re searching shame

Last weekend, exhausted physically and emotionally, I climbed into bed where my husband lay asleep and found myself uttering these words through my tears, “I just want to be normal”. To which he responded blearily, thinking, I am certain, that he was helping some part of me that was wanting to diminish and deny the sacred gift that I am, “Well, too bad, you’re special”. The ‘dispute’ volleyed several times before finally I let it drop with the unheard whisper, “But I just want to be real”.

            Once, several years ago, I was visited by God in my bedroom in much the same way. This God also came crawling into my bed, exhausted after a long day, needing me to be the place where ‘he’ could simply be…..not hero, nor savior, nor omnipotent omniscience, not scapegoat, nor scorn…just God, in all of the ways in which God becomes flesh in this world… wounded and weary and weak, birthing and bleeding and becoming. Whole.  My sense that night was that God was being torn apart by all of those who wished to lay claim to God and that God required an unconditional love, a listening ear, and compassionate arms.

            I imagine these two episodes are not unrelated.

            There is a sense in me sometimes that I am invisible, unseen, untouched, unreal, and that those around me see only what is projected onto the blank screen that is me. A sense of being pulled into so many pieces. A sense of both separateness and separated- ness.  I have wondered who pulls down that screen behind which I am hidden, behind which lies my true self nestled with my desire to be fully known and loved. I also have wondered who is doing the projecting. Is it the other’s need for me to be what it is they need? Or is it mine to be loved? And if it is mine to be loved, what is it in me that feels so terribly unlovable and/or vulnerable that it feels the need to hide?

            Last month, being the holiday season, I was once again, as seems to have become appropriate to the season for me, emotionally drained. Somewhere along the way this holiday, however, I recognized in myself a sense of hyper emotional vigilance, what I named ‘putting out the fires’, an over-attentiveness within each moment to the emotional state of all those who dwell within my ‘village of awareness’ and a subsequent tending to each one.  For various reasons this state of being on alert was heightened for me this holiday.

            As I journaled with this awareness, I came to realize that the thing that I was attempting to ensure for my children, my step-children, and their spouses was ‘safety’. How surprised I was when that word appeared from the tip of my pen! But there it was for me to deny, or to love, ‘safety’. Physical safety, to be sure, especially given my daughter’s threats to her very physical being in the month preceding, but much deeper than that, I was aware that I was attempting to ensure everyone’s emotional safety. I wanted each person within my radar to feel safe with me, to know that they were loved, accepted, belonged, wholly welcome.  (Of course, while visiting with my larger extended family of origin, I realized that I really just wanted to get out of there alive!…again on an emotional level, and so the vigilance was more a watching my own back.) Now, as I am aware that keeping everyone feeling safe in my presence ensures that I am not going to be found unlovable or inadequate or desert-able and so keeps me safe; and as I do understand that those things I so desperately attempt to ensure for my own children are those things that I most need myself, there it was plain as the ink on my page. Some part of me feels desperately unsafe!

            What a strange discovery for me. Me, who in my intense journey of healing, has experienced such a profound and overwhelming sense of God’s all-embracing, all-pervasive Love, a God who has come to visit me in the night to love me despite my protestations of unworthiness. Me, who has likewise experienced the continual breaking open of my own heart as it has expanded to embrace the God whom I recognize within the whole of life. How then could this part of me been left out? Where has she been hiding? Perhaps it is that she has been hiding precisely there, behind the very mask of certain Love that allows no room for doubt and fear, no space for the one who believes she is inherently unlovable, no risk of exposure or vulnerability. She alone is somehow unwelcome, not included in the whole of me. It is as if to admit that she exists is somehow to deny God and God in me.

            And so, when I turned to the article on shame in this month’s reading, I was deeply affected. Suddenly that little word, ‘safety’, found resonance and its echo was the word, ‘shame’. Shame, the underlying sense that I was perhaps truly unlovable, unacceptable, not good-enough, was perhaps the basis of this feeling inherently unsafe in the universe. Some part of me (and listen to me talking about it as if it is something separate, unknown, disowned) still believed that it was my job to keep myself safe by proving my goodness. Covering up my flaws. Earning love.

             I had understood in the past how my deep sense of shame had kept me separate from a God whom I had learned was ashamed of me.  With this God, it was my fault (and faultiness) that God had to ‘kill his son’. In truth, I hated this God though I still longed for ‘his’ approval. Some years ago, near the beginning of my healing journey, a pastor handed to me a copy of John Bradshaw’s, The Shame that Binds, but I could not read it. To me, at that time, shame meant only judgment and disgrace, isolation and degradation. It was something I wanted to hide, to be rid of, not something worthy of compassion. Definitely not embraceable, nor lovable. And as shame was so large a part of who I was at the time, so the whole of me it seemed was thrown into that same pile of self-negation, self-hatred, self-denial and self-scorn.

            Now I have healed much since then, found understanding and compassion, tenderness and deep love, for parts of me and my life’s experiences that once upon a time I believed were shameful and unlovable. I have come to embrace (what I believed to be) the entirety of my life as good, to open to and receive the blessings from what were and are my wounds, to love myself and this journey we call life.  That is to have come a long way from the person I was, who believed that life was nothing but pain and that my very being alive was a terrible mistake. I have fully accepted that I am inherently blessed and good, understood and forgiven, graced and sacred, on a holy journey of Love where I am needed by God as much as I need God. What I hadn’t realized was that I had left in the shadow as unlovable the part of me that believes I am unlovable! And so I have not fully embraced, I suspect, my humanity.  I so want to deny this frightened, frail, bleeding human part of me who believes she is unsafe. As if to own her is somehow to deny my deeper wisdom, my spiritual awareness. Is it possible that I have embraced my spirit but not my flesh? 

            Sometimes I still get caught up in the illusion that a fully healed human being feels no pain, fear, sorrow, anger, chaos. As if the truly enlightened spiritual being is above all such human emotion. Serene. Peaceful. I forget that healing is about wholeness and that wholeness excludes nothing. That it is ok for me to include my weakness. Humility for me had meant one thing, humiliation. Healthy shame? I had never heard of that before.

            Still there is a deeper, more expansive part of me that does know and love all, often beyond my awareness, a part that does fully see and embrace this fearful human part of me. This is the part of me so deeply connected to and a part of God. And this is also who I am.  When I am in touch, intimate, with this deeper presence within me, which I often am in places where I feel safe, what flows from me is natural and authentic, not contrived, not at all a cover-up to hide my shame. It is real. And yet the human part of me through which it flows is naturally this shame-based one. And so she fears the exposure. She fears vulnerability. She fears alienation and aloneness. And so she quickly seeks to silence or rebuke with her self-induced shaming. I sometimes wonder if human shame then may be a covering and a protection for the sacred, keeping it from being exposed to those who will abuse it. Could that simply my personal history playing out in the revelation of Self to Other?… for there is this intense longing for the sacred in me to be met by the sacred in the other. Something profoundly sexual in its energy, not necessarily in its physicality, but which no doubt when passing through the sexual wounds, which are a part of my humanity, experiences the ill-effects of unhealthy shame.

            Sure enough, in my reading and research I find this curious statement, that ‘healthy ‘shame, along with its roles in allowing for grace, keeping us in a place of healthy need for others, inspiring creativity and spiritual growth, also provides a natural boundary. Perhaps the human body is purposefully bounded then to safeguard the sacred in some way. And so I am left to wonder about my sense of boundaries, and the way in which they so often seem to be so nonexistent (which is paradoxically a result of unhealthy shame) and can create in me both the feeling of excruciating exposure alongside intense emotional overload, the type of which I began this essay. It is as if everything can see inside and come inside at will, and thus results in what I recognize in me as codependent and addictive behaviors….the taking on of everyone’s emotional wellness, the addiction to the acceptance and validation from others, not to mention my lifelong struggle with eating disorders, and sexual violation.

            I had 2 dreams last month which illustrate I think the healthy and unhealthy side of this sense of boundaryless that is coming to the surface to heal for me. In one dream, a woman who had recently been released (or escaped?) from prison, and who was the biological mother of my adopted son, rode up the elevator into my apartment where the doors opened right out into what had been a sanctuary for us. The overwhelming feeling in this dream was one of panic, how could she just come right into our apartment like that? There was no protection, no way possible to stop her violation. In the second dream I was an empty frame, the canvas I had once born had been rent and was tattered. Many folks were lining up with buckets of paint and brushes to try to fill the spaciousness within me. But none of the paint could stick, it flowed right through. Finally, a man swept his brush across the canvas and there was a feeling of satisfaction that I experienced. I asked him what it was that he had painted, and he answered, ‘it is who am i?’ And so I was made aware that there is likewise a healthy and an unhealthy aspect of being without boundaries. On the healthy end of spectrum, things can pass right through and my identity is not determined by the other. On the unhealthy end, everything and everyone can enter and violate that which is sacred in me and there seems to be no capability in me to prevent it.

            In re searching the early days of my healing, I recall that this sense of boundarilessnss created the feeling in me that no experience of goodness, safety, or being Loved could stay inside me.  I felt as if there were huge holes in me through which any sense of goodness would leak, as if my soul could not hold on to my self (or vice versa).  Indeed, it has been suggested that toxic shame is soul murdering, and this is the way that it felt to me. Gradually those holes in me seemed to mend as I came to know myself more and more as fully loved and lovable despite what I had been taught about myself. 

            Still, I recognize that this sense of wholeness can begin to seep away, particularly during times of contact with others. My internal world in times of solitude is quite immersed in Love, and I have been fortunate to have long stretches of such blessing.  It is the external that is still difficult for me to ‘manage’.  I have recognized a cyclicality to my sense of wellness, which seems to coincide with the times of the year when I am ‘outside’ or ‘inside’, and so the fall and winter months (excluding December, of course!), natural times of turning inward, have been deepening and healing months for me. This year has been quite different though. The fall was filled with the turmoil of multiple daily intrusions and the chaos of December has simply continued into January. The feeling of late has been one of overwhelming weariness, of needing to let myself fall, to let go. To let go of what?

            I realize that it may be time for me to create an inner sanctuary that requires not the external world to be still in order for me to feel safe, a sort of boundaried space within, where it is possible for me to be in the presence of others without becoming pulled out and apart, disconnected from my self, a place where I can rest without entering into exhausting and tormenting self-scrutiny.  I also am painfully aware that I am not truly connecting with nor loving the other from this surface space of striving to please and appease. It is not at all the intimacy, the longing to be seen, for which I crave, nor is it to empower the other to realize their own core in Love by keeping them dependent upon me. It is a distorted sense of connection. It is not surprising then for me to read that this sense of disconnection from self and others is also a symptom of shame. Typically the pain gets so intense for me during periods of external contact that I require withdrawal, but sometimes I am confused as to whether this is simply my authentic need for solitude, which has been such a rich blessing to me and ought to be honored, or the only way in which I can keep the chaos at bay. I think perhaps this is yet another example of the paradoxical flip sides of shame, for I also read that silence and solitude are marks of spiritual maturity, that true inner peace cannot be achieved from the outside. This I do know, my true sense of self worth always comes during times of aloneness with God, though I still get pulled into trying to get it from the outside when I am not alone. I suspect the dividing line here is whether or not the outside has the capability of obliterating the sense of inner peace achieved during times of solitude, such that the withdrawal becomes almost a survival mechanism and the ability to function ‘out there’ becomes nonexistent. Likewise, when does solitude become isolation because it feels safer than feeling the shame? When does aloneness become loneliness and alienation, this feeling of being always on the outside looking in?

            It is easy for me to look at my life and recognize the places where unhealthy shame became a part of me… from the mouthwashings that made the expression of my true feelings shameful up to the way in which I was used as an instrument for gratification in degrading ways, and many in between. I can also easily recognize the many extremes this shame has worn in my life from compulsive perfectionism to uncontrollable self-debasement, from numbing silence to concealing words of wisdom.  The good news is that I no longer blame…the other nor myself for what ‘could have been’. I recognize that it simply is, but that it also is somehow a part of the gift of life in this human form… the birthing waters gushing from the wound at Jesus’ side in Julian of Norwich’s showings, and like Mechthild’s vision of God with Mary on one side, her breasts overflowing with milk, Jesus on the other, dripping blood. There is a unity between the wound and the nurture that is life. This is the wholeness that God beseeches me to embrace when he falls into my own bed.

             And this wholeness comes not at excluding nor diminishing the realities of the wound, but by embracing it. I could easily look over this essay and once again feel pity or scorn for myself as I read it, for there is this seemingly self-perpetuating property of shame— admit the shame and feel the shame of seeing oneself as flawed, etc. It can become then both source and fuel. I think perhaps the ‘remedy’ is to simply own it as a part of who I am…to answer my earlier question, to let myself fall…into my humanity, lovable and worthy of compassion, not scorn. When I recognize her floating around in there in the midst of the chaos, I can invite her into that Love, that is all.  Rather than denying her fear as somehow less-than, I can lift it up as a symbol of the precious tenderness that is humanity. When I see her out and about trying to so hard to make herself lovable, I can embrace her helplessness as lovable. Instead of refusing to acknowledge her I can give her a name. “Hello there shame, welcome home”.

            Finally, the Good news is that I am not alone. Each one of us is human. Thank God. No matter how pervasive my feeling of unbelonging sometimes feels, I suspect that I am not so different from the ones I feel so distant from. By being willing to move from isolation into community with others who are also not afraid to be real, perhaps I can find in their mirrors affirmation of what I feel inside, mirrors that might replace those that found me so inadequate so long ago. My experience of Oasis has been such a place for me. This is what draws me to this place and to the work of spiritual direction, freeing persons to be real. Whole.

            A couple of dreams to end this essay. On the eve of this school year, I dreamt that a man had been released from prison into a community that was to reintegrate him, but was afraid of him. I alone was thrilled at his release, for I had known and loved him once, and so was given ‘custody’ of him. In my care, he grew increasingly sick, weak, and thin. I had to carry him to the doctor’s office in my arms like a baby. Upon entering the foyer of the doctor’s office, I was met with the scornful looks and turning away of the other patients, members of the frightened community, in the waiting room. At the counter I was given medicine to heal the man, but was told I would have to return the next day for another dose. This made me angry because I did not want to have to bring him out in front of the others’ scrutiny again. And so there is this need in me to keep my healing to myself and yet there is a message here that I need to come out of hiding somehow. On my own, he whithers, this male in me.

            This week, I dreamt that I was in my grandmother’s house, a house that was well-known in the small town in which she lived for being white-glove spotless. Perfect. Public image. I am aware that my grandmother likely lived in the shadow of shame and innuendo because she became pregnant out of wedlock at age 16….not such a terrible sin but evidently shameful enough to have been carried as a dark, shameful splotch on my mother’s psyche, for when I announced my own pregnancy at the age of 16, I heard her say, as she turned away and ran from the room, ‘This will kill your grandmother’. In my dream this week, I had ridden my bike a long way to my grandmother’s house, where I had left a large cardboard box filled with eagles. The eagles were packed into this box, wings tied tightly to their sides, like sardines. I opened the box and, one by one, lifted the eagles and threw them into the air like paper airplanes. At first I wasn’t so good at tossing them and they would curl toward the ground, like an ill-made and thrown paper airplane will do, but before hitting the ground they would open their wings and fly, around her house in a loop, before returning to me. Then I packed them back into the box, to return another day. Perhaps one day soon, I will let them out for good.




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