Here’s the truth: no one is harder on me than me. I have an arsenal of shame statements that are ready to take aim and fire at any moment, and it doesn’t take much to pull the trigger. Oftentimes, I talk to myself like I’d allow no one to speak to my friends, and the worst part is…I agree with this bully so easily. I accept her wounding and bear the scars as if they are deserved.
Last month my laptop computer was stolen from my car one evening while it sat parked in our driveway. This was my first experience with thievery, and once we finally deduced what had happened, my initial thought was, “my fault.” The bully spoke, piercing me with this barb, and I agreed. Shame scars formed over forty-six years began to ache.
Earlier that evening my husband, son, and I had rushed home from a hectic day and hurried upstairs with our arms laden with backpacks, jackets, and carry-out dinner. As we exited the car, I proclaimed, “Grab what you can carry. We’ll come back for the rest!” When we came back thirty minutes later, my computer bag was gone. My husband asked, “Did you lock the car?” His question stung, even though he asked out of curiosity, not accusation. In a whisper, I replied, “No.”
It’s a bad habit of mine. I generally leave the car unlocked. I don’t know if it’s because of my small-town upbringing (after all, my parents never even locked the doors to the house), but I never worry about something like a break-in. Despite many reminders to lock the doors, I most often fail to do so. Now, our car had been ransacked, and my computer stolen. My fault.
The night of the theft I slept fitfully. I wasn’t worrying about the theft or the loss; I was battling accusations of my carelessness, idiocy, and general incompetence. “My fault…so stupid,” replayed in my head as I tossed and turned. The negative self-talk attacked my heart like a volley of arrows hitting their target. I stayed awake with dread, knowing that I would have to report the loss to my school’s technology director the next morning.
When I arrived at school, I went straight to the library, where the tech director’s office is located, to confess the crime. I walked in with my head hung low, carrying the responsibility on my incompetent shoulders. I discovered he wasn’t in yet, so I sat at one of desktop computers to wait. Soon after the first bell rang, one of my sixth grade students came into the library and took a seat at the computer next to mine. Her face was red and splotchy, and her breath was ragged. Tears were streaming down her face.
“What’s wrong Kristin?” I asked, quickly. In a stuttering response punctuated by her sobs, she said, “I forgot…to do…my science homework…Even if I turn it in now…the best grade I can get…is a…D…” Her tears continued as her trembling fingers raced to log onto the computer and hurriedly finish a portion of the assignment. Her breathing revealed she was near hysteria.
“Kristin,” I replied, “Your teachers know what a conscientious student you are. This is only one assignment, one grade. It happens to all of us. Please don’t let it take you out this morning.” I placed my hand on her back and could feel her shallow breathing. I continued to speak calm, encouraging words to her, and as I did, I felt her breath deepen and her shoulders relax. Finally, her tears stopped, and she was able to complete the assignment. When it wouldn’t print, I asked the librarian to help her, and I excused myself.
I immediately fled to the nearest bathroom where my own tears came quickly. I realized as I sat with Kristin that her shame was my shame.
The accusations that she was so violently hurling at herself I was too. The shame and self-loathing that were choking her were also suffocating me. And the kindness and mercy that she deserved I deserved too. It was so instinctual to offer this to her, yet it felt so foreign to extend the same grace to myself. I would not allow this 12-year-old girl to punish herself; however, I was punishing myself in that very moment.
It was such a holy and humbling gift to have the opportunity to care for Kristin that morning, for it was like an out-of-body experience in offering myself care. “You see, this is how it’s done,” God whispered to me, as I tended to my heartbroken student. “Now, take care of yourself.” Like my student, I needed to surrender the shame and to forgive myself.
In his essay “Why You Never Need to Feel Shame,” William Paul Young explains, “We…must confront and disagree with shame and the lies it whispers in the fabric of our souls.” In the quiet of that bathroom stall, I turned to my shame bully and said: “It wasn’t my fault that my computer was stolen. It was a violation, and it wasn’t my mistake that led to the theft.” My breath slowed and deepened. “I am not stupid, and no one thinks I am stupid,” I continued. “That is not true. It’s a lie.” My tears stopped. “I am conscientious and can be trusted. I need to forgive myself and let it go,” I urged. In my head and heart, I turned away from the bully and toward forgiveness.
Later that day I watched as Kristin walked into my class. Her head was held high, and she greeted me with a bright smile. The trauma of the morning seemed forgotten as she began her work. Brené Brown, who has done extensive research on shame, explains, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.” I hope that my encounter with Kristin stopped shame in its tracks as I affirmed that she was indeed worthy – homework, or no homework. It certainly reminded me that I am worthy, even when I forget to lock the car doors.
I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough” by Brené Brown; Penguin Group, 2007.
“Why You Never Need to Feel Shame” by William Paul Young;
Susan Tucker spends her days mothering her two teenage sons, teaching middle school English, and savoring rare moments of quiet and solitude. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her sons and her husband of 21 years. Susan finds life in a beautiful story, an authentic conversation, worship music, and ultimately, in Jesus, the giver of all good gifts.