Rewriting Our Shame Narrative

Adam and EveRecently, my community was eating a meal together and sharing the best and worst parts of our week. We got to Naomi, the thoughtful and wise seven year old that I live with.

She said “This week, I had a performance in front of the entire school and I had an accident right on the stage.” We all took a breath, feeling sad that our dear little friend had to go through that.

But then she finished her sentence with: “And I knew that God was with me.”

It seems that, miraculously, she wasn’t telling us the worst part of her week, but the best part.

My housemate pressed her, “how did you know he was there, Naomi?” Naomi replied “I could feel him on the stage with me. It was like he was right there next to me.” Her eyes were steady. There was absolute certainty in her voice.

It was obvious that she was not disturbed by what happened. Her faith had turned what should have been a moment of humiliation into a moment of communion with God. 

Naomi’s shame narrative was replaced by a storyline of total acceptance. Her resilience has made me wonder if the narrative that I live my life into is based more on consistent shame or on relentless love.

Brene Brown, an expert in this area, defines shame as the deeply painful belief that we are not worthy of love or belonging because of our flaws. Shame is rooted not just in our behaviors, but in the very core of who we are. While guilt says “I did something bad,” shame says “I am something bad.” Guilt says “I made a mistake,” while shame says “I am a mistake.”

The belief that no one would love me if they really knew my deepest self is one of the most prevalent ugly beliefs in my life.  Whether it be my weight or my failed relationships or leaders rejecting or me or the “best friend” syndrome that seems to happen with most men I am interested in, I wonder if I am truly worthy of love.

I am not alone in this predicament. Shame seems to be part of the human condition, going all the way back to Adam and Eve.

Etymologists have linked the modern English word shame with the indo-germanic root kam/kem meaning to cover. The idea of hiding and covering ourselves because we don’t deserve love is one of the central themes in this, the most ancient of narratives.

You know the story: Adam and Eve eat from the tree of Good and Evil after God ask them not to. 

After this, Adam and Eve don’t want God to see them. They cover themselves because they think  they no longer deserve to be seen. The fact that they are now naked is mentioned five times in only a few hundred words. It is a central theme.

Before the sin, they feel no insecurity at all. Afterwards, all they can think of is that the way they were originally made (their nakedness) is somehow shameful. They begin a storyline that says that something is intrinsically wrong with them.

Instead of reacting to the situation by admitting “I did something wrong,” they cover  their nakedness, the very essence of their being, saying “I am something wrong.”

It would be appropriate for Adam and Eve to respond in guilt, saying “I made a mistake, will you forgive me?” Instead, they take it a step further by responding in shame, proclaiming  “I am a mistake. I am not worthy of love or belonging. I can never be close to God again” which leads to the inevitable familiar lie that says, “from now on, I will be an orphan. I am alone.”

Like Adam and Eve, we start out with a clean slate, firm in our identity. But for many of us, messages start to come forth that tell us that we are not loved for the essence of who we are. The message is I have to do something in order to get love rather than I am someone who deserves to be loved.

Sometimes, religion can confuse us with many paradoxical messages. You are a sinner vs. you are a new creation. You are not worthy to tie the straps of his sandals vs. you are so valuable that Jesus paid his life for you.

Sometimes, I tend  to hold on to the everything in me is bad theology more than the one that says I am beautiful in God’s eyes. Even when I do believe God sees me beautiful and that he makes me worthy of love, I have a hard time translating that the way that the people in my life see me, the way that I see myself, the storyline that I write.

I want to rewrite the narrative of my identity, changing it from I am a sinner who is occasionally a child of God to I am a child of God who occasionally sins. 

After hearing Naomi’s story, I wondered if I could learn from the wisdom of this child. Could I face my own audience of shame, the mocking voice that tells me that I am not worthy to receive love?

In my most vulnerable moment, the moment of total exposure, can I stand on the stage hand in hand with God, unscathed by the scoffing because God’s voice is so much bigger…the voice that says there is nothing you can do to make me love you any more, and there is nothing you can do to make me love you any less? 

Can I believe that I am beautiful and worthy of love because he gave everything to make me beautiful and worthy of love? Perhaps this is the new storyline I need to rebuild the landscape of my interior landscape with. 

Now I turn the question to you: Have you struggled with believing your are intrinsically valuable? What are some of the messages that made you believe this? Has religion made this better or worse for you? Has your friendship with God changed anything?

6 thoughts on “Rewriting Our Shame Narrative

  1. Is it possible that the most harmful phrase from well-meaning parents, grandparents or other loving authority figures is “You ought to be ashamed of yourself?”

  2. Thanks for sharing. I never think that I feel shame, but do often feel self-conscious. Once, when I spilled on myself at a church gathering, and was wishing I could just hide, a wise friend simply said, “There is grace.” I had never thought of grace applying to embarrassing situations. But I could receive other’s unconditional acceptance despite my stains, because I knew God’s undeserved gift. Who did I think I was usually impressing, anyway?

    On another note, I know that I have to constantly guard myself from the shaming phrases that come naturally with my own children:
    “What is wrong with you?”
    “I don’t know what to do with you!”
    and the more subtle, “You are x years old! By now you should have learned how to a,b,c.”

    To my parent’s credit, I am certain I didn’t learn those phrases from them. It’s my own frustration boiling over and blaming my kids for inconveniencing me. I’m trying instead to be consistent myself to train them correctly, instead of blaming them for ‘who’ they are.

  3. I feel broken. So in a sense I feel more “spiritual”… I often feel I have no value and therefore should not continue to pretend that somehow I will have value some day. Religion is the only reason I have not given up on life completely. In 2008 I wrote, “I may think I’m worthless but I believe Jesus Christ paid a high price for me”. In my step seven summary in 2014 I wrote, “If my life were my own, I would not want to live it; nevertheless, I am not my own, I have been bought with a price…” I have been thinking a lot about how I want to be able to say with Paul, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9 But I have not heard “My Grace is sufficient for you”.

    I have also been thinking about the “many paradoxical messages” but not really the ones you highlight. I have a lot less guilt and shame about my sin because I have done a lot of hard work in recovery since 2013. It is not a matter of earning anything, rather exposing to the light and no longer trying to hide. The freedom in the beginning was that I was not expected to be all put together and it was enough to just surrender my will and life to God each day in the tiny insignificant ways I know how. Yet I feel I am failing to do everything else I am suppose to do because I don’t know how. I don’t know who I am, and I don’t know how to make effective use of whatever talents I supposedly have. Therefore I feel that I am intrinsically deficient rather then intrinsically valuable.

  4. I am still struggling with shame. Mainly because I knew what I was and what I am now. And returning to that “old” state is a much harder journey than I anctipated. Many times I believe I have to undertake this journey myself, because it is due to my decisions that I am the way I am now.

    However, here is what I have “discovered” about shame on my journey. Shame entered the world, God did not create it. Adam and Eve only realized they were naked AFTER they ate the fruit from the forbidden tree. Adam and Eve try to hide their nakedness by sewing fig leaves together. I don’t know how good a seamstress they were, but if it was me, I really doubt that it would have been a good job. Even though Adam and Eve denied what they did and hid themselves, God forgave them. Not only forgave them, but the first sacrifice was made right there in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 3:21 “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” That skin had to come from somewhere. I joked with my mom one time that Adam and Eve would have looked pimped out in their serpent skin clothes and shoes. Wonder if Eve had a stylish evening purse as well?

    Shame enters into us as well. It is my decision if I want to give it a foothold and make it stay. Yes, sometimes you believe the “truth” that the shame is speaking, but it is still my decision to listen to it. It will always enter, but you can always show it the exit sign. I am still struggling to show shame the exit, but I know that fight is not my own. Even if I have accidents on the stage of life, God is always there.

    • I don’t know how I missed this comment until now….I am writing a lot about Adam and Eve in my new book. This is some great food for thought. Thanks, Pierre! You always say such thought provoking things. Maybe you should write a book!

  5. I am finally reading your book. I just started it and am on Chapter 5. Regarding the previous chapter —”The Lonely Doll” and the stories children tell. I suppose it fits in here—I was thinking about the recurring theme of the stories I wrote as a child, with titles such as “the pumpkin nobody wanted” and “The Mystery of the Purple Grape on Skis”, were about feeling odd or not fitting in but having value nonetheless. Of course the pumpkin turned out to be a great pumpkin and the grape turned out to be really nice and we became friends. The interesting thing is now I am dang near approaching forty and I still have a very difficult time believing God has made me uniquely me for a purpose and I have value. *PS(It was neat how you came across the title of the story at just the right time)

    Pierre — I wish I knew what you became but either way I can kind of relate. I pray for you and hope you find those that can walk the journey with you as God intends for us. He does not intend for us to overcome in isolation.

    Greg R— In the past when someone would say “shame on you” I would say no, I had my shame guard on and that it would just bead up and roll off (like water on scotch guard). Of course I meant my shame guard was Jesus Christ and although it was far from always true I think it was still a fine way to think about it and how it should be.

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