Earlier this month I announced I would write on the topic of shame. Little did I know that we would be walking through this together. I uncovered a new layer of trauma in counseling and I can’t stop going over the tendrils of shame that still try to sink their way into my thought life, my relationships, and my daily outlook.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to write a Biblical, grounded way to define shame but I can’t quite craft a succinct definition that captures it. Instead let me tell you what it feels like (maybe you can relate).
It’s heavy. Pervasive. Dark.
It feels like an erupting volcano that spills its hot breath and messy lava over everything in its path.
It feels like piles and piles of laundry I can’t quite stay on top of, so I succumb to the pile and just lay there in the mess.
It feels like a knotted ball of string in the core of my gut, growing and getting more tangled as I try to ignore it.
It feels like treading water in the middle of deep ocean waters, with tired arms and legs and no land in sight.
It’s chaotic. Suffocating. Toxic.
While I’ve been wrestling through this place, I’ve thought of you many times, friend. I’ve thought of you wading through the lava mess, trying to untangle yourself, on the other side of this very same ocean. I want to call out to you and say, “we’re in this together.”
Shame doesn’t want us to link arms. It isolates us and keeps us in fear, secrecy, blame, and judgment.
But here’s what Brene Brown says about shame:
“If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame…The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too. If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path.”
Ann Voskamp’s words echo Brene’s:
“Shame dies when stories are told in safe places.”
So that’s what I’m doing this week. I’m telling my stories in safe places. I sit in my counselor’s office and tell her these new revelations to my past. She says, “Now it’s not a secret anymore.” We’re unknotting the ball and laying it down string by string.
I cry to my husband about my overwhelm, and then we dig into the laundry pile together (this is actually literal- I can’t stay on top of the dirty laundry ha).
I call my best friend and leave her a long voicemail filling her in, as I step out of isolation and the lava cools at my feet. She responds and says that she hears me and she loves me.
Friend, I may not have a perfect path forward for you to get rid of your shame. I’m just figuring it out myself right now, too. But what I can do is shout to you from my side of the ocean.
You’re not alone. We’re in this together.
“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” -Proverbs 4:23
Remember yesterday I shared about the fence versus the open field? While an open field sounds beautiful, a fence is a necessary and healthy boundary created to keep the safe things inside the unsafe things out. It is a property line that says, “here’s where I end and you begin” (read Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries for more on this).
Here’s why I think this is important in our discussion of vulnerability:
Vulnerability must go hand in hand with wisdom. We must use wisdom with who and how we share our stories, our time, and our hearts. If someone proves over and over again that they are untrustworthy, it would not be wise to continue sharing our deepest hurts or secrets with them. However, when someone has spent time cultivating safety with us by earning our trust, we can open the gate and let them into the fence.
My raw vulnerability that comes with fresh pain is best shared with those three people who have earned my deepest trust and are closest to my fence. Some of the things I am just now sharing about in my writing happened 10 years ago. I needed the safety of a closed fence, plenty of time, and safe people to process/heal before I shared more vulnerably with wider circles. I’ve spent the past 6 years particularly in private with a very small group of loved ones/mentors as God moved those raw wounds to healed scars.
Even now, there are things I choose to hold back, as it would not be wise for me to disclose them. This is not isolation, but is the result of prayerful discernment. I recognize that vulnerability on those topics is not safe or beneficial for me and could hurt others. So healthy vulnerability does not mean open fields and letting everyone in to the raw processing. God has taught me so much about the active process of checking my motives in my vulnerability (is it for validation, acceptance, assurance, healing, connection?). I must pray about what I share before I open my mouth to verbally vomit vs. share with others from a place of grounded healing.
I believe vulnerability is a gift in relationships, but it MUST be used in balance:
- Vulnerability with wisdom
- Tenderness within healthy bounds
- Softness with strength
- Or my favorite from Mike Foster, open heart with backbone
There is a balance to living authentically. There is actually great freedom and LIFE through using healthy boundaries and learning to tend to our fences. Is this something you’ve learned about? What are some of the ways you practice wise vulnerability in your life?
Like a field of wildflowers
Her heart was wide open
She wore it on her sleeve, for all to see
And that heart was welcoming, soft, unguarded
The trouble with her open heart is that she kept giving it away
She overshared and she over-trusted
She spilled her soul to those who would listen
And hoped they would hold her wildflower soul with gentle hands
But they trampled the flowers and broke her heart
So she built a brick wall around herself
“Now, no one can hurt me. No one can get in.”
The walls were so high, the sun couldn’t even reach her
In the shadows, her world grew smaller, colder
The grass withered and the flowers wilted
Her heart became hard like the very brick around it
After a while, she couldn’t feel anything…
Sure, the pain couldn’t enter in, but neither could the joy
She missed the warmth of the sun and the scent of the flowers
She asked for Someone stronger and wiser to help tear down the wall
Together, they removed the bricks one by one
He told her about a new way to keep her heart safe
“Let’s build you a fence,” He said
“There will still be sunshine and warmth, but you will be able to protect your heart gently.
I will guard your heart for you when you don’t know how, and this gate will help you let love in again, when you’re ready.”
She found a balance between that wide open wildflower field and the heavy brick wall.
They built a fence, and the flowers now bloomed in love and safety.
– – –
I can’t wait to share more with you this week about vulnerability with others- wisdom, healthy vs. unhealthy vulnerability, Biblical examples of the concept, and boundaries.
I’d love to hear–do you connect most with the image of the wide open field, the brick wall, or the fence?
When I was in my darkest place, my pain lied to me. It told me that I was all alone. It whispered that no one would understand my hurt. That I was a burden.
So I shoved the pain down for years until I no longer could hold it inside. I remember the day I finally opened up. My best friend and I went out to lunch. I could barely eat, sick to my stomach knowing I needed to tell her how bad things were. Saying it outloud made it real, and I had no clue how I was going to move forward from here. But I knew I had to share to get out of the pit. After lunch we sat in a parking lot until I finally felt brave enough to talk. I shared how bad things were in my relationship and the thoughts I wrestled with in the darkness. She listened. She gently cried with me, told me how much she loved me, and said she would fight with me to help me get through.
That day marked the beginning of my healing journey. While I was coming to terms with my own pain in silence for months, it still felt too big for me to carry on my own. It took opening my heart a little bit and letting someone else in to bring me out of isolation and into connection and freedom.
That friend has trekked all the way up the mountain with me. As I got braver, I linked arms with another friend or two who joined me on the journey. It made the burden lighter and the healing process easier than if I’d tried to shoulder it on my own. I added a counselor and a support group of women to my mountain climb.
If you are in that pit of darkness with your pain, please know that you don’t have to do this on your own. Start small in sharing. Vulnerability doesn’t have to be a public speech to a room full of people or a social media post to thousands about your deepest secrets. It starts with finding just one person who makes you feel seen and heard. Find just one person who makes you feel safe.
Here are some of the qualities of the people I consider “safe” in my life when I need to be vulnerable and share. A safe person:
- Listens without judgment.
- Makes space and time for me.
- Does not try to fix the problem. He/she may offer suggestions or challenge me when it’s safe to do so (after the initial sharing/if I’ve asked for it), but their initial response is just listening.
- Meets me with empathy instead of pity/sympathy.
- Proves that they are trustworthy (holds your story in confidence, does not gossip).
- Is also vulnerable with me (when appropriate; my counselor cannot be vulnerable with me about her own journey, but she is still on my list of safe people). I prefer to share my heart with close friends who are also open with their own pain, thoughts, and stories.
Do you have a safe person or people in your life? If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear who’s trekking up the mountain with you? If not, what are some of the qualities that would make someone feel safe to share your story with?
“You can’t heal a wound by saying it’s not there,” -Jeremiah 6:14 (TLB)
When I was in middle school, I fell on my knee at a friend’s house. We were playing charades on the treadmill (questionable judgment) and she gave me the prompt, “Pretend you’re running in the park and you see a cute guy.” I stopped running upon seeing this invisible cute guy, and the treadmill threw me back into the wall. The treadmill continued to run, with my knee catching the brunt of it. We laughed about it but it really hurt, since the fall scraped off several layers of skin. I put a band-aid over it and went back to playing. Our game distracted me, but under the surface I was still embarrassed by the fall and my knee still hurt.
For the first few days, I continued to wear band-aids on my knee. The wound looked gross, so I covered it up with a fresh bandage each day. After a week, I tried to go without a bandage. My knee hurt from bumping up against my desk, and from air blowing across the wound. A classmate pointed to my knee and said how it looked like “elephant skin,” a grayish, wrinkled layer where my body was trying to heal. Because I hadn’t given it a long enough chance to sit exposed to the air, it was having a hard time healing. But I was more embarrassed by what others thought than healing properly, so I went back to wearing band-aids.
We can only ignore the discomfort for so long. I can get by with a bandage on the wound for a little while, but eventually I have to remove the band-aid and stop covering up the wound. I have to clean out the infection and expose it to air and light to let it heal properly.
It’s tempting to ignore the wounds though, isn’t it? It’s easier to stuff the feelings than to let ourselves feel them- especially when the emotions that rise up are difficult. It’s tempting to push past the hurt instead of slowing down long enough to properly heal. It’s common to numb the symptoms of the pain, rather than addressing the source of the pain. We do patch-work on our problems instead of looking at the whole picture, so that God can in turn make us whole.
It’s scary to actually look at the wound, to admit that we’re hurting, and to surrender to the healing process. But in the case of my middle school knee, that’s what it took for new cells to generate and the wound to heal. In the case of our past hurts and current discomforts, true reflection and vulnerability are important for new life to enter in.
There’s a verse in Jeremiah that’s stuck with me for the past few years in my recovery work: “You can’t heal a wound by saying it’s not there.” I’ve seen this to be true in my own life, related to healing from trauma and unhealthy relationships. If I ignored the memories or tried to avoid triggers, the wounds were still present. The longer I let the unhealed trauma stay beneath the surface unaddressed, the more room I left for unhealthy coping mechanisms or “infections” that made it worse. I carried the trauma and pain into new relationships and settings, and projected my past pain onto new people. I viewed life through the lens of my hurt, instead of the wholeness God intended for me.
In order to step towards healing, I had to finally take off the “bandages” of busyness, new relationships, and my denial of any issues. I had to make space to say, “I’m hurting. I need help.”
When we’ve spent a long time ignoring pain, it can be really uncomfortable to sit with it. But I believe feeling the pain (without numbing) is what leads us to seek healing. I had to learn to identify what I was actually feeling, what I needed, what I was scared of, and even what I hoped for as a result of healing. It took time for me to learn that those hard feelings, memories, and fears did not make me a bad person or a poor example of a Christian. They just made me human, and showed that the brokenness of this world affects all of us.
Last week, I shared about vulnerability with God, and how He wants us to bring all of our hearts to Him. When we know that there is a safe place to let down our walls and take off the bandages, it creates a safe place for us to be honest and open with ourselves.
Eventually, the wound on my knee became a scar. The skin looks a little different there, and it’s a reminder of a former hurt. But it no longer stings or burns when the air hits it. It’s no longer raw “elephant skin”- it’s just a light pink circle, barely visible to the eye.
When we make the space to sit with our wounds, we can invite God in to meet us in our pain. That willingness to be vulnerable with ourselves and others, in the safety of God’s presence, brings restoration. After we find that healing, we may carry the scars of the past, but they no longer fester in pain beneath the surface, begging for us to pay attention. They can now serve as reminders of His redemption, and remind us of His power made perfect in our weakness.