How many of you have looked into the mirror and been disappointed with the reflection? How many of you have resented the reflection? How many have experienced a violent contempt with the reflection? Disappointment, yeah, I get that; but contempt and hatred, that is not right. I had a problem with self-loathing for a long time.
In my twenties, I didn’t even know I had a problem, I just thought that was the way I was. One moment I was trying to be confident and in control, the next moment I was filled with self-condemnation and guilt. I brought these emotional saboteurs into my marriage without realizing their influence and power. Although having children helped me focus on others than myself, it would become apparent that these components were not going anyway. Little did I know there was another element lurking around my dark emotional closet: shame.
When the beauty of my dreams was being suffocated by the ugliness of my reality, these powerful voices of self-loathing and contempt became loud and unrelenting. Eventually my marriage ended, and my family had a time of refuge and a fragile peace. However, when funds ran out and the neighborhood became dangerous, I moved in with family in hopes of resettling on the Peninsula. Little did I know I was fleeing the frying pan only to jump into the fire.
It was not a good fit, but there was no alternative at the time. Within three months of living with family members, I was so low that I felt I did not deserve to exist. I could not afford to live. I had absolutely no value whatsoever since I felt that value came from earning money, and I had none. I was on welfare, I had no current skills to get a job having been home for twenty years with kids. I was face to face with failure, economic hardship, and profound feelings of worthlessness. Nevertheless, without these realizations, I would not have experienced the greatest growth of my emotional life.
Around this time, I was reading Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, and I read this quote, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” This truth sunk deep within in me and that is the point where I began my journey out of the pit of self-loathing toward a healthier self-respect. I blamed myself for so much, my husband’s drinking, my parents’ unhappiness, my kids’ suffering, etc. Typical Catholic guilt….but it wasn’t guilt, it was a shame so heavy and pervasive that it had invaded all areas of my life and was at the very center of my being, but I didn’t know that yet.
Over the next year and a half, I gradually grew, I began to treat myself as if I were a close friend. I would never say to my friend the things I said to myself in the mirror. I stopped the mirror talk, and I began to grow.
One night, five years ago, my little girls and I were randomly quoting Scripture – something we never do – but it was fun. They had memory verses from school. Ellie quoted Zephaniah 3:17, “The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty.” I had heard this verse before, but this evening it stuck and I reread the entire verse.
For the Lord your God is living among you.
He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness.
With his love, he will calm all your fears.
He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.
Zephaniah 3:17 – NLT
And what I could only call a moment of grace I could see God Himself singing over me in love in the same manner I express my love toward my kids. I could understand that from being a mom, and even better, I could feel it. It was an overwhelming moment.
Around the same time, I read Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. When she started talking about shame, I realized how much of my emotional make-up was shame related, not just guilt. I finally could see it. I had been blind in shame for so long.
Not long after I read that book, one night, there was an argument going on at the house, and I went upstairs to help broker a peace, but only created a greater skirmish. I went downstairs feeling like I had always felt: crappy, worthless and unable, as a Christian, to make things right, better or even bring peace.
As I stood in the hallway, I had an epiphany. I came to the understanding that a lot of our family’s emotional dynamics were shame-related. A family member, unable to take responsibility for their actions, perhaps from their own pain no doubt, had, for years, shifted their shame and guilt to other family members including myself. I can’t tell you how earth shattering this illumination was. It was like that apron the dentist puts on you, the leaden one for x-rays, and that God took this leaden apron of shame off of me, and I floated to the the surface and breathed the fresh air of freedom and non-condemnation.
At the same moment, almost audibly, I could hear Paul’s glorious and resounding ruling from Romans: “Therefore, there is no condemnation for those is Christ Jesus.” I had been a Christian for thirty years, and that night I felt like a new Christian, I had been born again again, the decades seemed to fall away, and I was basking in the love and acceptance of the Heavenly Father.
Now I know what Paul means that there is no condemnation, no condemnation from the guilt of my own or others’ sins. I know now what it feels like to be loved by God and be freed from shame and guilt. Thirty years as a Christian and I never felt like I did on that December night. Oh what a night, O Holy Night!