Years of bullying at school have created wounds in me so deep, that even today, a certain word or a certain look will send my emotions spinning out of control. I spent years trying desperately to be like everyone else. Pretend it doesn't hurt. Don't let them see you cry. Never show weakness. All the while, never being able to completely drown out the voices in my head--You will never be good enough...pretty enough...smart enough...fast enough...enough....enough.
You cannot be alive without being wounded. As a result of the wounds we receive growing up, we come to believe that some part of us is marred. Shame makes us believe that we don't measure up. We aren't strong. We don't have what it takes. We aren't lovely or captivating. (Paraphrased from John and Stasi Eldredge.)
Maybe you were told you weren't pretty enough, strong enough, athletic enough, fast enough, smart enough... This desire to be "enough" is at the core of both men and women. In their books Wild at Heart and Captivating, John and Stasi Eldredge explain how every boy wonders, "Do I have what it takes?" And every little girl longs to know, "Am I lovely?" When these questions are not answered "yes," and when we don't measure up, we are haunted with a profound sense of guilt and shame.
When I started school, I was reminded every day that I was not enough. All my clothes were hand-me-downs from a girl a number of years older than me. By the time anything fit me, it was hopelessly outdated. I was the only girl in the class with short hair. I was tall and skinny. By third grade, I had thick glasses (picked out by my mother), enormous feet, and I was hopelessly un-coordinated. And so, more often than not, I found myself being humiliated and ridiculed. Four-eyes. Dandy Long Legs. Green Giant.
John and Stasi Eldredge write, "The only thing more tragic than the things that happened to us, is what we have done with them." The more I was humiliated, the harder I tried to fit in. I tried to look, think, and act just like everyone else, because I was not good enough. So I bought my own clothes. I grew out my hair. I wore lots of makeup. I got contacts. But no matter how much I changed on the outside, the damage on the inside was done.
No matter how many compliments I received, it was never enough, because the problem with shame is that it makes you believe that you are fundamentally defective. You embrace the messages of your wounds and believe it's all your fault. Even when the mean voices on the outside stop, you can still hear them in your head.
Shame affects how you do relationship with others: your friends, your parents, your children, your spouse. It affects how you handle disappointments, inconveniences, stress. Every little thing I don't get right the first time, every job I apply for but don't get, every word of correction spoken to me, is just another jab in the wound. Another reminder that I wasn't enough.
Just like with grief, we build coping mechanisms so we don't have to live in a world of pain. As John Visser writes in his book Olive Shoots Around the Table, we come up with all sorts of strategies to protect ourselves from being hurt again. Don't feel. Don't think. Don't cry. But in doing so, "we become alienated from our true selves, and can never become the people God intended us to be. It is only in dealing with the root of our shame, that we can re-build a true sense of identity."
Recently, I took another step in my journey of healing. After two years of trying to avoid her, and a few awkward meetings where I couldn't avoid her, I met face-to-face with one of the Mean Girls who had tormented me for years. By the grace of God, she is not the same girl I knew back then. And by the grace of God, I have been able to forgive her.
Has this magically healed all my wounds and gotten rid of all my shame? Nope. (It's actually brought up a bunch of crap that I'd rather forget... Even as I write this, I cringe at the memories! Even if everyone who ever wronged me/hurt me/said something mean about me, stepped forward and apologized, it could never un-do what's been done. I still have days where the pain is so big and so overwhelming that all I can do is lay on my bed sobbing, and cry out through the tears, "Jesus, deliver me!") But it's a step in the right direction. And a step to what I hope will be the beginning of a new and beautiful friendship.
To learn more about wounds and grieving, Olive Shoots Around the Table by John Visser is a great resource. So are Captivating and Wild at Heart by John Eldredge.