I am going to admit painful things here. No one likes to have all their “stuff” hanging out for the world to see. Therefore, we tend to hide it and put on the best face we can so that people will think well of us. But sometimes the stuff is so deep and painful that it drives us to do things which make us unhappy, hard to live with, and in need of help. This has been the story of my life unfortunately, starting at a very early age.
Father Elias, my spiritual director, has a unique ability to sense what I need and direct my actions accordingly. A couple of weeks ago, he suggested I read John Bradshaw’s book HEALING THE SHAME THAT BINDS YOU. From the very start I deeply identified with what Bradshaw was saying, including the many examples he gave from counseling others who were bound by feelings of shame. Let me see if I can give you a thumbnail sketch.
There are two kinds of shame. Good shame, which comes when we violate moral standards, either those of society or our own standards. Good shame comes from doing acts which cause us guilt, and the guilt can drive us to modify our behavior appropriately.
Then there is toxic shame. Toxic shame starts early in life, created by parents and/or social peers who make a child feel that he is a walking mistake in life. Never good enough, never smart enough, never strong enough. This kind of shaming can come from several sources: mental or sexual abuse, ignoring the child, taunting, or any other actions which make a child ashamed just to be. The wounded child grows into an adult with deep loneliness inside, a sense of separation from people, and an inability to connect with the world properly. The saddest part of this is that the adult is desperate inside for the love and acceptance but does not know how to receive it. Toxic shame creates a hole in the soul so large that even if one does happen to enter into a relationship with a truly loving and caring person it is not enough. It is like having a hole the size of a thirty thousand gallon swimming pool and pouring a cup of water into it. The love given simply cannot overcome the years of draining the emotional pool.
This has been my life.
This passes down from generation to generation. The man who was raised in toxic shame cannot relate properly to his children. Thus he raises a child who in turn cannot relate properly to his children. I have had the sorrow of seeing my children become just like me, even though I tried not to be like my father. Example: I never once heard my father say “I love you.” to me. That was one thing I managed to do with my children. But it was not enough. There was still that emotional distance which I couldn’t overcome. Simply put, I could have been more emotionally involved in their lives. I was too busy trying to find a way to feel good about myself. This is what drives people with toxic shame – finding ways to overcome the void inside — either externally, such as by getting praise from others, or internally, using addictions which affect the body, such as drugs, alcohol, or sex. Sadly, no matter how much praise one gets for perfect performance, or how many orgasms the sex addict experiences, it never fills the need. I know. Been there, done that. You always feel empty. Something is missing.
So where does false piety enter into this picture? If this shame is generational, then it must go all the way back to Adam and Eve, yes? Prior to their transgression of God’s command, Genesis 2:25 says, “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” I find it fascinating that the word “shame” comes into play here. Toxic shame is fear of being exposed, that people will see me for what I really am. Adam and Eve hid from their loving Father because they felt this. I believe this same sense of naked vulnerability and toxic shame can drive us religiously. Look at Augustine’s pronouncements about mankind. He claimed we were a “massa damnata” (a damned mass), utterly worthless, and deserving of eternal torment. I cannot help but feel that this came from the licentious life Augustine lived prior to his conversion and his sense of worthlessness as he remembered that past life. Like Adam and Eve, there was a shamed part of his soul that could not comfortably face God.
I also find it interesting that in the Bible, nakedness is associated with shame. To be naked is to be shown to the world for who you really are. There is no fancy clothing to indicate power or glory, just the exposure of a body which is weak and in the process of dying daily. There are open sores, wounds, sicknesses. Shame-filled people, with their inner sense of worthlessness, do not wish to expose themselves to others. They either cover this up by becoming highly successful, driven people whom the world admires, or they give up and use the sensuality of bodily addictions to numb their feelings of worthlessness.
Unfortunately, the very religion which should help us out of our shame is far too often used instead to deepen our sense of unworthiness. One of the external addictions Bradshaw mentions is religious addiction – the bearers of false piety. Religious addicts transfer to God the Father the toxic relationship they had with their parents. I will use my own life as an example:
I could never please my father. Never. He was unable to give a compliment, not only to me, but to anyone. He was a emotionally cold man who was distant to me. I grew up trying to find a way to please him, to get his attention, to feel that I was important to him. Doing this, I became an obnoxious perfectionist. The underlying psychology is this: if I finally manage to do something perfectly, perhaps I will hear my father say, “I love you, son. I am so proud of you.” Never happened. I ‘ll tell you what did happen. My father developed a habit of calling me stupid. If he didn’t do that, his body language or a roll of the eyes said it for him. In other words, both through verbal statement and physical gesture, I was made to feel worthless. I was a mistake walking around his house.
Now transfer that to God the Father. Throw in all the fundamentalist preachers who think they are serving God by constantly harping on how sinful you are, how God is not pleased with you if you go to the movies, or drink alcohol, or belong to the wrong church. Oh, you will hear about the Cross and that God loves you. For maybe two minutes. After a sermon of thirty minutes to an hour telling you what a worthless dung pile you are. The emphasis in fundamental religions of any flavor is always about the things that God finds wrong and annoying – including you!
After being rescued from a life of debauchery which was killing me, the first preaching I constantly heard was that if we weren’t winning souls to Jesus we were wasting God’s time and He should just take us Home. In other words, the inner dysfunctional perfectionist child in me heard that just like my earthly father, God the Father was not pleased with me unless I was doing this. I absorbed this idea and became a real annoyance to be around. I couldn’t take an interest in people personally. No, within five minutes of meeting someone I had to beat them over the head with a King James Bible and tell them they were on their way to hell. I had to please God so He would love me.
Can you imagine what a heavy weight this sort of preaching puts on the soul of someone who is already wounded inside? The more things I was told about God’s demands, the more I felt I needed to do in order to get Him to approve of me. And this was not just about pleasing an earthly father, this was the God who, if you did not please Him, would throw you right into an eternal lake of fiery torment. Forever. Hell preaching is the Filet Mignon of fundamentalist living! The “free salvation in Christ” came at a rather great cost to me and to my family. Good preaching would have helped heal me. What I heard only made me sicker and more driven.
I became a pious fraud. I was in church every time the doors opened, gave my tithe faithfully, sang in the choir, went out on “Thursday Witnessing Night,” and adopted the language of condemning anyone who was not of our religious persuasion. People would observe the way I was living and tell me, “Oh, God is going to do great things with your life.” They didn’t realize that the extreme religious activities I was involved with were not from a heart filled with love, but rather with toxic shame and a fear-filled need to please what I saw as an implacable Father. After all, I had been told that if I didn’t tithe, God would find a way to get what was His, like making my car break down or having an illness hit the family. Yes, I actually heard that in a sermon one Sunday!
The sad part was that I didn’t realize that I had transferred my relationship with my earthly father to my heavenly Father. The even worse part is that even though I have now come to realize this, I find myself still being bound by these toxic thoughts.
And ultimately I find myself wondering just how many other people are bound by the same fear. For them, God is not the love who came down from heaven to die so that all are saved. No! You must be a member of this church, or that church, you must believe this, or that, or you are going to hell, brother! Now get it right – OR ELSE! These same people are horrified and indignant when anyone suggests that God is love so big that He has defeated death by His death and will save all with no exceptions. They are fundamentalists who are addicted to their theology, their church, their religion because they cannot see their way out of a religion of toxic shame that they were taught. Some of them are even priests in the Orthodox Church who should know better. But for them, God is offended, and if you don’t do and believe everything just so, you are in deep kimchee, pal! And Universal Salvation — Ooooooooh! Those of us who believe in a love this big are just itching for God to whup up on us!
So this morning at prayer, I simply told Jesus that I’m tired of all this. I’ve come to realize that everything I ever “did for Jesus” was really doing it for myself to assuage my toxic shame and to hopefully make God love me. I told the Lord the truth and admitted that by myself, I cannot live the Christian life – at all.
I’ve come to realize my illness. Now my great hope is that I come to realize just how much my Father loves me. Unconditionally.