Shame and Grace

One of the big themes in my personal growth the last year or so has been the interplay between shame, vulnerability, connection and intimacy. This probably isn’t surprising to those paying attention to self help. Especially since Brene Brown has become popular it’s been everywhere.

The idea that keeps coming up is the fact that so many of our personal and social problems arise from shame.  There’s externalized shame and stigma that cripples people mental health and cuts them off from connection and support. Body shaming, hiv stigma, addiction shaming, mental health stigma, so many sources. And more damaging is the internalized shame that results from this externalized shame. Once we start to internalize shame we begin to hide ourselves, and cut ourselves off from others.  We begin to project our fears about ourselves on others and punish them for them.  We acquire narcissistic or codependent tendencies and harm our relationships and those we relate to.

Even in mild cases this shame, and this hiding of parts of ourselves stop us from being fully intimate. We don’t feel like we can be seen, and we become emotionally isolated, even when we’re around others. This lack of human connection leaves us broken. More likely to become addicted to drugs, more likely to shut ourselves off and lose ourselves in distractions, more likely to become violent and angry.  The relationships we’re trying so hard to protect by only showing our good side die from the lack of intimacy. Our creativity dies and our health declines. We live in a hell inside our mind, convinced that we’re unloveable and nasty, and never giving anyone a chance to show us otherwise.

The solution to all of this? Is to stop trying to control our relationships, to stop trying to predict how people react and just open ourselves up.  To become vulnerable, to keep those who will stay when they see us, and let those who won’t go away. And once we feel seen, once we have intimacy and connection, we can improve. We can get help for things we need to change knowing that we won’t be shamed for needing that help. We can see those things that don’t need to change, and the shame was entirely misplaced. Most importantly we begin to be able to do that for ourselves. To give ourselves room to be who we are, even when we’re not perfect. To give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and forgiveness. To have positive self talk, and know we are worthy of love even when those around us aren’t giving it.

But usually we need someone outside of ourselves to lean on to begin this journey. Someone to turn to when we’re struggling. Often this can’t be family or the friend group we built while we were caught in this cycle of shame. They’re frequently the people who helped us internalize the shame in the first place. These people are not safe or healthy to be vulnerable to. So we need someone else to ground us while we find new, safe people.  A therapist can be a good first step. Client centered therapy even gives us a name for what we need: unconditional positive regard. And with it therapists help people make better choices for themselves, improve relationships, and get healthy.

This whole dynamic played a major role in both my leaving and my coming back to religion. The tradition I grew up in definitely used shame as a method of control and especially as a queer kid it sunk deep into me. And just like human relationships, there is no way to have a real relationship with Divinity if you’re hiding yourself out of fear of rejection, or pretending to be someone you’re not in order to impress. And while there were other reasons to leave that church, there certainly wasn’t a way to find God with that concept of them.

But years after I left and thought I was done with everything I felt something stirring. I experienced the unity of all things in love and the acceptance of the world as it is. So I started exploring various faith traditions, and in most faiths I studied I found many things I like and that have influenced my understanding of spirituality. But it wasn’t until I found one where divinity modeled that unconditional positive regard of a therapist that something lit up my soul. Although many or perhaps even most branches of the religion that claim to follow Jesus are shaming, and controlling, the message he taught, and the life he lived showed the opposite.

Jesus showed a God who just wants us to come to Him. To be seen deep down to our core. And to still be loved, not in spite of our vulnerability and our weakness. But in and through it. A God who fearfully and wonderfully made us in Her image. A God that wanted to so fully know us, that the Wisdom of God, left the loving community of God and became human. Born to a poor refugee family in a barn in the backwater colony of a mighty empire. A God who while embodied spent far more time with those viewed as disgusting and unclean than with those viewed as righteous and holy. A God who directly promises us that anyone who comes to Them will never be turned away. A God who after suffering the most shameful death, turned it into the most glorious victory. This God I’ve found to be such a strength. For whenever I’m willing to open myself fully to Her I know that they still find me worthy of love, and who am I to shame what God loves.

Jesus taught there are two great commandments. ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’   Love God even with those thoughts you want to be rid of, even that part of you that you hate, even the doubt or anger you have towards God. Bring all of yourself to the loving presence of God. Now secure in the knowledge that you are loved you can love yourself as God loves you. Only then are you fully ready for the second commandment which is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

On fear’s role

Through out my life, I’ve seen people blaming the Other’s lack of fear for their bad choices.  A lack of fear of the afterlife can be blamed for anything for partying to harming others. A lack of fear of suffering is blamed for risky sex or drug abuse. A lack of fear of the apocalypse is blamed for militarism or climate change denial. A lack of fear of death is blamed for not improving healthcare or addressing gun violence.

I’ve come to think this sentiment is not just wrong about the cause, but also wrong about the benefits of fear. Fear doesn’t lead to good decision making in humans. Fear activates our fight or flight responses and we make short term decisions. Fear creates reactivity, not proactivity. Fear is not a good teacher, of children, of pets, of adults. It breaks people instead. Fear is the mindkiller.

I think more often than not it is the supposedly missing fear that motivates maladaptive behavior. A fear of death drives people to feel alive and deny their mortality, a fear of being forgotten leads to Machiavellian means to rise to the top. A fear of war motivates armament build up or preemptive strikes. A fear of the world changing drastically leads one to deny things which says we must change or it will change for us. Fear is behind the hate of white supremacists, homophobic churches, and anti-islamic groups.

While many religions have strains that have adopted fear to motivate behavior, the most inspiring and uplifiting messages at the base of religion is a message of hope and peace, not fear. The bible repeatedly tells people to not fear. Buddhism places fear as one of the ways the ego protects itself. The message comes through in both that fear is behind much of the worlds pain.

If we look at the problems above, we can see why fear is a bad way to approach them. Fear of eternal death drives one to grab all the pleasure you can with no regards to the consequences. Fear of the afterlife can cause one to ignore or even cause suffering in this life in order to live by their perception of the rules they’ll be judged by. Fear of climate change may cause us to take drastic action that we can’t control. Fear of korea’s nuclear capabilities may cause us to start a war where millions will die.

We instead must listen to the fear, understand what it’s warning us of and take reasoned controlled action. We should be aware that this life has an end and make sure to not live for ‘someday’, to tell those who matter to us that we love them, and to be present. We should be aware of moral imperatives and work to leave the world better than we found it. We should be aware of the way we’re changing the planet, and try and find better ways to meet our needs and to undo the damage we’ve done for future generations. We should be aware of the dangers of war and try to avoid it.

Don’t let the external forces that you fear control your life, be proactive and thoughtful in how you respond.

Ye shall know them by their fruits.

As I sit in a hospital room looking at someone I love unconditionally, I can’t help but think of all those who didn’t. All those who taught him he must be worthy of love. All those who taught him that being him wasn’t good enough. That he must behave as expected.

How hollow their claims of concern are now. How empty their tears. How foolish their attempts to make it about them.

My inner child wants to rage and destroy them. Wipe them from the face of the Earth.  Salt their fields, poison all that they held dear. Build a new world with only those who are safe. And later I will grant him that. I will open my inner world and allow him to do as will until he feels satisfied and complete.

But here in the outer word I can simple shut them out. Allow them no more weight than they demonstrate they deserve.

People pleasing, perfectionism, irony and ironing

While ironing this morning I caught myself thinking “I’m not very good at this, but a poor ironing job is still better than wrinkles on clothes stuffed in a day bag”. I was pleased I wasn’t caught up in perfectionism and letting that get in the way, but I felt like there was more to it.

So I reflected on why I wasn’t good at it, it wasn’t a flaw in me, but a skill I haven’t practiced. Why didn’t I practice it? Because for years I pretended to not care. I didn’t iron out of people pleasing. I didn’t care because I felt more in control if I ‘chose’ to look sloppy. I worried more about doing a bad job and appearing authentically flawed than about being inaccurately cast as slovenly I was scared of vulnerability because I’d been taught I was valuable for what I can do. Not valuable for who I am.

My rebellion against people’s wishes was it’s own form of people pleasing. I was just like those who reject relationships before they can be rejected because they fear it will devalue them. I rejected ironing so that no one could reject my skill at ironing and thus devalue me.