Hiding Depression

hiding depression and shameA friend recently shared disturbing news of a somewhat-related-by-marriage 23 year old who attempted suicide.  My friend described her as a genuinely nice and polite girl, the cheeriest in her family.  She is still in the hospital, so please join me in prayers for her healing.

The story struck a chord in me, because a young man somewhat-related-by-marriage to me recently took his own life at age 20.  There are no words for the gaping painful void experienced by those who survive him.  I recently had dinner with someone who held him as a newborn and loved him.  This person is a medical doctor who specializes in end of life care.  She was a Hospice doctor for years.  For all her experience and insights on death and dying, this death undid her.  It seemed to make her question bedrock things she thought she knew.  So, please join me in healing prayers also for his family and friends.

These revelations instigated a conversation about the depths of depression, how some people send signals for help, and how others hide it.  One friend commented:

Having suffered depression, I can empathize with those who find themselves at such a low point in their lives. It’s a prison that is very difficult to escape. For many reasons, those who suffer from depression find it almost impossible to talk about their feelings. I think there’s a certain feeling of shame associated with depression. I know I felt like no one else would understand, I must be unworthy of love or happiness, and I couldn’t complain when everyone else seemed to be able to deal with life. It felt like huge and insurmountable failure on my part and the loneliest feeling.  That first step is so hard and such a relief, as well, to finally be able to talk and be heard.

The invitation to explore depression as a source of shame is too compelling to pass by.  The stakes are too high.  As recent posts have explored, shame arises from false messages we believe about ourselves.  For one in the jaws of depression, the false messages include:  I’m different.  Everyone else can deal with life.  I alone am a failure.

Rather significantly, the women sharing these feelings all found Buddhist teaching to be the salve that saved them from the depths.  I wondered if it is because the first Noble Truth—life is suffering—meets us where we are with no apology, no facade, and no reason to hide the truth.  Everyone who experiences life experiences suffering, so I am not different, I am not alone, and I have nothing to hide.  I am alive.  Another friend responded that Buddhist teachings about releasing attachments to ideas, especially ideas about self-identity, helped her shed layers of past hurt, guilt and conditioning.

Our self-made culture conditions us to hide suffering, but it also conditions us not to see it.  If we notice too much, we might expose or embarrass someone or we might intrude uninvited on someone’s private matters.  Or maybe we just tell ourselves we’re respecting another’s privacy when the truth is we’re afraid to encounter another’s suffering.  Airbrushing suffering paints an unreal picture, and it costs way too much.  How much better would our world it be if we all had the courage to encounter suffering—our own and each other’s?

Join the conversation.  Do you have a friend that needs to talk and to be heard?

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

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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.

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.

Public Apology

 

George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, is in the news today for his public apology.  Here is what he said:

 

“I want to tell everyone, my wife, my family, my parents, my grandmother, the Martins, the city of Sanford and America, that I’m sorry that this happened,” he said, staring into the camera lens. “I hate to think that because of this incident, because of my actions, it’s polarized and divided America. And I’m truly sorry.”

As difficult as it is to release resentment in an act of forgiveness, it is also hard to admit one’s wrongs and to ask humbly for forgiveness in an apology.  Unfortunately, this is not what Zimmerman has done.  His words do not suggest he has taken responsibility for his choices or that he recognizes them as wrong.  Expressing regret for the consequences (“I’m sorry this happened”) is rather different from expressing regret for the choices (“I followed when dispatch said not to”).  In fact, Zimmerman said specifically that he does not regret his actions. “I’m sorry I got caught” vs. “I was wrong to rob that guy” is a more obvious variant.  It does not count as a genuine apology in my book.  My teenage kids wouldn’t even try to get away with a deflection like that.

Another deflection often heard in psudo-apologies is, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”  Like the statements above, this offers commentary on consequences while failing to assume responsibility for the precipitating actions, and so this, too, is not a legitimate apology.  Worse, it defects blame onto the one who expressed feelings, adding insult to injury.

Zimmerman takes the deflection one step further by throwing God into it, stating it was God’s choice, not his choice.  It is hard for modern believers to conceive of murder as God’s will, although there is plenty of it in Judeo-Christian scriptures.  Ancient scriptures notwithstanding, ascribing feelings or desires to God is a slippery slope.  Anne Lamott said it best:

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

What is the right way to make an apology?  My godfather taught me this handy script:  “I realize how wrong I was. Will you forgive me?”  We have banned the word “sorry” when making an apology in our house (too many ways it can go wrong with teenagers), and we try to use this instead.  The useful thing about it is it separates actions from consequences and encourages us to examine whether we have genuine remorse for our choices. We’ve learned it is best not to try to fake an apology if genuine remorse is absent. In a heated moment with frayed feelings, asking for time to think about one’s choices is infinitely more respectful than forcing an insincere apology or deflecting blame.  Simply acknowledging that one’s actions merit introspection sets the stage for healing.

Join the conversation.  What did you think of George Zimmerman’s apology?

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

When Parents Won’t Forgive

A woman struggling with forgiveness made a profound impression on me once.  I met her in a reconciliation workshop, and her struggle was with her mother.  Although her mother was in her 90’s, she refused to forgive her daughter for hurtful episodes in adolescence.  The daughter, elderly herself, had expressed sincere remorse and asked for her mother’s forgiveness repeatedly through the decades, but her mother refused.

Recent posts examined reasons for clinging to resentment rather than choosing to forgive.  One reason mentioned is thinking I need to keep someone who did me wrong in my life somehow, and if the relationship is badly damaged, my anger and resentment may feel like the only thing left between us.  Have you ever had a romantic relationship that intellectually you knew was over even though your heart still ached for intimacy?

That doesn’t describe the woman’s relationship with her mother, but it may come closer than it appears at first glance.  Adolescence is an exquisite time in parent-child relationships.  Parents embrace their children as the young adults they are becoming, and simultaneously their children still depend on them heavily.  It makes for an intense kind of intimacy.  The challenges of adolescence only amplify the intensity.  One could make the case that it is the most challenging and most intense stage of relating in a parent and child’s entire lifetimes.

And where does it go from there?  Adolescents grow up.  Maybe they move away for school or a job.  They become independent emotionally and financially.  They find partners and perhaps start their own families.  Along the way, emotional bonds to parents make way for stronger emotional ties to new people in their adult lives.  A parent who aches for intimacy and intensity with her long grown child might cling to resentment, as misguided and destructive as it sounds, because it is the strongest connection back to a more intimate time that she can lay her hands on.

What can the adult child do about it?  Not much.  A post a year ago examined Jewish wisdom for seeking forgiveness, but ultimately, forgiveness is at the sole discretion of the one holding the resentment.   The unforgiven child has choices, too.  Setting appropriate boundaries is healing.  The boundaries may inject more emotional distance, but they may also allow the adult child be present to the parent’s angst.  Recognizing that the resentment is rooted in intense desire—not rejection—may open a new window of compassion on a parent living in an angry past.  That awareness doesn’t compel anyone to endure to an occasional vituperative rant, but it does allow one to see the rant for what it is and to cherish the holy spark of love buried deep in it.

Join the conversation.  Have you ever found a holy spark buried deep inside a painful episode?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit 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.