A wise and insightful friend recently got me thinking about ways to de-fuse shame. Shame has made an occasional appearance on this blog, and my friend and I explored how we might take a trusted approach to healing shame—affirmations—one step further.
As background, shame isn’t so much about the bad things we did or the bad things that happened to us as it is about the lies we believe about ourselves. When we tried to make sense of the bad things that happened, we started believing something untrue. For example, young children often blame themselves for losing a parental relationship, whether through divorce, incarceration, addiction or death. The child believes—erroneously—that if he had only been better in some nebulous or quantifiable way, events would have unfolded differently. Adults would have made different choices or God would have.
Child sex abuse survivors notoriously and tragically internalize their abuse in a way that assumes some culpability for the perpetrator’s actions. That is a cold hard lie. Children are not responsible for adult actions against them (or against anyone or anything else). The simple truth is adults are solely responsible for their own actions.
Well, it sounds simple except for when a lie has been ingrained through years or decades of repetition. One of my earliest experiences working in domestic violence shelters showed me how powerful repetition of a lie can be. While eating dinner with a group of women and kids in the shelter, a tall, lanky woman seemingly out of nowhere said, “You know what? I’m not fat.” We looked around at each other and said, “No, you certainly are not. What is this about?” Well, her husband told her repeatedly that she was fat, and after enough repetition, she believed him. This is someone who could look in the mirror for a reality check, and yet the reinforced lie was more powerful than visual reality. What if the message was you’re not worth loving or you deserve to be beaten or you’ll never make it?
That’s where affirmations come in. An affirmation states a positive truth about oneself. I am a good daughter despite my dad’s addiction and unavailability. I am responsible for my actions and absolved of others’ cruelty. I deserve tenderness in a romantic relationship. I am loveable. God wants a relationship with me. I am a tall, lanky person. You get the idea.
Calling out the lies is necessary but, like the mirror, not sufficient to counteract a lifetime of lie reinforcement. We have to fight fire with fire. We have to state the truth to ourselves over and over and over. My wise friend advises 70 times a day for 7 days, and that is just for starters. It’s like losing 30 pounds. First you need a diet and exercise plan. Do the 30 pounds magically fall off the moment you decide on the plan? No, you have to exercise day after day after day. And when you slack off your program, you have to get back into it. And after you lose the 30 pounds, you still have to exercise to stay healthy. The same is true with affirmations. We have to call out the lie, but we also have to affirm the truth to ourselves with vigorous repetition. The unfortunate thing about affirmations, though, is like exercise, they only work if you actually do them.
What if I augmented verbal affirmations with a simple action? The action’s purpose is to engage the body along with the mind and spirit in the affirming process. An action that can be done repetitively, like a ritual imbued with meaning, might be a breathing exercise or the mindful consumption of a cup of tea, where one visualizes breathing in or drinking in the truth. For someone mired in clutter, it might be to put away one small thing, not as a task but as an oblation honoring God’s power to do for us what we cannot do for oursleves.
Join the conversation. Is there an oblation that affirms a truth for you?
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