She would have been cast out. In Frances’s world the ultimate “wrong” is to dishonor one’s family or community. She inhabits what is called a “shame/honor” culture. Such a world works to keep bad behaviors in check, but it can also hide other, more destructive behaviors. And it certainly offers no healing balm for damaged hearts.
The real problem is that shame won’t stay locked up inside. Trying to contain shame is like putting hydrochloric acid in a tin can. The acid can’t be contained forever. It will spill out on others and do its corroding work in the lives of those closest to us. And it will eat at us, just as acid eats at a tin can, so that we are destroyed. No heart is impervious. By the time she was eight, Frances knew the corroding power of shame, but she was helpless in the face of it.
Some people might protest that no one can grow up in a society like Frances’s and not feel the weight of shame. Some Christians argue that a truer worldview sees life from the perspective of a guilt/law orientation.
The guilt/law worldview goes something like this: If a person violates a standard God has set, then he or she is guilty and should feel guilty. The solution is some form of punishment and/or restitution. The good news of Christianity is that Christ’s death on the cross means Christ took on the punishment for our sins. Since the punishment has been exacted, we are no longer guilty and should not feel guilty anymore. Our responsibility is to ask God’s forgiveness and trust Christ’s death on the cross as the payment for our sins. From a guilt/law perspective, a struggle with shame means you just haven’t confessed everything you’ve done wrong or you haven’t exercised faith to receive the forgiveness God has offered.
The trouble is, for many Christians, the shame still won’t go away. They have believed as well as they know how. They have confessed, surrendered, rededicated, prayed, and believed again. But shame still whispers to them.
Think about Claire. Her family knew success and public approval. She has never done anything “really bad,” and nothing “really bad” has ever happened to her. Yet she cannot overcome the troubling thought that something is wrong with her. Shame is embedded deep, and it seems to have few explanations.
Many of us, regardless of the roots of our shame, adopt a common strategy to handle it. We make vows, promising ourselves we will never do something again, that we will never let a certain thing happen to us again. We promise ourselves that we will accomplish a certain goal, take up a certain course of action. In these vows we look for protection—not just from the world, but from the pain inside our souls.
Cornelius made several vows, each one an attempt to establish himself, to feel right about who he was. Claire made a vow even though she did not realize it. As a young girl looking at all her well-known relatives enshrined in portraits, she promised the generations before her that one day she would be famous and justify her existence before God and before them.
Vow-making is a strategy with some short-term positive effects. It takes a person’s mind off the pain. It offers self-protection and a course of action when he or she doesn’t want to hurt anymore or be the victim waiting for the next blow.
The end result of vows, however, is that they often hurt more than help. They freeze your vision (does Claire really need to be famous to be significant?). They hurt your heart (is determining to break free from all expectations helpful or hurtful to Cornelius?). They keep us hidden (by not revealing her father’s abuse, did Frances find healing or did it make her more isolated?). Vows can appear to help us, and often, for a while, they do. But in the end, we need a better cure for our shame than vows.
We will listen to other stories along the way, but now we need to shift our focus from other people so that we can take a look at our own lives.
Pause to Reflect
Perhaps you have never recognized the voice of shame within your own heart. Start with these simple questions:
When do you feel embarrassed? Do you know why those things embarrass you?
What do you hope no one will ever discover about you?
Take a look at the following words and listen to how your heart responds to them:
If one of these words carries “emotional weight” for you, journal about it or talk it out with a friend you trust.
What are you afraid of? Why?
Are you aware of vows you have made that you hope will protect you or give you a sense that you are okay?
Think back through the stories in this chapter. Who did you identify with? What have you done to avoid or conquer your own sense of shame?
If you are able, briefly journal your story of shame.
Excerpted from The Shame Exchange: Trading Shame for God’s Mercy and Freedom by Steve & Sally Breedlove and Ralph & Jennifer Ennis. Copyright © 2009 by Steve & Sally Breedlove and Ralph & Jennifer Ennis. Excerpted by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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