Waking Up to Shame

When I am going through a rough time in my life and I am vulnerable to my inner demons, their most opportune time to attack is either when I am going to sleep or when I first wake up in the morning. Usually the morning furies are the worst. I may have had a bad dream or I remember something I am afraid of or something difficult I need to do. I start feeling inadequate, hopeless or unlovable in that early morning corridor to the day. When I start down that path I am more vulnerable to depression or anxiety. It can easily spiral downward in a dangerous descent.

I’ve learned to recognize this toxic place now and call it by its name: shame. When I am in a tough place I know I am more vulnerable to attacks of shame. Shame is not just about having a bad day, it is about being a bad person. It is a mistaken belief that I am inadequate, misshapen, unlovable, or beyond repair. We all carry shame, although some of us are not conscious of it. We usually try to conceal it with false self-esteem, or by trying to please people, work harder, blame others, or control our lives.

We connect with our shame when we have experiences that remind us we are not living up to expectations or when we are compared to others. For example, we are not good enough parents, we are not loved or lovable, not smart enough, not slim enough. I felt enormous shame when I was running an organization that focused on healing people and marriages and I could not heal my own marriage. I felt I did not deserve to be leading this organization. When I left the marriage and later was asked to teach a course at a seminary, I was invited to first interview with the dean to discuss my divorce. More shame. Since I had felt that God was instrumental in leading me out of my marriage, this interview compounded my shame.

Where do we get this shame? Oh, its insidious tentacles come from many sources. Our culture prescribes who and how we are to be in order to be successful. So if we do not measure up; if we are not as healthy, athletic, or wealthy as the image projected to us, we can feel shame. If we are compared to anyone else, especially siblings, and we come up short, we can feel shame. If we are parents and our kids do not perform well or they are estranged we can feel we’ve failed. Or if we do not adequately provide for our families shame can cripple us. A quick way to connect with your shame is to observe when you or others might say, “You ought to be ashamed,” or to think of the parts of your life you would not want publicly known.

Unfortunately the church, where we might want to go for solace in our shame, many times either does not address shame or adds to it, in some instances, by harsh teachings on sin and inadequacy. My healing of this religious shame came when I experienced the Extended Ignatian Exercises, an inner journey through the life of Jesus developed by St. Ignatian in the 16th century. In his wise counsel with God, Ignatius started the exercises with the Principle and Foundation, upon which he based all of the rest of the teachings. Principle and Foundation is essentially that we were created to find ourselves in God. And God loves us unconditionally. God created us in God’s image, and knew us in the womb. We can release all else that we cling to because our souls are drawn to God.

Yes, like Adam and Eve, we have fallen from that grace; we sin, we disappoint. But God is always there to heal and reconcile us. When I began to experience that love I was fortified enough to approach my shame. I felt that deep love directly when I was in a dark time in my life and I would awaken consistently about three o’clock AM. God attended sweetly to me, gave me images of hope, brought angels to soothe me, and built up my courage to make difficult choices.

We begin to feel God’s love when we allow God to penetrate our center, our souls. We can start by noticing any moments when we are in contact with that someone beyond ourselves. Then we can let God take root in our daily lives. If I can imagine God loving me like a wise grandparent or an adult friend, I can develop the courage to come closer to my own wounds and ask God to heal me from my shame and self-neglect. It gives me hope for my despair and a new way through my shame.

This slow change, from shame to love, was difficult because I had gotten used to shame. But I found that naming and embracing shame, by speaking and writing about it, slowly turned it into honor; honor of my truths, honor from my creator, honor of my life path of healing. It no longer ruled me or controlled my life. A deeper truth prevailed.

I still feel shame and I still wake up vulnerable to it when I am in a tough place. What helps me most in those early morning hours, is to invite Jesus into the shame with me. When I embrace myself in bed and rest my hand and wrist on my sternum, near my heart, it feels like Jesus is embracing me. I ask myself, “Who loves me?” I start with God and move to those whose faces light up when I enter a room. I often hear God speaking soothingly as I finish that list. Then I slowly recite Psalm 121, which I have now memorized, so I don’t have to get out of bed to read it. By the time I’ve completed that ritual, I’m usually calm enough to get up and my demons are usually weary enough to go back to sleep.

The Psalm goes like this: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. He will not let my foot be moved. He who keeps me will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is my keeper. The Lord is my shade on my right hand. The sun shall not smite me by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep me from all evil; he will keep my life. The Lord will keep my going out and my coming in from this time forth and for evermore.”

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.
Psalm 121 is from the NRSV

Reflections on this essay
When are your demons most active during the day?

What issues arouse your shame?

How does this affect you?

How do you experience God’s unconditional love?

How do you counter your shame?