I experienced shame this morning, and it wasn’t so pleasant.
What do I mean when I write the word shame? Webster says it’s “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety; a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute.” I describe the feeling as a heavy, black, sticky, ickiness; an urge to tuck my chin in, hide my eyes, curl up, and disappear; and a tightly wound twist in my gut. Shame tends to tell me I’m inherently flawed, “less than”, bad, and wrong.
Now, I believe there’s a healthy level of shame (like when we make mistakes, correct, and move on) and then there’s an unhealthy level (like when we make mistakes and proceed to self-flagellate). Not all shame is negative – as the clickable chart above illustrates – but this morning, the shame that came upon me wasn’t serving such a great purpose. It was that tar-like, better-go-hide kind.
See, I was sitting still reading some spiritual literature when I felt the need to put it down and simply breathe. Unexpectedly, my thoughts shifted toward my upcoming birthday. My gut tensed and my throat tightened as I realized that I soon would have to respond to other’s inquiries about my age with a shame-filled “28.” Yuk.
For the last decade my age has been steeped in shame, and there seem to be two primary reasons:
1. I look young. People almost always are surprised when they learn my numerical age, typically responding with comments like, “I thought you were 22, or 23 at the most!” (When I was 22, most thought I was 17.) My head tends to twist those words into biting, belittling criticisms such as, “You’re immature; you’re underdeveloped; you should look different; you don’t wear enough make-up; you’re odd; you’re undesirable; you’re a misfit.” Blah, blah, blah.
2. I often have thoughts of being “off-track.” At age 15 I began to struggle with mental health issues and a severe eating disorder, and was ensnared in that terrible trap for the better part of a dark, painful decade. Several times I spiraled down to the brink of death, and most days it seemed as though my only choice was to continue living (existing is a better description) in bondage to addiction or to take my own life. In many ways I continued to function – excelled academically, held a job, kept a smile glued on my face – but inside I was an absolute mess. My peers’ lives progressed as they took significant steps toward achieving their relational, professional, and personal goals, but I stayed largely stuck in a bitter morass of food and despair. I felt hopeless, helpless, directionless, and purposeless, and with the passing of time it became harder and harder to hang on.
A couple of years back, God rescued me from that seemingly inescapable pit, placed my feet on solid ground, and has miraculously kept me on the path of life. Nonetheless, I still struggle with feeling “behind.” I see 28-year-olds who have husbands, kids, PhDs, blossoming professions, and I can easily fall into that awful “compare and despair” trap. Of course I don’t measure myself alongside age-mates who have also faced major setbacks – only those who are the shining stars. And when I come across teens or early twenty-somethings who are admirably accomplished, my automatic response is even worse: a heaping scoop of shame, coated with a thick layer of anxiety and insecurity, and a cherry of depression to top it off.
Needless to say, historically birthdays have been hard. Each year has added more volume to the voice that lies, “YOU MUST CATCH UP.” Birthdays have fueled my need to achieve, to prove to myself and others that I’m not a failure.
As I sat still this morning, God touched that deep wound within and whispered: “Will you let me heal it?” Wow. How desperately I desire to hold my head high when I say my age. I think I’ll begin to practice. The truth is, I’m right on time.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;
all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared
before I’d even lived one day. (Psalm 139:15-16, The Message)
How do you feel about your age?