It doesn’t happen all at once, this fragmenting of our heart, the wrenching of the fabric knit together in our mother’s womb. There is no one person to blame because it is more the scheme of the enemy born out of the fragmentation that first took place in Eden with a man called Adam and a woman called Eve. In the very beginning, their hearts became divided when they doubted God’s goodness, doubted that He had given them the very best.
The enemy promised them knowledge, but what they received was shame that propelled them into hiding and revealed the division within them.
We carry within us some of that DNA and it distorts everything until someone comes into our lives and shows us the truth, but the habits of a lifetime take time to heal.
I think it shows up when we are met with expectations that we try to meet from the earliest years. To one degree or another we seek to be better than we are, better than we believe we can be. That belief can drive us to give up on ever reaching out to grow or it can thrust us into a perpetual effort to succeed, to not fail.
If it is the latter, we begin to strive in many areas of our lives where a benchmark has been set for us in order to gain self-worth, to quiet the whispers inside that we will never be enough.
Those whispers come from more than one source. They not only come from the accuser of the brethren, but also from unconscious memories connected to experiences we never forget. Not all of those memories are negative. In some of them we are succeeding, being affirmed and praised. But in others, blurry images of times we were humiliated or emotionally crushed impacts our view of ourselves. We become biased based on these swirling perceptions and it affects our view of God and others as well as us.
Maurice Wagner in The Sensation of Being Somebody writes about the different aspects of this self that is us.
As a theologian and psychologist, he brings a powerful lens to look at how we develop these images and biases.
He notes there are three functional aspects of our self-concept. They include appearance, performance, and status. There are also three feeling aspects of the self. These are feelings of belongingness, worthiness, and competence.
In the interplay of these with a backdrop of the expectations and experiences we have from the earliest days of our lives, we develop patterns of how we will respond to what we meet in life. These nudge us to look for ways to handle our fractured hearts.
We may choose pleasing, the pursuit of perfection, or increasing internal demandingness to hide from others the discarded pieces of our heart and the places where we have not succeeded or attained the goals others or we have set for ourselves.
We may choose instead to give up and rebel against any standard set. It can be a way of trying to protect us. We can tell ourselves we could have been successful, made the grade, got the promotion, or maintained the relationship, but we just haven’t tried. We never look at the fear of failing that is at the root of our choices.
The erosion happens in little ways in our homes, often without any attempt or awareness of our parents that it is happening. The school classroom, the sports field or arena, or the music or theatrical stage offers more opportunities to hide, to pretend, and to close off more parts of our hearts.
Underneath it, slowly but surely we can begin to experience a sense of shame not only about what we have done, but who we are.
In Shame and Grace by Lewis Smedes, he notes: “The feeling of shame is about our very selves—not about some bad thing we did or said but about what we are. It tells us we are unworthy.”
When it tells us that, little by little we begin to believe it. It can cling to our souls like barnacles on a ship’s bow and is not easy to get rid of. When we experience guilt, it is about something we did. As a result, we can take action to correct that; but when we feel shame for what we are or who we are, we can feel hopeless to respond to its nagging voice inside of us.
Shame also goes beyond feeling embarrassed. We all have known what it’s like to feel embarrassed (likely more often than we wish). That feeling of embarrassment stems from sensing we look bad because of something. Smedes reminds us “we feel shame because we think we are bad.”
Chuck DeGroat tells us in Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self: “We hate this unwanted stranger (shame) because it makes us hate ourselves. And we want more than anything to get rid of it. We would if we could.”
Next time I want to show you what can happen when we are shamed or experience shame and how far it can lead us if we risk gaining a glimpse of our real self and realize the fresh air it brings us.