By John Herrington, MS, LPC-S
“You are the you that you were meant to be. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with you. You’re loved! You’re accepted!”
I meet so many people who find this declaration so difficult to believe. Why is it so hard to accept the good things about ourselves, but so easy to believe that we are bad, messed up failures, unworthy of love and acceptance? The answer to this is shame.
Shame is a belief, concept, or set of rules, telling us that we are not worthy of love and connection. This belief sets up a game that we have no chance of winning. It creates a life where we are not allowed to make mistakes or allow anyone to see our faults. Because each time we do, it’s another confirmation that the rule is true.
Consider these examples:
- If my child falls and hurts herself, it’s not an accident- it’s because I am a bad father not capable of taking care of her.
- A ‘B’ grade on a project in school is not an assessment of my current knowledge and an opportunity to learn more- it’s a judgement on my intelligence and a proclamation of my stupidity.
- My boss passing on my idea at work is not because there are variables that require something different- it’s confirmation that I’m a failure and not useful to the company.
Shame is a core belief about oneself that shapes how we see the world and all of our interactions in it. So, how is such a crippling force created?
Shame is learned mostly in early life, but also reinforced throughout life. As children, sometimes we’re taught that something is wrong with us when we act in certain ways or have certain needs, and we begin to suppress who we are and hide in fear. Nothing grows shame faster than hiding it away. If we are taught that how we feel is wrong in some way, we learn to hide the feeling.
I have a childhood memory of wrestling with my older brother and I fell (or was dropped) off the bed and hit the floor. My first response, of course, was to seek comfort from my mother. My brother, with no malice (really just a desire to save his butt from my mom), tells me to stop being such a baby. The message I received in that moment was that “if I am hurt and need comfort, then I am weak.” This incident, and others like it, created a pattern of behavior that led to hiding all my hurts and believing I could not allow anyone to comfort or support me. This pattern protected me from appearing weak while also creating a very lonely existence.
This is what shame does. It promises protection from immediate pain, but creates a system where what we get is loneliness and resentment and more shame. This self-defeating cycle becomes pervasive throughout all parts of our lives- relationships, work, and daily interactions.
When we are given a solid path to follow, guided by love, kindness, compassion, and empathy, we are able to develop a core belief of worthiness. We begin to see ourselves as imperfect beings in an imperfect world, capable of making mistakes without labeling ourselves as a mistake. This is what I call humility. This is a true view of self without judgement of good or bad, right or wrong. This is being able to identify our assets and shortcomings alike. Humility allows for growth and gives us the opportunity to explore the world around us without hiding or avoiding the messy parts of ourselves. This insight provides 20/20 vision and helps us find our own value and reach our maximum potential. Simply put, we get to step into the person God created us to be.
This environment can be found even if it wasn’t present in childhood. Changing this core belief takes practice and effort. You can’t change the past, but you can begin to write a different story. YOU get to decide who you are moving forward, but you cannot do it alone. Connection is the key.
We were created for community and we often make terrible choices when we’re isolated. Not only is it okay to seek help from others, it’s part of our make-up. If you’re like me, asking for help is scary. This is one of those dysfunctional rules most of us learned early on, and it HAS to be challenged. We are designed to need help and it’s essential we get some healthy people in our corner.
A solid formula to combat shame is simple: Self Worth = Values + Action. The problem is most of us don’t know what our values are, or we have a lot of fear of putting them into action. If we step out and do something different, especially if it doesn’t flow with the crowd, we begin to struggle with the fear of how others will perceive us. This is why we need supportive people we can trust to help us sift through the dysfunctional rules and values that just don’t fit, and give us courage to act out our values without judgement. We also need a reliance on God for courage to step out in faith- to act like the person we were made to be.
Do me a favor? Let yourself be seen by someone. You don’t have to tell everything to everyone, but you do have to tell everything to someone. Pick someone you can trust- a therapist, a pastor, a friend- and allow yourself to be seen.
The greatest desire of the human heart is to be known, AND to be loved anyway. Don’t be so afraid of being known and truly seen, that you never allow yourself to be really loved. Don’t deny yourself the freedom to be the YOU God made you to be. Don’t deny the world the contributions you can bring to it. You are already loved. You are already enough. Put your trust in God and connect with someone, and step into the you that you were made to be.