A Mind-Body-Spirit Approach to Healing Shame

healing shameA 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?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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You Choose the Consequences: Justice or Forgiveness

The past week has seen widening violence throughout the Middle East and threats of violence on US college campuses.  What initially may have looked like isolated extremist reactions to an amateurish You-Tube video now looks like a bubbling up of deeply seeded anger and resentment aimed at local power holders in addition the US.  The long simmering discontent merely brandished the silly video in effigy to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  The cascade of consequences seems to be an ever-escalating loop of one group retaliating for the destructive actions of another group in the name of “justice.”

My spirituality group just finished reading Forgiving Ararat, a novel that explores themes of justice and forgiveness.  The notion of justice portrayed in the book, however, is limited to retributive justice, a kind of justice that seeks to settle the score by giving wrongdoers what they deserve.  It thereby juxtaposes forgiveness against justice, as if they are opposites.

Who can’t identify with that?  Sometimes the ones who wronged us appear to be getting off scot free.  No one is holding them accountable for their misdeeds.  We might cling to resentment out of our sense of justice, to hold the wrongdoers to account.  But Oprah and Dr. Phil tell us holding anger and resentment is like eating rat poison and expecting the rats to die.  Our resentment really doesn’t hurt our offenders as much as it poisons our own lives.  Knowing this intellectually, however, doesn’t make releasing resentment in an act of forgiveness a slam dunk to do.

When I am working with folks trying to escape their resentments, I try to get the offenders and what they deserve out of the middle of the matter.  I encourage folks to put their own spiritual reality and relationship with God in the center instead.  Our injuries impair how we respond to others.  Harms suffered get tangled up with harms done.  When we take a cold hard look at our own actions and can honestly say we care more about receiving forgiveness for the harms we ourselves committed than what our offenders deserve, forgiveness is within our reach.

Are forgiveness and justice really mutually exclusive?  It’s a timely question in the Jewish tradition.  Today marks the beginning of the Days of Awe, the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when Jews examine their misdeeds over the past year, repair their wrongdoing and seek forgiveness from those they harmed.  Making amends not only repairs harm to the victim but also restores the soul of the sinner.  Thus, the Jewish approach to justice makes both the wrongdoer and the one wronged whole. Through the healing power of forgiveness, this restorative justice promotes peace and reconciliation.

Join the conversation.  What kind of justice are you going to seek today—the kind that restores wholeness or the kind that settles the score?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Lies and Elephants

The county jail program I write about from time to time is operated by a nonprofit organization named Resolana.  Resolana helps incarcerated women make life changes to reap their true potential, which includes staying out of jail.  The program has a life skills class, and last week we started a unit on self-esteem.  As always, the women exhibited admirable candor and had profound insights.  It’s fitting to share some of those insights here, as they illustrate the lies we believe about ourselves described the last post about shame.

The self-esteem unit starts with a rather sad description of how captive baby elephants are trained not to roam.  By tying the baby elephant to a stake it isn’t strong enough to break, the animal is trained to think it can’t overcome the obstacle, and eventually it gives up trying.  Adult elephants are easily strong enough to pull the stake out and to roam free, but they are trained to think they can’t, so they don’t.  The adult elephant believes a lie about itself.

The women pondered the lies they believe about themselves.  One shared that she believes she is a bad daughter.  Her parents divorced when she was young, and like so many kids who experience the loss of a parent, she blamed herself for her dad’s choice to have a relationship with his girlfriend’s children instead of with her.  Another described being indulged as a child.  Her mother invariably protected her from the consequences of her own actions.  As an adult, she had an attorney who extricated her from legal tangles.  Her lie was that rules don’t apply to her.  Somebody else described a home where keeping up appearances was all that mattered.  She believed she had to project an enhanced image of herself because the truth could never be good enough.  It was heartbreaking to hear one woman describe a widespread family pattern of sexual abuse, a pattern that she and another young family member together managed to break, but not before being imprinted with the lie that being used sexually was all she was good for.

After calling out these lies, the women wrote affirming statements that tell the truth about themselves.  I am a good daughter.  My dad’s addiction kept him from being a good dad.  I have to follow the same rules as everyone else.  My truth is better than my image.  I am a worth saving.  I love myself.  For many women, the affirmations felt good and true.  Other women were so accustomed to the lies, they struggled to find affirming statements that felt authentic.  One woman was moved to tears when pulling away from a painful stake in her past left her feeling suddenly free to be.  The class ended with encouragement to speak the truth to oneself—and to others—70 times a day for seven days.  It is the surest way to find hope for healing from shame.

Join the conversation.  How has your “training” held you back from reaping your true potential?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Healing from Shame


The tentacles of shame can reach through decades of a person’s life, wrapping around seemingly unconnected events and wrenching the joy from life.  I have friends whose shame originated in childhoods in which they never felt up to grade.  They always felt deficient in some significant and identity shaping way.  For some it was a constant stream of criticism.  For others it was as seemingly benign as a home focus on appearances rather than on the truth, subtly but unmistakably suggesting that the truth is never good enough.

I also have friends whose shame reaches up out of childhood trauma.  That trauma might have been the sudden loss of a parent or, as the Penn State abuse scandal tragically highlights, more often than we want to acknowledge it is child sexual abuse.  The child is made to feel that he is in some way culpable for his own abuse, or in an insidious distortion of logic, the child believes the fact that the trauma happened stands as proof that it was deserved.

The truth, though, is that shame has little to do with the bad things that happened to someone or the bad things someone did.  It has everything to do with the lies that someone started believing about himself when he tried to make sense of a bad situation.  Believing a lie—that the truth is never good enough or that children are responsible for adult actions against them or that you are not credible and no one will believe you—keeps the tentacles of shame alive and strong.  Even incredibly successful people suffer from shame.  In fact, it is their unending need to prove to themselves that they are good enough that propels their success.

While some lies are memories from a long past childhood, or “childhood tapes,” other lies get constant reinforcement.  Many messages propagated in our media, particularly those that connect one’s worth to appearance or wealth, are lies.  Anyone with a TV is constantly exposed to them.  When thinking about parents who won’t forgive, I realized that elderly parents can perpetuate shame lies also.  In the case of forgiveness, people may hold on to resentment because it is the only connection to another person they think they need in their lives.  Paradoxically, the resentment is rooted in intense desire—not rejection.

Similarly, disapproving parents might ache for the time when their kids prized their parents’ approval.  As kids grow up, they find their satisfaction not from parent approval but from the mark they are leaving on the world—in their careers, relationships or communities.  Parents may perpetuate criticism hoping against hope that the adult child will respond by seeking the parent’s approval again.  In any case, it is a lie.  More specifically, it is a manipulation designed to elicit a certain response rather than an honest observation grounded in reality.  The notion that one needs a parent’s approval is a lie as well.  Is it nice to have?  Certainly.  Is it necessary for happiness and joy?  By no means.

Healing from shame doesn’t happen magically when we recall the events that triggered it.  It is when we call out those lies and speak the truth about ourselves to ourselves that true healing begins.

Join the conversation.  Are there lies that you believe about yourself?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Forgiveness: Do I Have to Tell?

The last post considered whether true forgiveness requires us to tell the people we’re forgiving that they are forgiven.  The question arose out of a conversation with women in the county jail, and they shared several thoughtful observations.

One said that telling the person who had wounded her that she forgave past wrongs was an important point of closure to her painful past.  What if the person who did wrong is dead, someone pondered.  How do you get closure and healing then?  One inmate created a memorial on paper to signify her forgiveness and peace with the past.  It served to remind her that forgiveness was the demarcation between a past in which her choices were limited by her woundedness and a present in which she is free to choose who she wants to be.  The memorial provided closure and healing without facing the other in person, something appreciably more difficult when one is incarcerated.  Another inmate hoped that forgiveness would be a way to hold onto love, even if there was no way to hold onto the abusive relationship.  There was also discussion about what to do if the forgiven person doesn’t have the capacity to receive forgiveness.  Initiating contact with a violent abuser deeply mired in denial and blame, for example, can compromise one’s physical emotional safety.

This question comes up every time I lead a forgiveness workshop, and here’s my answer.  No.  You don’t have to tell the people who caused you harm that they are forgiven.  Forgiveness is not a simple intellectual decision.  Holding a grudge is sometimes described as eating rat poison and expecting the rats to die.  As logical as that sounds, forgiveness involves more than logic.  Resentment has tentacles that reach deep into our emotions and psyches.  The tentacles wrap around our sense of fairness and cling tightly to our desire for accountability.  The process of extricating them in forgiveness is a journey, and the journey most certainly takes longer when the offender lacks sincere remorse and has made no effort to amend past wrongs.  Previous posts have described the process in five steps to forgiveness.  When people ask me whether they have to tell, I encourage them not to worry about that but simply to take the next step on the journey.  I promise that the question will look different at the end of the journey than it does at the beginning.

The truth is once resentment has truly been released—when we have let go of what we hoped for but never came to pass, our claim to hold the other to account, possibly trust or even the relationship itself—we care a lot less about what the offender thinks or knows.  That’s because the process of forgiveness takes the offender and what he deserves out of the center of the matter and puts our spirituality there instead.  When we can honestly say we care more about our own spiritual reality and our personal relationship with God than we care about what our offender deserves, we are on the home stretch to forgiveness.

Join the conversation.  What difference has forgiveness made to you?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

A Question about Forgiveness

A question came up when I was listening to a group of women in the county jail talk about forgiveness last night.  It didn’t surprise me.  The question comes up every time I have led a forgiveness workshop.  It is particularly meaningful to those being honest with themselves about whether they really want to forgive the one who did them wrong.

“Do I have to tell the person I’m forgiving that I have forgiven him?”

Several different motives can give rise to the question.  Sometimes we cling to our resentment because it is our only connection to someone we think we need in our lives.  If we let go of our anger or our claim against the person, there would be nothing between us at all, and that can be a painful reality to accept.  Even when we have known intellectually for a long time that a relationship is over, letting go of the relationship on an emotional level by releasing resentment can be much more difficult.  Other times we hold on to resentment because we don’t want to let the one who wronged us off the hook.  We want those people held accountable, and perhaps no one else is stepping up to that job.  Our sense of fairness tells us those people deserve harsh consequences, not forgiveness.

That sense of justice or fairness is, ironically, what can help us break through a stubborn case of resentment and be free to forgive.  When it seems our offender lacks appropriate remorse or is not suffering the consequences he deserves, we can take a cue from Sister Helen Prejean.  She was the nun behind the movie Dead Man Walking, and movie trailers quoted her saying, “The question is not whether death row inmates deserve to die.  The question is whether we deserve to kill.”

Like Sister Helen, instead of focusing on what my offender deserves, I can take a cold hard look at what I deserve.  No one escapes emotional wounding of one kind or another, and for all of us, those wounds impair how we treat others.  My first response to an angry friend cannot be reaching out in compassion if my first response is protecting myself.  Only one can be first.  In ways that are subtle and blatant, the injuries we sustained get tangled up with the injuries we inflict on others.  In forgiveness, we cannot escape looking honestly at both.  When I take a searching and fearless look at the ways I allowed my wounds to impair how I treat others, I come into awareness of the forgiveness I need.  This is not victim blaming.  It is control claiming.

Whether you think of this inner inventory as taking responsibility for the footprint you are leaving in the world or as healing your personal relationship with God, it is a spiritual exercise.  Take your offender out of the middle of the situation and put your spiritual reality in the center instead.  It is the ultimate liberation to see forgiveness not as a response to what an offender deserves but as a response to the grace we have received.

Join the conversation.  What frees you from dwelling on what your offender deserves?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Courage to Change

Courage is not so much feeling brave while doing something heroic as doing what you have to do even though you are terrified.  This is a reader comment on a story of true courage in a dramatic escape from domestic violence from fellow blogger, Cathy’s Voice Now.  I commend it to all readers!   

It is presently the time in the Jewish calendar known as the Counting of the Omer.  It’s the time between Passover, when Jews were freed from bondage in Egypt, to Sinai, when they received the Ten Commandments.  Lyrically described as a journey from the sea of freedom to the mountain of responsibility, it reminds us that freedom and responsibility go together.  Cathy ends her post with the perfect poem to punctuate this reality, so I share it here.   

Autobiography In Five Short Chapters by Portia Nelson

Chapter One
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

Chapter Two
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter Three
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter Four
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter Five
I walk down another street.

Join the conversation.  Is there a hole in your sidewalk calling you to life change?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.