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HOW GOD LIFTS THE PAIN OF WORTHLESSNESS AND REJECTION
By Edward T. Welch
New Growth PressCopyright © 2012 Edward T. Welch
All rights reserved.
THE QUIET KILLER
I hate shame.
I know there is a place for it. Utter shamelessness is not what we are after. I have learned much through the shame I've experienced and there are times when I should experience more of it. But I still hate it. I hate how pervasive it is, how it stalks in disguise beneath so many modern problems. Look under anger, fear, even guilt, and you will find a root of shame. I hate to see the suffering. People are dying from it—some quickly, others slowly. It is the heart disease of this and every era. Shame is Tolkien's Ringwraiths: "The Nazgûl came again ... like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men's flesh."
I asked a group of one hundred students if they experienced shame. They were an excellent class: ages twenty-two to sixty-eight, male and female, thoughtful, wise, and adept at helping others through complicated problems. Not too many people want to acknowledge shame in their lives, so I didn't expect many to raise their hands—maybe a few auction-like finger twitches or head nods. But I did begin the discussion with an illustration of shame in my own life, which probably made the class feel a little more comfortable.
"We are going to talk about shame this evening. Have any of you experienced shame?" I hoped at least one person would come to my rescue and leave me feeling less exposed.
Then, as if to guarantee that no one would raise his or her hand, I added, "Debilitating shame?"
Immediately, the entire class raised their hands in unison.
I was hoping for one or two hands. To see so many broke my heart. Who would have thought? It was as if they simply needed a place where it was okay to acknowledge their shame.
I hope this book is a place where you can identify shame, acknowledge it in your life, bring hope to it, and then be humbled—not humiliated—as you receive comforting words and cleansing acts from God. I hope this book is a safe place.
Though the book will start by jumping into a number of descriptions of shame, the answers to shame will unfold gradually because the Bible has so much to say about it. Its words can't be shared or assimilated quickly. It is a story that builds until you can actually notice beauty—without the sense of foreboding that it will soon be swallowed up by pain and disgrace.
What is shame?
Shame is the deep sense that you are unacceptable because of something you did, something done to you, or something associated with you. You feel exposed and humiliated.
Or, to strengthen the language, You are disgraced because you acted less than human, you were treated as if you were less than human, or you were associated with something less than human, and there are witnesses.
These definitions can get us started. There isn't one mandatory definition or description for shame, but any definition will include certain elements. For example, you can expect images of being an outsider, naked, and unclean. And don't forget shame's public nature. Guilt can be hidden; shame feels like it is always exposed.
Once you identify shame, you can find it everywhere.
A middle-aged man seemed fine to others, though he himself felt like a little boy, stuck in the past, inadequate, small, and worthless. A decent job couldn't erase the words and actions of his parents. Some of the words were all too common: "You will never amount to anything." Those words were bad enough. Now add his parents' indifference to his recounting of his school day, coupled with their enthusiasm whenever his sisters appeared. No wonder he had a lingering sense that something was very wrong with him. That sense is called shame.
Or you can find shame in a recently married woman who feels dirty after a sexual encounter with her husband. She remembers some inappropriate sexual touching by her brothers and wonders what else happened that she doesn't remember.
Sometimes the descriptions of shame in this book will be jolting. For example, "You are an outcast" is blunt, matter-of-fact, and a bit impolite. A nicer way to say this would be, "You feel as if you are an outcast"; "You feel as if you are worthless, though you really aren't." Shame doesn't seem as oppressive when you insert enough feel-as-ifs. If you only feel shameful, maybe it can be covered over by some affirming self-talk and you'll be good to go: "Don't pay attention to what you feel because it isn't true. You really are acceptable and worthy. Clean as a whistle. Really! Just ignore the fact that you feel naked, contaminated, and rejected. Think positive."
Well, that is not true. Shame is not a mirage. It is very real. A sexually violated woman feels contaminated by what has been done to her, and she really is contaminated. A person who has lived with rejection can't neutralize it with happy thoughts. Shame is like dirt. No matter how it happened, you are a mess and something has to be done about it. When you are dirty, there is no feel-as-if about it. Wishful thinking is ineffective. Psychiatric medications, drugs or alcohol, a change in perspective, and self-affirmation are equally ineffective. Shame demands something much more potent than these superficial treatments.
The first steps out of shame will be the hardest. These are the anti-denial steps in which we will put shame into words. You can't do battle with something nameless, and too often shame eludes accurate identification. So we will search for words that bring shame out into the open, where it can be seen and fought against. The words you read in this book, though you might not want to hear them, will be familiar to you; many of them have been your longtime companions. At times they will make you want to turn away, but don't give up; stay with it. Identification is only the first step. It isn't the whole story.
After that, you will hear God's words to the shamed, and you will discover shame's opposite: You are acceptable. You will receive honor, value, worth, even glory, and it will be public.
At first you might be suspicious, as if God's words are too good to be true. Are they just more happy thoughts, more positive self-affirmation? Don't turn away. As those words pile up—as you can no longer deny God's accepting love—you will want to turn toward him and hear more.
Listen for the love, hate the shame, and have no tolerance for resignation. That's the plan.
* * *
We are familiar with guilt. Shame is more elusive. But once you name it, you can see it everywhere. That is one of the goals for the next few chapters—to see it everywhere. You might be tempted to say "Enough already" after the first page or two because it can be painful to rehearse shameful experiences. But you can't hear good news about shame unless you first identify it. As you do, you will discover that shame afflicts us all.
What is shame?
You are shunned.
Faces are turned away from you.
They ignore you, as if you didn't exist.
You are naked.
Faces are turned toward you.
They stare at you, as if you were hideous.
You are worthless, and it's no secret.
You are of little or no value to those whose opinions matter to you.
"I suck." That's what shame says on a good day.
"LOSER!" You would think it was a surname—John Loser, Jane Loser.
You will find shame in the girl who obsesses about suicide. While her classmates take part in their normal schoolgirl chatter, she reflects on how her life is one big mistake. She is certain that she doesn't deserve to live. And she is ten years old.
Or consider Carlos Acosta, the world-famous Cuban dancer, who as a young boy was sent to a boarding school far from home. While there, he started talking to the cockroaches.
"They and I had much in common."
Carlos, thank you. These are hard words, but they are words that identify the dehumanizing nature of shame. It's a start.
Take a closer look at a heroin addict. Yes, he has trashed the lives of others, but his specialty is trashing his own. Why do such a thing? Because he is certain he deserves the very worst. Addiction, with all its humiliating behaviors and degrading consequences, perfectly depicts an addict's ever-present shame. Watch Ewan McGregor's character in the movie Trainspotting as he goes swimming in "The Worst Toilet in Scotland" looking for his beloved heroin suppository. He is more than a mere junkie. He is a performance artist who is acting out his autobiography.
Shame is everywhere. Even children can identify it. "That's yucky" is their version. "Ick!" was among my granddaughter's first words. Initially it is about mud, peas, sticky hands, and squished spiders. Something is dirty. "Don't touch!" If you do, be sure to wash your hands. In a few years yucky will describe boys for girls and girls for boys. Sadly, for many women (and more men than you would think), soon after that it describes themselves. Expect to find ick and yucky not just at the extremes of abuse or addiction but in everyday life. Expect to find it in your life.
Just talk to someone who has been on the short end of a divorce—the spouse who wanted to stay in the marriage. Guaranteed, that person feels yucky. Long before the marriage was over, the cutting words or actual betrayal took its toll. Someone promised to love and didn't. Despite all evidence to the contrary, if you are the forsaken person, you are sure there is something very wrong with you. You are worthless. It doesn't matter that divorce is commonplace and you are (probably) no longer shamed by neighbors or fellow church members. You can do a fine job heaping shame on yourself.
All it takes is a tradition of demeaning, critical words from the right person.
All it takes is nothing from the right person. No interest in you, no words spoken to you, no love. If you are treated as if you do not exist, you will feel shame.
Get fired from a job. Fail. That will do it, if others know about it. A young man who recently lost his job noticed his shame when he wanted to talk to his friends about the loss to get their support and counsel. He also noticed it when he wanted to avoid those same friends because, who wants to announce that he doesn't measure up? He decided to take the middle course and lie: "The company was downsizing."
Do you find that your resumé is never quite good enough? Do you ever boast, just a bit, in conversation with colleagues or friends? Boasting is a kind of cover-up to make yourself look more honorable—or at least acceptable. Have you ever name-dropped with the hopes of getting a little glory by association?
What are we so ashamed about? Why do we always have to cover up an unseemly part of ourselves? It doesn't take long before you see shame everywhere—the hum of low-grade self-loathing and shame.
On the surface, life might look fine. Tennis pro Andre Agassi was successful by almost any standard, yet his secret meth habit did double duty. It gave him a high and, at the same time, "I get an undeniable satisfaction from harming myself and shortening my career. After decades of merely dabbling in masochism, I'm making it my mission.... I hate tennis more than ever, but I hate myself more." Yes, shame has a death wish.
Maybe you know it as low self-esteem, in which case you really see it everywhere. The words worthless and failure seem to be inscribed on our birth certificates, and they travel with us through life. Just try dislodging low self-esteem with good grades, above-average income, or the red sports car. It won't budge.
Shame is complicated indeed. Low self-esteem can say, "I want to be greater than I am and I feel bad because I am not more successful." Our pride runs deep and it is one of low self-esteem's accomplices. The other is our shame.
Shame says, "You are not acceptable. You are a mistake." At first you might hear it from others, such as parents or classmates. Later you make it your own: "I am not acceptable. I am a mistake."
You confess things that aren't your fault:
being the target of someone's anger or contempt
being hurt or rejected by other people
Ironically, despite its reputation for separating the elite from the untouchable, shame has no prejudices or preferences. It insinuates its way into the essence of rich and poor, majority and minority, failures and successes—it targets anyone and everyone.
Ugh. What a way to begin. Shame is crude, intrusive, demanding, and relentless. Don't expect subtlety or refined manners. But we are not going to turn away. That would mean hopelessness and defeat. Instead, up ahead we will search for words that speak for you. Then we will search for words that speak to you. We are going to set our sights on shame.
Shame attaches itself to our humanness and is more common than you think. It often hides in guilt's shadow, so we might speak about guilt when shame is the real culprit. We might speak about forgiveness and no condemnation, yet shame is unmoved by such things. When a judge says, "Not guilty," and you still feel like scum, the verdict doesn't bring much help or hope. You might even find it a little disappointing. At least a guilty verdict would give you a chance to make amends or atone for something.
These days, shame is emerging from the shadows and beginning to have its own identity. For example, if you talk about guilt to people under thirty, you often get blank stares. But if you talk about "worthless," "failure," or "shame," they feel as if you have deciphered the core of their being. For them, shame is arguably the human problem. If the next generation is talking about it, that's a good sign, in the sense that shame may soon receive the attention it deserves. Meanwhile, you won't hear about it on the national news nor even in many Sunday sermons. It's hard to know how to speak about the unspeakable. You don't mention shameful things in polite conversation.
With this in mind, the first order of business is to face shame and describe it. Once out, it will put up a fight. But there is a path that actually leads away from shame and ends in acceptance and honor. Otherwise, there would be no point in doing anything beyond trying to live with it.
Here are some basics about shame. Shame is life-dominating and stubborn. Once entrenched in your heart and mind, it is a squatter that refuses to leave. You might notice hints of it when you are embarrassed. You pick your nose in public and get caught. You break out in acne and someone points it out. At those moments you don't fit in and everyone knows it. There is a momentary rupture of relationships. You turn red. You wish you could die, right on the spot.
But there is an important difference between embarrassment and shame. Whatever caused your embarrassment has been experienced by everyone else too, at one point or another. Your sense of social isolation was fleeting. Within the hour—or decade—you laugh about it. With shame, you never laugh at it. It feels like unending embarrassment, but it is more than that. Embarrassment doesn't afflict the core of the person's soul, but shame becomes your identity. It touches everything about you. Embarrassment points toward shame, but it wears away over time. For shame to wear away, it feels as though the shame-ful person would have to wear away, and some people have tried such things.
Imagine a ten-year-old boy, smaller and less athletic than his peers, waiting to be picked for a soccer game. Two of the more "honored" (that is, cool) boys are captains, and they select teams from a group of eager participants. The two go back and forth, choosing the best players first. As players are chosen they walk to their teams, and the selection pool gets smaller and smaller. With each pick the remaining boys become increasingly self-conscious, then embarrassed. Shame, however, is reserved for the last boy standing, who isn't picked at all. Slowly, head down, he walks to the side that is stuck with him. The opposing team laughs while his team groans as if they have become contaminated. Apparently, shame is contagious. The young boy spreads it to his new teammates. But he shouldn't expect anyone to say, "Okay, we're all in this together." The shamed boy will be the scapegoat for the team's loss and, somehow, he will be blamed for any teammate's misfortune for the next week.
This experience might pass. The rejected boy might become a respected and powerful CEO where he gets to do the picking and the rejecting. The curse of that old shameful experience has been reversed. But it's not always that easy. More often than not, scratch the surface of the CEO and the rejected ten-year-old boy is still there, still hearing the derision of his classmates.
Do the following sound familiar?
You feel so wrong, but you don't know why.
Blame always seems to end up at your doorstep.
You still feel the shameful moment as vividly as the day it happened. Sometimes it even feels worse.
For young girls, sport is not the prime venue for shame. Boys are. How many times does a young girl want to run away and hide because she wasn't asked to dance, didn't go to the prom, or was ignored by a boy she liked?
Stay with me. We are just getting started. There is good news to come, but the only way to get to the good news is to bring our shame out into the open.
Excerpted from SHAME INTERRUPTED by Edward T. Welch. Copyright © 2012 Edward T. Welch. Excerpted by permission of New Growth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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