“I don’t deserve to be happy.”
“I’ll never be good enough.”
“I’m not worthy of love.”
I hear phrases like this all the time in my work helping women walk through divorce. I heard it for years while I was working in women’s ministry. And it echoes back to me from my own experience. I’ve walked through a lot of broken stories from numerous aching souls.
These phrases all boil down to one core emotion: shame.
Throughout my life, I have been all too familiar with that emotion. I spent almost 17 years in a destructive marriage, had multiple miscarriages, was diagnosed with cancer, had a hysterectomy because of the cancer, almost lost my mind, and had a mild heart attack from all the stress. On top of that, my mother committed suicide.
And then I went through a high-conflict divorce. It was so costly, my net worth plummeted and I was left with very little.
I was a single mom and I had to choose whether or not I was going to go back to corporate and never see my kids because of the unspoken price tag of working in that field (80+ hours a week). So I went to countless interviews and couldn’t land a job because, even though I was an executive level that had managed multimillion dollar initiatives and people globally, I didn’t have a degree.
For as long as I can remember, I bought the lie that I wasn’t enough, and I believed that I deserved abuse, pain, and grief. For most of my life I was ashamed of breathing. I apologized for everything—for other people’s disapproval, for the wrong mixture of words, for my entire being. I thought I deserved every bad experience I had, thanks to my former conditioning.
We humans are good at gathering shame inside us. Victims of trauma and abuse experience a tremendous amount of toxic shame, and if that is not your story, odds are you have internalized feelings of unworthiness from shaming messages you’ve received from parents, teachers, and peers in your formative years.
Beliefs of unworthiness, then, often stem from childhood, when you have a heightened vulnerability to experience shame that either results from a harsh self-critical inner dialog, the belittlement of efforts, achievements, or ideas, or physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
Experiences, good or bad, initiate neural firing in the brain. Over time, with repetition, especially when accompanied by emotional intensity, neural circuits form our habitual responses to experience. In other words, the more we engage in certain thoughts and behavior, the more we become prone to having such thoughts. Any state of mind can become reality with reinforcement.
So, if in our childhood our efforts to be loved were met with negative responses, our brain structure would respond by developing patterns that reinforce our feelings of unworthiness. We would be conditioned to perceiving everything through a shame filter.
When we view ourselves through such a filter, we are tempted to cover ourselves for fear of exposure. We become a chameleon of sorts, adapting to identities that others place on us.
We then live in a constant state of fight or flight. From a physio-biological/physio-neurological standpoint, there’s so much cortisol pumping through the body that the brain gets foggy and you experience fatigue, frustration, angst, and dis-ease (which becomes disease). Your adrenals are in overtime.
When we cover ourselves like that, because of our shame, we tend to disconnect, isolate, and hide. We create a protective insulation of sorts.
I was in a really dark spot for a season where my thoughts were so negative.
Until I realized that if you get trapped in that energy you’ll drown. It was only by the grace of God that I made it out.
What would happen if people realized that the clothes they wear don’t define who they are? That the street they live on doesn’t determine their value?
When you take all the suffering you went through and turn it around, you can be grateful for it. When you turn around and reach out to the woman who’s still in the pit and help pull her out, that’s what’s important.
When I was deep in the pit, I had a friend who said, “You don’t wear that look well.” I burned with shame, but it was true. I had allowed myself to become a victim who focused on how unfair life was for me.
So I started taking inventory of my life and began practicing gratitude. Before my feet hit the ground in the morning, I sit in prayer and gratitude. I’m grateful that God forced me to slow down and catch my breath.
What if every challenge you encountered was meant to prepare you for your purpose?
What if God said, “I need someone who is willing to go through this and come out strong on the other side?”
It’s all about perspective.
I feel such an urgency to help people heal so they won’t lose hope. Hopelessness and living in anger robs you of true joy.
The antidote for anger and resentment is compassion.
The medicine for pain is gratitude.
You have to give up the story of not being enough. You are enough.
The way out is to turn around and help others. Whatever your upbringing, your gender, your race, your occupation, your experiences, all that matters is that you are willing to reach out and uplift another human who is screaming for help.
You can heal. And when you do heal, you can help others heal, and nobody is the same. A dark room can’t remain dark when a bright light comes into it.