“The problem is not the problem. The real problem is much worse.” Sandy Burdick
I can still see the look of abject horror on Alma’s face, and the dark brown eyes opened wide as I approached her. I was about to tell her that she was magnificent, and she was terrified.
Guest post from Bruce Swartz
She was an inmate at a women’s prison where I was part of a team that met weekly with groups of women who were sexually abused as children or adolescents.
In our first session, we always showed the short classic movie, “The Butterfly Circus.”
It is an incredible telling of the gospel story and the impact of a relationship with Christ without mentioning faith or religion.
In it, the leader of the Butterfly Circus, Mendez, encounters a man, Will, with no arms or legs at a different circus’s sideshow.
While others make catcalls or pull back it horror, or even throw tomatoes at him when the crowd clears out, Mendez approaches Will, leans down to look him eye-to-eye, and says in true admiration, “You are magnificent?”
Will is so stunned; he spits in Mendez’ face.
When the movie reaches its dramatic conclusion, we members of the team get up and go look each of the inmates in the face and say “You are magnificent!”
Alma had seen that happen to several of her fellow inmates and now saw me approaching her.
With that look of horror on her face, wide-eyed, she began to shout at me, “No! No! Don’t you dare say that to me.”
The real problem was much worse.
She was there because of her sexual abuse problem, but her real problem was much worse.
Not only had her body been abused in terrible ways, but her spirit was also so deeply wounded she could not and would not allow anyone to perceive her as anything of value.
It broke my heart. The memory is burned deeply in me.
I am convinced that any abuse of a child, adolescent, or adult, be it sexual, emotional, or physical, is an attack on that person’s spirit.
That is what Satan desires.
To attack our spirits in such a way that we don’t perceive ourselves as having any value.
That leads to what John Bradshaw termed “toxic shame.”
We are so deeply wounded spiritually that we believe ourselves to be less than worthless.
And we live out our lives with that as our foundational truth.
It affects all of our relationships because we can never truly be who we think we are. If we did, people would surely reject us, just as we have rejected ourselves.
So we put on masks to hide the scum that we are from the rest of the world. We wear all kinds of masks.
Some of us put a big red “S” (Superman) on our chest and attempt to excel at everything to feel accepted, all the while hiding the secret that we are nothing of value.
Others put on the party hat and become the clown that makes everyone else laugh, deflecting people away from examining us too carefully for fear of being truly found out.
Still, others become bullies and wear a mean façade designed to scare everyone away so that we won’t be exposed.
There are as many different kinds of masks as the number of people who have been harmed.
There’s even the “Good Christian” mask that can be the Christian everyone points to as an example of what a good Christian should be, all the while believing that God hates them and has already rejected them and that they certainly are not deserving of anything good from God.
And so those who have been harmed go through life empty, never tasting of God’s rich love for them, never finding any meaning for the pain that was inflicted on them.
An Empty life
At least that’s how it was for me. Wounded as a child by older children, I had parents who loved me but could not help me with my shame because I didn’t believe I could tell them about it.
Sexually wounded, I was introduced to pornography and became addicted.
I felt doubly shamed.
I was dirty for what had been done to me because my body responded, and I was sure God had to hate me because I was addicted to porn and knew better.
Until God intervened through circumstances and caring people, I lived an angry, empty life, pretending to be a “good Christian.” But, that’s a story for another time.
If solid, survey research data is believed many have been abused in some fashion in their lives.
They have suffered a debilitating blow to their spirit. We don’t have to look far to understand why society is such a mess right now.
The invite to unmask
We need to understand and respond to the wounded in ways that allow them to “unmask” over time and love them no matter what.
Moving away from behavioral Christianity to loving Christianity, where the undying, unending love of Christ is extended to all and at all times.
If behaviors have to be addressed, and they will, the goal is to restore the person’s spirit, not a simple change in behavior.
This takes time, perseverance, persistence, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And most assuredly, a heart that understands its own woundings and is moving ever closer to the ultimate healer of the spirit, Jesus.
Back to Alma.
For nine weeks, we showed her love. We didn’t further shame her when she reluctantly shared some things of which she was ashamed of.
Instead, we encouraged her and enjoyed her.
The last thing we do with each group is show “The Butterfly Circus”. When it is over, once again, look each participant in the eye and tell them they are magnificent.
When I approached Alma this time, she was like an excited school girl who knew she was about to be asked out on a date by a boy she really liked.
She was literally jumping around in her chair, and when I looked into her beautiful eyes and said, “Alma, you are magnificent!” she smiled hugely and excitedly exclaimed, “Yes, I am! My Jesus says so.”
Quotes to consider
- Diets underscore one of the most paradoxical aspects of toxic shame. In dieting and losing weight, one has the sense of controlling and fixing the problem. As you saw earlier, control is one of the major strategies of covering up shame. All the layers of cover-up are attempts to control the outside so the inside will not be exposed.
- In order to be healed we must come out of isolation and hiding. This means finding a person, or ideally a group of significant others, whom we are willing to trust. This is tough for shame-based people.
- Shame becomes toxic because of premature exposure. We are exposed either unexpectedly or before we are ready to be exposed. We feel helpless and powerless. No wonder then that we fear the scrutinizing eyes of others. However, the only way out of toxic shame is to embrace the shame—we must come out of hiding.
- Superachievement and perfectionism are two of the leading cover-ups for toxic shame. As paradoxical as it may seem, the straight-A student and the F student may both be driven by toxic shame.
- The best way to come out of hiding is to find a nonshaming intimate person or social network. The operative word here is “intimate.” We have to get on a core, gut level because shame is core, gut-level stuff. Toxic shame masks our deepest secrets about ourselves; it embodies our belief that we are essentially defective.
- Shame causes us to see our identity as flawed rather than seeing ourselves as having flaws. Dan Allender Hope when you’re hurting
- I think that is God’s plan – to meet me where I am, in all my ugliness, not where I pretend to be or wish I were; to meet me in my weakness and shame and fear and to give me hope that God loves me, that He can change me, and that He can use me. Dr. Larry Crabb
- We cannot count on God to arrange what happens in our lives in ways that will make us feel good.We can, however, count on God to patiently remove all the obstacles to our enjoyment of Him. He is committed to our joy, and we can depend on Him to give us enough of a taste of that joy and enough hope that the best is still ahead to keep us going in spite of how much pain continues to plague our hearts. Dr. Larry Crabb
- When spiritual friends share their stories, the others listen without working. They rest. There’s nothing to fix, nothing to improve. A spiritual community feels undisturbed quiet as they listen, certainly burdened . . . but still resting in the knowledge that the life within, the passion for holiness, is indestructible. It needs only to be nourished and released. Dr. Larry Crabb
Questions to consider
- We present with one problem, but actually, there is a deeper problem underneath. Where have you discovered this in your life?
- How do create safe places for people to be known?
- What would it be like for someone to say to you ‘You’re magnificent’?
Bruce Swartz is a husband, father, and grandfather to a family he loves. Both he and his wife are abuse survivors. God eventually lead him to undertake training as a trauma therapist. Even in retirement, he occasionally walks beside a wounded person who needs a companion in their journey of recovery. He lives in Champaign, Illinois, USA, and can be reached by email.