27 Feb 18 Inches: Myths About Shame
This is the sixth installment of our blog series, “18 Inches: Myths that Disconnect the Head From the Heart.” Our goal is to identify some of the lies we’ve been taught about our emotions and counter it with the truth. Click here to view the rest of the series.
Myth #21: Neediness is Weakness
Acknowledging our need leaves us vulnerable. Our culture teaches us that the ultimate dream in life is to be independent – to not need others, to be self-sufficient, or even to not have any needs at all (as if it was even possible). In the eyes of the world, neediness is weakness.
Because my dad played professional football, my family moved around a lot when I was a kid. When I was eleven, I joined a competitive football league in our new city. My life revolved around football and I was desperate to make a good impression. During my first tryout, things were not going as planned. Because my dad was a pro, I thought I would walk on the field and a dove from heaven would descend on me and everyone would suddenly realize my incredible talent. Halfway through the practice, I was surprised to realize I hadn’t made an impression on the coaches. I thought to myself, “How do I make my mark?” So, I yanked a football out of some kid’s hand and threw it as far as I could. This created the response I was looking for; people began to notice me. So I grabbed another ball and another ball and just kept launching them as far as I could. Everyone saw how well I could throw. The coaches began to talk and scheme and plan about how I could be their next quarterback. But the craziest thing was, I didn’t even want to play quarterback. I just wanted to belong. I put my best foot forward in an effort to be accepted, all the while playing a position and role I didn’t want to play.
Because we often believe that neediness is weakness, we do all we can to get away from our neediness. We do this by perpetually putting our best foot forward. The problem with this practice is that it often works. People believe the image you put forward, but you always have a lingering thought in the back of your mind, a knowledge that though this “best foot forward” is a part of you, it is not all of you. We don’t want to show our needy side (because we consider it to be our weak side) and so we keep up the facade that our best foot is the only part of us.
In other words, we feel shame for our neediness and deny it. We want to matter. We want to belong. And in order to do this, we think we need to get away from our neediness. We are surrounded by people who want to be accepted, who have needs, but who also have fear of being perceived as weak. No one wants to embrace their neediness for fear of losing a job, losing respect, or losing a relationship—so we keep up the charade.
But, the truth is that neediness is dependence. Chip Dodd says, “Shame tells me that I am limited. Shame tells me that I am mistake-ridden, that I have some of the answers, but not all of the answers.” If I am limited, then this implies I have needs, which feels like competition to our desire to belong. This is why we must take our shame and our neediness to people we can trust. Chip Dodd goes on to write, “No matter how much we wish to be loving, good, kind, and talented, we will continue to fall short of pure desires. We will always need help.”
Our shame and dependence are gifts that can drive us to Christ and to people we can trust. Sharing shame with safe people, extending empathy, receiving empathy, receiving help, offering help, and recognizing our mutual need for one another are all gifts that shame can lead us toward.
Myth #22: Toxic shame is healthy shame
We tend to have an aversion to shame. We believe there is no difference between toxic and healthy shame because the only context we have for shame is a negative one. Shame carries a heaviness that feels like a wet blank on our souls, and if we do not understand the purpose or gift of this emotion, we will reject it every time. Shame carries such a negative connotation that to even talk about “healthy shame” sounds like an oxymoron. The impairment of shame is toxic shame or contempt, which attacks the core of our identity from the inside out. When we mess up, toxic shame says, “I messed up because I am a loser. I am not enough.” If this is our only experience with shame, then it is understandable that we see no difference between toxic shame and healthy shame.
The truth is, toxic shame is an impaired expression of shame. Have you ever heard some of the following phrases rolling around in your head?
- I have nothing to offer.
- People are better off without me.
- I keep messing up because I am a mistake.
- I’m not enough.
- I’m too much.
If you’ve heard anything like this in your head, then you have heard the voice of toxic shame. Toxic shame directs itself at our identity; it does not distinguish between what you do and who you are. If we equate toxic shame with healthy shame then there is little wonder we have such a bitter opposition to this emotion. Make no mistake though, shame is heavy. This is not the emotion we think about on a beautiful sunny morning when all seems right with the world. But, this emotion can facilitate other emotions that will enable us to fully enjoy those beautiful sunny mornings!
The gift of shame is humility. Chip Dodd writes, “Humility grows out of a profound recognition of our limitations and of the capacities we possess in our giftedness. It helps us realize how incredibly fortunate we are to be who we are and at the same time, it shows us how deficient we are without others and God to help us live fully.” If we engage shame in a healthy way, it leads us to humility which acknowledges we are in need of help.
For the Christian, shame is an amazing gift that highlights the unattainable standard of Christ along with the grace and mercy we find under the eternal shadow of the cross. Without shame, we easily take the mercy and grace of the cross for granted. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says, “No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” When we mess up and the Lord disciplines us, shame may often be the emotion that accompanies us. Just as we are to do with discipline, let us not despise shame, for though it is painful, it yields the peaceful fruit of humility which is a righteous outcome and a kind gift from our Father who longs to draw us near to him.
Dhati Lewis is the Lead Pastor of Blueprint Church in Atlanta, Georgia and the Executive Director of Community Restoration with the North American Mission Board. He earned his Master of Arts in Cross Cultural Ministry from Dallas Theological Seminary and most recently received his Doctorate of Ministry in Great Commission Mobilization from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dhati has seven beautiful children and is married to Angie, a discerning woman who empowers and encourages him to live fully in his identity in Christ. He is the author of both the Bible Study and book, Among Wolves: Disciple Making in the City.
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