Living Shame-Free

(13 minute read – Sermon from 9/22/2016)
(In the first few seconds of my audio recording I’m choking back tears but I sound normal after that:)

I love Brene Brown’s definition of shame. She describes it as the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging. 

In other words, shame is the fear of disconnection, the idea that something about me makes me unworthy of love and belonging.

Shame is the phrase “I’m not ________ enough.” (thin, pretty, smart, strong, educated, assertive, etc).

And shame tends to play the same two tapes:

  1. You are not good enough.
  2. Who do you think you are?

Ouch. Shame knows where exactly to get us, right to the core of our being.

Shame is something we all experience, even though shame banks on us feeling like we’re the only one. That we’re alone in this. It fosters the feeling of disconnect and isolation.

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We see it all the way back in the Garden of Eden.

Adam and Eve make a bad choice but instead of seeing it as a bad choice, they see themselves as bad people. That’s the difference between guilt and shame.

Guilt says: I did something bad. I made a mistake.
Shame says: I am bad. I am a mistake.

Adam and Eve clearly felt shame, not guilt, because they ran and hid and lied. They were too scared to be vulnerable and to tell the truth and, instead, allowed the lies of shame to overpower them and make the decisions for them.

Their whole lives, however long that was at that point in time, was spent feeling love and belonging. They were always insiders. And then when they made a mistake, instead of owning up and repenting, they made themselves the outsiders. Right? THEY were the ones who ran. THEY were the ones who hid. THEY were the ones who lied and cut off the very Being who loved them most. They isolated themselves. Not God.

It’s a tragic story because they allowed shame to be their barometer of truth instead of God.

I mean, haven’t we all been there? Where we’ve done something wrong, whether unintentionally or intentionally, and allowed that decision, that action become the voice of truth in our heads, letting it define our worth?

With Adam and Eve, how that must have broken God’s heart to see the children he loved most believe they were terrible people who deserved isolation and misery. In a very real sense, they casted themselves out. They deemed themselves unlovable, unforgivable, and unworthy. And just like Adam and Eve, we tend to cast ourselves out as well – out of life, out of relationships, out of new beginnings.

As the author and blogger Glennon Doyle Melton says, “We can handle pain. We just can’t handle shame on top of pain. It’s not life’s pain that takes us out of the game, it’s the shame about the pain.” And this is what we tend to do – we let our shame take us out of the game.

We assume we deserve to be alone and miserable, and so we stay there. We make a home in our misery believing that is what we deserve. But with Adam and Eve, in the midst of their brokenness, God not only made clothes for them (which is a detailed, time-consuming labor of love in and of itself), but he also helped put them on his children; he clothed them like a loving parent.

Even when we rebel, his heart is tender towards us. He is a parent who loves his child in such a way that he’d rather give his life than lose his child. That’s love. And it’s beautiful, for it shows us our true worth – that we are indeed worthy of love and belonging. That’s how God sees us and that’s how he treats us.

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According to Brene Brown, shame needs 3 things in order to grow exponentially:

  1. Secrecy
    2. Silence
    3. Judgment

Was that not Adam and Eve’s case? They kept their sin a secret, they remained silent when they hid from God, and they judged themselves as unworthy of love and belonging and forgiveness, which then encouraged that cycle of secrecy, silence, and judgment.

Again, letting shame define their worth instead of God. 

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And what’s interesting is… is that we as humans tend to believe that if we don’t talk about shame, it’ll magically go away. Whereas if we talk about shame, we’re afraid we’ll feel more shame. But the truth tends to be that the less you talk about it (shame), the more you’ve got it.

So if secrecy and silence aren’t the answer to shame, what is?
What can counter the overwhelming, debilitating feeling of unworthiness?
The answer?

Empathy. It’s the one thing that stops shame in its tracks.

And that’s because shame cannot survive being talked about. It cannot survive empathy.

Shame depends on us buying in that we are alone… and for some of us, when we believe we are utterly alone, we tend to turn towards destructive choices.

And research backs this up –> shame is highly correlated with eating disorders, violence, aggression, addiction, depression, bullying, suicide, and more. (Interestingly enough, guilt is inversely correlated with those things).

According to Brown’s research, we are the most indebt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in U.S. History. And the problem is that we can’t selectively numb emotion. We want to numb the hard feelings like fear, disappointment, shame, and embarrassment, but we can’t numb the hard feelings without numbing joy, gratitude, and happiness.

Those hard feelings can be difficult to navigate, but instead of working our way through them, we shove them to the side and cover them up with addiction, medication, or shopping. And we create this destructive cycle where we avoid hard feelings with our coping mechanisms which ultimately put us in a deeper pit of shame.

And the feeling of shame is the same for men and women. But for women it’s “Do it all, do it perfectly, and let them never see you sweat” and for men, it’s “Do not be perceived as weak.” These heavy, unrealistic expectations that cannot be met; it’s no wonder shame is an epidemic.

Shame has the power to take over our entire lives if we let it – and if it does, it affects the way we view people, the way we view ourselves, the choices we make, everything. And the only way to get out from underneath it, to find our way back to each other, is by opening up and speaking our shame in order to experience the one thing that stops shame in its tracks –> empathy.

And empathy is found in two words: Me too.

In order for empathy to happen, we must first bring our shame into the light. Only by bringing it into the light can someone then say, “Me too.” And it’s then we find our shame loses its power.

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Long ago, before I was married, I was dating and sleeping with a guy while I was employed at a Christian institution. Because of the “Code of Conduct” I signed upon my hiring, my relationship with this guy could jeopardize my job. The secrecy and unhealthiness of our relationship led me to feel incredible amounts of shame. But I felt there was nowhere to turn because if word got out that I was sleeping with this guy, I could be fired from my job.

But all the while, as I dated this guy that I kept trying to break it off with but to no avail, I would tell myself, “Well, I’ll date him but I’d never marry him. I’d never marry a guy like this.” Why? Because he continually disrespected me, pushed me past my boundaries, and would never listen to me when I would say “No” or “No more.” I knew I could never marry a person like him.

And yet, before I knew it, we were engaged.

It was a broken and dysfunctional relationship, but I felt like I had no more fight left in me in trying to end our relationship. Even still, I found myself shocked that I was agreeing to marry a man I swore I never would. And yet I kept trying to tell myself, “Well, I may be engaged to him, but I’ll never actually marry him. I’ll break it off long before then.” Even though I had tried to break it off with him over 15 times, I still somehow tried to convince myself that someday our break-up would actually last.

I felt so much shame about my inability to end this relationship that I ended up surrendering. I resigned. I stopped fighting and gave up. Those were the emotions I felt when I said yes to his proposal. Later I would realize that those are the exact opposite emotions you should feel when you say yes to someone’s proposal, but that just shows how in over my head I was. Because I believed that I was unworthy of anything good (<– shame), it led me to make decisions I would never had made otherwise.

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Shame always lies to us and says we’re alone, and it isolates us.

Whereas empathy tells us the truth, that we’re not alone, and it creates a safe place where we can be vulnerable and find community.

So back then, somehow, in the midst of my brokenness and confusion and pain, I knew that the only chance I had of getting out of this relationship was if I told someone about it. And not just anyone, but someone who would understand what I was going through and wouldn’t judge me. And there was one colleague that I could think of at my workplace.

This colleague of mine had gotten pregnant in college after a fling, and being at a Christian college, she lost leadership roles, was shamed and shunned by her mother, and faced an unknown future on her own. But here she was 15 years later, with three beautiful children, an amazing husband and a successful career. Her life had been dark but it turned around. She had experienced redemption.

I wanted that. I yearned for that and knew she would understand my pain.

And she did.

She was the first person to utter those words: Me too. I get it… I’ve been there…. and man it sucks. But you’re not alone. I will walk this road with you. 

And she did. She walked that road with me and I finally, once and for all, left that toxic relationship and, as fate would have it, I would meet my husband just 5 months later.

This colleague of mine saw my journey, which began in brokenness, end in redemption and fullness of life. I could not have done it without her. She was and will always be a part of my redemption story.

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So a few take-away points:

  1. It’s important and necessary to recognize when we’re feeling shame.

    Sometimes we can recognize it for ourselves, other times we can’t. And that’s where having trusted people in your life who love Jesus and love you and want the best for you can be the best gifts we can have in our broken and beautiful world. We need trusted people in our lives who can tell us when they see us operating out of shame.

    It’s also important to know that our secrets and shame aren’t for anybody and everybody; not everyone is capable of carrying our story safely and gently and lovingly. If we share our shame story with the wrong person, as Brene Brown says: they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm. We don’t need that. We need to have a safe place where we can share our secrets and our shame so that we don’t become trapped by them. We need people who can walk those journeys with us.

  2. Our worthiness is a gift to us from God and not something we have to earn or hustle after.

    My colleague was the one who helped me realize that I was worthy of good and beautiful things. And that is a place where we all need to get – where we understand that love and belonging, our worthiness, is a birthright, a gift to us from God, and cannot be taken from us.
  3. Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.

    And this can be scary. Because of the tape that often plays in our head, the tape that says, “We are not enough”, it can be terrifying to let our real selves be seen; our messy, broken and beautiful selves be known. But we were meant to be known and we were meant to be loved, and we can only be known and loved to the degree that we are authentic. When we put up facades and barriers to block out the pain, we also block out the very thing we need, which is love. 

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Good news, though! In her research, Brown found people who didn’t let shame dictate their lives, but instead live connected and vulnerable lives – and she describes their way of life as wholehearted living, which she defines as this:

“Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”

Isn’t that beautiful? No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. Wow. Yes. This.

Brown found that those who have a strong sense of love and belonging simply believe they are worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they are worthy.

It reminds me of Scripture, where it says that we are to constantly be renewing our minds with the truth and to focus on what is true, lovely and pure.

Philippians 4:8 (The Message) – Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.

It doesn’t mean to think on light and fluffy things. But it’s actually a form of resistance; refusing to believe the lies that try to distinguish themselves as truth.

To stop and say, I may feel unworthy, I may feel like a total loser, but here is the truth: I am LOVED, I am CHOSEN, I BELONG, I am FIERCE, and I am WORTHY of good and beautiful things; I am WORTHY of love. 

It’s a radical form of subverting the kingdom of darkness in order to usher in the Kingdom of Light and Love and Hope. And it all starts right here in our head.

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Those who live believing they are worthy tend to have the 3 C’s:

  1. Courage (to be imperfect)
  2. Compassion (to be kind to themselves first, then to others) and
  3. Connection (as a result of authenticity)

They are willing to let go of who they think they should be in order to be who they are.

These are people who fully embrace vulnerability and believe that what makes them vulnerable makes them beautiful. They understand vulnerability as not being comfortable nor excruciating – but necessary. It’s the willingness to say I love you first, to try something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to invest in a project or relationship that may or may not work out, and more.

Instead of trying to perfect, pretend, predict and control, we allow ourselves to be seen, to love with our whole hearts, to practice gratitude and joy, and to believe we are enough.

It’s only then that we recognize shame for what it is, and we stop that tape of, “We’re not good enough” and replace it with the words, “We are enough. We are enough. Because God made us, gifted us, equipped us and has called us. Because of him, we are enough.”

As Brown says, it’s only then that we stop screaming and start listening; we stop hurting others and ourselves and start healing; we start being kinder to ourselves and to each other and find that we belong to each other and need each other. It’s then when a life-giving community can be formed. When we can look at each other and say, “Me too. Me too.”

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The ability to feel connected is how we are wired. It’s what we need to survive and thrive in this life. In order for connection to happen, however, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, to be really seen – to be vulnerable.

And vulnerability is not weakness. That myth is profoundly dangerous and needs to die.

Yes, vulnerability is emotional risk, exposure, and uncertainty, but it’s what fuels our daily lives! It’s our most accurate measurement of courage –> our ability to be vulnerable, to be seen, and to be honest.

Vulnerability is the birthplace for all things beautiful; it’s where innovation, creativity, and change take place. Without vulnerability, there is no growth, creativity or change. Because to create is to make something that has never existed before – and there’s nothing more vulnerable nor more brave than that.

So no, vulnerability is not weakness.
It is courageous and daring and brave and beautiful, and necessary for good things to grow in our lives.

And that’s life right?

Where we are constantly growing and changing and creating – which is why we are called co-creators with God. It’s a beautiful gift he has given us. Let us not squander this precious gift of our short lives on living in shame.

The world needs us to show up, step out, and be real. To empathize with one another, to do life together, and to be able to say, “Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” Amen?

So when you wake up to a new day, and you’re about to enter the arena of what we call life, yes, there may be great pain today; yes, we will be hurt. But we can handle the pain. It’s the shame we have to look out for; let’s not let shame talk us out of facing another day or a new beginning.

It’s shame who says: You’re not good enough. Your spouse left you. Your children hate you. You never finished your college degree. Your dad never paid attention to you. Who do you think you are?

When the shame gremlin starts whispering to us, we feel the temptation to become bullet proof and perfected as our way of protecting ourselves from pain and shame. But that’s not what we are called to do, and that’s not what we want to see of each other. We don’t want to see perfection or a hardened heart.

We want to see each other dare greatly, to take life’s evictions and turn them into our greatest invitations – invitations to a new start, a new beginning. An invitation to realize the end is actually only the beginning. First comes death, then the resurrection.

So will you take it? Will you take the invitation to have a new beginning?

Let’s pray:

Sweet Jesus, we thank you that with you we can overcome shame. We may have moments where we feel that intensely painful feeling of unworthiness, but you have called us by name and you have made us worthy. Worthy of love, worthy of forgiveness, worthy of hope, and worthy of all things beautiful. We want to operate out of those truths. So we ask you to seal those truths on our hearts, minds and souls. May we live out of the identity YOU give us and never out of shame or what shame says of us. Please lavish your grace on us that we may walk in freedom and in love and in courage. To be who you made us to be, to live in community with each other, and to make this world a more beautiful and safe place for all. May your Kingdom come and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

(A lot of my sermon is based off of Dr. Brene Brown’s work. Brene Brown is a researcher on shame and vulnerability and has written some powerful books and has given a few Ted Talks. If you get the chance, I highly encourage you to check out her work.)

[Image: Model Mystery]

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