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.

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.

Obstacles to Intimacy: Forgiveness Issues

After spending any amount of time in honest introspection, we will confront issues of forgiveness.  We might see things we have done wrong in a new light and realize we are need of forgiveness, or we may discover ourselves clinging to some long hidden resentment we would do well to release.  When confronting these issues, we may discover we feel ambivalence concerning forgiveness.

Different spiritual traditions have different perspectives on the conditions for receiving God’s forgiveness.  Some require restitution and a demonstrated change in behavior whereas others require forgiving others.  I might feel overwhelmed by the gravity of my wrongdoing, seriously doubting if any restitution could ever be sufficient to merit forgiveness.  Similarly, I may feel I don’t deserve forgiveness because of my unwillingness to forgive others.  Or, I might equate free grace with cheap grace, and discount the value of anything that I am worthy to receive.

The freeing truth is none of us are worthy.  God’s great mercy eclipses all our merit. Traditions that require restitution and changed behavior as prerequisites to forgiveness embrace this truth no less robustly than traditions that only require forgiving others.  There are several reasons we don’t reach for the mercy God is waiting to extend.  Don’t rule out mercy, though.  It glorifies God when we seek it.

If you find yourself trapped in self-judgment and feel you don’t deserve forgiveness, I hope these verses and breathing prayers will free you to reach out your hand.

2 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits—
3 who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy (Psalm 103: 2-4)

Inhale: what God desires
Exhale: what I deserve

Inhale: mercy
Exhale: shame

Join the conversation.  How have you released resentment when the person who needed your forgiveness was you?

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

4 Types of Choices: Reactive Choices

Every person has some element of his upbringing to overcome.  Some have pretty smooth sailing, yet childhood challenges that seem easily manageable still trip them up as adults.  Others endure injuries so devastating it’s hard to imagine how they could survive to adulthood, much less to function normally, and yet they thrive.  Each of us develops patterns of behavior in response to experience, and we all have hurts, habits or hang-ups to overcome.

Our inner inventory should include not only those choices we made when we had a wide range of options within reach but also those that are reactions to experience, especially experiences that impaired our ability to choose in some way.  It may be counterintuitive that taking inventory of our own wrong choices involves examining the wrongs committed against us.  Maybe we are eager to point to point those out, as if they absolve us from responsibility for our own action.  Or perhaps we prefer keeping old injuries buried because they are too painful to face.  If we are to own up to our actions, there’s no room for blaming our victim or our perpetrator, even when they are one and the same. In the process of untangling these wounded-wounding patterns, we can’t escape looking at both.

Start by acknowledging your victimization with tender acceptance and compassion for self.  There is no blame for receiving injury.  One of the most injurious long term effects of child abuse is the shame that gets wired into a young person’s psyche.  If shame’s tentacles reach in unexpectedly and strangle your other feelings, set aside time to focus specifically on shame and the other feelings it crowds out.

Extending compassion to the one who hurt you may seem preposterous.  If this task is too great, simply ask God to be present with you in the recollection of the offense.  Be present to the compassion God has for you.  Then be present to the compassion God has for the one who hurt you.  Contemplate the unhealed wounds or the brokenness that led her to act in the hurtful way that she did.  Your intellectual understanding your offender’s failings does not make the offense is acceptable, but it can smooth raw emotional edges.  When satisfied with your intellectual understanding, set the injury aside for now.

Turn to the reactions.  Did I imitate the bad example of my offender, for lack of any other role model?  For example, did I imitate the physically violent relationship between my parents in my intimate relationships?  Do I try to exert control over those close to me? Or has my mechanism for coping with an overly controlling parent led me to retreat to “the cave” instead of offering an honest response to someone who didn’t mean harm?

Reactive choices include those that result not only from injury but also from some other weakness.  Was I so full of entitlement and resentment that I failed to experience or to express gratitude?  Did I miss opportunities because I was afraid and played it safe?  Did I choose ignorance over action?  Selective ignorance is no excuse, but it could explain a coping mechanism.  Similarly, poor self-control and preoccupation are not excuses, but they could explain what limited the choices available to me.

Join the conversation.  With more wisdom, internal reserve, self-control, or resilience, what better choices might have been within your reach?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.


I’ve been saddened by recent accounts of sexual abuse in prestigious college sports programs. The comment has been made that people who gravitate to youth and to the physicality of sports might provide an environment where pedophiles fit in.  The comment has also been made that raging hormones and a fascination with sexual experience make boys and young men especially vulnerable targets.  Both lead one to wonder how isolated or pervasive the predatory activity is.  I imagine university presidents and trustees all over the country are asking themselves the same thing.

Regardless of how pervasive the problem is in college sports, I hope the news coverage brings people who have survived sexual abuse out of isolation. Perhaps the most insidious and lasting effect of child sexual abuse is the persistent shame saddled on its victims.  There is a kind of circular thinking in which the fact that the crime happened is interpreted as proof that it must have been deserved.  It takes the separation of many years to detangle that twisted perspective. It takes courage to confront both the lies and the hard underlying truth. It takes real maturity to overcome shame.  It is no wonder whatsoever that survivors come forward years or decades later.  I have nothing but admiration and respect for those who do so in their own time.

I also hope hidden perpetrators get caught.  The combination of survivors realizing they are not alone and nervous university presidents and trustees may heighten the exposure.  No one should be above the law, but it goes without saying that many—sports figures are joined here by politicians, clergy, and even police—have demonstrated a differing view.  The story of human pride and downfall is as old as history itself.  Icarus perished flying too close to the sun, and Pharaoh was the bible’s biggest loser.  It may be naive to hope high profile sexual abusers stop feeling entitled.  University financial self-interest (if not moral decency), however, is a reasonable place for hope.  I hope universities proactively search out and excise offenders (and those who protect them) in a way the Catholic hierarchy never did.

The twin keys to crime are motive and opportunity.  Universities can clamp down on opportunities if they choose to do so.  Motive is trickier.  Whatever sexually attracts adults to prepubescent and post-pubescent teenagers can be treated behaviorally (CBT) and chemically (“chemical castration”), but treatment efficacy is unclear and the human cost of recidivism is unacceptably high.  Child victims of abuse are more likely to be arrested for violent crime, to abuse drugs and alcohol, and to abuse other children.  It is for these three reasons—perpetrator recidivism, long term consequences on victims, and the long healing cycle—that statutes of limitations don’t fit this crime.  That’s just my opinion.

I imagine the sad revelations are heartbreaking to none more than to those high integrity individuals who have dedicated their careers to mentoring and guiding youth. Some people and institutions alike are driven by a mission to equip young people to be the best they can be.  It is unfortunate in the extreme that some in leadership positions, when confronted with alarming accusations, have blundered into choosing sides—disparaging the accuser in order to defend the accused.  The higher road is simply to defend the mission.

Join the conversation. What can you do to equip youth to lead us to a better future?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Re-Wiring Shame

When discussing what draws us towards healing, growth and renewal and what holds us back, shame claims a place in the conversation.  For some, it’s not original sin thinking (“all people are inherently bad”) but shame (“I in particular am inherently bad”) that holds them back.   My study group is blessed with a woman who has deep insights into how shame’s tentacles reach into seemingly unrelated parts of one’s life.   “Childhood tapes” are what she calls the messages, for better or worse, deeply ingrained from one’s upbringing.  Sometimes the tapes say that you’re not good enough, that you have to earn love, or that you will never do or be enough.  The feeling of being bad—the person not the behavior—is shame. 

There’s a difference between shame and remorse.  When we look back on past choices, we will feel proud of some of them.  We will also change our mind about some of the choices we made.  That’s what it is to repent—to rethink our choices and to change our minds about some of them.  Once we see the moral weakness in our choices, it is natural to feel regret for them.  We might feel a separation from God.  We might even feel a separation from ourselves, or the self we desire to be.  Remorse is a sign of hope because it signals a change of heart.  It’s the very seed of life change, and God plants it. 

Healthy remorse says, “I made a bad choice,” rather than, “I am bad.”  The latter inhibits healing in several ways.  First, it implies my condition is static, and that is inaccurate.  Popular Buddhist activist, author and monk Thich Nhat Han repeatedly expresses the idea that anything is possible as long as one is alive.  When I say, “I made a bad choice,” I open myself to the other possibilities that were present.  When I say, “I am bad,” I close myself off to them, both in the past and in the future.  Second, when I tell the person I offended, “I am bad,” perhaps hoping for some form of protest, I am warning her to expect a repeat performance.  “I made a bad choice,” accompanied by genuine remorse, gives the person I offended reason to hope for better in the future.  Finally, whereas “I made a bad choice,” can lead to feelings of guilt and healthy remorse, “I am bad,” leads to feelings of shame.

When we grow into a pattern of shame from childhood, the impulse that triggers shame may be wired to a deeply rooted survival impulse.  Perhaps bowing down to “I am bad” statements was the only way to survive a parent’s wrath.  Or maybe accepting blame was the path of least resistance.  In either case, a child might develop a reflex—an unthinking habit rather than a thoughtful response—of shouldering wrongs that belong to another.  When we realize shame is connected to a primal survival impulse, we can understand how it has the ability to reach into all aspects of life.   Despite the deep hold shame can have on a psyche, it can be disconnected.  It requires a thoughtful inventory of the impulses that trigger shame and mindfulness to replace unconscious habits with intentional responses.  It will take effort.   Ask for God’s help, and let him do the miracle of making it enough.

Join the conversation.  How do you re-wire childhood tapes from your past so that they no longer connect to your present?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.