On Shame and Growing Up

I crashed again. I have taken some pretty drastic measures over the past three months to correct the hormone imbalance and was able to come out of it quite quickly, but I was surprised to find that the spiritual depression did not lift even as the physical and emotional symptoms eased.

I confess I threw a bit of a spiritual temper tantrum when I crashed. Really, God? Really? This again? I was angry. I picture myself acting like an immature teenager, stomping all the way up the stairs and slamming the door behind me as I yell, “I hate you!”

Enter: doubt.

The great thing about seasons of doubt is that it forces us to search for answers to the questions we’ve been failing to ask.

Once I came out of the depression, I nevertheless felt as though the door to my faith had jammed after I slammed it shut, and I couldn’t figure out how to step over the threshold and back into faith. Where did God go? Why was he far from me?

Was I the one keeping him at a distance? I wasn’t sure. I was the one who slammed the door, so was I now the one too stubborn to open it? Is what Juli Slattery writes here true?

We have exactly as much of God as we really want…. My spiritual life languishes not because God is stingy with his presence, but because I am too content to operate without him.

I think there is some truth to this. Okay, a lot of truth.

But this felt different. I was searching, so why wasn’t God showing up?

The Heart of the Matter

We aren’t the only ones… Jesus asked God why he was forsaken, and he wasn’t the only one asking; he was actually quoting David in Psalm 22. In Psalm 13, David also wrote,

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
 How long will you hide your face from me?

This is coming from the man after God’s own heart. David wanted more of God, but God hid his face from him. Does this mean that God actually is “stingy” with his presence at times, in contrast to what Juli wrote above? Why would he do that?

My friend Kari found one possible answer in 2 Chronicles 32:31 when she felt this same spiritual loneliness recently:

God withdrew from Hezekiah in order to test him and see what was really in his heart.

Ouch.

When God turns his face away from me, the only face staring back at me is my own. Depression forces me to take a long, hard look in the mirror, to see what is really in my heart.

When I do not feel the light of his love shining down, I am left only with my darkness.

Negative Emotions

Why are so many Christians afraid of this darkness? Why are Christians so bad at embracing negative emotions? Just because they are negative does not mean they are bad.

Anger isn’t bad. Jesus threw furniture in his anger.

Mourning isn’t bad. Jesus wept at the graveside.

Depression isn’t bad. David, Jeremiah, Elijah, and so many outstanding men of faith constantly battled depression. Have you ever noticed how many of David’s psalms are laments? (Hint: it’s a lot.)

David, a man after God’s own heart, understood that there is room in our walk with God to examine the darkness inside our own hearts. He didn’t deny the darkness. He didn’t pretend everything was okay and stuff it down. No, David was mature enough to look his darkness in the face.

What if these negative emotions are exactly what we need to pay more attention to? What if these negative emotions are the key to understanding what is really in our hearts? What if that understanding is so important that God will actually withdraw his presence from us so that we have no choice but to face ourselves?

Peter Scazzero wrote an entire book about how it is impossible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature.  David understood that you cannot ignore your sadness, anger, and fear and still expect to grow in your faith.

Isn’t that the truth? Our faith does not grow when we feel happy, compassionate, and secure.

Uncovering the Primary Emotion

I am on a journey to grow up—spiritually and emotionally. It is time to stop wasting my energy on feeling depressed and instead ask myself why I feel so depressed in the first place. This means facing the darkness head on, not denying it. This means asking myself the hard questions about what I am truly feeling—the primary emotion at the root of my pain—and embracing that, not running from it. Denying those negative emotions is perhaps at the root of my depression. If we stuff them down long enough, the negativity will ooze out around the edges.

I stumbled upon a primary emotion I didn’t know was motivating me recently. I sat down at my kitchen table at the end of a long day, face-to-face with the pigsty my main level had become this week. I started to fight back tears, but stopped myself long enough to ask what I was actually feeling. I “tried on” a couple of feelings: overwhelmed, defeated, weary, but none of them fit quite right. I did feel all of those things, but they felt more like accessories.

I finally tried, I feel shame, and it was then that I burst into tears.

I was surprised. Shame is not at all what I thought I was feeling going into this little experiment, but I knew the instant I landed on it that that was the one.

Internalizing Shame

Why shame?

What exactly is shame? I didn’t really know at the time, so I have started on a journey to find out.

In Healing the Shame that Binds You, John Bradshaw explains the difference between healthy shame—what forms the basis of moral behavior and ethical responsibility—and the shame that can also be internalized as a destructive identity. He discusses how shame in itself is not bad; it is part of what makes us human, and, in fact, is one thing that distinguishes us from all other animals. (Humans are the only creatures in all of creation that can blush out of shame and embarrassment. I find that interesting.) Bradshaw even goes so far as to say that healthy shame reminds us that we are not God, keeps us humble, and is the very source of our spirituality.

Okay, whoa.

So where did I go wrong?

Bradshaw observes that the trouble begins when this healthy human emotion is transformed into an unhealthy state of being that takes over our whole identity; we begin to believe that we are inherently flawed and defective as a human being—which leads to the creation of a false self that is not defective and flawed, in order to cover up our authentic selves—a process he refers to as “soul murder.” He and the experts he quotes believe that this sort of shame and soul murder is the source of many mental illnesses, including depression.

And this is exactly what played out in my kitchen the other night.

The house is always such a mess. Why can’t I keep up with it? What is wrong with me? I am a poor excuse for a wife/mother/housekeeper. I will never be good at this. I am not good enough. I am a failure.

The funny thing is that it sounds completely ridiculous when I write out my internal thought process. I am not my house and my house is not me. My house does not define who I am. As my mom likes to say, “Let’s not ascribe morality to this.” My inherent goodness or badness has nothing to do with my housekeeping prowess or lack thereof.

Christian Maturity

The antidote to this kind of unhealthy shame and false self is unconditional love and acceptance of your real authentic self, of course.

I think this is the difference between spiritual and emotional maturity and immaturity. The immature cling to their false self; the mature are firmly rooted in their authentic self—no matter what.

This plays out in so many different ways in our lives. For example, Paul Byerly over at the Generous Husband writes,

Your pain has far more to do with your immaturity than it has to do with [your wife’s] immaturity. Sure, much of what she does and doesn’t do is because of her immaturity, but the reason it hurts so much is almost entirely on you. 

Next time your kids are being mean to each other, think about it. Most of what they do to hurt each other emotionally wouldn’t faze you at all. The reason for this is two-fold: you are mature enough to not care, and you clearly see their words are coming from their own immaturity. The same is true for adults if we can just see it. Some of it is intended to hurt us, or get a reaction. Some of it has nothing to do with the target; it’s all about the immaturity, pain, and need of the one doing it.

They say that time heals all wounds. Maturity takes time. Does this mean that maturity heals our wounds, or at least prevents future offenses?

I think so. Paul talks about the benefits of growing up:

I enjoy everything more, and I hurt less. I still have plenty of struggles, but I’m learning to beat each new problem with less stress and effort than in the past. My only regret is taking so long to get serious about growing up.

I am serious about growing up.

Breakthrough

And so God doesn’t feel so silent anymore. In fact, I can’t keep up. I am spending my evenings looking into what a spiritually mature person looks like according to scripture. I have a lot of growing up to do.

It’s exciting though. When you are younger, there is always so much to look forward to. At ten years old, I looked forward to 13 when I could be considered a teenager, at 13 I looked forward to 16 when I could drive, at 16 I looked forward to 18, and at 18 to 21, etc, etc. We look forward to these milestones because each of them comes with new privileges. Responsibilities too, yes. But a whole new world opens up to us. The world becomes a bigger place.

I am excited to explore my expanding, maturing faith.

“Look to him that you may be radiant with joy, and your faces may not blush with shame.” (Ps. 34:5)

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About kneumair

Karen Neumair is a lover of God and a lover of words, especially when those two things come together. She has experienced multiple depressive episodes in her life, most severely after the birth of her second daughter, but is overwhelmingly thankful for how God has used her depression to teach her more about Who He is (and who she isn’t). Wife to Chris and Mommy to Hannah, Becca, and baby Lizzy.
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3 Responses to On Shame and Growing Up

  1. Sadie VK says:

    Beautifully written, as usual. We talked about Elijah’s depression in Bible study recently, and our leader asked the question, “Why do people hide their sadness/depression?” I could speak from experience when I said, “I feel like it’s not allowed in Christian circles. We’re continually told to count our blessings and consider trials as pure joy and to stop whining about our first world problems.” I’ve always been struck by the amount of ranting and raving David did. He got angry with God, he asked hard questions, he admitted to feeling despair. I think, as a church, we’re too quick to gloss over the hardship in favor of fake joy, instead of using the hardship/depression/etc as means for growth.

  2. Pingback: On Motherhood and Growing Up | karenneumair

  3. Pingback: Depression is My Superpower | karenneumair

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